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Friday 31 July 2009

Not Yet Bettered

An air of realisation has descended on those hacks who habitually lay into England football managers with the passing of the great Bobby Robson this morning. What many didn’t say nearly loudly enough during his life – and especially at the time of Italia ’90 - was that, under his leadership, England had come closer to matching the exploits of 1966 than at any time in the intervening 24 years. And they haven’t been that close since.

Robson was for many years the manager of Ipswich Town – as was Alf Ramsey before him – and the Tractor Boys haven’t done as well since he left. And he managed not only in England, but all over Europe. It was during his time outside the UK that he mentored and enthused one man who has taken Robson’s lessons on board, and become massively successful himself.

That man was José Mourinho. Robson used the Portuguese as his translator during his time at Sporting, FC Porto and Barcelona in the 1990s. Mourinho never forgot his debt to Robson, and today has given the most moving of tributes, which has been reported by the Guardian amongst others.

It begins: “It is difficult to accept such a person is no longer with us”.

You and me both, José.

Thursday 30 July 2009

Booby Prize

My first work after becoming a freelance was at an organisation that looked after, among other things, buildings and other structures at Government owned sites. These included Army barracks and camps, and RAF bases. Security dictated that anyone visiting the military took precautions: after all, this was before the first IRA ceasefire. One such precaution was to look out for what was called the Under Vehicle Booby Trap, or UVBT.

This straightforward precaution was missed out today by two Guardia Civil officers on the island of Majorca, who were killed when a device was detonated under their vehicle. The bombing was almost certainly the work of ETA, and bears the usual hallmarks: targeting the military or law enforcement agencies, doing it in a tourist area (to harm the wider Spanish economy) and doing it in high season (ditto). The island has been sealed off in the hope that those who planted the bomb are still there. The Beeb has some detail on its website.

The area where the bombing took place – Palma Nova – is on the tourist map, and is literally round the corner from Magaluf (aka Megaruf), the island’s principal lager and Full English consumption point. So there could be lots of Brits who witnessed the explosion, even though they may not have been in a coherent state at the time.

ETA – who celebrate their 50th anniversary tomorrow – clearly still want to press their case for independence for the Basque region. Why they continue their campaign is not clear: neither Spain nor France (the Basque region straddles the border) is likely to yield to them.

I can’t help thinking that, had General Franco not suppressed every language except Castellano, and had not been so keen to impose rule from Madrid (without any concession to regionalism), ETA may never have come into being. There is a parallel with Northern Ireland: when the civil rights protests started in 1968, the IRA was effectively moribund. It took particularly wilful behaviour from politicians and law enforcement agencies to being them back to life.

The UK has since, more or less, dealt with the problems of Northern Ireland. It looks like Spain has some distance to go with the Basque region.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

The Republican Wrong – Once More

Back in May, I noted that some in the Republican party had found the victory of Barack Obama in the Presidential Election of late 2008 so hard to stomach, that they had taken to trying to prove that Obama was not a natural born citizen of the USA. There had been a series of lawsuits filed in an attempt to press the issue, and all had been thrown out. The authorities in Hawaii have repeatedly confirmed that Obama was indeed born there in 1961. Case closed?

Not a bit of it. Now, as the Guardian has reported, there is a move from some members of Congress to demand that future Presidential candidates show their birth certificates. The state of Hawaii long ago went digital, so nowadays provides not a copy certificate, but a computer printout. That printout is clearly not enough to satisfy the conspiracy theorists, who hold that Obama was born in Kenya (as his father was Kenyan) and somehow smuggled into the USA – but, no surprise there, we don’t get to know how the Obamas accomplished this.

The lawsuits may have been thrown out, but the deluge of propaganda, with the band of usual suspects fronted by the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh, has begun to take hold within the Republican party grassroots. This should be no surprise to those in the UK: the continuously negative publicity of the EU has set off much anti-EU sentiment, while the red top diet of scare stories about immigration has spooked many into believing that the immigrant population of the UK is two or three times larger than it really is.

And not everyone in the broadcast media has moved to stop the so called “birther movement” propaganda. But, fortunately, over at MSNBC, President Phil Griffin has been able to state the obvious: “It’s racist. Just call it for what it is”.


[As a follow up to my post on the Republican opposition to Sandra Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, I’m glad to see that this nomination has now been endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee]

Let It Snow

There can be few more embarrassing moments that the one suffered in 2006 by recursive sleb Tara Palmer-Tomkinson: having claimed to have kicked her cocaine habit years earlier, she suffered a well publicised nasal collapse, later having to undergo reconstructive surgery.

The kind explanation was that this was merely a consequence of a long ended dependency: others were more forthright in asserting that she’d never come off the white powder. One thing is for certain: cocaine (aka snow) has a progressively corrosive effect on the user’s nose. So persistent use of the stuff cannot ultimately be denied.

It was the experience of the former “It Girl” that came to mind today when looking at a recent photo of a well known politician: one very confident person is showing the first signs of eccentricity in the nasal contours. My first thought is, well, so what? If that person wants to enjoy a snort or three, that’s their business. However, my belief that we need to have a less hysterical and more reasoned approach to the so called “drug problem” does not trump UK law. Moreover, moral judgment in this area comes not from bloggers of independent thought, but the likes of puritans such as Paul Dacre, the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail, followed no doubt by the rest of the tabloid pack.

The need for anyone in politics who is partial to any kind of illegal substance to exercise care cannot be overstated. But folks who do cocaine tend not to be careful. And the higher up the party hierarchy they are, the worse the potential for damage if they were to get caught. Another good reason, if one were needed, not to go into politics in the first place. So will there be any clues as to the identity of this person?

All in good time.

Which Primary Colour – 2

A fortnight back, I looked at the idea of “Open Primaries”, which is being trialled by the Tories in the Devon constituency of Totnes. It’s an idea which is also generating interest within the Labour party, and, as I suggested, brings with it the potential for mischief making.

The progress of this exercise – giving the whole electorate of the constituency a say in the selection of the next Tory candidate – was examined in a report on last night’s BBC2 Newsnight, filed by Jeffrey Archer’s favourite investigative reporter, Michael Crick. And it confirmed my previous thoughts.

In Totnes, the party hoping to benefit from any slip in the Tory campaign is the Lib Dems, who appear to be rather more keen on working the constituency than they are right now in Crewe and Nantwich. And they have hit on the thought that the turnout for this experiment in democracy may be low – low enough for a concerted effort from their activists to make a difference.

So the Lib Dems are urging a vote for the current mayor of Torbay, Nicholas Bye, on the grounds that he is the most beatable of the three choices on offer. This might have something to do with Bye’s Liberal past – he stood as Liberal candidate for Torbay in 1987.

With the candidates constrained by a modest promotional budget – which on first inspection looks a sensible measure – the potential for lack of voter recognition, and therefore apathy, may be strong. So the Lib Dems could well swing the primary and get their preferred opponent exactly where they want him.

Will Young Dave be so keen on this wheeze after Totnes? I’ll be watching.

Losing Formula?

Some sports don’t come cheap. And Formula 1 is the least cheap of them all. But in recent years, the budgets of the top teams have been astronomical. Just to stay in the game requires a commitment of tens of millions every year. So when proposals were put forward to cut costs recently, it might have been thought that there would be broad approval. Instead, there has been an all too routine power struggle, which will lead to the exit of Max Mosley from the FIA later this year.

In the midst of all the wrangling was an apparent inability to see that the cost of competing had the potential to drive players out of the sport: Honda had already thrown in the towel, although the team was rescued at the eleventh hour and has since become Brawn GP. Well, today there has been another withdrawal: BMW, who entered F1 with such high hopes when they took over Peter Sauber’s team in 2005, will end their participation at the close of the 2009 season. The BBC has the details of this morning’s announcement.

It was not always thus. In 1974, the team principal at Brabham – who won three GPs that year – was asked how much it cost to compete and win in F1. The answer was that it cost about 100k per car – so 200k for a two car team. If that figure were adjusted for inflation, and then increased by a factor of ten, it would still be less than the lowest of today’s team budgets. Back in the 1970s, Formula 1 was considered expensive – now the numbers are getting silly. But that team principal from Brabham is still in the game.

His name was Bernie Ecclestone.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Competition Time Redux

Yes, only another three days to go in the Total Politics “best political blog” poll!

As I explained recently, this is open to anyone, and just needs you to rank your ten favourite blogs. Anyone looking in on Zelo Street and giving it a vote would be much appreciated.

That concludes this sponsor’s message. Back to reality ...

Careful with that Javelin, Eugene

So preparations for London 2012 are on track, perhaps even a little ahead of schedule: this was the message from Seb Coe, Tessa Jowell and Beano Boris as they boarded the first “Olympic Javelin” train from St Pancras International to Stratford yesterday. The Beeb were there to confirm that the train made the journey in just under the seven minute timing.

In fact, just about everyone attending the games is expected to travel to the stadium by public transport, which at first sounds reasonable: the DLR will also be running almost to the front door by 2012. And it seems a sensible thing to do when you discover that there will be no parking available when you get there.

