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Thursday 30 September 2010

Get On The Bus

On Tuesday evening, an extraordinarily generous gesture was made on the Daily Show, although it was probably not the surprise announcement that some made out. Guesting for what seemed a promotion of her book Third World America was HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington, and she’s supporting Jon Stewart’s Rally To Restore Sanity on October 30.

In fact, Arianna is not just showing her support, she’s offered to put on buses, to take anyone from New York who shows up at the HuffPo office in SoHo, to the rally in Washington, DC. That could involve a lot of buses: at fifty people per bus, a thousand turning up would need twenty buses. Ten thousand – not outside the bounds of possibility – would need 200 buses.

But there’s method in what might look like madness: people from outside NYC are taking this as a cue to do their own organising. Groups from as far away as Chicago are mobilising, and that’s a long way to go. And endorsement of the gathering has come from the highest elected office in the USA: Barack Obama has indicated his backing.

Elsewhere, there have been 170,000 committing to attending on October 30. That’s twice the number that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s shameless hijacking of Martin Luther King Jr’s memory garnered.

It’s a powerful message: never mind those that shout loudest – let the 70 to 80 per cent who don’t have their say.

When Leaks Are Not Leaks – 4

Liam Fox was said to be “hopping mad” over the leaking of a personal letter from him to Young Dave. He’s called in the Military Police. They’ve turned over the MoD. The hunt for the mole has been thorough. And it’s a total sham.

At least one factually correct morsel has reached the media today: that Fox and Cameron do not trust one another. Bears crap in woods, Pope Catholic. One other fact is that the leaked letter was not copied to the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet.

Which means that Fox was trying to appeal to Young Dave over the head of the Treasury. And it appears not to have worked: the letter was sent on Monday last, but in a National Security Council meeting the next day, Fox was ordered to make further cuts. Then the letter was leaked.

That timeline is entirely consistent with my conclusion yesterday that Fox, or someone on his behalf, caused the letter to make its way to the Maily Telegraph. The leak has, according to the Telegraph, got the military lined up behind Fox, and some kind of confrontation appears inevitable.

And that is why, as I’ve already concluded, Cameron has to face Fox down and sack him. Cabinet Ministers are part of the Government, not some kind of informal opposition.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Be Afraid, Mail Readers

News has come today on the terror front: a supposed plot appears to have been foiled. According to the BBC, it hasn’t been stopped completely, but there has been no raising of the threat level, and no imminent attack is expected. The Guardian says much the same, using the term “foiled”. So that’s that, then.

Except that it isn’t that in the world of Paul Dacre, the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail. The supposed plot was said to have been hatched in Pakistan, and that country, as any fule kno, is an “Islamic Republic”. That means Muslims, and we have to be frightened of them.

So the Mail has deployed an array of suitably scary keywords: in comes “Al Qaeda”, because everyone knows that they are behind the scariest plots. In close support is “Militants”, because, well, anyone that’s militant is bad – unless they’re a militantly ranting and sweary newspaper editor. Following on is “Islamic Extremists”, because they’re Muslims, as well as being frightening. And extreme.

Then the Mail report starts to make it up, a key skill when actual information does not exist, or is not scary enough. These extremists “remain at large in the UK”. Except that no extremists have been identified by the security forces, who are merely observing possible suspects. So the Mail stating “it emerged today” means that this was the time that Dacre’s obedient hackery invented another Muslim scare story.

The Mail could, of course, have reported the facts and no more. But that would not have been scary enough. Be afraid, Mail readers – be very afraid.

[UPDATE: The supposed threat is now being played down. Surprise, surprise]

Tea Party – Routine Hypocrisy

With the mid-terms just five weeks away, one Senate race that looks neck and neck is in Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid is being challenged by “Tea Party” candidate Sharron Angle. Angle is one of those normally reluctant to talk to the media, except when given a softball session by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Angle is also very upfront about Government mandated health care: she has said that the recently passed bill should be repealed. So it might be thought that she would distance herself from any such scheme. But that thought would be misplaced: she and her husband – a retired Federal official – are both in receipt of Government provided health care.

That is in stark contrast to the 18% of Nevada citizens who have no health insurance. Moreover, Angle continues to assert that health care in the US is the world’s best, despite a recent WHO assessment putting it at number 37.

And she, like so many on the right, fails consistently to address the point that the USA spends around 15% of its GDP on health care, while the UK spends just 8%. Health outcomes in the USA are less good than the UK.

Go figure.

When Leaks Are Not Leaks – 3

Once upon a time, Governments did not do leaks. Admittedly, this was a very long time ago: the last such was Sailor Heath’s administration in the early 1970s. Since Heath left 10 Downing Street in early 1974, every Government has done its share of leaking. And, as I noted recently, the present one appears to be no different.

Coming hard on the heels of the alleged leak over quango abolition is a rather more serious one from the Ministry Of Defence (MoD). As with the quango “leak”, this has been fed to the Maily Telegraph, a paper sympathetic to Young Dave, and with a free to view website. The content is the full text of a personal letter from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Cameron.

But, so what? Well, the letter lays bare Fox’s distress at the scale of the cuts that the military is going to have to make. The question of Trident replacement, which I’ve considered previously, remains unresolved, with Fox still of the opinion that the money should come from the Treasury. Two new aircraft carriers may now not be completed. Manpower reductions into five figures are indicated.

So Fox has a scrap on his hands if he wants to keep the top brass sweet. He suggests that other ministers support his view, and that cuts by a previous Tory Government made the Falklands campaign rather more marginal than was admitted at the time will remain in many memories. But all parts of Government have to take their share of cuts: only then can the policy be sold to the public.

And that suggests the leak did not come from Downing Street, nor from the Treasury. That leaves the MoD, or Fox himself: my conclusion is that the latter has caused the letter to arrive at the Maily Telegraph. Right now, Liam Fox is dodging any questions about his future. He looks guilty, and silence merely compounds the thought that he is.

Thus Young Dave’s first serious challenge from within. He shouldn’t even blink: there is only one course of action open to him, and that is to sack the SOB. End of story.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

We’re The New Generation

At this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, Mil The Younger has now given his first speech as party leader. It was not, apparently, strong on oratory or passion, but he only got the job the other day. And rousing conference speeches do not, generally, translate into significant numbers of votes at General Elections.

So what kinds of themes were in evidence? A stand-out for those like me, of no party affiliation but liberal stance, was the admission that Labour had been “casual” about civil liberties. Dead right they had: were Young Dave to go for returning the maximum period of detention without charge to fourteen days from its current 28, he would have my backing. This was an issue that Blair got totally wrong.

Miliband also stated unequivocally that the Iraq war was wrong, as so many of us suspected at the time – and, as the supposed WMDs failed to materialise, we then knew for sure. Another instance of Blair losing the plot – and on that occasion, also losing a lot of votes into the bargain.

But was there anything positive on offer? Well, there was optimism. Mil The Younger claimed to have it, while he characterised Young Dave as having a pessimistic view, and using that to “hide behind the deficit”. I’m not sure about that one – Cameron has so far managed not to sound too downbeat.

But for Labour’s sake, I hope that the headline “We’re A New Generation” is just a Beeb website phrase, and not an official Labour one. Because it sounds rather like “We’re The New Generation”, recognisable as part of the USP of The Monkees, the 60s band that was, effectively, manufactured to order.

Yikes Readers, Rematch Time!

So it’s going to be another Red Ken versus Beano Boris face-off in the 2012 London mayoral elections. Another not very well kept secret is revealed. Along with the election of Mil The Younger as Labour leader, some Tories are pushing the narrative that all their birthdays have come at once. I think not.

Bozza may have kept Crossrail from severe harm, one or two station redesigns excepted, but overall there will be serious cuts to his transport budget. He is still committed to abandoning the Western Extension Zone (WEZ) of the Congestion Charge area, which will reduce his income, and so something else will have to give.

