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Monday 31 August 2009

An Honest Irishman

It’s happening in another country, so our press hasn’t focused on it yet – despite the potential fallout – but on October 2nd, Ireland is re-running its referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Guarantees on contentious issues like Irish neutrality and abortion law have been given, and the Yes campaign is making a big push.

And in the vanguard of the Yes campaigners is one Michael O’Leary. Yes, that Michael O’Leary: the Ryanair CEO is backing his stance with half a million Euros and the power of Ryanair’s press and PR nous. So why would he do that?

The press release, placing O’Leary firmly in the Yes camp, tells of “low fares” throughout the EU, but then all Ryanair PR bangs on about that. It is, however, plainly honest about the most obvious reason for supporting Lisbon: the EU was at the heart of air travel deregulation all those years ago. Without it, we wouldn’t have the carriers that use the SouthWest Airlines’ business model: EasyJet, Jet2, BMIBaby, and most relevant to Ireland, Ryanair.

O’Leary is being honest: the EU made his company possible. He owes them.

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 6

The discussion and debate over Murdoch Junior’s Beeb bashing continues: former Guardian editor Peter Preston today plays devil’s advocate in suggesting that Junior was right, and that it’s hard to have an online presence when the BBC puts news out there for free (well, for no additional charge). However, Preston doesn’t tackle Junior’s demand for less regulation, and the associated spectre of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Nor does he dwell on the thought that BSkyB, the UK broadcaster with the largest income, is effectively urging the hobbling of its most significant competitor.

Rather, the argument is being made that the BBC is somehow responsible for the running down and closure of local and regional newspapers, which does not stand serious analysis: this is happening across the USA, the land where the level of regulation is more to the Murdochs’ tastes – and the Beeb is nowhere in sight. This isn’t about encouraging plurality, bringing new market entrants and encouraging competition: Junior and Dad don’t give a stuff about them. It’s about News International getting more and more powerful.

Consider this: what forced BSB to cave in to Sky? It wasn’t the BBC. What finished Setanta? Nope, BBC not present there either. Who made a share grab for ITV to prevent competitors getting their hands on the broadcaster? In all of those cases, the cause was the Murdoch empire. This is the “chilling” prospect, the source of the “land grab” and the reality of the kind of “competition” favoured by Rupe and Junior. And the provision of news for free is not deterring new entrants to the market, as the Independent has noted today.

Yes, Microsoft has decided it wants to join the news provision party. After all, it already attracts a substantial audience to its MSN portal – more, apparently, than any of the newspaper sites – so a move into more serious news journalism seems logical. But what about the pay to view idea? Anyone trying to promote this as the way forward would do well to study this unequivocal line from the Indy piece:

There is no likelihood that MSN will seek to charge users for its content

which would seem to contradict Rupe and Junior. So that’ll be another source of news available without charge, and without the Murdochs.

Maybe the future won’t be so bad after all.

Sunday 30 August 2009

The First Chat Show

Who hosted the first programme on UK television in the genre that we now call the “chat show”? Way back, before Ross, before Wogan, before even Parky, we would watch in our millions – 18 million at its peak – as an announcer called out “It’s Siiimon Dee!”

Dee, whose death has been announced today, was one of those Swinging Sixties personalities that would have been difficult to picture in any other era (Liz Hurley has said he was the inspiration for Austin Powers). His career was short, partly because he got ahead of himself as to how much he was worth, and how good he was at it. But he left us with that template of what, in the late 60s, was thought cool and aspirational, especially at the end of each show when he was seen driving away in an E-type Jaguar.

The occasionally fickle nature of TV fame, though, intervened after Dee had fallen out with the Beeb and ITV. At the time, there wasn’t anywhere else to go: he found himself at one stage reduced to driving a bus to make ends meet. My own favourite memory of Simon Dee? A bit part in The Italian Job, as a mincing tailor’s assistant. Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) explains to Dee, who is looking down his nose at Croker’s collection of shirts, “When I went inside, they were all the rage”.

Dee pouts and replies “What did you do, life? I mean, you could take all of these, and put them ... in a museum”.

A small part of all our lives, perhaps, but a fun one.

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 5

No sooner had Murdoch Junior made his BBC-bashing speech on Friday evening, than he was at it again in a Q&A session yesterday. He once again questioned the Corporation’s acquisition of the Lonely Planet guides: this, he asserted, showed that the Beeb was not merely sticking to its core business, while not considering that something that makes money and is in the same kind of genre as the decades old Holiday programme might not be such a bad thing.

Also, Junior vigorously maintained that the Beeb was “state sponsored”, and it’s worth studying the form of words used. What do we otherwise associate with the phrase “state sponsored”? Broadcasting? Media? Television? Or, more often, words like “Terrorism”: this was a premeditated and nasty attempt to establish a thoroughly negative image. It demonstrates the urgency – or perhaps that should be desperation – of the Murdoch case. And it has generated less than total approval.

Also delivering a lecture in Edinburgh this weekend has been the much characterised but very knowledgeable BBC Business Editor Robert Peston. At the centre of his address was the argument that deregulation of the banking sector – both in the UK and the USA – had helped bring about the recent financial crisis, and the question asking if similar deregulation of the news media would be such a good thing.

Peston’s question comes back to the point I made yesterday: in the USA, with the level of media regulation favoured chez Murdoch, we get Fox News (fair and balanced my arse), with moderate and unbiased hosts like Ollie North, and allegedly impartial pundits such as “Wiggy” Bolton. In the UK, we get BBC News and the choice of more than credible alternatives from ITV, and of course Channel 4. We get hosts who give politicians of all stripes a serious examination: The Inquisition of Pax Jeremiah yields to no party diktat. Jon Snow likewise.

So, when Peston and Junior found themselves on the same table at dinner following the latter’s speech, it should come as no surprise to find that there was a full and frank exchange of views, with no meeting of minds. Peston, by all accounts, stood his ground in forthright style.

Bullies like the Murdochs won’t like that. Tough.

Parish (Council) Notice

The latest reorganisation of Local Government has left Crewe without a local council – the area is now part of Cheshire East, along with Macclesfield and Congleton. So there has been a move to establish a Town Council, not unlike that in neighbouring Nantwich. The petition in support of this move gained more than enough signatures for the issue to be put to a vote.

So everyone in the Crewe area should by now have received a “Voting Paper for Electors”, along with a reply paid envelope (alternatively, the envelope can be delivered direct to Municipal Buildings or Delamere House, if preferred). I’d advise anyone in possession of a Voting Paper to cast a vote, whatever their opinion or preference.

A positive vote for a single Town Council would, apparently, involve an X next to Question 1, choice 1 (I want a parish council for my area), and also an X next to Question 2, choice A (A single town council for the whole of the unparished area of Crewe).

But, ultimately, interpretation and choice are down to the individual voter. I do hope that as many as possible take part in the process.

Saturday 29 August 2009

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 4

Previously, I’d wondered whether Rupe’s decision to charge for online content was a bluff, or the first sign of desperation. The answer has not been long coming: last night’s MacTaggart Lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, given by Rupe’s son and apparent heir James Murdoch twenty years after Dad gave it, was described as “hard hitting”, but in reality was mean spirited name calling, delivered in the name of “competition” and against “regulation”.

And the target of much of the name calling was, as ever, the BBC. Little Jimmy says that the Beeb is “state sponsored”, which is meant to infer that it is a Government mouthpiece, when, as Alastair Campbell will be all too ready to confirm, it is an independent corporation – that status having the force of law behind it. Young Murdoch is spouting pejorative drivel, and anyone doubting that need go no further than his assessment of the Beeb’s ambition: “chilling”.

Well, to entertain, educate and inform is certainly “chilling” to a major multinational media organisation used to inflicting screamingly reactionary tat such as Fox News (fair and balanced my arse) on its target audience. But otherwise, this is straightforward playground behaviour: take a term that accurately describes your own organisation and ambition, and attempt to dump it on an opponent: “No, that’s you”.

Little Jimmy is also peeved about the amount of regulation faced by Rupe’s empire in the UK. No doubt he’d like that scaled back, just as he wants to see the BBC treated, but even those prepared to either cheerlead for News International (or, equally bad, keep quiet) know that deregulation of the broadcast media will allow the Murdochs to inflict the values of Fox News – or the lack of them – on the UK public. After all, Rupe’s gone on record as saying that the Fox style of presentation would be much more commercially rewarding than that of Sky News.

And if that dumbs everything down into right-wing bigotry, misinformation and direct use of dishonesty, Rupe and Junior won’t be too fussed. They’ll have their money.

In the meantime, expect politicians and editors to think long and hard about whether they really want to go down the Murdoch road, or whether this reaction to the current financial climate might be misplaced.

Friday 28 August 2009

The Mail and Mr Beck

The Daily Mail’s legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, has gone on record stating that his paper is not racist. He’s convinced himself of that, but others are not so easily taken in: this week, in a routine and well presented skewering, the Tabloid Watch blog has shown that on the Mail’s website, supposedly moderated comment on stories is all too often littered with race hate.