However, some visitors are likely to be more equal than others, and the journeys of a variety of VIPs are likely to involve driving – well, chauffeuring, anyway. The reason for this? Security. Difficult to keep the slebs safe – no room for them to have their own private space. For some, there will be places to park. So much for those green credentials.

And for the rest, expecting to replicate Bozza’s happy and upbeat journey yesterday, a word of warning: I’m hearing noises off concerning the ability of St Pancras International to accommodate the expected crowds – at least, in any kind of comfort.

Another one to watch – updates as and when.

The Laws Don’t Work – 4

It does not take long to find the numbers: the Home Office has put “the social and economic cost” of workplace use of currently illegal drugs at “more than 20 billion a year”. The extra costs incurred by the police, customs, court system and prison service are not mentioned – but I would not be surprised to hear that they are of a magnitude more.

Some of these costs would reduce if the Portuguese approach – of decriminalising drug use – were adopted. But the involvement of organised criminality would continue. And it is this presence that is responsible not only for the violence of turf wars, but also the adulteration of drugs – the padding out with a variety of additives (some of them poisonous) to make a given initial amount go further. It is, substantially, these additives that turn drugs such as heroin from relatively benign tools for pain relief into the terror that “screws you up”.

This was pointed up some time ago in a suitably thorough article by Nick Davies – the same man who brought us Flat Earth News – which appeared in the Guardian back in June 2001. This was associated with the C4 documentary Drugs – The Phoney War. And the stand out facts are grim: in 1968, there were perhaps 500 heroin addicts in the UK. At the millennium, that had become half a million. The spread of Hepatitis C by the time Davis did his research had reached 300,000 in the UK alone. By June 2000, around a thousand users had died of Aids related illnesses which could be traced back to the use of dirty needles.

Yet the approach of politicians, which Davis covered in his second article, has been to plough on with criminal sanction and enforced treatment. As the article’s headline says, “Demonising druggies wins votes. That’s all that counts”. So the criminality keeps hold of production and distribution, debasing the original drugs with a cocktail of adulterants, and the misery continues. And all the time the power of those criminals at the top of this unsavoury pyramid grows: one estimate in 1993 put the annual income of the top drug barons at 500 billion dollars. That’s enough to buy a lot of lobbyists, and influence many more politicians.

To merely decriminalise drug use would, as I’ve already described, be a big ask. To then wrest the production and distribution of drugs from organised criminality would then be a task of yet greater magnitude. After all, they’ve been doing it for three quarters of a century, they’ve got money, they’ve got power, and they’ve got influence. No political party in the UK will seriously challenge the status quo any time soon. After all, they’re in the same state of denial as all those addicts.

And there’ll be no treatment for that until they admit the problem.

The Laws Don’t Work - 3

Keith Hellawell, former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, is not most folks’ idea of softie liberalism: he’s supported the return of capital punishment for the murder of serving police officers. Yet he incurred the wrath of Paul Dacre, the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail, after his appointment by then Prime Minister Tony Blair as the UK’s “Drugs Czar”. Hellawell’s crime was not merely that he had taken up an appointment on the Blair team – Dacre never warmed to Blair as he has to Pa Broon – but that he showed signs of being “soft on drugs”.

Hellawell had been honest enough to state the obvious: that the status quo was not working. His solution, however, was nowhere near as radical as the Portuguese idea of decriminalising drug use, but did tackle the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts. This was enough to provoke the personal attacks and even the doorstepping of family members by the Mail. And here is proof of the size of this hurdle: there is an established body of media that is ready to round on anyone who even suggests a “less tough” approach to existing policies on drugs.

The success of Dacre as editor of the Daily Mail lies in his ability to know how his target audience views the world, what they see as good and evil, the threats and opportunities, and of course their aspirations. He then feeds that audience a diet of stories that confirms and reinforces their view. Thus the Daily Mail is not only a comfort blanket, but part of a vicious circle. In the world of the Daily Mail, illegal drugs are by default not merely bad, but singularly evil. This view is reinforced by horror stories on the effects of drugs, illustrated routinely with scenes of squalor, of those who have fallen out of the mainstream of society.

And the Daily Mail is not alone in taking a particularly robust stance against anyone perceived as “soft on drugs”. The Murdoch red tops – the Sun and News of the World – can be added to the roll call, as can the Daily Mirror. As for Richard “Dirty” Desmond’s increasingly cheap and nasty titles, the Express and Star, had they known of the Portuguese approach to drug use, the lurid headlines would have been a sight to behold:

Maddie kidnapper off his head on crack – Express exclusive: how Portugal’s loony politicians gave green light to crazed junkie pervert”

I missed the shock horror outrage sensation probe bit, but suspect the point got across. To get a change in the drug laws, this body of righteous but, in reality, wrong headed opinion has to be turned round. And if the misery caused not by drugs, but the padding and other adulteration that is routinely added to them, is to be tackled, then the role of organised criminality must also be addressed.

I’ll look at that next.

Sunday 26 July 2009

The Laws Don’t Work – 2

Ask any Home Secretary about the “war on drugs”, or whatever it’s called this week, and the response will be of success, of criminals brought to justice, of shipments seized, of addition treated and restrained. It was thus with Jacqui Smith. It is almost certainly going to be the same with Alan Johnson. And – one hates to let down the proverbial Land of Hopeful Tories – if Young Dave is swept into 10 Downing Street, it will be the same with Chris Grayling.

And it’s not good enough. As I’ve already shown, the drugs get through, with the damage done made worse by the involvement of criminality, together with the threat of prosecution for those needing treatment. It’s the same across most of mainland Europe – but not all. The relaxed attitude towards marijuana in the Netherlands is well known (although the authorities’ attitude towards other substances is rather less benign), and then there is Portugal.

The central Baixa district of the city of Lisbon is one of my favourite places: from the Praça do Comércio, along the pedestrianised Rua Augusta, riding the Elevador de Santa Justa up to the Bairro Alto – or being lazy and taking a tram – evokes a genuinely old world feel within a modern capital. And here, as the Beeb’s Mark Easton has noted, the consumption of drugs – all or any of them – is no longer illegal. This has been true now for eight years. The sky has not fallen in, the fabric of society has not broken, and there has been no explosion in drug use. Why so?

Well, the Portuguese still go through a lot of smokes – and a recent indoor smoking ban hasn’t curbed that particular vice – and alcohol is not taxed to anything like the extent of the UK: you can get a whole litre of wine served at the table in an average neighbourhood cantinha for two and a half euro. But equally, alcohol is not consumed in the manner that has made Brits abroad so notorious – well, except by those same Brits.

But these factors impact only on the fringe: there has been no influx of drug tourists, and those heading to the Algarve have generally confined themselves to indulgence in Super Bock and Sagres. Lots more folks visit Lisbon nowadays, but this is predominantly because it’s an excellent city break destination, and good value for those from the UK even with a less favourable euro exchange rate.

However, I’d advise one caution: the Portuguese have only decriminalised drug usage. The supply of these substances is still in the hands of the criminally inclined, with that hurdle not yet tackled. But the example could easily be followed in the UK, provided the will is there, and the debate is engaged and won. And there lies the next hurdle: even to have the debate, in a reasoned and rational manner, will be the biggest of asks.

I’ll consider that next.

The Laws Don’t Work – 1

Few subjects provoke debate more than that of currently illegal drugs. And few are more guaranteed to generate a Pavlovian, and robust, reaction from politicians and the press. I considered this some time ago, but merely dwelled on the subject: now is the time for a more detailed consideration.

Why so? Well, Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he) has found that, in a poll on his blog, well over half the respondents had tried an illegal drug. He was surprised. I wasn’t. There are two kinds of addictions you observe in the workplace – the legal (folks nipping out for baccy breaks, someone not showing of a morning as they’re still hung over) and the illegal (behaviours that suggest the recent consumption of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines and the like). Freelances like me get into the habit of working round colleagues who aren’t quite there today. You just get on with the job.

What comes clear, though, is that, despite the headline grabbing drugs busts, those minded to consume illegal substances have no problem obtaining them. Sure, the price may fluctuate over time, but then, so what? Same with petrol and pasta – it happens. The problem is not supply, but quality: as the distribution is a product of criminality, there is little or no control on this, and drugs are routinely “padded out” to make more money. The “padding” can be one of a number of substances, which may make the effect of the drug far more harmful over time.

Yet the various authorities – Police, Customs, Intelligence – dedicate significant resources to not only seizing drug hauls, but breaking up networks of producers, suppliers and dealers, and bringing them to justice. Still the product gets through: there is hardly a settlement in the UK where a user is more than a few minutes away from his or her preferred drug (one or two of the Western Isles may be off the supply network).

So the drugs get through, and in a form that may be more harmful to the long term user. Also, some substances are injected, and there is the infection risk from dirty needles. But, as use is as illegal as supply, those who need treatment for their addiction, or just a supply of clean needles, are reluctant to come forward. So addiction remains untreated, adulterated drugs take their toll, and infected needles spread HIV. It’s a lousy deal all round.

