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Tuesday 31 August 2010

A Light Shines Through The Hatch

The storm forcibly brewed in the customarily small teacup over the Cordoba Centre (or, if you prefer, Park 51) shows little sign of abatement. There is still a lot of name calling over the project, usually labelling it the “Ground Zero Mosque”, although it is not at Ground Zero, and nor is it a mosque.

Those pointing out – as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done – that religious freedom is a First Amendment issue are being either ignored, or shouted down. So for anyone of prominence, and particularly within the GOP, to step in and voice their support is a brave thing to do right now.

Well, one prominent Republican has stepped in: Orrin Hatch, who sits in the Senate representing Utah, has spoken out in a radio interview in favour of the right to build the Cordoba Centre. He has also demonstrated a sound grasp of geography, something that has eluded the most strident critics, such as Sarah Palin.

Hatch has said of the proposed building’s closeness to Ground Zero “... it’s a few blocks away, it isn’t right there”, and has also said that religious freedom is “one of the most important things in the Constitution”. He also acknowledged the lack of nationwide support for the project, but has said “... that should not make a difference if they decide to do it. I’d be the first to stand up for their rights”.

Maybe the clarity with which Orrin Hatch sees this issue is because he is a Mormon, and adherents to that Church have not always enjoyed an easy co-existence with those of other faiths. If so, it is doubly sad that other Mormons have not been able to see things the same way, with at least one prominent adherent, Mitt Romney, managing to be absent from the debate.

Monday 30 August 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 18

Another year, another James MacTaggart Memorial lecture in Edinburgh. The 2009 lecture was memorably given by Murdoch Junior, telling that the BBC’s vision for the future was “chilling”, which was code for the real story: the vision of Sky for the future was the chilling one, but dumping the attribute on the Beeb might distract enough of the easily persuaded to stop them noticing.

BSkyB, after all, has a larger budget than the BBC, although on the basis of original content – barring sport – you may be hard pressed to guess correctly. Fronting the latest advertising for Sky has been Disney Channel import Phineas and Ferb, which you could probably pick up on a number of other pay or even free to view sources.

So it was no surprise that Beeb DG Mark Thompson, giving the 2010 MacTaggart lecture, used the occasion to give Rupe’s TV troops both barrels, especially over the lack of original programming. Mischievously, Thompson even suggested that Sky might pay free to air commercial broadcasters to air their content, thus allowing them more headroom for making more and better original programmes (right now it is those broadcasters who are paying Sky to carry their channels).

After all, cable operators in the USA pay Rupe to carry his content, even though that means our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). The Murdochs don’t like the idea, and will be moving to stop it gaining traction. Why? Half of all viewing on cable and satellite in the UK is ITV, Channel 4, and Five. If Rupe and Junior weren’t carrying those channels, their subscription offerings [my emphasis] would look that much weaker – even with the Disney Channel imports.

Was the lecture merely a dig at Sky? Of course not – Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was in the audience (apparently a first), and Thompson was aiming as much at him as at Rupe and Junior. Will it have any bearing on the often hostile attitude of many Tories towards the Beeb? Watch this space.

At Last The Shots

It seems a long time ago that I spent an enjoyable, if often wet, few days in Munich, although it was only two months back. The outstanding task was then to put together the photos, which was not an easy task, given the conditions.

This led to an attack of approach-avoidance syndrome on my part, but push has finally come to shove with the knowledge that there is a potentially large backlog of content for my Fotopic site on the way.

So now the collections – from Munich and Salzburg - have been assembled, cropped, post processed and titled. You can see the sights of Munich, including BMW’s own three graces, HERE. The tour of Salzburg, including the Castle and the inevitable Mozart memorabilia, is HERE.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Fiddling The Figures

Politics is a tribal business in the UK. In the USA, it can be far more so. So it has been in the retelling of yesterday’s “Restoring Honor” rally, fronted by potential GOP 2012 hopeful Sarah Palin, and the increasingly wayward Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The rally, held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and at the same place, had already been ridiculed beforehand, most notably by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who titled it “I Have A Scheme” (video available on 4OD HERE).

Whatever the content of the speeches, there were inevitably arguments about the size of the turnout. As with TV channel ratings, this is the true test of Beck and his rally. And, while the organisers had a permit for 300,000, a survey done for CBS news has put the figure at a mere 87,000. But I’ll cut GB some slack here, and credit him with a round hundred thousand.

Million man march it was not. But, for true believers, this is no problem: get the quote out there, say it often and loud, and it will stick. The quote from the Beck faithful was that he got, in person, twice as many people as Olbermann gets tuning in. Well, is it true, and what is the significance of the comparison?

Last month’s ratings had MSNBC’s Countdown (Keith Olbermann’s show) at around a million viewers: it was the top rated MSNBC show, just ahead of Rachel Maddow, whose show airs immediately after Countdown. So the quote is blatantly untrue: it’s not twice as many, but a tenth.

But then, so what? What is the problem Beck and his followers have with Olbermann? Ah well. Keith O is a real irritant to Beck, who has sniped back for more than a year that MSNBC are about to fire him. Bit of a long notice period, Glenn. What Beck really doesn’t like is Olbermann’s characterisation of him as “Lonesome Rhodes”, the main figure in the film “A Face In The Crowd”.

Lonesome Rhodes gets to the top in broadcasting through deploying a folksy, everyman persona, while really despising his audience, who he regards as suckers. The parallel with Beck is obvious, and Beck doesn’t like it. Hence the attempts to ridicule Olbermann, which, sad to say, are not working.

And, as Beck and Palin try to appropriate the legacy of MLK for their own ends, there will be more mention of Lonesome Rhodes on Countdown.

Growing Up All Dizzy

Why some bloggers insist on using aliases remains a mystery to me. The initial anonymity never lasts, as Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) discovered when the Guardian’s Michael White unmasked him in the television studio. Another whose real identity is widely known is Phil Hendren, who blogs under the banner of Dizzy Thinks.