So Paul Dacre can maintain that his paper is not racist, while letting in a little hatred in a sort of non attributable way. Keeps the staff nice and clean. After all, we don’t do that sort of thing in the UK, do we? Additionally, the broadcast media isn’t even able to be partisan – by law.

But over in the USA, they play by different rules, and what the Daily Mail has to keep at arms’ length gets unconditionally embraced by broadcasters such as Rupe’s Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), and especially by the less savoury of its commentators, like Glenn Beck.

As I observed a while ago, there was a case of “reverse accusation of racism” over the nomination of Susan Sotomayor for the Supreme Court: commentators like the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh had used this smear against her. Now it’s becoming clear that this was not an isolated example, but a new tool in the right’s box of nastier tricks: Beck has now accused the Prez himself of being racist, and having “a deep seated hatred for white people”.

Let’s think that one through: Barack Obama, whose mother was white, hates white people? It’s an assertion that does not stand serious analysis. Beck can’t stand up his assertion – it’s just gratuitous abuse. And 33 advertisers who buy time on Fox News Channel have also found adversely upon Beck’s rant: they have directed that their ads not air on the Beck show.

But at least Young Dave and his chaps, although having a nominal relationship with the Republicans, can keep out of this one, can’t they? Ah well. When Dan, Dan the Oratory Man went on Fox News to unconditionally denounce the NHS, he favoured two of its “hosts” with his presence. One was Sean Hannity, and the other? Step forward Glenn Beck. Hannan, as ever, shoots his mouth off with some style, but displays routinely abysmal judgment.

A future Prime Minister Cameron wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of a cordial and productive relationship with the Prez. Would he?

Thursday 27 August 2009

A Look at the Mainland

Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning were both summery and mild in northern France: it was only after arriving back in Crewe that the weather turned routinely miserable. A trip over to mainland Europe can be instructive for other reasons.

France was an early adopter of the Euro: supermarket receipts still give the conversion into Francs – the rate is an awkward 6.55957 – but the new currency is still the norm, and the French have not lost their identity or become soulless Euro-citizens. Nor has the sky fallen in. The ECB is based in Frankfurt am Main, yet the French have not taken up German as their first language, and there is no visible sign of any campaign to repatriate power over monetary policy to Paris.

Yet this loss of identity, together with the spectre of being subsumed into an alleged superstate, with currency reserves ceded to the Germans, or to the much demonised “Brussels”, is much of what drives the anti-Euro tendency here. That, and the idea that the UK should have the European market available to it, while conveniently reserving the right to the odd competitive devaluation.

The latest Europe hate campaign is about our budget contribution: the rhetoric is as if the UK is the only EU member state making a contribution, with everyone else – all those dastardly foreigners – living the life of Riley at our expense. It’s drivel, as is the oft wheeled out nonsense about EU directives only being observed by the UK, with the rotten French pleasing themselves.

To have a debate about Europe would be a good thing. To have a properly informed one, free of misinformation and routine dishonesty, would be better.

The Last Kennedy

With the death of Senator Edward Kennedy earlier this week has gone the generation of his family that influenced postwar liberal politics in the USA. Ultimately he became an influential and widely admired senior member of the Senate, but his reputation was shredded in the late 60s when he drove his car off the road at Chappaquiddick Bridge and left his young woman passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, to her fate.

What was it with the Kennedys and women? Ah well. As with the drive to succeed, and the competitive nature, it came back to old Joe. Kennedy senior treated his wife dreadfully – his extra marital meanderings took in former silent screen legend Gloria Swanson – and his sons took their cue from that. JFK was known as “Jack the Zipper”, and on the night of his inauguration had sex with three women, none of whom was his wife. He and Robert both had affairs with Marilyn Monroe – as if the rendition of “Happy Birthday Mr President” left anything to chance.

Ted merely followed the established pattern: on one occasion in later life, he was observed boating with a younger, brunette woman, and having a maximum amount of fun doing it. A fellow member of Congress noted that the Senior Senator from Massachusetts had changed his position on offshore drilling.

Monday 24 August 2009

A Quiet Period

Apart from the ritual mudslinging over the al-Megrahi release, and the post Ashes celebrations, things have gone a little quieter on the news front.

Also, I have another journey to make, with some seriously organised shopping at the other end. So Zelo Street will be a little quieter for a couple of days.

Back Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps ...

Sunday 23 August 2009

Is That The Ashes? Yes, England Have Won The Ashes!

So spoke Brian Johnston, in black and white, over half a century ago. And yes, England have won back the Ashes from Australia, by an ultimately convincing 197 run margin. Even though this Australian team didn’t have the greatness of the line up that included Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Brett Lee back in 2005, it still matters when we put one over on them. Because the Aussies compete.

When you play the Aussies at any sport, there are no easy wins, no gimmies. Games like cricket are played in a fair but fiercely competitive spirit: they want to win, and if you want to beat them, you not only have to be good enough, but tough enough to want it. Today, Andrew Strauss and his team really did want it.

I’m cooking a celebratory curry right now. As Mrs T once said, just rejoice at that news.

Chopper Cropper – 5

It’s always good to see Rupe’s troops keeping up with the news. Today’s Sunday Times has, apparently, got hold of Bernard Gray’s report into the MoD. Better late than never: the Beeb’s Laura Kuenssberg had the PowerPoint slides weeks ago, as I observed at the time.

Gray’s report is scathing on the inability of the MoD to procure weaponry, vehicles, aircraft and even ships within a credible timescale and within budget. He reckons that procurement has got itself over 35 billion over target and five years behind schedule. The Sunday Times, for whatever reason, says that “Labour is failing [our] troops”, while not acknowledging that the timescale under consideration is the past 20 years, which takes us back to the latter days of Margaret Thatcher (not connected to the Labour Party last time I looked).

And this is hugely important: the failings of the MoD are not a partisan thing. The procurement problems have occurred regardless of the stripe of those in power, and unless action is taken, will continue to occur thus. This is not the remit of the Murdoch press: it merely wants to shift copy. It is, however, incumbent on whoever prevails after the next General Election to act on Gray’s findings. I am sure that Young Dave would like to do something, but have little faith in Liam Fox to be the man to carry it through.

After all, not even the Tory cheerleading part of the blogosphere has much confidence in him.

Eye Told You So – 2

The fallout from the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi continues: the latest grenade cast into this particular room has come from FBI head Robert Mueller, who has sent a blunt and scathing letter of disapproval to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. However, the Mueller condemnation has not been echoed from within the Obama administration.

In the UK, accusations are being made that the Westminster Government was involved in the release, either directly or indirectly: the silence of Pa Broon is merely adding to the suggestion of prior involvement. Well, as I’ve already discussed, the scenario as enacted was predicted by Private Eye earlier this year: the Eye reminded its readers of this in its latest issue. What does that tell us?

The conclusion is all too straightforward: Libya is a country where the UK wants to do business, not least because of its oil reserves. Colonel Gaddafi wants his country to come into the mainstream. The USA is still a world power, but its influence over time over the UK is in decline: more and more of our trade, for instance, is with the rest of the EU, and with emerging economies such as China. Despite all the cabinet level denials, the release of al-Megrahi will lubricate the wheels of commerce: ultimately, this whole business is about, er, business.

Meanwhile, there is an internal Scottish dispute brewing on the sidelines: former First Minister Jack McConnell has roundly condemned the release, but then, he would, wouldn’t he? Labour have the small matter of an upcoming by-election, with former Speaker Martin’s seat up for grabs, and the SNP the main opposition.

Routine business, routine politics: nothing much changes.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Opening a Window on Diplomacy

The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, only man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing of December 1988, continues to generate column inches. Young Dave has been pressing Pa Broon on the latter’s silence, and the presence in the background of Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole has generated the usual speculation around the potential of interference.

The latest bizarre happening is that Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi has now thanked Pa Broon for his assistance, despite the decision being made by the Justice Secretary of the Scottish Government – not the UK one. There have been routine rejections of any suggestion that the whole business is intended to further trade between the UK and Libya, and anyone uttering the word “oil” is being looked on with severe disapproval.

The Libyan regime, however, has at least taken on board the message from Brown, delivered earlier this week, advising against celebration, with the scenes witnessed following al-Megrahi’s arrival not being repeated. Gaddafi has, though, met the freed man, with the two shown at the top of this BBC report. The window in the background has been left open.

Any suggestion that this is connected to Gaddafi’s legendary flatulence will be shown the same short shrift as further utterance of the “O” word.

Music From The Big Man

The BBC will never be a thing of perfection, and will never satisfy all its critics all of the time, but it brings its viewers and listeners some truly great events. One of these, every Summer without fail, is the Proms. And yesterday evening was the turn of a quite miraculous orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan, the creation of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said.