Ken is equally committed to keeping – or perhaps that should be reintroducing – the WEZ, and that would help to take the shock out of the inevitable round of fare rises. It could also help cushion the effects of route and service cuts which the bus network may have inflicted as the cuts bite.

Bozza is, of course, also committed to his bus vanity project, the so-called “New Routemaster”, which his new bus for London isn’t. This, together with the obsessive removal of bendy buses, will raise costs and make the effects of funding cuts even worse. And there is no way Johnson can blame either action on his predecessor.

So perhaps the candidacy of Ken Livingstone isn’t such a good thing for the Tory Party after all.

Monday 27 September 2010

Not A Good Or Great Doctor

Although many enthusiasts despised Richard Beeching, he of the famous report, those who worked for and with him gave a different view. Gerry Fiennes, whose seminal work “I Tried To Run A Railway” is known to many inside and outside the industry, called Beeching “The Great And Good Doctor”.

This may have been because Beeching at least gave some purpose to the railways, some idea that the industry major in things it did well, where it could show an advantage over its competition. Since his day, there have been yet more “reports” into our rail system, the latest coming from the body thought to be Young Dave’s favourite think tank.

That body calls itself Policy Exchange, and describes itself as “Using centre-right means to progressive ends”, which sounds suspiciously like a contradiction in terms. The group has just published a “research note” called What To Do About Trains In Britain (the PDF file is available to download).

What is proposed is the elimination of the subsidy paid to Network Rail, through the injection of cherished free-market ideas such as competition and localism, although the idea that local authorities and community groups are going to step in and find the money to run rail services might leave some in and around the industry with a credibility gap.

Moreover, there is a not particularly subtle hint as to how costs may be drastically reduced: Page 9 of the “research note” observes that 50% of stations currently generate 3% of revenue. And, even if infrastructure costs were reduced by the 40% that is inferred, that would not eliminate the subsidy.

Like much that the free-market think tank sector produces, it all seems remarkably simple. But the result for many communities, where rail is the only decent public transport option, may not be a pleasant one.

[It may be noted that Tim Leunig, the author of this “research note”, co-authored Cities Unlimited, a 2008 Policy Exchange report that told of failures in urban regeneration in northern towns and cities, urging instead that the Government should encourage internal migration to the south east. Even Young Dave recoiled from this, describing the report as “insane” and “complete rubbish”]

When Leaks Are Not Leaks – 2

Following last week’s supposed “leak” of a list of quangos facing the axe has come the inevitable investigation. We are told that the hunt for whoever did the leaking has been ordered personally by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. I am sure he will make all the right noises, and after due passage of time, let the matter quietly drop.

Because, as I observed earlier, this “leak” gives every impression of being nothing of the sort. What gave the game away was that the article in the Maily Telegraph did not mention the L-word once. Fat Eric has declared that he does not know how accurate the supposedly leaked list is, which does nothing to dispel the thought that he may not be too unhappy that the information found its way to the Telegraph and the Beeb.

Moreover, all the flurry of information about the “leak”, which came on the heels of the initial disclosures on Friday, seems to have died down. Nor, conveniently, was any detail of savings to be made from abolishing the various bodies given in the supposedly leaked document, nor any estimate of job losses.

All of which is consistent with the “leak” having been deliberate and selective, and no more than a device for frightening civil servants and trade unions. The difference between the Beeb and Telegraph lists is merely indicative that the exercise being undertaken by the Government is a work in progress which is not yet complete.

One more giveaway on the sidelines of this affair is the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of taxpayers, and still not publishing accounts or a list of donors), in blithely stating that they believe many more quangos should be abolished, has admitted something I have been asserting for some time: whatever cuts are made, they will then be back for more.

Because the TPA is solely dedicated to the demonisation of Government. They aren’t interested in smaller or better Government, and whatever Government there is, they will be putting the boot into it. This is a malign organisation, answerable only to its overmonied, greedy and cowardly backers. The interests and welfare of the general public do not enter.

Sunday 26 September 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 20

As Rupe and Junior prepare to put the website of the Screws behind a paywall, with the Sun to follow, the feedback does not look good. Advertising agencies are deserting the Times site, as they can get a better audience elsewhere.

And one of the most important sources of web traffic has now gone: Google no longer returns results from the Times website on searches. So, when you Google a story, public figure or event, the Times effectively does not exist, except to try and get punters to sign up.

Moreover, up to date figures for readership of the Times website are right now proving elusive. Had the signs been good, it would not be like the Murdochs to be backward in coming forward with the news.

After all, there is never any reticence in letting the punters know about the latest ratings for Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Let’s Not Do The Timewarp

Hardly had Mil The Younger been elected Labour leader before the hatchet jobs started. And away and running has been the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, with an extraordinary piece in today’s Mail On Sunday. The younger Miliband, thunders the headline, is “living with his family out of wedlock”.

Briefly concerned, I consult the calendar, and am reassured to see that it is still 2010. For a moment, the thought occurred that I had been taken back in time half a century. What to make of this ratcheting up of righteousness? Many of the MoS’ readers may have to look that one up. But, as the man said, there’s more.

Mil The Younger is “the son of a North London Marxist intellectual”. Wow. Triple whammy here: “Marxist” is clearly bad, “North London” compounds the sin, and “intellectual” is the most heinous of crimes – well, to an editor who revels in the nickname of “The Vagina Monologue”, it is.

We are told that the Miliband brothers grew up in a “large house”, for which MoS readers must now feel the obligatory envy, especially given their father was, remember this well, a Marxist. And the suburb of Primrose Hill, in the retelling, is “bohemian”, rather than the more prosaic “convenient for the Morrisons by the canal”.

Elsewhere, Dacre’s obedient hack is unable to get his names right: Corporal Clegg’s wife is referred to as “Miriam Clegg”, which she is not. She is Miriam González Durántez, and when the Dacre hackery is otherwise minded, is routinely pilloried for being one of those dastardly Spaniards.

And Justine Thornton, Mil The Younger’s partner, is given a less than subtle warning by the MoS: she will now “feel the full glare of media interest in her style, behaviour and pronouncements”, which translates, more or less, as signalling that there will be more mean spirited and not necessarily factual hatchet jobs to come.

But then, you need to sell plenty of copy when your managing editor’s remuneration package is over a million and a half notes a year.

Nearly The Big Bang

Berkshire. The county of the commuter belt. West of Reading, there are pleasant villages and middling towns: Newbury, Theale, Hungerford, Bedwyn are all conveniently situated and desirable places for City workers to live. And then there is Aldermaston.

The “Ban The Bomb” marches that were a feature of the 1960s targeted Aldermaston with good reason: the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) site is used for the manufacture and storage of nuclear warheads, although of course, Government confirmation of this, and of the numbers involved, are both elusive.

So the inhabitants of all those desirable residences around the area might not have been too happy to read the news that there was a fire at the site, severe enough to require the Berkshire fire service to call for assistance from as far away as London. And the blaze is not one of those events from decades ago that has only come into view under the fifty year rule.

This fire happened as recently as August this year. It broke out in an area where quantities of high explosive are routinely stored. It raged for nine hours. Moreover, at first the AWE declined to call in outside help, and at least two fire service vehicles were initially prevented from gaining access by security officials.

All this happened where the local council has approved the construction of a facility for producing a new generation of nuclear warheads. Were I a local resident, I would by now be seriously concerned. Because if just one nuclear warhead went off as a result of what “Blaster” Bates once called “sympathetic detonation”, there would not be much left of the site, or the surrounding area to a distance of several kilometres.

Given the effect on house prices, one wonders why it’s not made the front page of the Daily Mail.