And Hendren has a stock in trade that he might do well to follow himself: the urging on others that they “grow up”. The latest manifestation of this clarion call was to Will Straw and the routinely mischievous Sunny Hundal after the two had commented adversely on the buying up of domain names by Matthew “Gromit” Elliott of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, as part of his fronting up the campaign against the proposed Alternative Vote (AV) reform.

Hendren, demonstrating his mature grasp of political discourse, labelled Straw and Hundal “pant wetting”, “girly”, and asked if Straw “filled the proverbial nappy”. He then signed off by urging the two to “grow the f*** up”, apparently unaware that effing and blinding is not a qualification for adulthood. In this faux rage he has been cheered on by Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda, in the manner of a schoolboy egging on a participant in a playground fight, while ensuring he does not get personally involved.

This is not the first time that Hendren has urged growing up on others: last year, using a particularly lame appeal to authority as cover, he ranted at length about the surplus of heat over light generated as the US healthcare debate spilled over into Canada and the UK. There was no mention of the appallingly high cost to the USA in terms of GDP (around twice the UK percentage), nor of the vested interests attempting to buy influence on the Hill.

This was, in his view, about us in the UK being anti-American, arrogant, and characterising fine upstanding US citizens as “knuckle dragging rednecks”, which latter came as a surprise, as I’d not previously heard it used in the debate. The ranting was then reinforced by his claim to have been off work recuperating, and so being in a position to see the debate on TV. Here, good citizens were engaged in rational Q and A, and no more.

So he managed to miss the wheelchair bound woman who was howled down at one Town Hall meeting, the Jewish man backing the reforms being subjected to a “Heil Hitler” taunt, and Rep. Barney Frank being asked why he wassupporting this Nazi policy”. There were many others.

Hendren also misrepresented the activities of Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, who went on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) and took part in a routinely misleading portrayal of the NHS. But the purveyor of this selective and slanted drivel says others need to grow up.

Yeah, right, Phil.

Don’t Be Vague – 2

What, I wondered last Wednesday, was Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes, after when he made a Freedom Of Information (FoI) request about the appointment of a third special adviser to Foreign Secretary William ‘Ague? Well, all started to become clear on Friday, and Staines clearly believed that matters were coming to a head today, only to be disappointed.

What happened on Friday – this one coming out of left field and taking both blogosphere and assembled hackery by surprise – was that Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt told that his marriage was over and that he was admitting his homosexuality. Staines posted on the affair, signing off with the line “Could this be the first of a few such announcements from the Government benches this weekend?

By now, it was becoming clear that the suggestion of Master ‘Ague being gay – something that did the rounds in the 90s before he got married – had made a return. Unfortunately for the gallery of slavering hacks, though, as reported today on the Maily Telegraph website, threats of legal action have been made by “A Cabinet Minister” over allegedly baseless claims of gay affairs.

And just in case the failure to name the minister concerned presented anyone with difficulty identifying him, Staines has helpfully posted a piece titled “Flashback: Hague’s Gay Special Adviser”. But hang on a minute: this is the bloke who said in a Guardian interview last year that “I’d prefer the blue team to be in Government, not the red team”. So what is he doing going after Master ‘Ague?

Ah well. Staines missed the exposure of David Laws by the Maily Telegraph, and even after Laws had been outed, sprayed five hundred notes up the wall betting that he would keep his job. This did not enhance Staines’ credibility. Thus he has clearly decided not to get caught on the hop again. As to the potential damage to his preferred Government, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, “Minister’s right to privacy less than Staines’ right to know”.

And as for Staines’ justification of the FoI request on the grounds of propriety – well, that’s more or less the way the Maily Telegraph excused outing Laws. This kind of approach may lose Staines friends among the Tory Party, but if he brings Master ‘Ague down, will help the Guido Fawkes brand no end.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Climate Climbdown

Today has brought news that an independent review of his finances has cleared Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of financial wrongdoing. The review, undertaken by KPMG, has concluded that Pachauri, who has been accused of abusing his position as head of the IPCC, has been scrupulously honest and has not been making the millions of pounds that had been suggested. He does not even get a salary as head of the IPCC.

There need not, of course, have been any need for the review, had the Maily Telegraph bothered to fact check the article they published back on December 20 last year, by Richard North and (yes, it’s him again) Christopher Booker, which made the initial and wholly untrue allegations for the first time. The article has been removed from the Telegraph website.

Moreover, the Telegraph has apologised for publishing the article. This is as a result of Pachauri being forced to resort to legal means in order to get a retraction from the paper: the costs of the action, presumably to be borne by the Telegraph, have apparently run into six figures. Resorting to law may seem a tad strong, until it is realised that Pachauri had approached the paper and requested a retraction, only to have his request repeatedly declined.

Even so, as Guardian man George Monbiot has said, the smears against Pachauri will doubtless continue. Richard North continues to insist that he was right, despite the legal setback, and more than likely the closing of the entry door into mainstream journalism. Christopher Booker is still, on occasion, whining about climate change, while the Telegraph’s wayward sneer merchant James Delingpole keeps up his attack on global warming, although the nastiest of his abuse appears to have been excised from his blog there.

The thought that we might discuss and debate the subject of man made climate change in a rational and reasonable way, without invention, smears and downright dishonesty, does not, for some, seem to enter.

[UPDATE: This post has also featured on Liberal Conspiracy, in a slightly edited form. My thanks as ever to Sunny Hundal]

Front Row Fox – 2

Hardly had our friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) secured their berth on the front row in the White House press room, as I noted recently, than the changes started.

Major Garrett, Fox’ man in that press room, is now to leave the broadcaster and return to the world of print journalism. That might not look so dramatic, except that it was Garrett’s even handed approach – yes, Fox have on occasion known to employ someone who really is fair and balanced – that counted in the channel’s favour when their move to the front row was considered.

Of course, Fox would not have kept Garrett in place merely as insurance to get on to the front row, would they? Maybe, maybe not, but everyone else in the press room will be watching stand-ins Wendell Goler and Mike Emanuel like hawks.