This orchestra brings together young musicians from across the Middle East: Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and, yes, Iranian. The players do not shy away from expressing their views: discussions are passionate, yet civilised. The whole idea of the project is to promote understanding. And along the way, there is some excellent music making: yesterday’s performance of Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was brilliantly executed and rapturously received.

Among the subjects that are often considered “difficult” in the Middle East – especially for followers of Judaism – is that of Richard Wagner, a hugely influential composer and noted Anti-Semite, loved by the Nazis. Wagner was effectively barred from Israel; attempts to introduce his music were routinely met with audiences walking out of auditoria. Barenboim has put Wagner firmly in the repertoire of the West-Eastern Divan: his music opened yesterday’s concert.

Tonight the orchestra are again on stage at the Royal Albert Hall: they are giving a performance of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. I’m not a great opera lover, but will be looking in, as will many others. This orchestra is something to be applauded and encouraged, and its continued presence and success is down to the one founder still standing: Daniel Barenboim, a great musician, a great conductor, and a great humanitarian.

A big man.

Friday 21 August 2009

It’s Just Not Cricket, Sport

Who’d be a cricket pundit? England slated for “only” getting 332 all out, then Australia fold their tent for a lowly 160. Phil Tufnell, who knows a thing or two about turning sides over at The Oval, reckoned his Gran could get it to turn on that pitch. And the Aussies haven’t got a recognised spinner in their side.

Trouble is, most folks won’t be seeing the action, unless they’re at the match, or paying Rupe’s troops for the dubious privilege of letting Sky into their houses. Why so?

All too straightforward: Lord Tesco flogged the rights to the bidder with the most amply stuffed wallet, and that bidder was Rupe. So cricket is now on a sound financial footing, but few are watching. And the football season has already started, so youngsters have something else to distract them.

Not something to inspire a new generation of players, then.

Return of the Frost Report?

For many years, Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted newscaster” in the USA. Now, with the advent of less than totally impartial media outlets like Rupe’s Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), can anyone even approach the goal of being the “most trusted”? Well, Time magazine has run a poll, and they say that the “most trusted newscaster” in the USA is Jon Stewart.

Er, hang on a minute. Would that be the same Jon Stewart who fronts Comedy Central’s Daily Show? Well, yes it would. And Rupe’s shock troops over at Fox News don’t like it at all: their man Bill O’Reilly has been laying in to Stewart with characteristic unpleasantness. Why? Stewart’s been making fun of Fox News, and why not? Hell, it’s a target so big and tempting, it’s hard to resist, and impossible to miss.

As Steve Young from the Philadelphia Enquirer has pointed out, Stewart is playing it for laughs, but is also a superb practitioner in the art of satire. And in this he is only doing in modern day USA what David Frost did in 1960s UK: programmes like TW3 and the Frost Report combined cutting edge humour with occasional deadly insight, typified by the exposure of crooked businessman Emil Savundra.

Frost went on to be trusted enough to gain access to the by then disgraced Richard Nixon, and became a more “serious” journalist. He is still at work, and still trusted and respected both by the political class and their constituents. Will this be the future for Jon Stewart? Who knows. Is he good enough?

I reckon he is.

Thursday 20 August 2009

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 3

News International has for a while now been competing in the London free sheet market: its product, The London Paper, has recently enjoyed a circulation of around half a million. But it’s also been recently enjoying a 12.9 million annual loss as well.

So Rupe and his troops are looking to ditch the title. Another sign of financially challenging times for the newspaper industry, and the Murdoch empire in particular: no wriggle room in this straitjacket, no chance of tiding the title over until things pick up.

Because they might not be picking up: this may be the first of many closures, as folks get their content online, and from sources that don’t cost them. Never mind that the free sheet also doesn’t cost you – it’s still an inconvenience to cart around.

And if Rupe really is going to charge for online content? Look briefly across to the USA: if his Fox News site starts charging, will more liberal leaning sites like the Huffington Post do likewise (doubtful)? Dare he do that, and lose power and influence, which Fox undoubtedly wields in its own crude way?

Will Sky News online charge and hand what little presence it has to the BBC? Will the Super Soaraway Currant Bun do likewise?

The more I look at Murdoch’s rationale, the less sense it makes. Closing The London Paper, which probably has little influence, is rational. At a time when more of us get our content online, charging for content and thereby handing the market to the quality providers who are doing it for free is irrational – if you want to keep your level of influence.

It could be a bluff, or first signs of desperation. I’ll keep monitoring ...

Eye Told You So

The latest issue of Private Eye (number 1243) leads its “In The Back” section (page 28) with an article titled “Libyan Takeaway”. It points out that the Eye predicted earlier this year that the only man convicted in connection with the bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, would abandon his appeal and then be freed to return to Libya to die with his family.

Although the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, was not to make his decision on the al-Megrahi case until 1300 hours BST today, the Libyan Government appears to have endorsed the Eye’s prediction: they have reportedly sent an aircraft to Glasgow to enable their man to be flown back to Tripoli. They have good reason to hurry: al-Megrahi’s prostate cancer is now well advanced, and his family would like him to at least be there for the start of Ramadan, which this year starts tomorrow.

The decision to release al-Megrahi, against the wishes of the Obama administration, was confirmed only a few minutes ago. With the closing of this particular chapter, the whole business of whether the trial was fair, and the lingering thought that Libya was fingered for the bombing out of political expediency (the original suspect was Abu Jibril’s gang, an ultra radical Palestinian group) can be put to bed.

It’s all very convenient – perhaps a little too convenient.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

How Tired is your Pilot? – 5

August 2009, and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is at Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) to announce that the location will become the carrier’s 34th base in early 2010. Two aircraft will be based there, and many jobs will be created. The airport’s management might have been pleased, well, until the following week brought the sudden withdrawal of Ryanair from Manchester.

LBA, originally named Yeadon after the nearest town, was originally an RAF base, but they didn’t want to keep it, so it became a civil airport. The highest airport in England, it suffers with weather events, and its main runway cannot be extended any further, due to nearby hills. The prospect of linking to the motorway network is remote, and a rail link is out of the question. Punters who live south of a line drawn between the city centres of Leeds and Bradford are more conveniently served by Manchester Airport, which is linked to both motorway and rail networks.

LBA was relatively late getting its main runway lengthened sufficiently to accommodate most modern jet airliners, so much of the charter traffic went to Manchester. Scheduled services to London were hit badly by the coming of the 125 mph railway to Leeds and York. Other nearby airports, like Humberside, offer a regular KLM shuttle to Schiphol, which opens up a huge range of connections. And then the RAF pulled out of Finningley.

Finningley, situated to the east of Doncaster, has a long runway – so the largest and longest haul jets can come and go – and is close to the M18 motorway. A rail station could be reopened relatively inexpensively, and combined with a shuttle bus, would give the kind of service enjoyed by Luton Airport. Now renamed Robin Hood Airport, it is owned by Peel Holdings, who also own Liverpool Airport. Had this been an option in the early 60s, LBA would probably never have developed beyond an air taxi and flying club airfield.

So the bringing of Ryanair to LBA may not be a show of strength, but of weakness and even desperation. So much traffic – particularly charters – has gravitated to Manchester over the years, that any significant expansion at Finningley could draw LBA’s own charter flights away and leave very little residual activity. And when Ryanair come back later to ask for more – as they inevitably do – the management at LBA will have little choice. After all, having Ryanair expand at LBA will mean players like Jet2 getting squeezed and moving flights elsewhere.

It looks as if someone has bet the house – with potentially fatal results.

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 2

So the day dawns when newspapers begin to charge for online content. Rupe thinks this is the way to go, so is he right or wrong? Well, for some papers – those run by the odious Richard “Dirty” Desmond – there isn’t much online content of any consequence, and they might as well give up as expect the punters to pay. Other sites will have to give us something worth the payment. The BBC, and any other media outlet not charging, will, as I mentioned earlier, become more popular.

But not all free to read content will come from news organisations, and much of it will need to be viewed with a critical eye: one recent exposure of those taking lobby group propaganda as fact demonstrates this. Here is one challenge for the blogosphere: the need to filter out what will inevitably be an increased amount of interest group “content”. Those bloggers finding stories that chime with their politics will be – as now – susceptible to this approach. They may take what is presented as fact, maybe out of plain contentment, but the potential damage to their reputation would be significant.

Some in the blogosphere may need to link to, or quote text from, pay sites. How would that work, for those who haven’t paid? Also, there would be the temptation to quote selectively, to the advantage of one particular argument, knowing that most of the target audience will not have seen the original. But here, too, the risk is run of discovery: the blogosphere will inevitably regulate itself, and those attempting to skew stories for personal or political advantage will be exposed.