[My thanks to a Zelo Street regular for the heads up]

Saturday 25 September 2010

Got That Wrong – It’s Ed

At the very last hurdle in the Labour leadership race, Mil the Elder – who, yes, I reckoned twice would win – stumbled. As Pa Broon’s former confidant “Auguste” Balls was eliminated – on the third round, not the first as some Balls haters were gleefully predicting – the lead changed places.

So it will be Mil the Younger who gives the Leader’s speech to the Labour conference on Tuesday. This year it is being held at the recently renamed Manchester Central, under the single span roof of the former railway terminus. He will also be on tomorrow’s Andy Marr Show (is Marr having his script rewritten to change “David” to “Ed”? Hours of endless fun over something we may never know).

Already there is glee on the right, as Mil the Younger captured far more of the trade union vote than his brother. Thus he will be characterised not only as “Red Ed”, but also as being in hock to the union bosses. Does it matter? My feeling is that there is a limited amount of mileage in this kind of thing before it ceases to have an effect on the electorate.

What is not going to help the anti-Labour media in their attempts to frighten the public over Mil the Younger is that Rupe’s downmarket troops at the Screws and Sun are about to vanish behind a paywall. In an age where more and more folks get their news online, two of the mainstream media’s attack dogs are being muzzled – by order of their owner.

That might just benefit the new Labour leader, who has been in Parliament just over five years – although that is a year better than Young Dave could manage when he became leader of the Tories.

Tea Party – More Top Entertainment

The leadership of the GOP must be wondering whether all the primary-winning choices made in the run up to the Mid-Terms will prove helpful, as more video is released showing Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell apparently speaking before thinking.

First clip to surface is from Scarborough Country, forerunner of Morning Joe on MSNBC. Here, O’Donnell enthusiastically confirms that she is in favour of stopping the whole country from having sex.

And to prove that this is not an isolated incident, Bill Maher has, as promised, aired another clip of O’Donnell from his late 90s show Politically Incorrect. Here, she dismisses evolution as “a myth”. Her clinching argument against evolution is “why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”.

Eagle eyed watchers may also have noticed the presence on Maher’s Real Time panel of one Andrew Breitbart, of heavily edited ACORN “sting” video notoriety. He is not looking like someone who is about to leap to O’Donnell’s defence when Maher points out that this is someone who could soon be in the US Senate.

And this is what Maher is driving at: it’s not good for democracy to look bad, whether it’s in the UK, the USA, or anywhere else that is being held up as an example to others. I like a lot of things about the USA, but as to the advisability of sending some of the Tea Partiers to Washington, I’m not so sure.

Parish Notice – Comment Is Free

Zelo Street has, until now, allowed anyone to post comments, and to do so anonymously, should they wish. And, for the time being, that will continue. Also, there is no barrier to those who want to post adversely: one cannot object to free dissenting speech.

However, comments that are pejorative or abusive in tone are not welcome. It is for this reason that one such has had to be removed. Hopefully it will be the only instance: I don’t want to have to moderate comments, which would be time consuming and might prove to be a discouragement.

Nor do I want to be less than welcoming to this blog’s audience, particularly in the USA, where there appear to be an increasing number of viewers.

End of parish notice, and on with the blogging!

Friday 24 September 2010

Travelling Hopefully

There’s one drawback to giving out your email address: it gives others the chance to email you. So it is with Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson, whose latest bulletin arrived this morning. Eddie has decided to go in to bat for Bombardier Transportation, who run the Railway Works – or, to be more accurate, what is left of it.

Fortunately, he’s making more sense than when he accused the previous Government of “exporting jobs to Japan”, when the issue was the building of new trains, something the Works has not done for almost two decades. This time, he is talking refurbishment, which at least is within the capability of the plant.

Eddie is backing the idea of life extending the InterCity 125 train sets, rather than new build, the latter likely to fall victim to spending cuts. Unfortunately, he has overlooked one or two important points.

First, the IC125 power cars have almost all been through a programme of refurbishment already – mainly at Brush in Loughborough. None of them have been refurbished at Crewe. Second, while Bombardier have refurbished coaching stock recently, none of that work came to Crewe either.

And the only part of the Works that Bombardier seem to be interested in right now is the wheel shop – it alone is on a two-shift day. Could the IC125 coach wheelsets be part of that? Well, they already are – so nothing would change.

Just how much Bombardier value Crewe Works was shown recently when a large part of the wall marking the boundary between the south side of the site and the Crewe to Chester main line collapsed. There is no sign of it being repaired. Heck, much of the debris is still lying there.

The workforce would love to do life extension work on the IC125s. Whether Bombardier are about to give them the opportunity is another matter entirely. I do hope that Eddie is not about to trust them without something written and suitably enforceable.

When Leaks Are Not Leaks

With suspiciously good timing – just as Ken Livingstone is being confirmed as Labour’s choice to contest the London mayoralty, and with the party’s new leader to be announced tomorrow – comes an apparent leak from the Government. Moreover, a version comes into the possession of the Maily Telegraph, the “quality” paper relatively sympathetic to the Coalition, and with a free to view website.

Also, the leak appears to put flesh on Young Dave’s jolly good idea that there should be a “bonfire of the quangos”: 177 of these bodies are to be abolished. Yet more are still under threat, with others to be merged or sold off. Yes, the new order is being tough on quangos. The right and libertarian part of the blogosphere will be awash with Pavlovian dribbling.

But a reality check on this leak is in order. And, the more the exercise is pored over, the greater the impression is given that this is not a leak at all. The Telegraph article setting out the supposed bonfire is honest enough not to use that term. This has been handed to the Telegraph very deliberately. But who would indulge in such a practice?

Well, he may not be involved personally, but my money, were I a betting man, would be on Fat Eric being behind it. No Government minister is more adept at the cheerleader pleasing gesture, allied of course to his mastery of the casual smear (which holds, in this case, that quangos are uniquely attributable to Labour, and possibly to Pa Broon personally).

What Fat Eric and the rest of the Cabinet will not be able to answer is the question of how the work done by all these bodies will continue to get done: the idea that a quango is something unnecessary, a kind of leftist job creation scheme, is ridiculous.

So what will follow the scrapping of the 177? More power in the hands of central Government departments? More likely there will be an opportunity for private sector outsourcers and consultants to enrich themselves.

That might not save the average taxpayer much, if any, of their contribution to the Exchequer. So it’s gesture politics as usual, then.

Thursday 23 September 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 19

How are things on the news website front? Is anyone out there noticing a desperate need for more free to view ones? The question is put because Rupe’s supposedly upmarket troops at the Times and Sunday Times have vanished behind a paywall, yet the groundswell of popular opinion clamouring for their reinstatement to the land of the free has not materialised.

And that may be starting to concern Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), Murdoch’s representative on this particular part of the earth. That thought has occurred after seeing several iterations of a new TV advert, not for the Times newspaper, but specifically for its website. The advert looks tempting, until the end.

There, the difficult subject of payment is broached: only a quid for the first 28 days. Well, big deal. The Maily Telegraph, Independent and Guardian are a quid less, and for rather longer. And after the introductory offer, the Times is one pound for a “daily pass”. Even so, the offer might get a few more punters on board – but only for a month.

Most likely is that the numbers prepared to pay in the days following imposition of the paywall have been so low that Wade and her fellow News Corp managers have been panicked into action to try and reverse a dire trend. The only way that this kind of scheme is going to succeed is if the content on offer is so superior to the competition – or that the competition follow suit.

Well, that competition is so far not following suit, and I doubt that the content is worth anyone opening their wallet. Rupe was warned it wouldn’t work.