Strange how those of an even handed or liberal nature do not keep well at Fox.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Don’t Be Vague

Another day in London, another edition of the thin journalistic brew that is the freesheet Evening Standard. Except that yesterday’s paper had one very interesting item in Londoner’s Diary, at the top of Page 16.

It seems that Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes, has been making Freedom of Information (FoI) requests on the subject of a special adviser to Foreign Secretary William ‘Ague.

Staines has written up his thoughts in a piece entitled Just Asking, which is not what he is doing. He also quotes Peter McKay (aka Peter McLie, the world’s worst columnist), who commented in Monday’s Daily Mail (last item in his column) that Baron Mandelson Of Indeterminate Guacamole, Master ‘Ague’s predecessor as “First Secretary Of State”, did not as far as is known “employ young friends as special advisers”.

What could he mean by that? What is Staines’ real reason for the FoI request? More on this one later.

Royal Riddle Resolved

It’s All Gone Terribly Thingy ...

The Prince Of Wales is famous for, among other things, using the word “carbuncle” about a proposed building extension. But where does this term come from? How has it passed into common usage?

All is made clear with a visit to the Northumberland Park area of North London. Here one can observe and traverse the place where it all happened: Carbuncle Passage.

Fat Dick Littlejohn says “blimey guv, you couldn’t make it up”.

Monday 23 August 2010

Foxster’s Millions

Last week, the upcoming campaign for midterm elections in the USA had the burner put under it in some style when News Corporation – the fiefdom of Rupe and Juniormade a one million dollar donation to the Republican Governors’ Association (RGA). That would be the same News Corp that has backed Young Dave in the UK, and of course the proud owners of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

To many, this was no more than confirmation of Rupe’s leaning to the right: the increasingly downmarket Wall Street Journal has been getting more and more shrill and opinionated of late, and Fox’ affiliations are not exactly a secret (plus, of course, for Jon Stewart and his writers at the Daily Show, the ultimate gift that keeps on giving).

But, following the news of the donation, not all media outlets were up to speed on the story. One cable news channel, in fact, not only failed to mention the News Corp Million, but declined to have anyone on air to discuss it. It may surprise some to know that the reluctant network was Fox News, an irony not lost on the folks at MMFA.

Meanwhile, as might be expected, the Daily Show waded in on Wednesday evening, with Stewart doing his Glenn Beck parody, along with the inevitable chalkboard, to illustrate how the News Corp donation is a rather more direct form of intervention than Beck’s usual roundabout of guilt by association. You can still see the show on 4OD. Not long to wait – it’s first up.

And, so far as is known, still no coverage on Fox. As I said, fair and balanced my arse.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Wrong Conclusion

August is not known as the silly season for nothing. Parliament is in recess, many across the country are on holiday. There is less real news. But media outlets still have to garner viewers, sell papers, and thus the rumour mill has the tendency at this time to go into overdrive without anyone stopping for anything so inconvenient as a reality check.

So it has been in the last few days with the story that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was about to jump ship and join the Labour Party. Kennedy is on the Social Democratic wing of his party, that part which evolved from the early 80s split from Labour. For any of the Social Democrat tendency to join Labour would be the biggest of asks: Roy Jenkins gave significant praise to Tony Blair, but the thought that he might go further and rejoin his old party never entered.

So why has the rumour about Kennedy gained traction? It may be that, as Sunny Hundal has noted today on Liberal Conspiracy, there has been a deliberate move by Kennedy – and possibly others on the Social Democrat wing of the Lib Dems – to let the party’s leadership know of their unhappiness with the direction being taken, or at least plotted, by the Coalition. Charlie is savvy enough to be able to know where to drop the necessary hint in order to set the hare running.

Also, there is the habit of many in the media of “guilt by friendship”, such as suggesting that Menzies Campbell was politically close to Pa Broon merely because the two were on good terms. Why should they not be? The two men represented adjacent constituencies, and would have needed to discuss anything of a cross boundary nature. But the idea that Ming was closer to Labour as a result is laughable.

Westminster politics is, by and large, a highly tribal business. But that does not prevent those involved from occasionally dropping the public displays of combative excess in favour of agreeable conversation. Charles Kennedy being found chatting with a Labour whip may, on this occasion, have been no more than that.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Priorities, Priorities

What are the most important issues in the world right now? The Aussies are going to the polls – could be a tight finish – and Stateside the arguments are still continuing over the Cordoba Centre. Here in the UK, Crewe Alex have just put seven past Barnet – one better than the Arsenal – and the usual suspects are being blamed for a rumour that Charles Kennedy is joining the Labour Party (because he isn’t).

Plenty there for any half decent paper to get its teeth into. But not the Super Soaraway Currant Bun. Yesterday, for instance, the front page was dedicated not to any great world issue, or anything political or economic. Instead, Rupe’s distinctly downmarket troops splashed on David and Victoria Beckham’s decision to reduce the number of their staff by a whopping, er, fourteen.

And, to make it look really dramatic, the headlines include the word “massacre”, which would be interesting if it were even slightly near the mark. Did Posh put them up against the wall and empty an Uzi into them? Even the online version uses the word “culled”, not the usual term associated with the acquisition of a P45.

But this is only a temporary lapse, isn’t it? Today will have the Iranian nuclear reactor being fuelled, or maybe Michael Ashcroft not leaving the Tory stage. Well, no it won’t: top story for Rupe’s downmarket troops today is Cheryl Cole being unwell – and on TV. And that’s the day’s biggest news? Heck, it happened weeks ago.

News it isn’t. Although the piece has the occasional unintentionally humorous aside – Simon Cowell is 50. Yes, Simon, and that hair is what colour, exactly? And you wouldn’t have been doing an Eddie Jordan, of course. But this is to miss the point: news entirely about slebs is not news.

Which puts this branch of the Murdoch empire in the same part of the ballpark as much of the output from our friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Thursday 19 August 2010

Capital Offer

There has been a temporary decline in blogpost numbers this month. Sorry about that – it’s because of an equally temporary demand for my time away from home, specifically in that greatest of capital cities, London.