What can be done? Ah well. Changing the status quo would involve clearing a number of hurdles. And they’re very high ones. I’ve identified three of them: Government and legislation, the media backlash, and the established criminality – and will consider their part in the drama later.

In the meantime, why not pop out for a ciggie, fix yourself a strong expresso, or crack open a chilled one? Don’t worry, they can’t nick you for it ...

Saturday 25 July 2009

Supermarket Sweep – Take 2

Here in Crewe, the drive by the various supermarket chains to cover more of the area’s retail space with their stores continues, apparently unchecked by the various authorities. I looked a while ago at the blatant competition posing as “choice” on Nantwich Road: now the tactic has moved closer to the town centre, and on a much larger scale.

Five years ago, the town’s B&Q was one of two adjacent stores just to the south of the car parks that flank the police station (the other was MFI). B&Q moved to a larger store opposite the end of Nantwich Road, to be replaced by Dunelm Mill. And then MFI went bust. So now, both stores are slated to be “redeveloped”, which means demolished and replaced with something else. And the something else is a new and non-trivially sized Sainsbury’s store.

But Sainsbury’s already have a Crewe store. Indeed they do – but the former Kwik Save, sandwiched between Edleston Road and Brooklyn Street, is more of a community store. The new outlet will be, as Charlie Croker told Camp Freddie, big. And it will be right opposite the town’s largest Tesco. Now there’s a coincidence.

Moreover, to make the best use of the space the site will provide, the new store will be built so that it stands directly above part of the car park – an idea that the Tesco “Extra” outlet at nearby Altrincham uses. So that’ll be a 400 plus space car park, and another big supermarket. Do we need it? Well, the shelves at Asda weren’t exactly bare earlier this afternoon, and neither was there much problem getting through the till and out the door. After all, that misses the point.

Sainsbury’s have done their homework. The Tesco store opposite has no room to expand, other than into its own car park – unless the present building were demolished and another new “store on stilts” built as replacement. And the Tesco is small by their standards – it’s a conversion of a Safeway outlet – with less than ideal product range and, it has to be said, appalling customer service. The new store will offer a newer and larger space than its competitor, and there will even be a petrol station, one of the few plus points for the Tesco.

“Choice” will be the justification, but in reality this is about Sainsbury’s putting one over on Tesco. And the local authority? East Cheshire Council are minded to approve.

Let battle commence.

Hammond’s Chop Sauce

For a newspaper that is so often labelled as a Labour party house journal, the Guardian gives a lot of column inches to the Tories. And today is no exception: they have an allegedly exclusive interview with the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Philip Hammond, who would be deputy to the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, in a future Tory administration.

This is a significant role: Osborne may be making policy, but Hammond would be the enforcer and gatekeeper. He would be the equivalent of the corporate chief executive. And he is talking cuts. Well, so what? We’ve heard talk and counter talk of cuts for months. What is different this time?

Well, this time, Hammond admits that the effects will be painful, although he concedes only that this will only be for the short term (those who experienced what happened after 1979 may allow themselves a wry smile). He agrees that he’ll become a hate figure, which is an improvement in candour on his Tory predecessors. And he talks of “deep” cuts, and of a civil service ready to carry them out.

Honest enough, one might conclude, but the lesson from the post 1979 cuts is as clear as that from the USA in 1937: spending cuts when the economy is still in recession – depression in the case of pre-war USA – are most likely to tip that economy further into recession. Margaret Thatcher blamed a “world recession”, while not admitting that the UK and USA simultaneously following the Friedman quack doctory was the real culprit. And having to re-learn what is a very clear lesson is not clever or responsible economic stewardship.

Hammond also continues to perpetrate the Tory message that the public finances are in such a terrible state that Standard and Poor’s will take away the country’s AAA credit rating if action is not taken. However, S&P have only said that they will “review” that rating next year. Also, as France and Germany are also carrying high levels of debt – and the USA will be there very soon – why are politicians in those countries not clamouring for budget cuts?

Moreover, as Robert Peston discussed in his blog last week, Robert Stheeman, head of the Debt Management Office, is having no problem selling the vastly higher amount of gilts that the current economic climate demands, and neither does he think that a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating by a notch would make it “significantly harder” to raise the money he needs.

One would hope that the Tories were not merely scaremongering. After all, we’re talking tens of thousands of jobs going – that’s the translation of “pain”.

Friday 24 July 2009

Own Goal

There’s been another by-election. This one was in Norwich North, and once again Labour lost it. In fact, they lost it twice over, because this by-election need never have happened. The gloating of David Cameron – which will be loved or loathed, depending on personal preference – can be seen in the Beeb’s report. The winning candidate, Chloe Smith, will become the youngest MP in the present House of Commons (she’s 27).

Some time ago, as Expensegate was rumbling on, I considered the froth (as I saw it) around the living arrangements of Stone MP Bill Cash, and concluded that I couldn’t get worked up enough to be overly concerned about them. And I’d be at the front of the queue if there was a Europhobe bashing session in prospect. To give Cameron and his chaps their due, they also, on reflection, didn’t see Cash as worthy of a hanging jury: he was instructed to pay some expenses back, and has now been reselected for his constituency.

This tendency to think matters through did not find a parallel with Labour. Thus when the independently minded Norwich North MP Ian Gibson was fingered over the apparently cut price sale of a flat to a relative, he was barred from standing again. Gibson, who is now 70, could clearly do without the resultant aggravation, and so stood down immediately – forcing the by-election contest.

Compare and contrast, as they say. Had Gibson been merely reprimanded, or allowed to leave at a time of his own choosing – which may have been at the next General Election, probably the intention of the disciplinary hearing – then the party could show that it had taken action, without ending up shooting itself in the foot.

Also, Pa Broon could have intervened to impose common sense on the participants. Any argument that holds that he was powerless in this matter I do not buy: once again, it comes down to his judgment being found wanting.

The result is a headache for Labour – but a self inflicted one.

A Peek at the Top Shelf – 3

Yesterday, as I noted, Richard “Dirty” Desmond, who owns the increasingly downmarket and inaccurate Daily and Sunday Express, lost his libel action against author Tom Bower.

That’s right: he lost.

However, were you to read the Great Man’s take on the case, which the Express website has helpfully agreed to carry – remember, Desmond has said on oath that he doesn’t interfere with editorial decisions – you might be forgiven for concluding that he had won. But, as ever with this end of the Fourth Estate, the vigilance of the Tabloid Watch blog has picked up on this, shall we say, inconsistency.

Moreover, it’s inevitable that other readers of the Express site will also have picked up on the misleading tone of the article. But none of their comments have appeared, and none will be appearing.

Why so? A peek at the foot of the page explains:

Have Your Say” is unavailable for this story

which, freely translated, means that “Dirty” Desmond’s word is final, although this is mere coincidence, and not an attempt to interfere editorially, or to stifle free dissenting speech.

Perish the thought!

Thursday 23 July 2009

A Peek at the Top Shelf – 2

Let joy be unconfined. Richard “Dirty” Desmond has just lost his libel action against author Tom Bower. The Guardian has the story here. It’s also covered in the current issue of Private Eye (number 1241).

It is surely the right verdict: Desmond has denied, under oath, that he ever interferes in editorial policy at the Daily and Sunday Express, which has then been shown to be untrue. And, as Roy Greenslade has pointed out, a lot of evidence was for whatever reason ruled inadmissible (so, for instance, the well known Nazi style tirade never got mentioned).

The cost to the Great Pornographer? A snip at one and a quarter million quid.

The follow-up? Bower is believed to be writing an unauthorised biography of Desmond (which surprised me, because, as I said previously, I didn’t think that Desmond was important enough).

Desmond’s expression? Priceless.

Message in the Wires

For all in the industry, and all the others who care about the railways, it had been widely trailed, but was welcome nevertheless: Andrew Adonis has announced a programme of electrification. It might not be the largest part of the network, but right now is as good as could be expected. There has been very little in this area since the Major administration pushed through its sell-offs, and that’s more than a decade ago: well, better late than never.

Time was when electrification was put forward as the next step after the steam railway: in the 1950s, the commuter line into Southend’s Victoria station went directly from steam to electric. Unfortunately, successive Governments, and the railway itself, have failed to agree the way forward and then commit to it. So now we’re a long way behind much of mainland Europe. Some of the relevant numbers are in the Beeb and Guardian reports.

Why this move at this time? Well, the upcoming General Election may just be focusing minds within the Government, but there has also been a commitment shown behind the scenes that has been previously lacking. Adonis is one of those thus committed: he’s now convinced his colleagues that a scheme that effectively pays for itself over the lifetime of the next generation of trains is a no-brainer. Also, urging action from the sidelines has been one man whose commitment is at least the equal of Adonis’: step forward the technical editor of Modern Railways magazine, Roger Ford.

Ford, aka Captain Deltic, has been in and around the rail industry for around half a century. His restatement of the case for electrification, especially following the recent oil price shock, has meant that Adonis needed only to push firmly at an ever opening door.