Inside The Fox

There has been an interesting development coming out of the senate candidacy of Delaware “Tea Party” favourite Christine O’Donnell. As I noted earlier this week, she had cancelled two television appearances on Sunday, but was then persuaded to appear on the Tuesday show of professional loudmouth Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

But why appear on Fox only two days after cancelling on the same channel’s Fox News Sunday? Over at Media Matters For America (MMFA), they have the answer, reinforced by a source inside Fox. That source has confirmed that O’Donnell would have been given a more sympathetic and easier reception by Hannity. Chris Wallace, who hosts Fox News Sunday, is – a rarity for this broadcaster – thorough and objective.

So the electorate in Delaware see their GOP candidate make an appearance, but not where the questioning might get too difficult. This makes for good fundraising opportunities: MMFA’s Eric Burns has observed that GOP candidates “aren’t going on Fox for an interview, they’re going there for an infomercial to help raise money”.

Burns also stressed, in an interview on MSNBC’s Countdown, that their information on the easier nature of appearing with Hannity had come from an insider at Fox. That is the most significant part of his discussion with Keith Olbermann: if the MMFA source is at all well placed within Fox, there could be yet more interesting information on its way.

And, to add to the fun, there will no doubt be efforts made by Fox management to discover the identity of the MMFA informant.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Supermarket Sweep – Update

This afternoon, Crewe’s largest Tesco outlet – the one backing on to the Heritage Centre, that used to be a Safeway – was open for business. But, so what? Well, the successors to Terry Leahy are sitting on planning consent to demolish that store and replace it with a “supermarket on stilts” on the same site. It hasn’t happened yet, despite the consent coming back in December.

The reason for Tesco not pursuing this newly acquired nuclear option can be seen across the main road: the building partially unoccupied since MFI deservedly went bust still has Dunelm Mill in occupation. Getting them out, as I considered back in July last year, will trigger the redevelopment of the site into another “supermarket on stilts” – this one a Sainsbury’s.

It was the action by Sainsbury’s that prompted Tesco into making their move. The problem was that there was nowhere to expand on their current site. Despite the rumours about the future of the Heritage Centre – moving to part of the Works is favourite – there does not appear to be any chance of Tesco getting their hands on that site.

So Tesco, rather in the manner of a Cold War arms race, opted for the same style development as Sainsbury’s, the difference being that the Tesco will have two storeys above its car park. Hopefully any windows facing the Heritage Centre will be permanently sealed, for those occasions when there are boilers being steam tested, or locomotives being lit and coaled ready for charter trains.

So, for now, both retailers await the removal of Dunelm Mill. After that, and in the name of choice, more floor space will be provided for a population that does not give the impression of needing or wanting it.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Industrial Dishonesty – 1

My recent travels to London have served as a reminder of one thing that The Railway does very well, and that is the ability to be less than open with the travelling public about service changes, and particularly closures. It is a habit which, as I’ve noted previously, was honed in the 1950s - well before the Beeching Report – and has continued since.

The reminder I received when en route for the capital was when the train passed through the station near the village of Norton Bridge. Had one not been watching Network Rail (NR) closely, and merely relying upon information from their online journey planner, the impression might be given that this station was open.

But it isn’t. Norton Bridge station consists of a single island platform, flanked by running lines. The means of crossing those lines was a footbridge – but this was recently dismantled and has not been replaced. Nor is there any intention to replace it. A bus service has been substituted: nearby Stafford is now half an hour away, rather than six or seven minutes.

There is, of course, a closure procedure which must be followed, but as a replacement bus service has been laid on, the station is officially considered to be still open. But, so what? The French run large parts of their nominal passenger train network with buses. Yes they do. But in the UK, grim experience has taught us that bus substitution is a stepping stone to closure, rather than a way of running marginal services over the long term.

The usual stepping stone on the way to closure is one of discouragement, and for Norton Bridge this box is ticked when one considers the journey to Stoke-On-Trent: passengers have to change buses at Stone (but not at the railway station), and the journey time is almost 70 minutes, rather than 20 or so previously by rail.

It’s entirely possible that the custom on offer at Norton Bridge cannot justify the retention of its station. But, rather than address this possibility and go through the closure process now, NR has embarked on a long and drawn out campaign of softening up – just to make sure. After all, this is the way it has been for over half a century, so why change a winning formula?

[Winning, by the way, does not refer to the travelling public]

Phoney War – 2

It’s September, which means party conference season, and that of the Lib Dems is drawing to a close. There has been little in the way of rebellions against the leadership, barring a defeat on the push for more “free schools”, a pet project of Education Secretary “Oiky” Gove. Corporal Clegg is as secure as ever.

So is this a sign that there is nothing to worry about? Well, no it isn’t. As I noted recently, the upcoming spending cuts are being discussed and debated across the political spectrum, but they are not yet a reality in most folks’ lives. Thus there has been little for the Lib Dem faithful to complain about.

As ever, the numbers can be batted to and fro, but it is only when the Government’s spending review reports – next month, I was one out on that previous post – that those numbers are known for sure. Even then, the results of the cuts will not have come to pass: even those job losses will not yet have happened.

And only then will those Lib Dem faithful have their patience and loyalty truly tested. Next year’s gathering may look rather different.

Monday 20 September 2010

What Would You Do?

Barack Obama has been pushing back against the rhetoric coming from the so-called “Tea Party” movement. In his latest Town Hall meeting, the Prez has put the question directly to the Tea Partiers: What Would You Do?

The reason for his stance is straightforward: the Tea Partiers are either unable or unwilling to talk in specifics. This has the benefit of making it difficult for the Democrats to pin them down on tax or spending commitments, and whether they would keep or cut certain Government programmes.

It’s interesting to see him looking to press the Tea Partiers on the point, but it will be no surprise if the response is more non-specific and unnecessarily hyperbolic verbiage from his opponents and their backers.

Triple A – No Surprise There, Then

For the last two years at least – not just in the run-up to the General Election – one way that those on the right kept putting the frighteners on the electorate was to raise the spectre of the UK losing its cherished AAA credit rating. Parallels were drawn with Greece and Ireland.

But it was never going to happen, and today beings news that the AAA status has been confirmed by Moody’s. On the face of it, this seems to be down to the Government’s supposed austerity programme. But the Comprehensive Spending Review which will determine the manner of that austerity is a month away.

So how does Moody’s know that the austerity programme, as they assert, will not affect the economy, which they describe as “flexible and robust”, while undergoing “austere fiscal consolidation”? Put directly, they don’t, which suggests that the way in which a given country’s credit rating is deduced is less than totally rigorous.

In any case, we are told that the UK has retained an AAA rating from Moody’s since that agency first assessed the country’s long term debt back in 1978. That, during the last days of Jim Callaghan’s Administration, was at the time when the UK was held to be the “sick man of Europe”.

So the AAA rating might not be such a big deal after all. And Moody’s would have to mark down the USA before the UK, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Mail Order Hypocrisy

Not everyone may have noticed, but Pope Benedict XVI has dropped in on the UK for a state visit. Fair play for the nation’s Roman Catholics, one might think. But there are opportunities here for the Fourth Estate too, whether Catholic or Protestant. The kind of opportunities being taken by the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre and his obedient hacks at the Daily Mail generally involve proclaiming the universal good of Christianity, while kicking the BBC.

And there is no more obedient Mail hack than the appalling Amanda Platell, although her distaste for the Beeb was put aside this morning so she could once again feature on the Andy Marr Show paper review. La Platell, in her latest and customarily mediocre column, paints the BBC as some kind of enabler in a great anti-Christian conspiracy.

This was not merely the view of one overmonied hack: the Mail’s “comment” on 16 September told ofthe increasingly ugly and strident secularism being promoted by the BBC ...”, while another editorial yesterday described... the strident voices of secularism, cheered on by the BBC, which seek to exclude religious values from national discourse”.

Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that the Mail’s website is full of slebs, glamour models and adverts (which might qualify as secularism), whether the Beeb really is anti-Christian might be easily deduced from the lack of coverage they are giving the Papal visit. So I checked it out, and this is what I found:

Thursday 16 September: BBC2, 2 hours 30 minutes
Friday 17 September: BBC2, 2 hours
Saturday 18 September: BBC2, 2 hours 35 minutes
Sunday 19 September: BBC2, 3 hours 10 minutes.

In addition to these timings are the programmes made to fit in with the visit, and chunks of news bulletins dedicated to it. That’s a lot of airtime for such a secular and anti-Christian organisation. Plus right now the Pope is top story on the Beeb website.

But not on that of the Mail. Pass the sick bag.

Restoring Sanity – The Rally Is On

After all the pre-announcement announcements, after all the build-up, after the thought that it was all a stunt to get folks to tune in to Comedy Central, has come the news that there really will be a rally on the National Mall next month in Washington DC, hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Those other broadcasters who checked with the authorities found out that Stewart and Colbert had applied for permits for a gathering on October 30 – they were for real. And there will be two competing rallies, which no doubt will add to the fun: this is an event devised by people who have retained their sense of humour.

But there is a serious purpose behind the rallies – “Rally to Restore Sanity” with Stewart, and “March to Keep Fear Alive” with Colbert – and that is to provide some kind of counter to the hyperbolic, angry and frequently irrational tone of the so-called “Tea Party” movement. Will many citizens be there? I think so.

And Stewart is taking his campaign into the lion’s den this week, as he makes another appearance on Wednesday with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). The feedback to the announcement on the HuffPo alone has been overwhelming – over 12,500 comments so far – and this campaign could really take off.

Which might be no bad thing.

Innocent Men Get Temporarily Guilty

The appetite within part of the Fourth Estate for frightening their readers with Muslim scare stories was demonstrated very clearly on Friday last, when the Met’s finest arrested a group of street cleaners in central London.

The arrests were as a result of a tip-off, and were classed as “precautionary”. Former head of counter terrorism at the Yard, Bob Quick, stressed “An arrest is a means of investigation – it does not mean someone is guilty of an offence”. But the manner of arrest – apparently at gunpoint – and the suspects being of North African origin set the scare merchants off.

Out of the traps sharpish as the hare of Islamophobia was set running was the Daily Express, with the screaming headlineMuslim Plot To Kill Pope”. It went on: “Islamic terrorists disguised as street cleaners allegedly hatched an audacious plot to blow up the Pope”, but then reassured its readers “The threatened attack was foiled at the eleventh hour”.

Predictably, Rupe’s downmarket troops at the Sun were similarly convinced: “Six In ‘Kill Pope’ Plot” they shouted, helpfully explaining that “North Africa is a hotbed of Islamic Fundamentalism”, in case its readers hadn’t made the Muslim connection. But it wasn’t just the tabloids.

The Maily Telegraph – a supposedly upmarket, quality source of good journalism – splashedFive suspected Islamist Terrorists arrested over assassination plot”. Except that the men weren’t arrested because they were suspected of being “Islamists”. Moreover, there was no plot. How can we be so sure of this?

Well, because all the men were released this morning without charge. Never mind, though: another excuse to stoke up anti-Muslim sentiment has been gleefully taken up by an assembled hackery that ought to know better.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Tea Party – Top Entertainment

Since securing the GOP nomination for the upcoming Delaware senate race, Christine O’Donnell has begun to attract media scrutiny – and not all of it favourable.

Friday evening, the subject of O’Donnell and the Tea Party movement was discussed on the Tonight Show, when Jay Leno’s guests included the evergreen Arianna Huffington. Although Arianna was on promoting her book Third World America, she found time to conclude that anger among the electorate – the driver of the Tea Party movement - was because “The Democrats and the Republicans have for 30 years now screwed the middle class”.

And, although Arianna told that O’Donnell’s success was not all bad – “Anyone in my book who gets Karl Rove that upset must be doing something right” – she did not consider that masturbation was the huge problem O’Donnell believed it to be, concluding “Self love is deficit-neutral”.

Had that been the most severe analysis on her candidacy, O’Donnell might not have been too concerned. But Bill Maher, on whose previous show Politically Incorrect O’Donnell had guested 22 times, has decided that he’ll release a clip of her on that show every week until she agrees to appear on his current prog Real Time. “It’s like a hostage crisis” he explained.

So what? Well, the first clip Maher has run shows O’Donnell admitting that she dabbled in witchcraft, and had a picnic on a satanic altar. Possibly not unconnected with this latest revelation is the news that O’Donnell has pulled out not only from CBS’ Face The Nation tomorrow, but also from a softball session on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Whatever their politics, these Tea Partiers make elections so much more entertaining.

Father Of The Bride

Thursday evening last, former Prez Bill Clinton guested on the Daily Show (video available of 4OD HERE, it’s towards the end of the prog). He was among friends: the warm applause when he appeared confirmed that.

But the line that brought the house down was when he recalled the recent wedding of daughter Chelsea. That, he recalled, was “my contribution to the economic stimulus”.

Friday 17 September 2010

Whinger Is Watching

Today, a show of public spiritedness has come from the Rothermere press: the Daily Mail, under the less than benign editorship of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, has begun a series called “Whinge Watch”. Sad to say, this is supremely unfortunate titling, and might more usefully be called “Whinger is Watching”, because the column is one long whinge from start to finish.

Author of this waste of space is one Tim Montgomerie, stalwart of ConservativeHome, and his target is the BBC. They’re biased – well, in the world of Monty and Dacre, they are. But Monty sells the pass before he’s finished with the title. Here, he tells that “The BBC – the flagship of the public sector – is obsessed with stories warning of the dire impact of cuts but rarely speaks up for the private sector that funds it”.

As I’ve told recently, the idea that the Beeb is part of the public sector is bogus. It is an independent and autonomous organisation. And, as to who funds it, that would be folks who own a television. So are they the private sector? What if they work at Leighton Hospital, or at MMU, or for Cheshire East council? Monty really ought to get his facts right before he starts on the carping.

Otherwise, there are the usual rhetorical questions beloved of other less than impartial media outlets, like Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Here, we get “Is Huw Edwards too liberal?”, and “Does Andrew Marr have an innate liberal bias?”, just as Fox sees Neil Cavuto asking “Is President Obama’s policy tanking the economy?”. They are, of course, not really questions.

Elsewhere, Monty keeps making the mistake of calling Beeb staffers “people who have only ever worked for the state”, which they are not. He whinges that Beeb has the effrontery to advertise jobs in the Guardian, which in his world is really the “Leftwing Guardian”. And – horror of horrors – Beeb staff are eleven times more likely to describe themselves as “liberal” than “conservative”.

Well, Monty, have I got news for you. Young Dave – the Prime Minister, and leader of your party – describes himself as “liberal”. Why not start your clearout of these wishy washy liberals on your own patch first?

And, while you’re at it, quit the whingeing.

Rush To Believe Anything

A judge on the Federal District Court in Pensacola, Florida, has recently allowed a challenge on the new health care law to go to a full hearing. This apparent challenge to the centrepiece legislation of the Obama Administration soon attracted the attention of his opponents in the media, notably the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh.

So when Rushie and his team found the Wikipedia bio of Judge Roger Vinson, they were very happy people. Here, apparently, was a keen hunter who had killed three brown bears, then mounted their heads above his courtroom door in order to “install the fear of God into the accused”.

This would, for sure, be bad news for all those pro-healthcare reform liberals. Or it would if it were true: someone had edited Judge Vinson’s Wiki entry to portray him as a sort of Davy Crockett figure, which he is not. Limbaugh then recycled the hoax as fact, more than likely because it fitted his agenda.

There was a clue in the Wiki edit: the article in The Pensacola News Journal used as a cite for the story was dated June 31, 2003. How many days in June, Rushie?