Most of all, those bloggers who make their own news – getting exclusives, or different angles on existing stories – stand to gain significantly from any move to making online content chargeable. It has happened already, although the impact may not have been as great outside the blogosphere as believed within it (consider how many media events have occurred without Mainstream Media participation, or the threat of it). To make that impact greater, I would argue that those bloggers performing this service – and it could end up a supremely valuable one – need to demonstrate that their journalism is the equal of the Mainstream Media.

That won’t happen overnight: the demonstration of accuracy, quality and consistency will have to be proved over time. Only then will the blogosphere become a generally accepted conduit for news, and its content regarded as better then “just a blog”.

And only then will we all have won our spurs. Who’s up for it?

Your Canary Isn’t Singing Anymore – 3

At least they made their move quickly: Norwich City have appointed Paul Lambert, whose Colchester side had given them such a torrid start to the new season.

New manager Lambert watched from the stands as his team visited Brentford. But his presence was no magic bullet.

They lost. Give him time. Be patient.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

The Republican Wrong – Yet Again

Another target for the anti-healthcare backlash has been the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE, it is asserted, is another example of the so-called “Death Panel”, sitting in judgment on those in need of treatment.

Only NICE doesn’t do that: the body assesses courses of treatment to approve them and confirm that they give value for money. Existing treatments using long established medications do not enter, given their inevitably lower costs. And those existing treatments are going to cover the vast majority of patients.

But for those denouncing the NHS, this is not sufficient. There remains the spectre of healthcare rationing, which is routinely pilloried, and which by implication at least does not happen in the USA. Except, of course, that it does: it is merely the body sitting in judgment that is different.

In the USA, healthcare rationing is usually called “Insurance company won’t cover it”. Victims of this singularly wicked yet profit enhancing technique include the family of the current Prez – yes, the bloke getting all the flak from Rupe and Company.

What you will not be seeing on Fox News this evening.

How Tired is your Pilot? – 4

Some time ago, there was a dispute over handling charges between the management of Manchester Airport and Ryanair (The World’s Least Favourite Airline). At the time, the carrier’s only route into Manchester was from Dublin. The press release featured the usual bluster, and there was a cut of one service a day.

So when Ryanair recently followed EasyJet in bringing new routes to Manchester, I did wonder if the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care) had now made friends with the north west’s largest airport. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

Yesterday, in a superb example of corporate mardy strop throwing, Ryanair announced that it was pulling all its flights – except for the Dublin ones – out of Manchester from the end of September. The airport had refused to lower its handling charges any further. Ryanair claims that more flights had been offered in exchange for lower charges, but why an airport of that size should start losing money merely for the dubious privilege of hosting a carrier of such temporary commitment is not clear.

The claims of “up to 600 job losses” have been disputed by the airport, whose spokesman pointed out that charges which were as low as three quid a passenger were hardly onerous. What is most likely to be behind Ryanair’s decision is that the carrier is not making as much out of its Manchester flights as had been expected. Also, when other carriers serving the same airport offer flights that go to Barcelona (not Girona), Frankfurt Main (not Hahn), and Milan (Malpensa, not Bergamo), and also offer less expensive fares at quiet times, the Ryanair model (which is based on what is convenient for that carrier first and foremost) is exposed as cheap and nasty.

Meanwhile, other low cost carriers, such as EasyJet, BMIBaby, Jet2 and of course the charter boys (who often offer seat only deals) continue to fly from Manchester. Expect them to offer more flights in the near future, especially Jet2, who have had Ryanair parking their tanks on the Leeds Bradford lawn.

That’s an airport I’ll have a look at later.

Monday 17 August 2009

The Republican Wrong – And Again

As a postscript to my post last Friday on the Fox News appearance of Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, I commend this video clip from the same channel. This is not a spoof. It is what Rupe’s fave channel was debating on Friday last.

Yes, Fox News' commentators were debating whether the NHS was a breeding ground for terrorists.

This is the level to which the Obama bashing has sunk. Anyone still want the BBC to be broken up and replaced with this sub-puerile drivel?

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 3

I previously examined “Astroturf” groups – those giving the appearance of a grass roots group, but in reality just more lobbying organisations – and particularly the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). The TPA has recently discovered that the Government has made payments to organisations that, among their other activities, work as lobbyists. Therefore, the TPA concluded, the Government was paying – an amount of 38 million was given – for others to lobby it. At first it sounds daft, and a good example of waste. Some newspapers and blogs took it as just that. But not everyone.

Fortunately, over in Northern Ireland, the blogosphere thinks things through objectively and with no small precision. Bringing these qualities to bear on the TPA report, the excellent Slugger O’Toole blog of Mick Fealty asked the question that had already occurred to me: what goods and services were actually bought by Government for that 38 million? Was the TPA merely assuming a connection?

The post, with the forthright naming of the TPA report as a “Dodgy Dossier”, brought forth the full rebuttal treatment from the TPA. Communications Chief Mark Wallace, the usual source of so many of the group’s quotes, was not on this occasion the protagonist: this was left to Matthew “Gromit” Sinclair, whose comments display a mixture of dismissiveness, bullying and that show of impatience so beloved of those clever people who talk loudly in restaurants. But the question put about what the 38 million was buying was not answered, except to say, effectively, “well, they do lobbying, so it was spent on that, so there”.

At the end of the post, Mick has inserted a link to the TPA site: this shows the roll of shame, those media outlets and bloggers that, as he puts it, were “well and truly suckered” by the TPA’s “research”.

And we still haven’t seen the TPA’s 2008 accounts. Where’s that transparency when you need it?

On The Road Again

There are some fortunate souls who can do most of their travel without having to get the car out. I know this, as I am one of them. After all, from Crewe you have a daytime service giving four trains an hour to Manchester, three to Birmingham, and two each to Liverpool, Chester, Stoke and of course London. We have a direct rail link to Manchester Airport, with Liverpool Airport needing a short hop on the bus in addition. Birmingham Airport needs a change of train.

But in order to get to a family gathering yesterday, I had to drive. And for the two-thirds of the journey covered by dual carriageways and motorways this was not onerous. The rest, on single carriageway roads including a little of the dreaded A46, certainly was. Every single carriageway stretch, without exception, was severely overloaded with traffic.

But how else do we access all the communities too small to have a rail connection – and how do we manage for the weekends during which Network Rail (NR) habitually dig up large parts of the system? Moreover, public transport will never tempt those out of their cars who value the ability to smoke, share their space with nobody else, and routinely deafen themselves. And if you’re going somewhere the rails don’t reach, it can be massively inconvenient: other public transport doesn’t co-ordinate consistently, and outside London, bus services are overwhelmingly dreadful (especially evenings and weekends).

Yet folks want the option of living out in the sticks, and then to have facilities around them such as pubs and shops. To make those pubs and shops viable, yet more will have to drive. It’s just too convenient to get the car out.

The good news for those driving everywhere, as I was told by someone in the industry, is that the North Sea still has another 20 to 30 years’ worth of oil left. Perhaps during that period we might think about how we get from A to B afterwards.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Back In Like Flint

Just in case anyone thought that, after her well publicised departure from Pa Broon’s cabinet, Caroline Flint had left the stage was disabused of such notion on this morning’s Not The Andy Marr Show (Huw Edwards today).

Ms Flint was on the newspaper reviewing sofa, and once she had been set going, she was away and apparently unstoppable. Edwards did try and inject a little balance, but he was out-flannelled. The bod from the Maily Telegraph also had a hard time getting more than the odd word in.

So the Labour representative gained the advantage this time. No doubt other parties’ punters will redress the balance in future. But this will not be enough for the Tory cheerleaders, who will be carping about alleged BBC bias, er, about now.

Oh well, weather’s nice. Mustn’t grumble.

Friday 14 August 2009

Your Canary Isn’t Singing Anymore – 2

We’re not doing very well. What shall we do? Yes – sack the manager!

Hardly had I posted my thoughts on Norwich City’s apparent lack of vision and bizarre adherence to regular managerial ejections, than they did it again: the unfortunate Brian Gunn has just been directed through the out door.

But it’s good to know that the club retains the same goal for the season: they want to be promoted at the end of it. Well, if they are promoted, it will be the most fortunate of coincidences, and not a product of visionary management.

Methinks Delia ought to arrange a curry evening to pick the brains of her pal Alan “terrible defending” Hansen. Perhaps he’ll bring Alan Shearer along – if the money’s right.

How Tired is your Pilot? – 3

We might not use them as much as in the past, but the local travel agent – either a member of a large industry player or an independent – is somewhere that the uncertain can get advice, travel money, and holiday bookings. Many airlines have made friends with the agency industry, but not Ryanair. The air carriers’ equivalent of Millwall (everybody hates us and we don’t care) says that travel agents are “parasites”. It’s an unnecessary and unpleasant comment. But it’s all too typical.