So what will we get? London to Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Newbury and Oxford for starters, plus some infill between Manchester and Liverpool, with London to Sheffield on the back burner. Faster, quieter and cleaner journeys. And the other parties’ response?

The Lib Dems, being presently free of budgetary responsibility, say they’d have gone further, but are happy to get the commitment. The Tories, through shadow transport speaker Teresa Villiers, seem not to get it: they’re whingeing about the cost, despite an amount of 1.1 billion over four years – which will at least pay for itself later – not being economy breaking stuff.

And those dismissing Villiers’ carping should consider this snippet from the New Statesman yesterday: Crossrail, on which Young Dave seems less than keen, is tied in with the London to Bristol and Cardiff scheme.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Economic Exit Strategy

Right now, the Government is battling on two fronts, and neither has a visible exit strategy. One is Afghanistan, where the row over helicopters continues. The other isn’t a military campaign, but an economic one: the amount of Government debt, and how to tackle it.

Total Government debt by the end of last month had risen to almost 800 billion, or more than 56% of GDP, as the Beeb reported yesterday. But what do the numbers mean? Is that a good or bad sign? Well, it’s a lot higher in terms of GDP than the 30 to 40 per cent range of 1998 to 2007, but it’s estimated to go higher – into a range of 70 to 90 per cent, and it has to be pointed out that the UK would not be the only inhabitant of this area: France, Germany and the USA will be there too, with Japan away in the distance.

What do the experts think? One look at the Beeb analysis shows the mix of messages. On the one hand, the numbers are “dire”, but then they are “modestly better than expected”. At first glance, this seems daft, but both are true: the actual level of debt is bad, but the amount of new borrowing is less than had been expected – and that was also true for May. Overall, Alistair Darling’s borrowing forecast is holding up: that at least will calm the City. But, as the man said, there’s more.

The problem for whichever Government is in power from now into the so-called Medium Term (that’s well beyond the next General Election) is not just the debt level, but the all important exit strategy: how they will not only service the debt, but bring it back down, thus maintaining and reinforcing market confidence. But there is also the warning from the UK after 1979, and the USA in 1937, that of cutting spending so much that the economy is tipped back, or sent deeper, into recession.

And, unfortunately, the only alternative Chancellor of the Exchequer with the practical experience of real economics, World’s Most Agreeable Politician (tm) Vince Cable, is unlikely to be taking up residence in 11 Downing Street come next May.

But before getting downhearted, have a look at Steve Bell’s take yesterday.

The Liberal Deficit

How is it that a political party performs well at local level, but trails behind its rivals when it comes to parliamentary elections? It happens regularly in Crewe and Nantwich, and it happens to the Lib Dems. But a little analysis shows that there is nothing sinister at work, and yields a basic lesson for Corporal Clegg and his platoon.

Stretching out to the west and north of the station, the redbrick terraces of St John’s ward might be thought to be solid Labour territory. This was the impression given during last year’s by-election campaign. However, of the three councillors returned at the last local election, only one represented Labour: the other two victors were from the Lib Dems. So why doesn’t that translate into success at Westminster?

Ah well. The Lib Dem councillors work hard at keeping their public profiles up: they deliver regular newsletters, keep themselves in the papers, while majoring on local campaigns and issues. We know who they are.

Compare and contrast with the constituency presence. Whatever the shortcomings of incumbent Tory Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy), he is at work somewhere in Crewe and Nantwich every week of the year. Consequently he gets column inches in the papers, and on occasion a mention in the broadcast media.

Labour’s PPC David Williams is also working the constituency, helped by Timpson’s fence sitting over Network Rail’s daft idea to move the station out of town. He also maintains a high profile and therefore achieves good media coverage.

So what of the Lib Dems? Before the by-election, they dumped their PPC – he’s since left the party – in favour of Elizabeth Shenton, an act unlikely to bolster their prospects, as the new candidate had very little time to make herself known. So they came third. Since last year, there has been hardly a sound from the party at constituency level – the silence merely accentuated by the high profile of its councillors.

In fact, a look at the Lib Dems’ own website does not name a PPC for the constituency. So, while Timpson and Williams keep themselves in the spotlight, the party that would “break the mould” is silent.

That’ll be another third place, then.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Murdoch is Served (8)

I was initially disappointed: today’s appearance before the House of Commons committee for Culture, Media and Sport by current and former takers of the Murdoch shilling did not include the Sun’s twinkle toed yet domestically combative editor Rebekah Wade. Instead, News Group sent lawyer Tom Crone, which has turned out to more than make up for Ms Wade’s absence.

Why so? Was his testimony so riveting? Well, no it wasn’t, but that wasn’t where I was looking. Today’s most interesting bits were all about disclosure – and the attempt by News Group to, shall we say, temporarily reshape the committee before which their team was testifying.

First off, chairman John Whittingdale declared that he was on the board of the Tory party, who employ Andy Coulson, Young Dave’s right hand man, who also gave evidence today.

Next, Labour MP Tom Watson also had a declaration to make. He was “in dispute” with the Sun, and was represented by Carter-Ruck and Partners, libel specialists whose services do not come cheap.

Then Crone advised that he’d sent a letter last night complaining about Watson’s presence on the committee. Whittingdale had taken advice and Watson stayed. It wasn’t the only protest from Rupe’s troops: former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner complained about Tory MP Philip Davies, who also stayed.

The session overran, which suggests that Whittingdale was playing a straight bat and letting all his colleagues get their questions in – not easy to do for an MP whose party’s communications chief is one of those being grilled by his committee. And, as the Beeb has reported, there was plenty of questioning. But what more did we learn?

Well, as the Guardian noted, there were a lot of not totally committed or convincing answers from the News Group team. Andy Coulson, though, looks to have done OK, even managing a swipe at Tom Watson when he said that it was possible to sit next to someone but not know what they were up to – a reference to Watson’s presence in 10 Downing Street near the disgraced Damian McBride. But right now we’re waiting on two inputs to the process: what following up will come out of the committee, and what more do Nick Davies and the Guardian have in the tank?

Otherwise, the big headline has to be that the Murdoch press has attempted to interfere with the working of a Parliamentary Select Committee. Tom Watson – an MP who is clearly not at one with the behaviour of the Murdoch empire – made a final statement to the hearing, quoting the Speaker’s counsel as saying that the attempt to remove him “was very close to improper interference with the work of a committee”.

Monday 20 July 2009

Chopper Cropper – 3

Still simmering today is Helicoptergate, kept in the public gaze by the outrage at our apparently uncaring Government, and their seeming refusal to supply enough helicopters to keep our troops away from Terry Taliban and his IEDs. However, on closer inspection, things don’t look as clear cut, which will not be to the liking of hacks and politicians, who like clear choices, with identifiable good and bad guys.

There has been a commitment to supply new helicopters to both the Army and Royal Navy. However, it goes back to the old argument: buying British, or buying off the peg kit from abroad – usually the USA. That brings back memories of aircraft that never were, like the infamous TSR-2, which was dreamed up in the late 50s as a low flying strike aircraft. The cost, as ever, kept rising, but the Macmillan Government merely toyed with cancellation – Mac was never very good with decisions – leaving it to Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in 1964 to finally admit we couldn’t afford it.

Since that time, the UK has bought in some kit from abroad, but still its armed forces (or at least their top brass) hanker for home made, or partly home made, product. So the Eurofighter project should come as no surprise: it’s partly ours, so we’ll shell out for it. So it is with helicopters.

Yes, we could have bought from the USA, but a commitment had already been made to buy a product called successively Future Lynx, then Lynx Wildcat, and now given the functional moniker of AW159. And, as Maggie would have reminded reporters as she handbagged them, it’s British. This is the helicopter that military leaders – and, it seems, many politicians – were lobbying for, including Gen Richard “Morny” Dannett, who has nuanced his stance sufficiently to enable him to suggest that Pa Broon’s tightness is the problem, rather than the top brass wanting their very own toys.

Moreover, as the Defence of the Realm blog has asserted, the survival of the Army Air Corps (Col Commandant being, once more, Gen Richard “Morny” Dannett) may have been at risk had there been a change of direction in favour of the Sikorsky “Black Hawk”. Thus the simplistic idea that Brown is the bad guy and “Morny” Dannett the good guy is shown to be plain flat wrong. As ever, the military top brass are able to lobby for their favoured solution, and at the same time, protest about the fallout. The Government of the day, whatever their stripe, get it in the neck, as the tendency of the news media – especially the tabloids and red tops – is to side with the military.

I noted yesterday that the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne (heir to the seventeenth Baronet) is making noises about defence cuts if he becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer. Now consider what Cicero’s Songs has to say about his experience, and imagine how someone like him will fare against the military lobby.

He won’t. More Chopper Cropper updates as and when ...

Crikey Chaps, I’ve been Bendied!

Kulveer Ranger was recently less than complimentary towards transport commentator Christian Wolmar. This might explain Wolmar’s determination to insert boot into Ranger’s boss, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, mayor of London. But he’d be justified in doing so anyway.