Judge Vinson has taken it all in his stride, but his wife was not happy, saying “I don’t think you should be able to broadcast something nationally if you can’t verify it”.

Since when has the inconvenience of verification stood in the way of Rush Limbaugh?

Thursday 16 September 2010

The Tone Of The Journey – 4

The Blair tour around New York City has been followed by some parts of the Fourth Estate for reasons other than what he says, and which shows he guests on. Typical of this is an article on the website of the Daily Mail, written by one of the footsoldiers supporting the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre.

Tone’s book is mentioned only in passing: the hack is more interested in his clothes. The outfit which he wore when appearing on the Daily Show and The View, we are told, included “a close fitting blue suit paired with 60s-style crisp white shirt and a skinny tie”. This outfit, we are told, is like something out of the drama series Mad Men.

But, so what? Is there a point to this piece? Well, yes there is, and the clue is in the last paragraph. Here, we are told by the obligatory fashionista that “The reason why it looks like Mad Men is that the cut of classic Savile Row and bespoke suits has changed very little in the past hundred years”.

Savile Row and bespoke suits” means that Tone’s suit was expensive. He’s got more money than you. You’re supposed to be envious. That is part of the Dacre way. The Mail’s editor has always detested Blair, so no stone is left unturned to point out – subtlety is not a prerequisite here – that Tone is well minted and is now getting loads more wonga just for swanning round the TV studios.

Meanwhile, a Zelo Street regular has asked the kind of question that the assembled hackery has thus far missed. After seeing Tone on the Daily Show, an email arrived, asserting “he’s wearing a hairpiece, isn’t he?

I couldn’t possibly comment.

Two Mils In Search Of A Leadership

A long, long time ago – well, just after the General Election and its immediate aftermath – the starting gun was fired for the Labour leadership contest. The race is still being run, but the end is in sight. That is no bad thing: what will be needed in the next year or two will be an opposition that keeps the present Government honest.

The most certainty about the result is about who will not win: Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott are not likely to get anywhere near this particular prize. It is increasingly clear that Pa Broon’s former confidant “Auguste” Balls will be joining them, but his ability to rough up whoever he shadows will mean he remains in the spotlight.

Which leaves the two brothers, so will it be Mil the Elder (previously thought to be favourite) or Mil the Younger, now believed to be doing well on second preferences? My take is that the Elder will shave it, though last weekend’s Screws decided that Ed Miliband was in the lead. This enabled them to deploy their staggeringly unoriginal nickname of “Red Ed” (geddit?!?!?).

Fortunately, this particular convocation of Rupe’s downmarket troops will vanish behind a paywall next month, so we will be spared the routinely inarticulate “edges ahead of bruv” headline style. And, given their increasingly distant relationship with Labour, it would be best to get a second opinion before believing the Screws’ story.

All the candidates are on Question Time tonight, and then it’s less than a fortnight to the finish line.

Merv Meets The Unions

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England addressed the TUC. That might not seem too unusual, except that this was only the second time in over 140 years that it has happened. He even got a round of applause afterwards, and there was a Q&A session.

Not everyone was happy at his presence: Bob “Scare” Crow and his fellow RMT delegates walked out, rather than listen to Merv the Swerve. Crow doesn’t like the idea of his members being on the wrong end of pay curbs and job cuts when, as he tells, the state of the economy is all the banks’ and bankers’ fault.

Crow is entitled to his view, and everyone tuned in to last Sunday’s Andy Marr Show heard it loud and clear. But Mervyn King’s speech was pitched sensitively and thoughtfully – and many other delegates were at least appreciative that he had delivered it.

It was a pity that no member of the Government made a similar gesture – whatever the reason.

The Tone Of The Journey – 3

And so the Blair book promotion found its way to an appearance on the Daily Show last Tuesday. You can see part of the interview on 4OD HERE, but be warned: it’s towards the end of the programme.

The predictable part was that, as ever, Tone showed the audience that part of his persona that he wanted to show them, and no more. Also, he was right, and continued to stress the terrorist threat. More disturbingly, he has got into the rut of obsession over Iran.

The more interesting part of the interview was Jon Stewart trying to manoeuvre Blair into giving some kind of convincing answer to the ideology that attempts to justify military intervention in a succession of countries on the basis that the local branch of the Al-Qaeda franchise might be in town. Stewart set out his concerns thus:

I live in New York. We have cockroaches ... I will never, as long as I live in New York City, be totally rid of cockroaches. Now, I could seal my apartment; I could use bug bombs so that it was nearly unlivable and reduce the amount of cockroaches. But what kind of life is that for me? Do you see what I'm saying? Do you see where I'm going here? Our strategy seems idealistic and naïve to some extent.”

He later went on:

This is what I mean by naive: Omigod, we have cockroaches. We have to get rats to eat them. Omigod, now we have rats! Oh no, we better getter cats! Oh no, we're overrun by cats; let's get dogs! Omigod, we need to get polar bears!

Do you understand what I'm saying? We are chasing our tails around...

Our resources are not limitless. We cannot continue to go into countries, topple whatever regime we find distasteful, occupy that country to the extent that we can rebuild its infrastructure, re-win the hearts and minds because here's my point: Ultimately within that, there could still be a pocket of extremism in that country... So all that effort still would not gain us the advantage and the safety that we need, as evidenced by the attacks in England by homegrown extremists. So don't we need to rethink and be much smarter about the way we're handling this?

Blair could be excused for not addressing that last question convincingly: none of the other supporters of that policy – “Dick” Cheney, “Wiggy” Bolton and the rest - have done so either.

But of course this wasn’t the point of his appearance: that was the promotion of the Blair book, and the Blair brand. Good for Tone, but not much use to the average Iraqi.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Virgin On The Resurrected – 2

So the realisation had come upon the Department for Transport (aka DaFT) that their cunning plan, for getting some mileage out of the new additions to the fleet of Pendolino trains, was in fact not particularly cunning at all. Allied to all the other good reasons not to try and run one of the trainsets between London and Edinburgh, as I noted previously, was the possibility that the Pendolino might not be good for the traction supply (which has had to be beefed up on lines where it runs at present).

Virgin Trains (VT), ever optimistic that their demise may be avoided, now launched a cunning plan of their own. Figuring out that the new Government may have priorities more pressing than launching a bidding war for the right to run InterCity trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), they dangled a pleasantly tempting carrot before DaFT.

Were DaFT to be minded to award VT a two year extension to their franchise, a further 42 coaches could be ordered and put into service, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Why another 42? Well, the new coaches already ordered, in true penny pinching style, would only be enough to make 31 trains up to eleven coaches from the current nine. That would leave 21 trains still with nine coaches, and keeping one type away from the other’s diagrams would, in practice, be impossible.

What happens now? One clue is in the timescale: the franchise comes up in 2012, and the bidding process could take well over a year, but nothing has been announced on that front. So the two year extension, especially if it brings a uniform fleet of trains, might be too tempting for the Government to pass up.

Seasoned surveyor of the railway and founder of Rail Business Intelligence Roger Ford reckons that the Government will be unable to resist this particular temptation, and will sign off a two year extension for VT, before the civil servants at DaFT breathe a collective sigh of relief. I would go further.

Two years would take the franchise renewal to 2014. That would still be in the Government’s first term, and they may then be in the middle of a period of severe unpopularity over their spending cuts. Better to kick the ball into the long grass properly: five years, taking it to 2017, would mean getting back to the process in a second and hopefully calmer term, or, if they get booted out, it’s someone else’s problem.

I am not a betting man. But if I were, a few quid might be going on VT getting another five years.

The Right Fights The Right

It’s happened in the UK before, but not often: candidates splinter off from mainstream parties and end up fighting their former colleagues. Also, on occasion, a party’s workers won’t turn out to help their own candidates. Now it’s happening in the US state of Delaware, following the result of yesterday’s primary for the GOP Senate nomination.