So, when nothing appears on Zelo Street on a given day right now, it’s because I’m on another awayday. This has been made less financially onerous by the people at London Midland, who run trains out of London’s Euston station to Northampton, Birmingham, Crewe and Liverpool.

Because, right now, and until early next month, LM have a half price offer on fares that they set (and only their own fares). This means that you can, for instance, travel from Crewe to London and back for a mere fifteen notes. Booking online is compulsory, T+C apply, and the rest.

If you’re based in Stoke-on-Trent, Northampton, Coventry, or near the Trent Valley main line, why not check out the LM offer? More information HERE.

The Turn Of The Euro Screw

Businesses use advertising to differentiate their product, show that they are somehow better than their competitors. In the world of retail banking, one very successful campaign has been run by Nationwide, still mutual and claiming that it is “proud to be different”.

This difference extended to giving its current account holders the ability to withdraw cash in local currencies across Europe, and make debit card purchases, at the day’s exchange rate, and without surcharges or other penalties. It was for that reason that I opened an account with my local branch.

But, alas, so many good things come to an end: first, the (small) amount of interest paid to these accounts ceased. Even so, the foreign currency benefit was still significant. Today, the news came by post that even the latter is to end (already covered by some media outlets).

Nationwide’s first line of excuse has been that, even with fees and surcharges – because there will be both – hitting a hole in the wall in downtown Lisbon or Barcelona will still be less expensive than the competition. That, however, does not excuse what is yet another method of being ripped off for partaking in an exercise no more sinful than accessing your own money.

The small amount of good news is that the change will not come until November. So that’s two and a half months to get some Euros and plan the shopping. In the meantime, perhaps Nationwide might consider a change to the advert strapline.

Proud to be less rapacious”, perhaps.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Sad End For A Founding Feat

In the mid 70s – a long, long time ago – I had a party trick which involved demonstrating the woeful ignorance of whoever was DJing. It was easy: all that was required was to approach him – it was always a him – and ask for something by Little Feat. There would be a pause, during which the assured smile would momentarily slip, then the same reply, “I’ve left my Little Feat album at home”.

Yeah, right. As if the prat ever had one in the first place, and that was the problem not just here but in the Feats’ native USA: they made great rock music, but for a while the sales just didn’t come. Fortunately, Warner Bros kept faith, and in his credits on Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, the album that put them on the map, main man Lowell George described Warners’ then head man Mo Ostin as the band’s “Guiding Light”, and further credited the evergreen executive presence of Van Dyke Parks as “Tail Gunner”.

Parks had helped out on the album, producing the George penned classic Spanish Moon: the two can be heard at the top of the track. The sales, 150K in the USA, at last brought the band some mainstream visibility, but it was not far down the line that they lost Lowell George, whose substance abuse contributed to a fatal heart attack – the day after he had spoken of getting back together with the band he had led.

Through all the difficulties of getting the band on the map, and keeping going when they lost George, founder member Richie Hayward sat behind the drum kit, and was he good at it. Look at the sheer range of content on Feats Don’t Fail Me Now – once you get past the classic Neon Park cover – and after just one listening, you know that whoever played drums had to be good at his job.

Little Feat carried on, in a variety of guises, for many years, but Hayward was diagnosed with liver cancer recently. Problem was, despite his having moved to Canada, he was not eligible for free health care, and the bills were in the thousands of dollars per week. The pneumonia that killed him did so because other conditions remained untreated, so at the age of just 64 he was gone.

That’s something to think of whenever the health care debate flares up again, as it surely will. We in the UK are very fortunate to have the NHS.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Blue Rondo A La Turk – 2

Continuing from looking over Young Dave’s apparent support for Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU, I began to look at how the whole business might look from the other end of the telescope.

After all the scare stories put about by the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate, one might think that Turkey was a monolithic mass of migration minded Islamists, all ready to head for the UK the moment their leaders signed the treaty of accession.

But, with the local economy growing at the start of 2010 at a double digit percentage, and unemployment falling, while interest rates remain low, one might wonder why there would be a rush to leave, only to fetch up in a country like the UK where the economic situation, given the upcoming removal of capacity from the economy by the Coalition in the form of spending cuts, is rather less certain.

Indeed, if Turkey were to join the EU, the freedom of movement that is used by some to spread scare stories about Muslims would also give those outside Turkey the right to move the other way. That might just be a hard sell, given the history of the region: were there a Turkish version of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, the headlines could be just as lurid as in the original.

After all, in the UK there are parts of the Fourth Estate admitting that Turkey, although overwhelmingly Muslim, is a secular country, while suggesting that there might be some kind of lurch into fundamentalism. Turn that around, and think how Turks might be sold on the thought that all those Christian countries, although nominally secular, might use the EU as a Trojan Horse to start the Fourth Crusade.

Improbable? Most certainly. But no more so than the idea that tens of millions of Turkish citizens want to abandon rapidly growing, familiar and temperate Turkey for the uncertainty and occasional hostility of damper, windier UK.

End Of The Spill?

There is cautious optimism among the parties clearing up after the Deepwater Horizon accident and subsequent release of oil into the Gulf Of Mexico. It seems that not only has the leaking of oil ceased, but also that the well from which tens of thousands of barrels of crude had been gushing every day may have already been sealed, without the need for relief wells.

That would be beneficial news not only to BP – and its partners in this particular drilling enterprise – but also the Obama Administration, which had been slow to get a grip of the emerging environmental catastrophe and was reduced at times to simply kicking BP harder in order to look that bit tougher. It has been an object lesson in both the consequences of pushing technology, and the limits on Government’s ability to intervene.

Now, in a move designed to encourage more of his fellow Americans to vacation on the Gulf shore, Barack Obama has made a highly publicised visit to the area, though a brief one. He also cautioned that the job of cleanup and compensation was not finished: much of the escaped oil may have evaporated or dispersed, but there is still more of it out there, and the damage to the environment, as I mentioned recently, has been severe.