Wolmar has picked up on Johnson’s hare brained scheme to rid the capital of bendy buses, and he’s not happy about it. There is good reason for this: Wolmar is a regular user of the things, and has realised that his journeys are going to get a lot slower as they are replaced by double deckers.

Christian Wolmar isn’t a slavish adherent to one or other political party: his priority is better transport. But as I observed recently, Bozza can’t get his head around a consistent approach to such things. For independent commentators to round on a party after it’s won a General Election and been in power for a while is one thing – to not have such folk on side beforehand should be worrying Young Dave.

That is, of course, if he’s listening.

Persian Mirage – 2

While many in the UK have moved their focus to helicopters, opinion polls and the routinely unreliable summer weather, the post election dissent in Iran rumbles on. Last Friday, another face from the country’s past weighed in with an address at Tehran University’s prayers.

Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is one of Iran’s most senior clerics and a past president of the country. He is also on less than ideal terms with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So perhaps his assertion that the revolution had “lost popular support” was not a surprise. Also not a surprise is the lack of attention given to Rafsanjani’s address by Iranian television, and the clashes between opposition supporters and the authorities afterwards.

However, despite all attempts at censorship, the news has got out, as the Guardian noted at the weekend. Once again, it seems, much of the rest of the print media is looking elsewhere.

Does it matter? Most certainly. As I observed last month, this is a country rich in oil, adjacent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and deeply distrusting of the UK and USA. Moreover, its nuclear ambitions and the anti Israeli rhetoric of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have served to increase tension across the region. It would be in nobody’s interests to have another Middle East conflict flare up.

Rafsanjani, meanwhile, has challenged Khamenei with his assertion that “Where people are not present or their vote is not considered, that government is not Islamic”, which might just suggest that he considers the election to have been less than free and fair.

As ever, this is for Iran to sort out. But we should keep an eye on developments.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Chopper Cropper – 2

As if to spoil the party, an apparently Russian built helicopter has suffered some kind of failure on takeoff and crashed. In Afghanistan.

The result, as the Beeb have reported, is that sixteen on board are feared dead.

No doubt there will be the usual comments about anything Russian being routinely ropey – until a helicopter built elsewhere becomes involved in a crash. And such events are not unheard of: the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has recently published a “special bulletin” regarding the loss of Super Puma G-REDL earlier this year, which crashed into the North Sea following a catastrophic failure in its main rotor gearbox. Here, too, sixteen lives were lost.

Yes, helicopters enable people to be moved around a country without having to use road transport. But they do not bring a guarantee of safe passage. Moreover, there has been one loss recently attributed to small arms fire: if the Taliban were to gain access to any serious kind of surface to air missile capability, then the whole argument at present raging over whether our troops are being needlessly put in harm’s way will kick off once more.

However, there would then be no Plan B.

More, then Less

Sunday morning, even out in the sticks, means the Andy Marr Show, and today’s edition brought a mixture of the predictable and the routine – and, for those who have been following the UK’s military campaigns, the revelation that the party likely to form the next Government will be cutting back on the armed forces. But you had to be quick to spot it.

First up was a confirmation of my analysis from last week’s prog: on the paper reviewing sofa was none other than Sun columnist Jane Moore, who at least talks with some objectivity and dresses practically, unlike the appalling Amanda Platell of the Daily Mail. Ms Moore is also doing some work in the C4 Dispatches series (she managed a brief plug for tomorrow’s edition), so does not rely completely on the Murdoch shilling.

But for me the most significant appearance was that of the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, and likely to become Chancellor of the Exchequer by this time next year. The interview, as with all the others I’ve seen recently, did nothing to amend my view of Osborne, which I considered a while ago, although it did show a suitably shameless attempt to have his cake and eat it.

Osborne, along with Young Dave and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, have been relentlessly milking the alleged helicopter shortage in Afghanistan, which I considered the other day. Today’s interview brought much of the same, and so thus far was not new news. However, the revelation that the military will have to take their share of cutbacks under a future Tory Government was new – especially the idea that the Afghan mission may be part of those cuts. This chimes with an item by Gaby Hinsliff on the Guardian Politics Blog.

That’s pretty neat, even though it’s political opportunism at its cheapest: play the supposed shortage in military resources for votes, then get into power and slash the military budget.

There’s a principled politician for you.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Harry Potter and the Charter of Olton Hall

No, it’s not a book, and I’m not about to attempt to extend the now completed J K Rowling series. It’s one of many spin-offs related, however loosely, to the release of the latest Potter movie. And it even interests rail aficionados like me, because, yes, it’s to do with trains.

Olton Hall is actually a steam locomotive, one of hundreds built by the Great Western Railway to perform middling passenger duties, and help out with moving the freight which at the time was the way that the railways made much of their money. But when it’s Harry Potter film time, it becomes Hogwart’s Castle, and its usual bright green livery is changed for red when it hauls the “Hogwart’s Express”.

There are other details that irritate the purist: Olton Hall, being from the Great Western, never worked out of Kings’ Cross station (whatever the platform number), and of course the ones called “Castles” are rather larger and more important locos, but this means nothing to the Potter fans who have stumped up almost ninety quid a throw to ride behind it from London’s Paddington station to Oxford today (and only the one way – they have to make do with a diesel for the journey back).

Why does the railway get involved? Well, today’s trip is a kind of grown up Thomas – it’s a way of getting people to travel by rail. There are lots of similar charters running all over the network, mainly at weekends, that exploit this market niche and (hopefully) show that larger part of the population that don’t normally go near trains that the railway can give you a fun day out.

Go on, try one – you might end up getting the bug, mind.

Competition Time

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the blogosphere, particularly in politics, does just as many comps and lists as the rest of the media – so that’s lots, then. As Zelo Street has now been “out there” for all of four months, and I’m having a moment of less than total modesty, I’ve decided to plug the latest competition, which comes to you courtesy of Total Politics.

The deal is straightforward: you vote for your top ten blogs. I hope that anyone who looks in on Zelo Street regularly will vote, and include it in their ten. The comp is being sponsored by LabourList, LibDemVoice, and Iain Dale’s Diary. Votes must be emailed to this address:


which, hopefully, is OK so far. Now come the rules, which I’ve copied from Iain Dale’s post on the comp:

1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and rank them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include ten blogs. If you include fewer than ten your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2009. Any votes received after that date will not count.

I know, I know – but there have to be some kind of rules, even in politics! Happy voting ...

Friday 17 July 2009

The Very Worst of UB40

Here’s a subject that hasn’t been treated with too much seriousness in the last thirty years: unemployment. Time was when governments were committed to full employment, and the idea of a million out of work was seen as a Very Bad Thing. Well, we haven’t seen unemployment of below a million since the 1970s: it’s now at over 2.3 million. And rising.

For those of us in the freelance world – that’s otherwise known as Tony and Gordon’s “flexible labour market” – it’s an occupational hazard, although at present, as an agency put it to me last week, there are a lot of people around who are spending too much time on the bench. Freelance workers use the time to take a break, do holidays, brush up on skills – but for those who get dumped out of longer term permanent jobs, it’s all too easy for economic recession to cause heads to drop, and hopes sink.

Should we bother? I would argue that we should. Too much unemployment, for too long, means more folks – and often whole families - existing on benefits. With no prospect of bettering themselves, the temptation of involvement in money generating activities that fall outside the law is strong. And there is plenty of scope for this: robbery, car crime, drug dealing, gun running, smuggling, people trafficking and prostitution are all well established – some disciplines working in tandem.

Also, it’s not exactly in the interest of the Government to be carrying an army of unemployment: every increase in the jobless figure means the plus of tax revenue turns overnight into the potential minus of benefit payments – and this when the UK’s debt level is increasing.

Will this or any future Government take action? Specifically on unemployment, the perhaps dispiriting response is, not much. Labour, seemingly, relied on growth in the wider economy from the late 1990s to bring down jobless levels – effectively no different from the philosophy of the preceding Tory administration. Otherwise, both parties are all talk, the prime example being Young Dave telling of “broken Britain”. If people had jobs to go to, it wouldn’t be broken – but, unless the Tories are seriously considering getting them into work, any impression given that they will “mend” our “broken society” is so much hot air.

I’m not suggesting we adopt Keynes’ idea of stuffing banknotes into disused mineshafts, digging them up again and then spending them, but there are ways of getting folks to work and, most importantly, off benefits - and weaned off routine criminality.

I’ll revisit the land of the unemployed later.

Chopper Cropper

War, it seems, is one of those subjects where normally rational beings lose it. Iraq was an excellent example: there was no proof of chemical or biological weapons, certainly no nuclear capability, and no better case for war than regime change, which happens to be illegal. But that didn’t stop the politicians – both Labour and Tory – from being in favour. And then we got involved in Afghanistan.

This is a country that has displayed a fiercely independent spirit for centuries. But it was also home to what Prince Harry called “Terry Taliban”, and this problem, coupled with the potential spread of said Taliban into nearby (and nuclear armed) Pakistan, was adjudged to need addressing.