This is the state represented in the Senate by Joe Biden before he became Vice President, but Republicans reckoned they had, in Mike Castle, a candidate capable of taking the seat. But Castle was challenged for the nomination by “Tea Party” Conservative Christine O’Donnell, who turned out the winner. Democrat Chris Coons now looks the more likely victor come November.

Why so? Well, mainstream GOP supporters, and more importantly party workers, don’t support the O’Donnell candidacy, and won’t work for her election. She claims to be able to win the race without them, but that may be a big ask: even Karl Rove is sceptical. The Republican state chairman says O’Donnell “could not be elected dogcatcher”. Ouch.

And that is utterly perverse: the “Tea Party”, a movement which might be thought of as bolstering the GOP, turns out to have the potential to split its vote and let in a Democrat – just at the time when politicians of all stripes agree that the Dems are vulnerable. Were they to lose control of Congress, the remainder of Barack Obama’s term could be a lot rockier than his first two years.

But if the Democrats hold on to the House, the infighting might really kick off within the GOP. As Ronnie might have said after last night’s result in Delaware, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

[UPDATE: This post has also featured on Liberal Conspiracy. My thanks as ever to Sunny Hundal]

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Defining The Beeb

The prospect of a strike by workers at the BBC next month – potentially coinciding with the Tory conference – has started the usual suspects off. Out of the traps with customary speed has been the well-coordinated why-oh-why machine that is the Daily Mail, under the command of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre.

The Mail leaves no stone unturned in putting the boot into the Beeb: part of the Dacre modus operandi is to paint the corporation as biased and unreliable, while trumpeting his own slanted agenda as the One True Way. Europhobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, demonisation of Government, obsession with slebs – it’s all in the Daily Mail.

And one way in which the Beeb gets its ritual kicking from Dacre’s finest is the idea that it is a public sector body. But is it? It’s certainly a public service broadcaster, but it is also autonomous – it’s not a branch of Government. This realisation was grasped recently by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who likened the BBC to Government departments which were having to draw up cuts.

Hunt was then asked if he defined the BBC as a Government department, and he used the phrases “arm’s length body” and “public body”. But not a public sector body. There is a difference, and that is why the Beeb has to sort its pension problem alone, as would a private sector business.

As for the Daily Mail assertion that those staff pensions – the cause of the potential industrial action – are “gold plated”, that is rather rich coming from a paper whose editor routinely trousers a remuneration package now well north of a million and a half notes a year. Whenever he retires, Paul Dacre won’t be without a few bob.

[UPDATE: My thanks to Chris Dillow for linking to this post from Stumbling and Mumbling. Much appreciated]

Murdoch Is Served (21)

One story that will not go away – despite some parts of the political spectrum trying vainly to shout it down – is Phonehackgate. Former assistant Met Commissioner Brian Paddick and Labour’s Chris Bryant have started legal action alleging a police cover-up.

Also now confirmed to be taking action against Rupe’s troops at the Screws are Steve Coogan and Chris Tarrant, along with Nicola Phillips, formerly assistant to Max Clifford. Clifford was effectively bought off by Murdoch’s representative on this part of the earth, Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), the sum changing hands said to be north of a million notes.

For a supposed “non story”, there seems to be rather a lot of story in this one.

[UPDATE: Sienna Miller has now joined the fray]

Where Are They Now? – 1

Go back to the mid 90s, and that interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. It was unmissable TV: the audience was massive, the repeats of parts or all of the programme numerous. The interviewer was Martin Bashir. You won’t have seen him on the Beeb, or any other UK broadcaster, for a while.

That’s because Bashir has moved across the North Atlantic: in 2005, he began a stint for ABC. That has just finished, and he will soon be appearing on cable broadcaster MSNBC, hosting a one hour afternoon slot. Looks like an interesting opportunity for the former BBC man.

Monday 13 September 2010

Seriously Funny

Putting together a top comedy show really is a serious business. Seriously. And, as anyone who drops in on Zelo Street will know, one top comedy offering that I put in the must-watch category is the Daily Show.

Just how much effort Jon Stewart and his team put into a typical show can be seen from a read through this excellent article in New York magazine. The week’s first show can be seen on More4 tomorrow at 2030 hours.

Newt Suffers Heatstroke

No, this isn’t about former London mayor Ken Livingstone and his supposedly favourite pets, but the wayward musings of an ostensibly mainstream politician in the USA. Newt Gingrich, who is thought to be ready to make a pitch for the 2012 GOP Presidential nomination, has been talking to the National Review Online. And he’s not making sense.

Gingrich, an ultimately polarising politician, has taken to nay-saying the Obama presidency whenever and wherever he gets the opportunity. The NRO piece therefore contains plenty of routine abuse – he asserts that the Prez is out of touch, dishonest, and an opportunist – but goes further, when he suggests that Obama has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview”.

Anti-colonial? Just what was it that brought the USA into being? So is he praising Obama? Well, no he isn’t, not if he’s pitching the term “Kenyan”. There’s only one reason to go down that particular road, and that is to enter the wacky world of birtherism. Obama’s father was Kenyan, and the birther movement holds that the Prez was born there, not in the USA.

Unfortunately for the birthers, no credible story has been put together to show how the Obamas managed to get their son into the USA and secure a birth certificate for him, nor why they would want to do so, given that the only job that Kenyan birth would disqualify him for would be the Presidency. Perhaps there is a time machine in there somewhere.

Apart from appealing to that part of the GOP which believes the birther argument, there is little reason for Gingrich to move onto this ground. Perhaps he is trying to position himself even further to the right than Sarah Palin. Perhaps he has thought this one through. But I suspect he’s fallen before the race even starts.

Virgin On The Resurrected – 1

Like mainstream party politics, the rail industry’s comings and goings can be a funny old game at times. And in the past two years or so, nothing has illustrated this better than the fall and rise in the stock of Virgin Trains (VT), the operator that runs services out of London’s Euston terminus to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow (as well as Crewe).

The expectation until very recently was that, come 2012, VT would lose their franchise and last presence on the UK’s rail map. They had already lost the Cross Country operation, although Arriva, who won that battle, have not exactly covered themselves in glory since.

Such was the dislike within Government for VT that, when agreement came to lengthen many of the fleet of Pendolino trains – as well as adding a few more complete ones – it was stressed that this additional capacity would be available only after the franchise renewal date. VT would, by inference, no longer be around.

And then came the contract to ready the additional Pendolino coaches and complete trains. After the obligatory bidding, it was awarded to ... a part of the Virgin Rail Group. But all the new equipment was not to be used in service by VT. By now it was starting to get silly.

It got sillier. The realisation dawned on the Department For Transport – known by many in the industry, with good reason, as DaFT – that any new trains readied for service before franchise change day in 2012 would be sitting around doing nothing, as VT would not be allowed to operate them. So a cunning plan was hatched, so cunning that some who should have known better took it at face value and failed to subject it to a reality check.

The franchise to operate InterCity trains out of London’s Kings Cross terminus to Newcastle and Edinburgh – the East Coast Main Line (ECML) – had been handed back by its previous operators, and is now a Proper Public Operation. This line, like the West Coast Main Line (WCML) where VT operate, was electrified. So one of the new trains could provide extra capacity on the ECML. Simples.

Except it wasn’t. The Pendolino trains are totally different to any of the train types in use on the ECML. There would have to be driver training just for one daily round trip, or drivers would have to be taken from VT, and then learn the road or be piloted. Reservation systems and catering facilities were different. And the ECML’s rescue locomotives can’t couple to a Pendolino, so if the new train “sat down” on the job, there would be even more chaos than usual.

Realisation grew that this was indeed a DaFT idea. But VT also had a cunning plan.