Into this less than subtle news stream, as I mentioned recently, has come the attempt by BALPA to get recognition at Ryanair. Trades unions are not all of the same political stripe, and BALPA is a prime example: although affiliated to the TUC, its approach in discussions with employers, particularly in today’s less than ideal economic circumstances, is invariably pragmatic, as evidenced by its recent deal with British Airways, which saw pilots agree a pay cut. It would not be unfair to call it “moderate”: a body that can count Norman Tebbit as a past member would be most unlikely to be a hotbed of leftist radicalism.

BALPA would not be making their attempt for recognition for the sake of it: they have responded to requests from members within Ryanair. And this carrier does not want to play ball: union recognition has been routinely equated with base freezes and closures, enforced unpaid leave, and redundancies. Of course, Ryanair has every right to be concerned about activities that might impact the “bottom line”, especially in times of economic downturn. So BALPA took a gentle line with Ryanair and, conceding that the middle of the summer peak was not the best time for any kind of upheaval, gave them some space to have a think about it. What happened next showed that they need not have bothered.

Ryanair issued a press release in characteristic style, telling of apparently excellent pay and conditions enjoyed by its UK pilots. However, if this carrier really is operating a five on, four off roster, then if it’s also working pilots to the 190 duty hour per 28 day period limit, that works out at an average duty day of nearly twelve hours. Fancy being on board on the fifth of those five days? Also, there was the customary cheerful abuse, with BALPA being wrongly called a “British Airways” union (most BA pilots are not BALPA members).

But most significantly – and clearly calculated to inflict maximum damage – was the assertion that BALPA had abandoned their campaign. Ryanair got their press release into many newspapers and onto many websites: it became the received wisdom. Meanwhile, the softly softly approach continues.

I know to use this term – I’ve seen the correspondence. More later ...

The Republican Wrong – One More Time

As if to try and demonstrate that they’ve improved their performance since the days of Gerald Ford (of whom LBJ memorably said “he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”), the Republican Party is now battling Barack Obama on two fronts at once. The ridiculous idea of trying to disprove Obama’s legitimacy for the top job, which I’ve considered previously, continues, joined by an increasingly unpleasant attempt to derail the Prez’ plans on healthcare.

Yes, healthcare – the one that eluded Bill Clinton. With an estimated 47 million US citizens – more than 15% of the population – without any health care at all, this was a commitment for Obama. It might be thought that such a move would be popular, even with the healthcare industry – more business sounds good – but there has been a backlash from the right. As more elected representatives hold “town hall” meetings, there are some who are genuinely concerned and clued up, but many who are not – witness the scene of a tearful woman saying that the US “is going to end up like Russia” (no, I don’t know what healthcare in Russia is like, and I’m damn sure Stuart Varney doesn’t either).

So far, so tribal, so particularly USA. Their problem. At least, it was, until someone dragged the UK and the NHS into the arena. One routinely clueless journo pitched the story that “Stephen Hawking wouldn’t stand a chance in the UK” until it was pointed out that Hawking is at the “English” Cambridge, and has been the recipient of much NHS treatment (the Hawking comment has now been removed).

Adding more than a little petrol to the bonfire has been the appearance of Tory MEP Dan Hannan on Fox News (as Jim Royle might have said, “fair and balanced my arse”). Hannan thinks that the NHS could do with reform, and that if we were starting afresh, we might not choose the model of 61 years ago. I don’t have a problem with debating that one. But Dan, Dan, the Self Promoting Man hasn’t proposed a debate in the Guardian, he’s gone on Froth Central and issued a howling denunciation. As with his dubious participation in the recent Euro Elections, Hanann has shown that he’s good at shooting his mouth off, but on political nous is a rank amateur.

The NHS is not a thing of perfection (and, as some US commentators have pointed out, the Obama proposals won’t produce an NHS-style solution), but it helps the UK to the number 18 slot in the latest World Health Organisation rankings – the USA trails in at 37. And it means that the UK spends around 8% of GDP on healthcare versus 15% for the USA. Moreover, the NHS does not have “death panels” as some of the wackier US commentators have alleged. It is not going to take away elderly relatives and execute them. It is not a force of evil.

But it is there for everybody. I can’t get worked up enough to “love it” (sorry Al), but it serves me well. In this analysis, I suspect I am not alone.

Thursday 13 August 2009

How Tired is your Pilot? – 2

One boast made by Ryanair is that they are “the on time airline”, although my first experience of the carrier, from Liverpool to Porto in late June 2006, was one of lateness throughout. There are a number of ways that they keep those on time statistics up.

One easy way of keeping delays down is to fly in and out of airports which have little other scheduled traffic. It’s cheaper for carriers like Ryanair: they can beat the operators down on handling costs. Turnrounds of as little as twenty minutes can be routinely achieved. The problem with this approach is that there is a more finite pool of punters that will accept Girona instead of Barcelona, Hahn instead of Frankfurt Main, Charleroi instead of Brussels, and – a real biscuit taking example – Eindhoven instead of Schiphol.

Another contributor to performance is to refuse to wait for late comers, and in this respect Ryanair are no different to EasyJet, or any of the other low cost carriers. And the drive to charge for checked luggage, together with online check in, means less time waiting for the stragglers to get airside, and less wait for the hold to be loaded and then emptied.

However, the refusal to wait for late comers in Ryanair land includes their own passengers when those same punters have been delayed getting their bags through the drop off area, as happened in spectacular fashion at Stansted in early August. Ryanair, characteristically, blamed someone else for the farce, which left over 700 passengers stranded, merely because they couldn’t get to the bag drop. Armed police, there to protect the public from terrorism, ended up having to protect Ryanair from the public. Whether the carrier contributes to policing costs is unknown.

Ryanair were also in typical blame shifting mode when protestors got inside the airport perimeter at Stansted earlier this year: this was also someone else’s fault. The fact that Ryanair got away with cancelling a number of flights, kept the money paid over by the unfortunate punters and then told them to “go home and rebook” (that is, pay yet more money) seems to have been overlooked.

Moreover, Ryanair are not always cheaper than the competition, as I noted from my visit to Prague in June. It is possible that those treated so shabbily at Stansted recently have recourse to compensation under EU rules, but expect Ryanair to only comply after being dragged kicking and screaming to the door of the court.

Moral of the story: potential passengers, you have been warned.

Shopping but no Centre

One of those issues that nearly got raised during last year’s by-election campaign, but got sidelined to the Tory “Yah Boo Pa Broon” approach, was that of the town centre redevelopment. At the heart of the new shopping centre was to have been Delamere Place, along with a new Debenhams store and a revamped BHS.

Not any more, it seems. The Sentinel has picked up on the placing of the development’s parent company into administration, with one less than totally subtle comment saying the scheme is “dead in the water”.

Central Crewe is already suffering, for a variety of reasons: business isn’t good, there are an increasing number of vacant retail units, and the dreadful state of the bus station puts folks off using that mode of transport to visit. Also, bus services routinely run down after 1800 hours, so by then the place is dead – there’s no point in opening late.

We’re told that Cheshire East Council is carrying out a major planning exercise for the town centre, but it’s hard to see how there will be any significant redevelopment without someone to put in the money in the first place.

Heck, we still haven’t had the OK for the Rail Gateway scheme.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

How Tired is your Pilot?

Fatigue affects us all. And aircrew are no different, so the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have set limits on the hours that pilots are allowed to work. These are contained in a document called CAP371: The Avoidance of Fatigue in Aircrews, and the limits it describes are generally echoed in the equivalent standards of the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). Why should I mention the IAA?

Ah well. There is one very well known carrier that is based in Ireland, and which routinely works its pilots right up to the maximum hours. Yes, it’s our old friend Ryanair. A quick scan of CAP371 shows that the maximum duty hours in any 28 day period is 190 – the definition of “duty period” is from first reporting for a flight to “on chocks” at the end of the final sector – with the number of flying hours in a 28 day period set at an absolute maximum of 100. Divide that 190 duty hours by four to get a weekly average and you get 47.5, which is perilously close to the 48 hours of the European Working Time Directive (WTD).

Ryanair work up to both those maxima, whereas most other carriers use a lower one: generally they work to an advisory maximum of 80 flying hours in any 28 day period. There are, accompanying the hours rules, strict definitions of such terms as “days off” and “rest periods”. And this is not merely bureaucracy or window dressing: you don’t want the folks at the sharp end of your flight to be falling asleep on the job.

No doubt Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary – a man never known to be backward in coming forward – will rebut any suggestion that his firm is bending the rules, and I make no such suggestion. Nor do I suggest that Ryanair is doing anything illegal or improper. What I am saying is that this carrier is working its crews right up to the permitted maximum hours, whereas many of its competitors are not. And anyone wondering what the average flight deck person at Ryanair thinks about his or her treatment would do well to take a look at the front page of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) website.

What’s the current campaign over at BALPA? “Dignity and Respect for Ryanair Pilots”, which, freely translated, means that there is a move for union recognition within this carrier – being undertaken in the teeth of management hostility.

Not that I’d want to put you off getting that cheap fare, you understand.