So off went our soldiers, along with those from several other countries. And at first, all was relatively quiet. However, recently the fighting has got more intense and infinitely more intimate, and that has meant casualties. The Taliban, by all accounts, are losing their grip, but can still muster plenty of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to detonate under coalition road vehicles.

But there is the solution – we did it all the time at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland – of moving troops by helicopter. Unfortunately it seems – although we can’t say exactly how many there are out “in theatre” – that there aren’t enough of them. So yesterday, Pa Broon was given a verbal working over by Defence Committee chairman James Arbuthnot, the man with the Jonathon Porritt memorial barnet. Arbuthnot discovered that he is no more able than Young Dave to get the answer he wants out of the PM, but the point was well made, as the Beeb has observed.

So what can be done, given that any increase in the helicopter fleet has to go through the rigmarole of procurement? Well, the USA is also in the coalition with us, and they apparently have loads of the things, which begs a straightforward question.

If the Yanks are so flush with choppers (as it were), then how about they loan us a few, plus crews (no need to recruit more pilots and train them) to help out? After all, we’re on the same side. All it needs is for Pa Broon to phone his new pal Barry over in the White House, and we’re sorted.

It could also be worth a couple of points in the polls.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Mac the Knife

Barely had the new right wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping sat down in the European Parliament (EP) than the ructions started. In yet another Euro story not aired too much in many of the papers, the Tories have removed the whip from long serving MEP Edward Macmillan-Scott – he’s been an MEP since 1984 – and have had to cede the leadership of the ECR to the Polish Law and Justice Party. Fortunately the BBC was covering events.

Macmillan-Scott didn’t like the idea of backing Polish MEP Michal Kaminski for a vice presidency of the EP. He accused Kaminski of having a neo-fascist past – which suggests that there were differences of an irreconcilable nature between the two – and announced that he would stand for the vice presidency himself. He then won that vice presidency, the suggestion being that many hacked off EPP MEPs, who aren’t happy with the Tories’ latest stunt, voted for Macmillan-Scott as a way of sticking two fingers up at Young Dave.

The Poles were incensed at this manoeuvring – they were expecting the vice presidency as part of the deal of going into the new group with the Tories - and demanded they get the leadership of ECR as a consolation prize. So Tory MEP Timothy Kirkhope has had to hand it over to Kaminski, along with the speaking time that goes with it. The Tories were warned beforehand that they’d end up with nothing by pulling their MEPs out of the EPP – by German chancellor Angela Merkel, no less – and she has been proved right.

Granted, Macmillan-Scott is standing down at the next Euro elections – he’ll have put in thirty years’ service by then – and so has less to lose than most of his former colleagues. Also, his leaving the ECR grouping does not harm its integrity, as there are still MEPs from more than the required number of countries, and in sufficient numbers. But, as I previously observed, five of those countries represented in ECR are single member delegations, and two of those jumping ship will bring the group down. And the impression given by the Tories to the rest of the EP is not good.

Expect Young Dave not to talk too much of this for a while.

President Blair?

As the EU is a subject on which few in and around the media are even remotely agnostic, the idea of its first appointed President might be thought to generate some airtime or column inches – especially given one of the names that is being considered for this particular frame.

As I take a generally positive approach to the EU, anything that appears to gift ammunition to the Europhobe fringe is less than welcome with me. So when the name of Tony Blair gets put forward for first EU President, I start to wonder whether such a move is a good thing: there will inevitably be accusations of cronyism, “jobs for the boys”, and of course anything under the subject of expenses will be done to death.

But put forward he has been, if only informally at this stage: the Beeb has reported that Blair’s name has been pitched by Europe minister Glenys Kinnock. However, the presidential idea, being part of the Lisbon Treaty, is only going to come into being if the Irish vote “yes” in their revisited Referendum, which is likely to be held in October. If that hurdle is cleared, and it’s by no means a “gimme”, things will kick off soon afterwards.

Meaning that, as Blair is not the only name being put forward, there is going to be some level of debate as to who gets the job. From what Glenys Kinnock was saying, it would seem that Blair has been sounded out and would like the role. But so would Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez, and he’s from the same party as current PM Jose Zapatero, so that’s one vote for him.

Who will vote Blair? Well, Pa Broon will feel duty bound to do so, and Silvio “Duce” Berlusconi is also a supporter. Personally, I wouldn’t want to depend on “Duce”, but Blair, I suspect, won’t be fussed. What effect would a change of Government in the UK have on the appointment? Not much, if the deed had already been done, even though, as William ‘Ague has been making much adverse comment on the Blair candidacy, Young Dave may not be keen.

Does it matter anyway? Maybe, if the Tories come to power in the UK, Blair could become an instrument of Labour mischief making. The current teething troubles being experienced by the new right wing EP grouping containing Tory MEPs – or at least most of them – may also be grist to the mill for Labour and a distraction for Cameron.

Yes, that new grouping outside the EPP is already experiencing some turbulence. It’s not in all the papers, but it’s simmering nicely. A look at that next.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

A Peek at the Top Shelf

Investigative journalist Tom Bower has made a name for himself over the years for producing what are called “unauthorised” biographies of the supposedly rich and famous. I first recall his involvement in this area when he authored “Maxwell: the Outsider”, a biog of the man that Private Eye called the “Bouncing Czech”. More recently, I’ve enjoyed his work on the life of Richard Branson (aka “Sir” Tricky Dicky), a must read for anyone considering so much as shaking hands with the great man.

However, Branson, although deeply unhappy with the picture of him painted by Bower, did not resort to legal action over the book, a measure of common sense restraint seemingly lost on others, one of whom is Richard Desmond. Desmond has taken Bower to court over a biography not of himself – after all, he might not qualify as important enough – but of the jailed and otherwise disgraced Conrad Black, and his wife Barbara Amiel. It’s the usual disagreement: Desmond claims to have been defamed, while Bower asserts that what he’s written is “substantially true”.

But, so what? Isn’t it just a routine example of sleb toy throwing? Well, maybe, but a probing of the Desmond empire and character tells much about the kind of person that passes as a media magnate nowadays. For starters, the reporting of the case in Desmond’s papers, highlighted by the Tabloid Watch blog, has been priceless: typically, any cross-examination from Bower’s lawyers is omitted. The reality of the hand being played by “Dirty” Desmond, as Private Eye has christened him, merely underlines his also-ran status.

A big seller for Desmond is OK! Magazine, a title created to ape the daddy of the glossy sleb-following market, Hello! And the pattern continues with the newspapers: the Daily and Sunday Express, which had on occasion sold four million copies per issue under the legendary Max Beaverbrook, now manage less than 750,000 – and many of those at less than full price. This makes the Express a distant runner up to its main rival, the Daily Mail. The dismally trashy Daily Star does less well: it comes in third in the red top field, well behind the Sun and Daily Mirror. And Desmond has not exactly been making friends among his rivals: Paul Dacre, the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail, has said that “As long as I’ve got energy in my body, I’m going to devote everything to try to see him off”.

But at least “Dirty” Desmond can point to his prominence in one niche market, that which caused Private Eye to give him his nickname: top shelf magazines and “adult” television. Look at all that revenue, Guv! Phwoorrh!!

Which Primary Colour?

If there has been one good thing to come out of Expensegate, it is the realisation – and by all the major political parties – that there is a need to enthuse the electorate and give them some belief in the democratic process. This particular penny has dropped with some effect on the Tories, who have decided to have open primaries, and not only selection meetings attended by the few.

As ConservativeHome has noted, the party in the Devon constituency of Totnes are going to ballot the whole constituency – that’s an electorate of 69,000 – on their preference for Tory parliamentary candidate. So why go to all that trouble? Well, for around 70% of seats – which are classified as “safe” – an MP is selected and maintained in office, effectively, by whoever turns up at the selection meeting. At a time when trust in politicians and Parliament is not at its highest, that isn’t a good sales pitch.

The BBC duly reported the story, but most newspapers seem to have missed it, which is strange, given that the idea is also gaining attention from Labour: Foreign Secretary David Miliband is said to like the concept. It’s not difficult to see why: candidates selected in this way will already be known and tested come the General Election. Their popularity will have been established, not merely by the activists who turn up at selection meetings, but by a wide cross section of voters.

However, I would advise a degree of caution: giving Labour and Lib Dem supporters a say in selecting a Tory candidate brings with it opportunity for a degree of mischief making. Given the strong possibility of a low overall turnout, the organised intervention in support of a candidate thought to be more beatable could work in favour not of those subjecting themselves to the primary poll, but their opponents. For anyone believing this couldn’t happen, I offer a cautionary tale from Merseyside.

At the beginning of 1994, Liverpool manager Graeme Souness was at the nadir of his popularity. His departure seemed imminent – the only debate was over whether he would jump, or be pushed. A local radio station had a poll on whether he should go, and at first the response chimed with press and fans: it was universally hostile. But, as the day wore on, there came a groundswell of support for Souness: more and more callers urged him to stay. On the basis of this admittedly limited and unscientific “primary”, the manager might have been persuaded to stand his ground. But how had the turnround happened? Was there an underlying sympathy for Souness among the fan base? Did diehard Reds want to give him another chance?