Moreover, people who depend on the Gulf for their livelihoods have suffered hardship, and will continue to do so, until and unless confidence and visitors return. Only after all of this is accomplished will it be reasonable to talk of more drilling out in the deeper water where there are clearly substantial reserves of crude.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Barry On The Coat Factory

As the controversy over the redevelopment of the former Burlington coat factory at 45 Park Place in Lower Manhattan continues, many politicians – mainly Democrats – have stayed firmly on the fence. Until yesterday evening, that had included the Prez himself. Not any more.

Barack Obama, at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan – so a rather obviously receptive audience – spoke out unequivocally in favour of the right to build the Cordoba Centre, an Islamic but also interfaith cultural centre which will also include a prayer space, subject to the same rules and restrictions as any other religious faith.

He could not have put it more plainly: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable”. He is correct. And, of course, the building as proposed is not a mosque: there will be no minaret or call to prayer, though no doubt some detractors will say otherwise.

The Cordoba Centre is envisaged as an Islamic equivalent of the 92nd Street Y, which started out in the nineteenth century as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and has evolved into an emphatically Jewish institution, yet also reaching out to all faiths and ethnic groups.

Nobody would call the 92nd Street Y a Synagogue, so there is little reason, other than the need to be confrontational and inflammatory, to call the Cordoba Centre a mosque. And of course there is equally no need to assert that a building which is two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center is actually on that site.

One of those making that assertion, and calling the Cordoba Centre a mosque, is Republican Newt Gingrich – a potential presidential candidate in 2012 – who ought to know the difference between cultural centres and places of worship: go into the About part of the 92nd Street Y website and see whose face looks out of the video still at you.

That would be Newt.

Friday 13 August 2010

Royal Warning To Aspiring Z-Listers

Yesterday evening, the Beeb screened a programme about The Princess Royal, marking her sixtieth birthday. There were the usual talking heads, as well as some insights from her two children, neither of whom were given a royal title. And there was a full measure of her candour on a range of subjects.

One of those subjects, and her view of it, will not make easy viewing for the various wannabe slebs inhabiting areas such as the blogosphere, that being the business of celebrity itself. Interviewer John Inverdale asked HRH if she considered herself to be a celebrity. The answer was unequivocally in the negative.

This is the member of the Royal Family who is patron to many organisations, and acknowledged to be the “busiest” Royal: she gets through around six hundred engagements a year. She is instantly recognisable. And she does not consider herself to be a celebrity.

So where does that leave those lesser beings who pretend that they are? Trying to pretend they weren’t watching, more than likely.

The Super Soaraway Dog House

If you were to check out the website of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, one thing would be obvious from the start: news about world affairs, politics and business is not the priority. The really important thing for Rupe’s downmarket troops is celebrity. It’s all about slebs. And if there isn’t enough sleb goss going round, then the assembled hacks can always make it up and apologise afterwards (or, if the victim isn’t so well off, not).

And, thanks to a helpful member of the public who left a copy of the August 12 print edition on a tube train yesterday, I have a text-book demonstration of the way in which the Sun is prepared to publish totally untrue stories just to catch the eye of its all too easily satisfied readers. Let’s move right along to the right hand side of Page 2, where there is a paragraph entitled “Wayne Rooney”.

Here’s the apology: “We reported on Saturday that Wayne Rooney was spending £10,000 on under floor heating for luxury dog kennels at his Cheshire home. In fact, there are no dog kennels at his home and thus no under floor heating has been installed. We apologise for the mistake”.

Mistake my arse. No mistake was made here. This is speculative invention – the speculation being that Rooney wouldn’t bother taking them to the cleaners for an act of flagrant dishonesty, they might sell a few more papers, and some mud might stick. That Wayne Rooney! He’s minted!! So much dosh he can pamper his pets with heated kennels!!! Couldn’t make it up (unless you’re a Sun hack, of course).

Even though Rooney got an apology out of Rupe’s downmarket troops just five days after the original “story” was run, that’s five days during which the Sun’s fairytale had time to become received wisdom (well, maybe not wisdom, but you get the idea). Even after they said sorry, some readers will be thinking that, well, there’s no smoke without fire, he’s rich enough to have done it, and there must be a real spoiled pets story out there.

Thus the corrosive effect of bad – and more than likely deliberately bad – journalism.

[UPDATE: My thanks to Tabloid Watch for posting on this story and linking back]

Wednesday 11 August 2010

I Get A Pain In The Back Of My Neck

So said Ronnie Corbett, in a sketch that has been broadcast so often, most will know it by heart. It was all about class: Corbett, the humble working class man, was looked down on by his middle (Ronnie Barker) and upper class (John Cleese) peers. This was, of course, first shown in the mid 60s, so does it still have relevance? Given the responses to a post on Liberal Conspiracy by Dave Osler today, the answer must be that it does.

Osler’s target is Young Dave, who likes to portray himself, despite the informally royal bloodline, as middle class. Cameron famously said during the Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign, when the Labour “toff” figure first appeared, that his background “didn’t matter”. Just the one word wrong there: had he said that it “shouldn’t matter”, I would have been in total agreement. Let me offer one example.

We should all be equal before the law. It is clear that we are not. Young Dave, in his Oxford days, was a Buller Man, a member of the Bullingdon Club, a part of his past about which many in his party are remarkably sensitive. Buller Men were given, on occasion, to trashing restaurants and other acts of gratuitous criminal damage, as well as straightforward exhibitions of drunken and disorderly conduct.

This behaviour was held to be nothing more than “youthful high spirits” and, in any case, an immediate relative would readily open their wallet and pay compensation. Buller Men did not, generally, find themselves in receipt of criminal records. Contrast this with the fate awaiting any similarly inclined group of young men from Crewe’s West End, who might of a Friday evening get lagered up and lay waste to a neighbourhood curry house.