Politics as a Spectator Sport

It’s August, so the whole body politic might be expected to be chilling out a little. After all, Parliament is in recess, and school’s out (yes, for Summer). But why not take the chilling out process one step further? Don’t take the whole thing too seriously, and treat it the way I try to – as something to observe from a distance, without getting so close that the larger picture is lost.

Along with the all important sense of humour.

Yes, even in this mode there is no doubt some personal bias and partisanship – everyone seems to have their own particular favourite brand of baked beans, as I discussed a while ago – but it’s so much more enjoyable. To anyone not readily persuaded, I would commend the growing animosity between two very different political animals: in the blue corner, the dislikeable yet somehow frequently lauded Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, and in the red one, a Darth Vader like presence: Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole. You wouldn’t want to get too close to that one, but from a detached perspective, it’s excellent entertainment.

Also, some of us have seen it all before, so are able to sniff out ideas and slogans that have been retreaded for a little more mileage: Osborne’s idea of appropriating the term “progressive” is not new, and not even in his own party. In the 1970s, Tory councillors in the West Midlands rebranded themselves as “Progressive Conservatives”, and enjoyed some success in that guise.

As for Mandelson’s talk of “cross dressing”, who knows? I’ll have to have another think about that. One shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Make a Wish

From the rhetoric coming out of the Shadow treasury team, one could be forgiven for thinking that a future Tory Government won’t be giving anyone a tax break any time soon. But we can all make a wish in that direction. And my wish, given the amounts involved, wouldn’t cost very much, and may garner votes.

I noted a while ago that IR35 – over which Gordon Brown, for many of my fellow freelancers, is still guilty as charged – had not exactly been a resounding success: it’s raised an average of a paltry one and a half million quid in each of its first six years. It is possible that the cost of recovering monies is exceeding that amount.

So here’s a potential quick opinion win for the Tories. Will they take it? On the face of it, this seems a no brainer. But I’m not optimistic, despite IR35 having been such a complete failure.

The Chipmunk’s Untidy Back Yard

The real news was, as so often, somewhere behind the headline story: Hazel Blears, aka The Chipmunk, had her car trashed while out campaigning in her Salford constituency. Had she fallen flat on her face, or slipped on a fish’n’chip wrapper, there could have been some amusement value, but a straightforward act of malicious damage by the local creeps is not excusable.

However, after showing the damaged car, the Beeb’s news report then went on to do the obligatory vox pop around the area. At first, there was a procession of the usual “don’t like her” clips, but the most telling was a group of lads who all asked more or less the same question: what, they wanted to know, did politicians mean to them, and what did they ever do for them?

Well, when you don’t have a job, and have never had one – not an unusual condition in that part of the world – that’s not such a daft question. What will Blears, or any of her colleagues, or any other party in the North West, do about them? And the sad conclusion is that they won’t do much, not if the past thirty years is anything to go by.

Because, during that period, parties have been so obsessed with capturing the swing vote that they have lost focus on the margins. The Tories let unemployment reach well over three million, then took far too long getting it down in any kind of significant numbers. Labour reduced the figures at first, but they have now started back over two million. Both parties have been content to grab power, without giving any obvious attention to the least well off. Small wonder that the deeply unpleasant BNP has made gains in those areas.

Will it change? Not under Labour – unless someone in the party wakes up soon – and certainly not under the Tories. Why is anyone surprised at voter disaffection?

Sunday 9 August 2009

Flare Up at the Greek Night

It’s probably fair to say that Stuart Feltham didn’t hit it off with Marina Fanouraki when the two encountered one another in the Cretan resort of Malia recently. Feltham is now recovering from burns inflicted after Ms Fanouraki allegedly threw inflammable liquid onto him and set it alight. The story might sound bizarre, but for Brits abroad, the worrying follow up is that Ms Fanouraki is being hailed a hero for her actions.

I’m not surprised. And neither should anyone who has visited that area of Crete in the recent past.

It’s one of those cases of resorts springing up close to airports: rather like El Arenal and Ca’n Pastilla in Mallorca, Malia and its companion resort of Hersonnisos aren’t far from the arrivals hall. And both are notorious for routinely bad behaviour, with the result that the locals are getting hacked off with the whole thing. Add to this the fact that Greek women are likely to react less favourably to the more explicit kinds of male attention – Ms Fanouraki’s lawyer has said that Feltham groped her – and what happened is not so difficult to understand.

Not that he’ll be in the mood for groping anyone for a while.

[UPDATE: Now there's been a fatality in the resort, as the Beeb has reported. My thanks to a regular watcher for the tip]

Expat Whitehall Farce

To signal the start of the silly season, and to leave Young Dave covered in something rather more substantial than confusion, Michal Kaminski of the Polish Law and Justice Party has expressed views not likely to prove helpful to his new partners in the European Parliament’s ECR grouping.

As I observed last month, the Tories have had to cede leadership of ECR to Kaminski, after he lost the vote for Vice President of the Parliament to disaffected Tory Edward Macmillan-Scott. Now, the leader of Young Dave’s supposedly Eurosceptic grouping has put the Tories in a distinctly uncomfortable position. As today’s deeply subversive Observer has reported, Kaminski has voiced support for the Lisbon Treaty, and then followed the statement with his support for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which the Tories don’t like at all.

So how will the Tories and their usual band of cheerleaders spin this one? On the face of it, the Law and Justice Party now appears just as unpalatable a partner for the new and more Eurosceptic Cameron Tory Party as the EPP.

What’s a chap to do, Dave?

Chopper Cropper – 4

The last week has not been a good one for the MoD: first, presentational material from the preliminary version of Bernard Gray’s report on spending ended up in the hands of the BBC, then another armoured vehicle got IEDd with the loss of three more lives. Moreover, it’s believed that the military are having to hire Russian built helicopters to do some of the fetching and carrying – as I noted previously, the UK has put its faith, and its money, into the AW159, which will not be available in numbers for some while.

So where is the forthright condemnation from Young Dave and his chaps? Andrew Lansley, who doesn’t usually have much trouble opening his mouth, was on the Not Andy Marr Show earlier today (Sophie Raworth in the chair this week) but was steering clear of the military. Are the Tories as absent as they like to suggest the Government is at this time of the year?

Well, no they’re not. And the lack of Tory condemnation may be down to a number of factors. It doesn’t take much mulling over the stuff from the Gray report to realise that the MoD as painted has been like that for decades. Equipment issued to participants in the first Gulf War was routinely lacking in fitness for purpose, and it becomes clearer as time passes that the Falklands conflict was a close run thing: had the French not been prevailed upon to stop the Argentines getting their hands on more air launched Exocet missiles, we could have been one victory and thousands of lives worse off.

Not only that, but an incoming Tory Government would, as I said recently, have to reckon with an increasingly media savvy military when pursuing spending cuts. They won’t be able to blame Pa Broon for long before media and opinion turn against them – especially if we’re still involved in Afghanistan. Outside of PMQs, and the ability it gives for Young Dave to score a few points, I suspect there is a realisation within Tory ranks that their problems in this area may become far worse than Labour’s.

Your Canary Isn’t Singing Anymore

As neutrals get used to a club of the size of Newcastle United having to spend the next season (at least) in the Championship, a look at League One shows that there are big clubs there too. Fresh into the third tier this term is Norwich City, and before kick off yesterday they were being talked of as potential promotion material. After the final whistle, views were different.

Because Norwich shipped seven goals on Saturday afternoon – the first four in a ten minute period before the break – and former goalie Brian Gunn was confronted by angry fans after the game. It was shockingly bad. And when Newcastle are talked about in terms of not having a long term vision, playing regular “sack the manager” and having increasingly unpopular owners, the same can be said of Norwich.

The Canaries were not doing well in the Championship a couple of seasons ago: they had dropped into the relegation zone. So they sacked the manager, and installed former West Ham and Newcastle boss Glenn Roeder, who got them well clear of the drop. However, the following season, while still clear of the trap door, they sacked Roeder in favour of Gunn, with the result that they got relegated. No vision, just sack the manager.

Norwich’s major shareholders, husband and wife team Michael Wynn Jones and Delia Smith, are apparently open to genuine offers for their interest in the club, but note the presence of the G-word: this Smith and Jones are fans themselves, but with the club heading downhill, they won’t be standing with the masses come the next home game – not unlike Mike Ashley at Newcastle. What they need right now is to sit themselves down, figure out where they want the club to go, how they’re going to get there, and if it means a change of personnel, do it this once and then leave it well alone.

Otherwise, Delia’s going to find herself in one very hot kitchen.

Friday 7 August 2009

The Madness of Richard Littlejohn

Recently, C4 aired a documentary about Anti-Semitism in the UK. It was thoughtful and disturbing: many might think that we don’t do that sort of thing here, but some unfortunately do. This useful – overdue, even – look at a centuries old prejudice was presented by one Richard Littlejohn. Yes, the same bloke who writes a regular rent-a-rant in the Daily Mail.