Alas, no. It was a wind-up from Everton fans.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Murdoch is Served (7)

So today the House of Commons culture committee got to hear from Guardian journalist Nick Davies. As I predicted last week, it was standing room only. Moreover, as if to show that the paper is serious about Phonehackgate, editor Alan Rusbridger appeared alongside Davies, to the surprise even of their own coverage of events.

Also surprising the Guardian’s own staff was that Davies came armed with new evidence, demonstrating that management at the News of the World knew what was going on. This comes hard on the heels of the NotW issuing a forthright rebuttal of the Guardian’s claims on Sunday, with an equally forthright statement from the Police, which just happened to appear – an unfortunate juxtaposition – on the same page of the paper.

Davies named two significant names: Neville Thurlbeck, the NotW’s chief reporter, and Greg Miskiw, former assistant editor. He also confirmed that he had a list of 27 NotW reporters, and four from its daily sister paper, the Sun, who had been using private investigators to obtain information – much of it illegally. Further, he pointed out that the police had issued conflicting statements on the matter: Assistant Commissioner John Yates first said that where there was evidence of phone hacking, those targeted had been contacted [my emphasis] by the police. However, the following day, the Met said that it was “in the process” of contacting people and that the process could take “several days”.

Davies’ conclusion is that News International have been misleading everyone – which is a nice way of accusing them of dishonesty. He emphasised that there were two types of activity under consideration: blagging, which involves dishonestly (and illegally) obtaining information from such sources as the NHS and DVLA, and phone hacking, which is also illegal. Both have apparently been used by the NotW. The extent of the newspaper industry’s reliance on the former can be seen from a read of Davies’ Flat Earth News, in the chapter entitled The Dark Arts.

So what happens next? Well, News International will appear before the same committee next week. It is looking increasingly unlikely that Murdoch’s former UK sidekick Les Hinton (now working in the USA) will appear, so the defence is likely to be led by the twinkle toed yet domestically combative Rebekah Wade.

And in the meantime? The Guardian may have more to reveal, but as today’s events have shown, it is keeping its cards very close to its chest. So, to continue the poker analogy, the Murdoch empire cannot know the quality of the Guardian hand, and no amount of blagging Government databases or hacking of mobile phones will be able to tell just how many aces Rusbridger and Davies are holding.

But they’re not for stacking and quitting just yet.

Yikes Readers, the Chicken got me!

Another month, another gaffe: Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson yesterday appeared on the BBC HARDTalk programme, and duly inserted foot in mouth in a way only he can explain.

Bozza gets paid around 140K to be a full time Mayor, although his lack of attention to detail suggests that the job does not enjoy his total focus. He shipped yet another deputy recently, and the Ian Clement fallout is slated to be raised during tomorrow’s Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) at City Hall.

Meantime, he is also paid by the Maily Telegraph to write a column: his fee is apparently rather larger than the mayoral stipend, at around 250K. Moreover, the question raised by Private Eye recently, that Johnson is contracted to write two columns a week, but somehow gets away with just the one, remains unanswered.

And yesterday, into the mix was thrown another remark that Boris may come to regret: when challenged on the subject of “second jobs” and Young Dave’s pronouncements on them (shadow cabinet members have been instructed to cease theirs by year end), Bozza dismissed that 250K as “chicken feed”. Hell’s teeth. If that’s chicken feed, send some round to my place pronto, and I’ll forget about the mess.

Johnson was probably being less than totally serious when he made the remark, and after all, as Dave Hill has pointed out in his London Blog today, it’s not as if the mayor is totally insensitive to those less well off: he’s an unwavering supporter of the London Living Wage. But as Dave also notes, the usual suspects are on his case over this latest gaffe.

The Beeb has an overview on its website. As can be seen, Johnson claims that, as he writes quickly and finishes his column first thing Sunday morning, this isn’t a problem. Maybe not. But if the fallout from the Clement departure suggests he isn’t getting a grip at City Hall, it will be bad news for London, for Johnson himself, and potentially for Young Dave.

Monday 13 July 2009

No Boycs With Bumble

Amidst all the on-field talking points from the first Ashes test, some cricket fans have been asking why the Sky commentary team doesn’t include Geoff Boycott. After all, the reasoning goes, he’s wasted on Test Match Special and the C5 highlights. Ah well. There’s a very good reason for that, and he’s on the Sky team. Step forward the apparently kindly and unthreatening David “Bumble” Lloyd.

Bumble used to open the batting for his native Lancashire. He even got to play for England, but Boycs was first choice. In later years the two men, although still in and around the game, found themselves on opposite sides of the fence: Boycott became an established commentator with the BBC, and Lloyd eventually became England coach.

So it might be thought that they wouldn’t encounter one another much. This held true until an end of season test match in 1998, when it became clear to an entire TV audience that Boycs didn’t think much of Bumble, and Bumble wasn’t for sitting there and keeping quiet.

England had just won a five match series against South Africa – including the one with the standoff between Allan Donald and Mike Atherton. But then came a one-off match against Sri Lanka, whose captain admitted that he had only one asset, spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, whose much analysed bowling action had been passed by the authorities. In England’s second innings, he took nine wickets, being prevented from taking all ten as Alec Stewart had been run out. Sri Lanka won easily, and Lloyd was censured for his comments on Muralitharan’s action.

Up in the BBC commentary box, the question was put as to what England needed to do to improve. Boycott, in a typical combination of maximum candour with minimum subtlety, had no doubts. “They need a coach who can keep ‘is mouth shut” he observed. This was not lost on Lloyd, or his players: the TV was on in the England dressing room.

Bumble, never one to back down, was not just angry, but incandescent with rage. He was out of that dressing room and over to the commentary box with some speed, and off air there followed, shall we say, a full and frank exchange of views. It is unlikely that either man backed down, or that there was any meeting of minds. And that, as far as is known, is still true today.

So don’t expect Boycs to appear on Sky any time soon.

Whingeing Pon

Today, a brief side-step away from the heavy stuff: England’s cricketers actually have something to be happy about – well, relieved, at least. They came out of the first test against Australia with a draw. And it tells you something about Ashes tests when a draw is regarded as a good thing.

Except not everyone is happy. Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting, for a start. His side needed to take one more wicket, and sooner rather than later. How so? Well, if they’d knocked over that last wicket before England had levelled the scores, the Aussies would have won by an innings – game over. After the scores had been levelled, Australia would have had to bat again, and that would involve a ten minute break. When time is counting down, that ten minutes can be the difference between winning and merely drawing.

And the way that England may have helped time count down is what is taxing Ponting. The hated Poms sent on the twelfth man and even tried to send on the team physio in the closing minutes. Captain Andrew Strauss claims that there was nothing sinister in the actions, but Ponting has gone into whinge mode. And the Aussies, for a side that likes to characterise the English as whingers, tend to that kind of thing themselves when they aren’t winning.

Back in 2005, when Australia needed to win the final test at the Oval to square the series and therefore retain the Ashes, they were frustrated by a blazing innings from Kevin Pietersen. The following day, the Aussie media was carping long and loud about KP’s South African origins. At the same time, there was selective amnesia about the time when South African players, during the apartheid era, fetched up in Australia. One notable example, Kepler Wessels, opened the batting for Australia a number of times.

But we mustn’t complain about that. That would be whingeing.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Change of Scenery?

I do try to get up and about on Sunday morning in time for the Andy Marr Show. Sometimes, though, I have mixed feelings about the utility of so doing. Today was one of those times.

There were, unusually, three bodies on the Marr sofa this morning, perhaps because of the decision to dwell on the News of the World and its involvement in routine acts of criminality. This does not cause me a problem, and moreover the appearance of former Sun editor David Yelland was interesting: he never comes over as “loud” enough for the hot seat at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, unlike the unrepentant and unreconstructed Kelvin McKenzie, but is more thoughtful and measured.

This is something that cannot be said of Amanda Platell, who appears on the Marr show far too often. Perhaps the Beeb is trying to be nice to the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, by featuring one of his hacks. If so, it’s a pity that the paper can’t put up anyone better. If someone of mildly conservative persuasion is what they’re after, the BBC could do far better by asking Ms Kirsty Relocation or even Carole Vorderman. Or even Carol Thatcher, who as I noted the last time she appeared, is of delightfully independent mind.

It does seem strange for the BBC to give so much airtime to those whose editors’ devotion to rubbishing the Corporation is so well known, and so consuming. Jane Moore of the Sun is another, although more agreeable, regular.

And we know what view any Murdoch editor has of the Beeb.

Every Point Counts

Anyone concerned that Brawn GP have had their winning streak interrupted – today’s German GP saw the highly sound Mark Webber break his duck in some style – can look on the bright side: both their drivers scored points, and even the four that Jenson Button took for his fifth place could make a difference come the end of the season. There have been much smaller world championship winning margins.