For the latter, there would be no avoiding the full force of the law: local talking heads, radio phone-ins, and the press would be uniformly in favour of custodial sentences. This behaviour would be cited as yet another example of what was wrong with today’s young people. Should any of the group consider running for elective office in the following years, their conduct would be brought up again and again to reinforce their lack of suitability.

Even offering to pay compensation would be of no use, and here we have a recent example: the case of Thomas Dolan and Thomas Whitaker. These two were caught spraying graffiti on railway property, sometimes bridges and other structures, and at other times the trains themselves. The cost of their damage was put at between thirteen and fifteen thousand pounds (comparable to the kind of amount one might have to pay after trashing a decent Oxford eatery). Dolan’s mother offered to pay this amount to keep her son out of jail. It didn’t work. Dolan and Whitaker went to jail.

No, Mr Cameron, it shouldn’t matter where you come from. It shouldn’t. But it does. For you, class has given you an advantage denied to most others.

It was ever thus.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

You Can’t Talk An Economy Up

One factor that did for Herbert Hoover, who was unfortunate enough to be President when the Great Crash of 1929 presaged the equally Great Depression, was his inability to confront the problem of that Depression: on too many occasions, he would talk of it in the past tense, pretend that it was over. When Franklin Roosevelt declared that he would commit himself to the problems of the Depression, it was little surprise that he was elected President in a landslide.

Hoover learned the hard way that the economy could not just be talked up. For many Democrats this time round, the bad news is that it looks as if some in their own party have not learnt that lesson. This was the central message coming from Arianna Huffington in an interview with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown yesterday evening.

Arianna – who, for those in the UK of a certain age, still sounds very much as she did all those years ago before she left for the USA – pointed out that there are some in the Obama Administration, such as Secretary Geithner, who are referring to the economic problems of the US in the past tense, as if all that is now past. Her conclusion is that this isn’t the case: for too many Americans, the hard times are right now.

For anyone in the Administration with any sense of history, the alarm bells should already be ringing. Because if the mindset of trying to talk up the economy does for Obama, the Republicans would have nothing else to offer – except perhaps more tax breaks for the very richest. In other words, throwing money at those who don’t need it, for very little economic benefit.

Not a comfortable thought – and it would affect the UK too, so we may do well to keep watch on proceedings.

EXCLUSIVE: The Cost Of Making A House A Home

Most regular viewers of commercial TV will have seen the series of adverts for Homebase which were filmed using the railway station at Carlisle. Many enthusiasts think the station would look far more inviting had someone managed to persuade Homebase to leave all their kit in place.

What may not be universally known is the significant extra cost that had to be incurred just to make the adverts look, well, natural. On the face of it, we see ordinary people just going about the business of life. Or do we?

Having a random group of the travelling public filmed passing through Carlisle station and pausing to look at the contents of two Homebase artics that had been arranged on the platforms, the result might not have looked natural. The production team had to remove any such possibility.

So the directors made sure it looked natural, and to do so, they offered some of those travelling by train the opportunity to be extras in the advert. The initial inducement was thirty pounds. There were no takers. Undeterred, the offer was increased to seventy pounds. Still there were no takers.

The travelling public might look a little too discerning at this point, but it has to be borne in mind that there were a number of retakes needed. This meant rather more than walking across the set and collecting the readies: after all, remember, it had to look natural.

So the offer was increased to a hundred and thirty notes, at which point – those still following in the footsteps of Milton Friedman will be much relieved – the market was cleared. The advert was a wrap, and the artics could take the goodies back to the warehouse.

And that extra cost has been offset by the many variants of the original advert, so for Homebase – “the client” – it has made very good sense.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Trouble At The Mosque

It’s not just a problem at 45 Park Square in lower Manhattan: the building of mosques and Islamic cultural centres around the USA has begun to encounter serious resistance. Much of this has apparently been fuelled by misinformation about Islam.

The New York Times has brought together some of the more prominent disagreements in a piece which also notes that recent research from Duke University has concluded that contemporary mosques act as a deterrent to the radicalising of young Muslims. One of the most vehement objections to mosque building is that they would somehow do the opposite.

In fact, some of the misinformation deployed in opposition has been so wildly inaccurate that it beggars belief that anyone would believe it: the idea that in twenty years’ time, Muslims would somehow outnumber the non-Muslim population of the USA, the assertion that Muslims are pushing to have Sharia Law replace the US Constitution, and that mosques would be cover for terrorist activities.

And we in the UK are not immune to such scaremongering: The Daily Star, the new face of proto-BNP frothery, showed that it has borrowed the “rhetorical questions” line from our friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) by running a phone poll titled “Is Islam Taking Over Britain?”.

[My thanks to Tabloid Watch for the Star poll details]

Milk Snatch Aborted Live On Air

It was a nickname she hated but found difficult to shake off: Margaret Thatcher was in charge of education in Sailor Heath’s Government, and it was on her watch that free school milk for five to eleven year olds was abolished. The taunts of “Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher” went on for years afterwards, even after she entered 10 Downing Street.

So when a letter surfaced confirming that free school milk for the under fives was getting the axe, there was bound to be both emotional response and brief history lesson. This happened earlier today on the Andy Marr Show (hosted today by James Landale) as the letter from Health Minister Anne Milton was revealed.

Landale had Tory thinking man and Universities Minister David Willetts on the show, and the inevitable questions followed. The straightest of bats was deployed in response: comprehensive spending review, everything to be decided, getting spending under control, and of course those tough choices once more. And that, for the moment, was that.

Except that it wasn’t quite that. While the programme was still on air, word came through that Downing Street had overruled Ms Milton, and that this particular cut would not now go ahead. Willetts negotiated the volte face very well – even Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who was doing the paper review, gave him kudos for that – but he must have wondered what on earth his masters were up to.

All these upcoming tough choices will need the followers of the new and improved two-headed donkey to hold firm and not waver. What happened this morning, live on air, cannot be repeated if the Coalition wants to retain its credibility.