Littlejohn not only found Anti-Semitism across the UK, but also a strange reaction from fellow journalists: whenever they found he was tackling the subject, the reaction was invariably “I didn’t know you were Jewish”, as if only a follower of Judaism were allowed to broach the issue. The programme was challenging and, yes, eloquent – and, no, I’m not seeking to be ironic or mocking.

It was not long after seeing the prog that I visited Berlin: as I mentioned a while ago, there is a security presence watching over the Holocaust memorial there. This experience, and seeing the precautions taken at the great Synagogue in Budapest, brought home to me that the UK and Europe are not over this one yet.

So far, so informative, but then this is the same bloke who churns out pages of low grade Islamophobic drivel on a worryingly regular basis. Perhaps this is the preference of the Daily Mail’s legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, but I doubt it: Littlejohn was ranting in similar vein in his days at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun.

How can this be? On the one hand, Littlejohn shows us the results of centuries of irrational and vicious prejudice, and then on the other, indulges in, er, irrational and vicious prejudice. Is this the same person? If so, perhaps there is a more straightforward explanation: maybe some kind of schizophrenia is taking hold of the Daily Mail’s gorblimey rent-a-rant.

Because to promote and rail against something at the same time is surely madness.

That’ll Cost You, Sport -1

Newspapers are losing advertising revenue. Sales are down. But they all put out online editions, and although these carry adverts which generate money, the sites are – right now – free to view. But following less than ideal results recently, Rupert Murdoch’s empire is set to charge for access, starting next year with the Times.

Rupe tells us that “quality journalism costs money”, although how this squares with the online tat that is the Sun or News of the World is unclear. And how folks will react to paying for access may not be to his liking. When England took the Ashes in 2005, the audience garnered by C4 reached around eight million. But that paying to see the test victory at Lord’s recently was just one million. That isn’t to say that the numbers don’t work on pay to view: were that so, Rupe would not be in that particular game.

So perhaps, in the mould of Sky, Rupe could get folks to pay for seeing the latest Sun exclusive. But, as Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, most of today’s content comes from the PA Wire, backed by churnalism and PR, with comparatively little original content. What would be the point? And, as the Murdoch press have admitted – and they’re not keen about this at all – the BBC online content is free to view, and will continue to be so.

The simplest economic assessment will be made by most who get their news online: they’ll go where it’s free, and so sources like the Beeb will become vastly more popular. As a result, it will be yet more incumbent on them to get their stories right, despite the pressure to be first with everything.

But there is one other potential beneficiary: that is the blogosphere. Newspapers retreating to a pay-only online presence will create a void that blogs can fill – but they’ll have to be good to make it stick. How will that happen? Interesting thought.

I’ll return to this one later.

Thursday 6 August 2009

We Will Remember Them

Tempus fugit.

The doors have closed behind the Great War generation with the passing of Harry Patch, an ordinary Somerset man who, not yet out of his teens, was pitched into the squalid horror of trench warfare. Unlike so many of his comrades, Harry came through: he fought at Ypres, often deliberately mispronounced, with suitably grim humour, as Wipers.

He didn’t have to speak out about his experience: many other survivors chose not to. But, ultimately, he spoke up, and said what he thought – about the whole miserable business of war, of its ultimate futility, and the waste of so many lives.

As you watch the tens of thousands who poured into the little city of Wells to pay their respects to this last soldier of World War One, remember the sacrifice of so many young men, and Harry Patch’s verdict on the last war to be fought at the bidding of the ruling class.

It wasn’t worth it.

On Your Marks

In today’s email bundle has come an item that includes a breakdown of the so-called “Regional Funding Allocations”, or RFAs, for rail related projects. Much of it is already known: in the North West, the Blackpool tramway and Metrolink are among the winners. But of concern to the Crewe area is commitment to the Gateway scheme.

And the report does not disappoint: there at the bottom of the North West list – below Rochdale’s bus station, even – is 37 million for Crewe Gateway. Good news at last, after Network Rail’s daft scheme to rip the station out of town and dump it in Basford. So when do we get a start date for the work?

Yes, there will be disruption, but the station needs dragging into the 21st Century – while staying where it is.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Jaw-Jaw ish better than War-War

Part of the “Axis of Evil”, pariah state, last bastion of unreconstructed Communism: North Korea doesn’t get the best of press and media. And the USA hasn’t been for talking with the regime in Pyongyang in recent years. But the arrest and detention of two journalists – they were given long sentences with hard labour – has set in train a series of events which may thaw relations, and benefit the entire region.

The two journalists worked for Current TV – co founded by former Veep Al Gore – and, after what must have been labyrinthine discussions, an unmarked plane, on a strictly private visit, carried former Prez Bill Clinton to North Korea on a mission to secure their release. Clinton met with the “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il, there were the mandatory photo opportunities, and the two detainees were pardoned.

And what else? In a comprehensive piece in the Guardian, nobody was prepared to say for definite, but Clinton’s visit will have had the blessing of the Obama administration. And the arrival of a former President may have flattered Kim sufficiently to move him in the direction of restarting the stalled six nation disarmament talks, and discussing the nuclear issue. The possible normalisation of relationships between North Korea and the USA could prove more beneficial than decades of sabre rattling.

Just as Winshton said.

A Stroll across the Astroturf – 2

Hardly had Andrew Adonis pronounced in favour of more high speed rail links, than the aviation industry rounded on him in typically forthright style. Leading the charge of the independents has been Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, who is keen to accuse the rail industry of being subsidised, while becoming a terribly sensitive soul when the question of financial inducements to keep his planes flying into some smaller airfields is raised.

However, the main critical thrust has come from an organisation called Flying Matters. Who they? Well, a look at their website shows the strapline “The national campaign for flying”, which suggests a grass roots organisation. But it is nothing of the sort. Flying Matters is yet another Astroturf group: it’s a lobby organisation supported by airlines, tour operators, plane makers and sundry hangers on. Heading up this motley convocation is former energy minister Brian Wilson, but the real lobbying nous comes from director Michelle Di Leo, a skilled PR hand who has also resorted to the pseudonym Bella Regazza.

Flying Matters says it is “taking climate change seriously”, which is a bit rich for a body defending an industry that routinely indulges in serious carbon dioxide generation. But this is part of the PR: it’s what is often called Greenwash – a stance or impression of environmental concern used to mask a desire to carry on business, free of scrutiny or interference. The group warns that cutting back on airport expansion would result in job losses, that taxing flying would cost MPs in marginal constituencies their seats and be unfair to poorer families, and that raising long haul ticket prices will rob ethnic minority Britons of contact with their extended families.

Put directly, Flying Matters wants the aviation industry to be allowed to carry on as it is, thank you very much. And, as with other Astroturf groups, it gets its message into the broadcast and print media – and the blogosphere – on a regular basis. But into this comfortable world a little rain must fall: to countervail the Flying Matters line are real grass roots groups like Plane Stupid, which, whatever your views on its tactics (these include non-violent direct action), at least causes people – and those who feed them their media diet – to think twice before unquestioningly swallowing the product of yet another lobby group.

Meanwhile, the case for rail still needs making. We can’t rely on Christian Wolmar and Roger Ford to do it on their own.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Which Primary Colour – 3

Previously, I looked at the concept of the “Open Primary” – and its potential risks – and then considered the Tories’ use of the concept in the Devon constituency of Totnes. The result has just been announced, as the Guardian has noted.

The outstanding feature of the exercise has been the turnout: 24% of the whole electorate, many of whom will not be natural Tory voters, took the time to make a positive choice and mail it off. The party line was that they would have been happy with 15%. Moreover, the winner, GP Sarah Wollaston, is the only one of the three shortlisted candidates that is not at present in politics: her campaign leaflet was not long on detail. Perhaps the doctor trumps the career politico in the trust stakes.

So are there any losers? Well, yes, there are: the local Lib Dems, as I posted earlier, were hoping for a very low turnout so that their ploy – to vote for Nicholas Bye, currently mayor of Torbay, who they considered more beatable than the others – could embarrass the Tories. Bye came last, so the Lib Dem campaign in Totnes has got off to a less than auspicious start. The other significant loser is the constituency association, whose power to hire (and fire) candidates has been lost.

Will the exercise be repeated? Certainly if the Tories – or any other party jumping on the Primary bandwagon – see a potential advantage in it, then expect to see the process repeated. But it brings risks with it, as I pointed out, and the cost, at an estimated 40k, is not trivial.

One to watch.

A Stroll across the Astroturf - 1

Hard pressed journalists, as Nick Davies has observed in the excellent Flat Earth News, are vulnerable to lobbying and Public Relations (PR) groups. Pressure is built in a variety of ways: one of these is what Davies terms the Astroturf group, so called because, ostensibly, it appears to be based on grass roots support, whereas in reality it has little in the way of roots, being just another lobbying tool.