The narrowest of these came a quarter of a century ago, in 1984. Then, as so often since, the car to beat was McLaren, and the competition was ultimately between their drivers: the (then) young challenger Alain Prost, and the wily fox Niki Lauda. They won twelve of the season’s sixteen races between them. Prost’s majority share of seven wins included Monaco, which had been run in torrential rain, the conditions becoming so bad that the race was stopped early. Not enough laps had been covered for full points to be awarded, so Prost didn’t get the (then) customary nine points, but four and a half.

So what? Well, with only one race left, Lauda led the championship by three and a half points – from Prost. That year, the season ended at Estoril, a beach resort west of Lisbon better known for its seafront casino. Prost went off into the lead, with Lauda having to work his way through the field, ultimately getting himself into third place. That would have given Prost the title, but the problem for the Frenchman was the car in second.

The number two Lotus that year was piloted by one Nigel Mansell. Noidge and the Lotus were quick, but unfortunately the combination was horribly unreliable: car number 12 retired a total of eleven times in sixteen races. And Estoril was one of them: whether it was the car or the driver is unclear, but Mansell went off at around four fifths’ distance. Lauda therefore inherited second place and Prost’s title hopes were crushed.

Lauda, who was renowned for doing just enough to reach his objective (a trait that could be easily forgiven after his near death experience in 1976), had won the F1 World Championship by a mere half a point. So Jenson Button will know that picking up three here, and four there, might not be as glamorous as winning, but they all go in the pot come the end of the season.

It could be a close one, too.

Saturday 11 July 2009

Something About Auntie - 3

In the Soviet Union, there were two daily papers known also here in the West: Pravda (Truth) and Isvestia (News). A popular Russian saying in Communist times translates as “In the truth there is no news, and in the news there is no truth”. Both publications showed one obvious rule: if you have to stress the apparent values of a media outlet, this may be because those values are questionable.

In the post Soviet era, we still have media outlets proudly trumpeting their values. But they are not in Russia, but the good old US of A. And they come to you courtesy of our old friend Rupert Murdoch: he has brought us Fox News, which proclaims to the world that it is “Fair and Balanced”. As the saying goes, methinks it doth protest too much.

Bringing up the Fox News website, you might notice adverts for figures on the political right: last time I looked, there was one for Newt Gingrich’s newsletter, and on a previous visit, one for Ann Coulter. Gingrich may be familiar to some: he was briefly famous when opposing Bill Clinton as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Coulter is not well known outside the USA, where her views include the idea that school shootings would be stopped if only the children attending them carried guns. After the 9/11 attacks, Coulter said of the terrorists that the USA “should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”.

The presence of anything right wing oriented on the Fox News site should not surprise anyone. It has been revealed that the Bush White House gave Fox News talking points, in order to influence discussion and present a more favourable view of the Republican administration. And anyone believing that it might dare to hold the Murdoch empire to account would do well to consider yesterday’s appearance of the great man before news anchor Stuart Varney:

Varney: The story that's really buzzing all around the country and certainly here in New York, is that the News of the World, a News Corporation newspaper in Britain used –
Murdoch: I'm not talking about that issue at all today. I'm sorry.
Varney: No worries, Mr. Chairman. That's fine with me.
Murdoch: I'm sorry.
Varney: OK. That's all right, sir.

The idea that Mark Thompson would get similarly grovelling treatment from The Inquisition of Pax Jeremiah does not stand serious analysis.

Anyone still fancy a world without the BBC? Or a bet on Stuart Varney’s future?

Murdoch is Served (6)

Still rumbling on, Phonehackgate has been lent another twist by the highlighting of yet another coincidence of view between Rupert Murdoch’s business interests and proposed Tory Party policy. I mentioned yesterday that David Cameron’s standing by his communications chief Andy Coulson, one of the Murdoch “family”, may play well with Rupe. Today, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, favoured hate figure of many on the right (some of whom occasionally manage a coherent written critique) has pointed out another connection.

I reviewed Young Dave’s speech earlier this week on the Quangocracy, noting that he was aiming specifically at Ofcom, the media regulator. What I had forgotten in the meantime was that Ofcom has proposed cuts in the price that Murdoch owned Sky charges other providers to air its content – the proposed cuts being because Sky enjoys a monopoly in areas such as new movies and sport, and those prices are perceived to be higher than they would be in a genuinely competitive marketplace.

Rupe’s troops didn’t like that at all. The routinely obedient Sun went Ofcom bashing, showing the hacks throwing their toys out of the newsroom pram in some style. So the statement by Cameron that Ofcom would cease to exist in its current form chimes remarkably well with the Murdoch wish list. Communications minister Stephen Carter, not surprisingly, is of a dissenting view, calling Dave’s comments “somewhere between superficial and ill-informed”.

Whether ill-informed or not, Cameron is now firmly on Murdoch’s wavelength: even the Tory move to create a new right wing grouping in the European Parliament chimes with Rupe’s longstanding hatred of the EU. News International and the Tory Party are – coincidentally or otherwise – becoming more interdependent. Now into this new and apparently harmonious relationship has been thrown the phone hacking grenade. How should Young Dave respond? After all, we’re talking about illegal acts here. Forthright condemnation must follow – mustn’t it?

Apparently not. Thus far, Dave has spoken only to defend Andy Coulson, and confirm his communications chief in his post. The silence has continued as more has been revealed this morning by the Guardian on the payouts made by News International which included a gagging clause. But then, so what? Does it matter?

Yes it does. When we go to the polls, we elect those on the ballot, and expect the Government formed from a majority of those who were successful to do the governing. The revelation by former Labour insider Lance Price that, during Tony Blair’s premiership, decisions waited on the opinions of three men – John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Rupert Murdoch – shows that others get involved.

That’s not good enough. We don’t need an interfering foreigner sticking his oar in.

Friday 10 July 2009

Money, Money, Money

Anyone out there still buying foreign currency before visiting Euroland? Or, indeed, visiting anywhere else in the EU? A word in your ear.

Some time ago I ceased doing this – well, apart from a recent need to use up my Travel Pound credits at Thomas Cook – and there have been no regrets. So what do I do instead?

Simple. I opened a current account with the nice people at Nationwide, whose debit cards do not attract commission charges when making cash withdrawals abroad. Not only that, but the exchange rate given is pretty close to the actual rate in force on the day of the transaction – none of this “tourist rate” business.

The only potential snag is that, on occasion, a choice will be offered between Sterling and “local currency”. You should choose the latter.

How much difference does it make? Ah well. In May, the “tourist rate” for the Hungarian Forint – I was visiting Budapest – was just short of 290 to the pound. The rate I got from hitting an ATM at Ferihegi Airport was 322. Bit of a difference.

Hence, on reading this article in the Guardian, my feeling that it was all a little old hat. But I agree with them on one caution: avoid Travelex like the plague.

UPDATE: a not dissimilar rate difference in Prague, with the “tourist rate” for the Czech Koruna showing around 28, and a hit on an ATM at Ruzyne Airport giving over 31.7 – meaning more cabbage, more dumplings, and more Pilsener Urquell!

Murdoch is Served (5)

And still the revelations of phone hacking come in: now, we’re told, the News of the World were even snooping on Rebekah Wade, editor of sister Murdoch red-top the Sun. And still there are some on the fringes of this increasingly messy looking affair who are reluctant to take on board the potential implications. They may have good reason to be so inclined.

David Cameron, still “relaxed” about the presence of his communications chief Andy Coulson in the editor’s chair of the NotW while so much forthright criminality was originating in that paper’s newsroom, still stands by his man. And, as I noted yesterday, the Tories have bad memories of the last time the Guardian was on their case. But there is yet another, more compelling, reason for Cameron to stand by Coulson: he’s part of the Murdoch “family”, a factor that has been picked up by Gary Gibbon on the Channel 4 Politics blog. Sticking by “one of theirs” may get Cameron the endorsement of the Murdoch press. He’d like that.

The need not to alienate Rupe and his troops has also been taxing Pa Broon. As the FT’s blog shows, Brown first declined any comment yesterday, then later merely said that the matter “raises issues that are serious and will obviously have to be answered”. Nobody who wants to be in power in the UK, it seems, wants to upset Murdoch.

And, judging from the less than prominent coverage given to this business by many papers yesterday, there is not too much enthusiasm for raking over the methods used by some of their number to obtain information, as Alastair Campbell noted this morning on his blog. But there is good reason to believe the story will not go away.

Nick Davies is one of them. His further revelation in the Guardian that the list of those hacked includes Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will make for discomfort in the Tory Party and the Murdoch empire. Ferguson is an unwavering supporter of Labour. Moreover, he is not noted for letting such acts pass by. And, as the Guardian has also noted, there is an increasing number of slebs considering legal action. Allied to this is the comment by House of Commons culture committee chairman John Whittingdale that he would be asking Murdoch sidekick Les Hinton if he would like to amend evidence previously given.

Nobody wants to upset Murdoch. But there are many who loathe him, and the way his newspapers browbeat and bully politicians and other public figures. If the legal actions being contemplated bring Rupe down a peg or two, there will be no small amount of relief and even rejoicing.

This, as I observed yesterday, is the main event: Andy Coulson is merely an interesting side show.