Saturday 7 August 2010

A Very Public Archer

Back in the days before great public works became an affront to those inclined to the loudest demonstration of their politics, there was much new build added to the world of public transport in and around London. This was the time when, in the 1930s, the Underground system had been brought together in public ownership – the elimination of “wasteful competition” being one factor driving the move – and was being expanded out into the suburbs.

When the Northern Line took over the station at East Finchley, the structures were rebuilt, very much in the art deco style of the time, under the aegis of architect Charles Holden. The south eastern end of the station buildings features semi-circular glazed stairwells, and overlooking the main entrance is a large statue of a kneeling archer, designed by sculptor Eric Aumonier, who had previously designed the art deco reliefs for the foyer of the Daily Express building.

Stairwell and Archer

The archer has given the local newspaper its name, such is its association with Finchley. It is instantly and positively associated with the station and the area. And it is exactly the kind of work which would have the usual suspects howling “waste” if it had been commissioned today – especially given that a public body was paying. That would be a pity.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Yikes Readers, Takeoff Aborted!

The now giveaway London Evening Standard may be generally poor in content and rather too full of adverts, but there is the odd decent thing about it, like Paul Waugh’s rather good blog, which has pronounced mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s spiffing new airport wheeze well and truly dead.

Bozza had been floating (geddit?!?) the idea of a new airport out in the Thames estuary, home of large numbers of birds of a size large enough to bend a few fan blades when ingested in jet engines in any numbers. The area is also close to the site of a wreck containing rather a lot of unexploded munitions.

The new airport, nicknamed Borisport, would have come with a forty billion quid price tag, and Bozza was still going in to bat for it in his latest Maily Telegraph column (paying, remember, “chicken feed”). But, as Waugh has noted, Young Dave isn’t impressed by his fellow Buller Man’s wizard wheeze.

So it’s come as no surprise that Philip “Slasher” Hammond has confirmed that there are no plans to build any new airports out in the Thames estuary.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Coat Factory Becomes Controversial

The former Burlington Coat Factory, at Park Place in downtown Manhattan, is to be demolished and redeveloped. This does not sound particularly threatening or divisive. The building that will rise in its place will be a cultural centre called Cordoba House. This, too, does not sound alarm bells, until words like Islamic and Mosque are pitched.

Moreover, Park Place is not far from the site of the former World Trade Center, although you cannot see what is now called Ground Zero from number 45. But the very proximity of an Islamic cultural centre has set the usual suspects off: Sarah Palin – merely a pundit right now – has called the building “an intolerable mistake on hallowed ground”, thus demonstrating her grasp of local geography.

Newt Gingrich – also a mere pundit right now – has ratcheted up the rhetoric by calling the centre “an act of triumphalism”. So what will this “mosque” look like? Well, there won’t be a minaret and any calling to prayer: it’s just a new build 13 storey block, like many others around central New York.

And Mayor Michael Bloomberg – he’s a Republican – has dismissed criticism of the scheme, saying that this is an issue of religious freedom. He says that the Government should not be in the business of choosing one religion over another, which follows logically from the separation of church and state enshrined in the US Constitution.

The use of the name “Cordoba” has also riled some, but it is hard to see why: the great mosque of Cordoba was built on the site of a Christian church, but then became a Christian cathedral. Cordoba House will not be replacing a Christian place of worship.

But these are mere facts: there will still be some who will not want them to get in the way.

What The Fox? – 8

There are few issues of greater sensitivity to many US citizens right now – especially those coping with losing their job as the economy has turned down – than that of illegal immigration. It happens: the battle by law enforcement agencies along the land border with Mexico never lets up, and some get through, because the prospects north of that border appear better than those to the south of it.

Thus the failure of attempts to pursue any kind of amnesty for long term illegals, despite the support of more moderate Republicans like John McCain. The idea of “earned citizenship” has therefore been well and truly kicked into the long grass.

So when a memo surfaced recently, apparently on the letterhead of the US Department of Homeland Security, with the wording “... reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization” in its opening paragraph, it did not take long for the GOP and any right leaning media outlets to claim that they had found a “smoking gun”: here was the evidence that the Obama Administration was going soft on illegal immigration.

Except that it isn’t. The memo is clearly marked “draft”, it hasn’t been signed off, and it hasn’t even been dated. Moreover, the Obama Administration has been deporting illegal immigrants with some zeal of late. But this has not deterred our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) from shouting outSmoking Gun Amnesty Memo Discovered”.

Expect more on this in the next few weeks.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Front Row Fox

The White House briefing room is a small but highly competitive space: not many journalists can fit in, and the status of being closest to the front is highly prized. So when veteran Helen Thomas resigned earlier this year, the scramble for her front row centre seat began. The competition was given a little more spice as one of those wanting Thomas’ former seat was Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Now the decision has been made: Thomas’ seat has gone to Bloomberg, but they were already on the front row. The former Bloomberg seat has gone to Fox. Given the less than fair and balanced nature of Fox’ coverage of anything the Obama administration does (last week, Daily Show host Jon Stewart told Fox thatnothing the President does will make you ****ing happy”), some might be concerned. But I am not one of them.

There’s one given about being on the front row in the Briefing Room, and that is that anyone there has no place to hide. Any attempts at slanted or partisan questioning are likely to be picked up in short order, with the rest of the press corps ready to laugh the most ridiculous ones down. Fox’ White House man Major Garrett will have to keep his questions straight down the line if he wants to maintain both credibility and seat.

And as for the suggestions from Fox “star” Bill O’Reilly that he might appear in the Briefing Room on occasion, forget it (ditto Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity). This could prove a double edged sword for Rupe’s stateside troops.

The Laws Don’t Work – 8

In the classic late 60s heist film The Italian Job, the gang decide they need a computer expert on board, and that their man is Professor Peach. Then, Camp Freddie asks head man Mr Bridger “What if the Professor’s not bent?”