And there is no finer example of Astroturf in action than the Taxpayers’ Alliance. It sounds very grass roots indeed, but its membership of 20,000 is a mere 0.04% of the taxpaying public. Its income in 2006 – the last year in which this was declared – was just 130k. Yet it manages to keep a staff of ten, and offices in London and Birmingham. And they get their message into the media every day.

So who is behind this group? A look at its “Academic Advisory Council” reveals the usual suspects: Patrick Minford, formerly of the University of Liverpool and now at Cardiff Business School, arch Friedmanite, Poll Tax apologist and Europhobe, is one. Madsen “Dr Mad” Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, a museum of economic thought which practises fraudulently in the name of the founder of economics, is another.

What do they want? Ah well. They want to cut out waste in Government spending. But this is a no-brainer – we all want that, whatever our political affiliation. What they really want – and for the two mentioned above, this is their life’s work – is for there to be a lot less Government spending, and therefore a lot less taxation. At first this seems a reasonable idea, until some thought is applied to the proposition: what gets removed from that spending, and if it is removed, how is the service otherwise provided?

Who wins from this approach? The key to answering that question comes in the group’s advocacy of flat tax. What that? Well, this is the idea of having a constant rate of taxation on, for instance, incomes. It sounds appealing at first, until you realise that, as the progressive element of that taxation is removed, this is a move that favours the rich over the poor. A look at the Taxpayers’ Alliance list of “Business Supporters” shows that it is backed by a number of very wealthy people. The rich lobbying to make themselves yet richer? Well, well.

So how does the media respond to the propaganda? Well, given that the group gets an average of thirteen mentions per day across the board, it seems to be lapping it up. As Nick Davies has shown, there is the ever present pressure of deadlines to make, and space to fill. PR, all too often, works its way into that space masquerading as real news. But the saddest tale here is that of the blogosphere: many apparently leading blogs transmit Taxpayers’ Alliance propaganda as unchallenged fact.

And that’s not good enough.

Priorities, Priorities

Having had my ninepence worth on the opening of Crewe station’s new First Class lounge, I called in yesterday afternoon to check out the location, and how many punters were using it.

The lounge is located in what was the Virgin Trains training centre, at the east end of the north (main) footbridge. Alas, the only folks I saw pass through the new automatic doors were two traincrew. There were, however, many more punters having to use the steps to get their luggage and pushchairs to and from Platform 5, because the lift (which is adjacent to the lounge entrance) was once again out of action.

Clearly some facilities are more equal than others.

[Update: the lift has now been returned to service]

Monday 3 August 2009

Don’t Reach for the Sky

The so-called mainstream media is well represented in the blogosphere, with most newspapers’ representatives in evidence, plus the BBC, ITN and C4. So it is no surprise to see commentators from Sky News there too, despite Rupe’s news channel managing a paltry 0.5% share of average viewing figures. Their blog takes its name – Boulton & Co – from that of news editor Adam Boulton.

And last Friday he posted a slice of ungrammatical incoherence that should not have been let out the door. I commend a leisurely and careful inspection of the text to any aspiring blogger, as an example of how to get your adversaries quaking, not through fear, but by the effects of hysterical and involuntary laughter.

The punctuation, for starters, is appallingly deficient: fifteen missing commas, one full stop that should have been a comma, two missing apostrophes and a spurious one. But a scan of the content reveals more obvious – and elementary – howlers. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

The title gives the first suggestion of confusion: Boulton can’t decide whether it’s “Deadtree” or “Dead Tree”, although, by happy coincidence, neither of the papers whose commentators he lambasts is a part of Rupe’s empire. And by the third paragraph he starts to lose it, as we get “a political TV debate which mostly go painstakingly into ... " which, with a mere tense selection error, is only a taster for paragraph four, with “the 2 or 3 leaders how aspire to lead the country”.

The fifth paragraph brings two slips: inside the brackets there is “before Wing aired I believed”, suggesting that Adam either no longer believes, or has suffered yet another tense selection error, and later we find that folks “have bee trying”. Paragraph six brings some respite, with the sole howler the inability to realise that “Question Time” is two words, not one. Boulton brings one last flourish of incoherence in the final paragraph, where he tells that “Many constituencies now have debates between candidates – for selection or for parliament, on tv, on radio, on line, and just in the village hall”.

That’s an awfully busy village hall, Adam.

Boulton has, we are told, a masters degree from Oxford University. This suggests that he is not stupid. But the standard of this post – or the lack of it – gives the impression of abysmal quality control (if it is present at all), and an accompanying lack of respect for the target audience. Organisations like the BBC and Guardian set their standards rather higher: after all, if it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying properly.

But perhaps there is a philanthropic message at the heart of this story: if you can’t cut the mustard with a real media outlet, you can always get Rupe to look after you.

Something Nasty in the Chippie

Whatever the nutritional value of their product, you expect the offer in the local fish and chip shop to be traditional, good value – and safe. What you don’t expect is that a visit to the chippie can put you in hospital – and, in the case of two unfortunate souls, in intensive care.

Well, that is what has happened in the town of Wrexham, as the Beeb has reported. Apparently the culprit is a strain of E.Coli, and if it has indeed caused passing of blood and renal failure, it must be a pretty virulent one. The outlet concerned has been shut down.

The case highlights the need for decent food hygiene, and moreover shows why the inspectors who monitor and enforce good practice are a necessary thing, rather than the busybodies that some characterisations suggest.

The Zelo Street kitchen doesn’t do chips. But the chef does wash his hands as required. It’s daft not to.

Routinely Shameless

On occasion, events pass me by. It may be that my focus is elsewhere; the low key tone may not help. Both were in evidence last month at Crewe station, where operator Virgin Trains opened a First Class lounge.

So what? Indeed – I do shell out for First Class travel on occasion, but only when booking in advance, and when the price is right. Thus the facility would not immediately catch my attention. But I have now been duly alerted by a newsgroup poster who goes by the suitably anonymous title of, er, Anonymous.

And the reason for my interest is that the new lounge was officially opened by our MP, Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy), who is now taking an interest in the station whose very existence was of so little concern to him only a few months ago.

When Network Rail (NR) were proposing their harebrained scheme to rip the station out of Crewe and move it to a green field (but potentially monetarily advantageous) site at Basford, Timpson sat on the fence. He surrendered the initiative on countering NR’s propaganda to CREAM, and particularly to Labour politicians such as Councillor Roy Cartlidge and PPC David Williams.

Timpson then bleated that the issue had become “politicised”, thereby selling the pass in some style. He’ll have to do better than turning up to open a new facility to regain any credibility with his electorate.

After all, most of them don’t travel First Class.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Is that you, General?

Former head of the UK’s armed forces Gen Mike Jackson had a surprise this morning during his appearance on the Not Andy Marr Show (headed up this week by the Beeb’s economics editor Stephanie Flanders) when he discovered that his mobile phone was not only about his person, but switched on.

Rumours that the caller who so rudely interrupted the interview was Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole are of course totally scurrilous, and the idea that anyone from Pa Broon’s gang would be checking to make sure that the General was on message is totally out of order.

Best not say any more. The good Baron knows where I live ...

[Update: Ms Flanders has retained her sense of humour, as her latest blog post shows]

Saturday 1 August 2009

Ethical Hacking Policy?

Security is key in modern IT. To this end, many large organisations employ the services of so-called “ethical hackers”, who probe their security and give valuable feedback on its improvement. And it’s a growth area with good rewards. So you’d think that anyone who has demonstrated a flair for this kind of thing would be in demand.

Which brings us to the case of Gary McKinnon, who is definitely in demand. Unfortunately, the demand is from the USA, and it’s for his extradition. McKinnon managed – if the charge sheet is to be believed - to get into almost a hundred military computers around the USA. The Yanks aren’t happy, and he faces a jail sentence which could be as long as 60 years. However, given he has already admitted the acts, and the potential for plea bargaining, the likelihood is for something well into single figures to be handed down.

This, however, has not stopped the usual suspects from leaping to his defence: Young Dave has been telling how he would jolly well renegotiate the whole extradition agreement with the USA. Well, he might, but then again, after getting elected, he needn’t bother. Anyone fancying a bet should put their money on Cameron speaking with typically forked tongue. The Lib Dems are probably more genuine in their dissent, but they would be most unlikely to be in the position to have to face down the Yanks.

Yes, the extradition agreement we currently have with the USA is asymmetric. But the UK is, as ever since Suez, in need of Washington’s intelligence, assistance and usually its say so in both overt and covert military operations. This hurdle will not be mentioned by the campaign against McKinnon’s extradition, typified by a magnificent example of blowhard journalism in the Daily Mail. If only the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre were so keen on defending all our citizens, regardless of race or religious orientation.

Of course, there is another option for the Government: they could try McKinnon in the UK – but they’d have to get the Yanks to agree – and then send the bloke round to work at the MoD.

That way they’d get their security. Sorted.