Mr Bridger has no doubts: “Camp Freddie, everybody in the world is bent”. It was good fun back then, but the same principle was brought into sharp focus yesterday evening in the C4 documentary Our Drugs War (available on 4OD right now), as a former smuggler told how he had bought off dock workers, customs officers and anyone else that might have stopped his contraband getting through.

Nothing in the programme was new or surprising: the discovery once more that the police and other authorities are having little effect on the importing, distribution and supply of illegal substances, the debasing of those substances by organised criminality rendering them genuinely dangerous, and the frequent recourse to legally available drugs which are potentially far more lethal than the illegal ones.

Some of the “legal highs” included alloy wheel cleaner (since banned) and plant feeder (still legal). The police effectively admitted that they are nowhere near the target of taking 60 to 70 per cent of illegal drugs off the streets, with the actual success rate reckoned to be more like 1%. And, all the while, the factors that drive folks into dependency are not addressed.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is hardly discussed: the fact that we cannot even have the debate about the business of currently illegal drugs without the most righteous part of the Fourth Estate howling it all down. Zelo Street has pored over the issue at some length (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE for starters, with follow ups HERE, HERE and HERE), but if we cannot have a rather wider rational and grown up debate on the subject, we will get nowhere.

The UK is expending a billion and a half quid each year supposedly keeping us all safe from the drugs which, for many, are no more than a few minutes’ walk away, and by all accounts cheaper than ever, which suggests that there is no problem with their supply. The situation is plainly ridiculous.

We need to deal sensibly with this issue – and we need to do it right now.

Monday 2 August 2010

What The Fox? – 7

On July 18, the California Highway Police noticed what we in the UK would call a pick-up truck being driven erratically on Interstate 580. So they pulled it over, and then the fun began. The driver, Byron Williams, had a history of violent behaviour: as an officer approached the truck, he opened fire. There then followed a shootout lasting approximately ten minutes, during which around sixty rounds were discharged. Williams, bloody but apparently unbowed, was arrested.

The Police then found that Williams, who had been wearing body armour, had a number of firearms with him. He justified their possession by stating plainly that he was on his way to San Francisco to kill “people of importance” at the Tides Foundation. Who they?

Well, Tides says this: “Our mission is to partner with philanthropists, foundations, activists and organisations across the country and across the globe to promote economic justice, robust democratic processes, and the opportunity to live in a healthy and sustainable environment where human rights are preserved and protected”.

On the face of it, this non-profit organisation sounds equally non-threatening, but something about it had clearly set Williams off. His mother gave a clue: her son had become angry after seeing news items about how “Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items”. Who might be delivering such slanted journalism to a suggestible audience? Well, there’s only one pundit majoring on the Tides Foundation right now.

No prizes for guessing that the pundit concerned is the increasingly wayward Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), whose blackboard of supposed conspiracy has featured Tides regularly – very regularly.

A video showing Beck demonising Tides has been compiled by MMFA, for whom Eric Boehlert gave this stark warning. As the title of Boehlert’s piece puts it, “Glenn Beck’s incendiary angst is dangerously close to having a body count”.

Does someone really have to die before this kind of thing gets stopped?

Sunday 1 August 2010

Straight Talking

Young Dave, fresh from putting French and German noses out of joint over the continuing messing around of Turkey on accession to the EU, has now gone to India and hacked off the Pakistanis over the equally touchy subject of terrorism, and more specifically the involvement of the Pakistani security services in it.

The agency involved, the ISI, does appear to have been on rather too close terms with the folks that Prince Harry called “Terry Taliban”. Some Taliban members, and elements loyal to Osama Bin Laden, also appear to be able to slip in and out of Pakistan at will, and use part of the country as a safe haven.

Which means that when Cameron says that Pakistan cannot “look both ways”, it is a case of stating the obvious. But the folks in Islamabad are not happy, and have cancelled a visit to the UK of some senior intelligence officers. Taking a suitably cynical view, I rate this as a potentially good thing: it’s one more opportunity not to give them the chance of getting hold of information they might prove unable to keep to themselves.

Moreover, the USA has also voiced its disquiet over the ambivalence of the ISI to the Taliban. Perhaps Cameron’s plain speaking could wake up the Pakistani leadership: it was all very well being on good terms with the Taliban back in the days of Afghanistan’s occupation by the then USSR, but continuing to help them now is harming its internal security.

And, while the UK and USA are embroiled in the Afghan campaign, it’s harming us as well. Someone has to tell the authorities in Islamabad.

Back To Chasing Ambulances – 2

The coroner supervising the inquest into the deaths of six passengers and a pedestrian as a result of a derailment at Potters Bar station in 2002 has suggested that there are still risks involved in rail travel today. So there are. But there are risks involved in any mode of travel.

There have also been more suggestions that there should have been a public enquiry into the accident, but other than spray large amounts of money up the wall, the benefits of such an approach are of dubious value. There was a public enquiry after the Clapham collision back in 1988, and its main recommendation – some form of automatic train protection – would have been of little use in that accident.

Clapham happened as a result of a wiring error, causing a “wrong side failure”: in other words, instead of something failing safe, which is what should happen, a failure produces a potentially dangerous outcome, which in that case was a green signal in rear of an occupied section. Train protection would have also been affected by that failure, had it behaved as if the signal were showing green.

The constant call for more and broader enquiries has also been fuelled by the lawyers who have chosen to specialise in anything to do with the rail industry, whether or not they know one end of a signalling installation or maintenance regime from the other. And demonstrating that she is not backward in coming forward in this case has been our old friend Louise Christian, doyenne of ambulance chasers, or at least those ambulances that attend rail accidents.

Ms Christian has now said that “We still cannot be confident that maintenance staff have proper instructions, know how to report defects and crucially that there is sufficient management involvement in the overall safety process”.

Perhaps she missed the significant management involvement of Network Rail (NR) taking maintenance back in-house two years after Potters Bar, and that there has been only one passenger fatality on the NR network in the last five and a half years.

It would be even better to have no passenger fatalities. But right now, rail travel is the safest way of getting around the UK, and it is about time Louise Christian and her pals admitted it.