Hate Springs Eternal

Right now is not a good time to be a follower of Islam across the USA: the almost hysterical reaction to the proposed Cordoba Centre in Lower Manhattan has spilled over into citizens opposing mosques and Islamic centres anywhere and everywhere within the Republic. It might be thought that a call for calm and reflection would be the order of the day.

Unfortunately, in one part of the broadcast media at least, the opposite appears to be happening: no prizes for guessing that the anti-Muslim rhetoric is being stoked by our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). And, as a number of their hosts are weighing in with the same kind of message, the thought enters that this approach has been organised in advance.

During the summer, Imam Rauf, the softly spoken man behind the Cordoba Centre (or Park 51, if you prefer) has been characterised as a “radical” by Fox hosts including professional loudmouth Sean Hannity, despite Rauf’s moderate and conciliatory background. When Rauf voiced his concerns that being forced to move the proposed Islamic centre could provoke anti-American feeling among Muslims across the world, he was accused on the following morning’s Fox and Friends of issuing threats.

As that edition of Fox and Friends was on September 10, the timing was significant. But the disconnect was becoming noticeable: Rauf’s concern was also for the wellbeing of US forces in countries such as Afghanistan, a point also made recently by Gen. David Petraeus. Fox News Channel, like Rupe’s UK troops at the Sun and Screws, claims to be an unwavering supporter of the military.

And on that point, there has been silence. So do Roger Ailes and his coterie of obedient hosts want to put US service personnel rather more in harm’s way? It’s a strange paradox that those who shout their support for the military the loudest are also the ones who want them to be thrown into every conceivable theatre of war.

Yet stranger is the idea that the use of hate speech will do anything other than tarnish the image of the USA around the world – whatever the faith of those watching.

Phoney War

There does seem to be a lot of airtime being devoted to the C-word right now, whoever the broadcaster. That’s C as in cuts. We have the Coalition arguing for them, Labour arguing for less of them (or a less speedy implementation), and now the TUC are looking to mobilise opposition to them.

But, although cuts have been discussed ad infinitum – and, the impression is increasingly given, ad nauseam – there has not yet been sufficient cutting going on to give us an idea of what life will be like afterwards. So, into this vacuum, the pundits, politicians and occasionally real people pour their speculation.

Yes, we can be certain that significant cuts in the budgets of central and local Government departments will mean that they will employ less people. This in turn will knock on to suppliers, contractors, and that part of the service sector which depends on those workers spending and re-spending money. Unless jobs are created in at least equal numbers to those lost, unemployment will rise.

Moreover, given that those in work are likely to be given below inflation pay rises, or be subject to pay freezes (or even pay cuts), then there is likely to be a fall in their standard of living. All of this is likely to be reflected in a fall in support for the incumbent Government. But this sequence of events has not yet worked through.

So we are, for a few months at least, in a kind of limbo, a phoney war perhaps. Hence support for the Coalition has not been seriously eroded, and there has not been significant pressure on the alliance of Tories and Lib Dems. All is likely to change later this month: the precise nature of cuts will become known, job losses will be identified, and with that, any honeymoon period will come to a close.

If new jobs are not created, and the cuts continue, the situation will deteriorate, and then the new and improved two-headed donkey will be stress tested in earnest. It could be 1981 all over again, but this time round, there is little likelihood of a tinpot South American dictatorship riding to the rescue.

Christmas 2010, for many, could be a time for drowning sorrows, rather than celebration. And there will, more than ever, be a need for opposition to show some unity, and some leadership.

Sunday 12 September 2010

The Crossing Of The Rails

The pressure on transport links in and around London is inexorable. It has been thus since the middle of the nineteenth Century: this was what drove the first underground railways, what is now called the “sub surface” part of the system. That pressure continued to build, and with it came “deep level” tube lines. More recently, the need for links around the centre has led to the development of what is now called the “Overground” network.

One feature of the ever rising demand has been the need to build new lines to relieve existing ones, or to serve new centres of growth. The Victoria Line of the late 60s was in large measure built to relieve the Piccadilly Line, which it shadows between Green Park and Finsbury Park. The first part of the Jubilee Line relieved the Bakerloo, taking over its Stanmore branch.

And the latter, I can confirm from grim experience, was sorely needed: even occasional visitors to the capital knew that, by the late 70s, you avoided the Bakerloo at busy times. The demand was then ramped up by new building developments: when the regeneration of London’s Docklands went almost overnight from low rise to a proliferation of skyscrapers and high apartment blocks, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was never going to cope.

And so it proved. The DLR went from one car to three car operation, but it has needed the extension of the Jubilee Line through Canary Wharf to provide a solution. That solution, with more development coming on stream, may soon reach capacity, and this is where Crossrail comes in.

Crossrail – an east to west tunnel across central London and Docklands – relieves a number of other lines and pressure points. Most importantly, it helps the Central Line, which experiences peak overcrowding so severe that it is impossible to board trains at stations close in to the centre. In Docklands, it will relieve the Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf, and also the interchange at Stratford.

Relieving the Central Line, which passes under the length of Oxford Street, is crucial for the continuing credibility of the West End as a shopping and leisure destination. Likewise, providing more capacity across Docklands allows that area to keep growing, and to keep attracting the kind of businesses that contribute significantly to economic growth.

Put simply, it isn’t just a building project. Nor is it something that can be delayed or cut back – not if we want our capital city to retain its power to pull in workers, shoppers and all those others who keep the economy moving. That is why Bozza is batting for Crossrail.

Rousing Finale

September, as always, has brought the Last Night of the Proms, and the occasion was – if predictable in its content – enjoyable music making. It was also excellent television, and for the BBC, whose own Symphony Orchestra was on view for the finale.

Added to the audience in the Albert Hall were tens of thousands at “Proms in the Park” events around the UK. It was the kind of crossover between the highbrow and the populist that the Beeb does very well, and, whisper it quietly, nowadays is virtually alone in so doing.

So those who would rather not have the BBC, at least in its present state, would not have been happy viewers last night. Events like the Proms season are best forgotten when arguing for selling off, breaking up, or otherwise hobbling what is the world’s greatest broadcasting organisation.

As for Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, well, it just makes his job that bit more tricky. Because, coming towards him with the certainty of a ticking clock, is the licence fee settlement.

Crikey Chaps, Got To Get Re-elected!

I levitate above it with Buddha-like serenity” observed a guest on this morning’s Andy Marr Show, when asked for his views on the identity of his next opponent. It could only have been Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Mayor of London and occasional collector of “chicken feed” from the Maily Telegraph.

Bozza has now confirmed that he will run again for the mayoralty in 2012, after much speculation that he still had designs on being Tory leader in the event that Young Dave didn’t survive beyond a first term. Some on the right are of the opinion that he was always going to try and stay on at City Hall. I’m not so sure.

Johnson is not given to modesty or lack of ambition. Were there any chance that he could get his hands on a larger prize than Mayor of London, I suspect he would be after it. But, since getting through the door of 10 Downing Street, Cameron has become far stronger, and the Tory Party nowadays does his bidding, not Bozza’s.

So it would only need the word to come from the leader for the chance of Johnson getting anywhere near a winnable parliamentary seat to be snuffed out. He will only get the chance to make a Commons comeback after another term as Mayor – or if he stands for that office, and gets defeated.

And the latter outcome is not outside the bounds of possibility: last time, Ken Livingstone – likely to be his opponent again in 2012 – was representing a nationally unpopular Labour Party, while in 2012 it is his own side that is likely to be less favoured across the UK. The Evening Standard, rabidly pro-Boris before, has now changed hands and editors, with Andrew Gilligan, then in the vanguard of Ken kicking for the paper, relegated to a blog for the Maily Telegraph.

On board once more to head up the Johnson re-election campaign is Lynton Crosby, as before, but that does not guarantee success: it didn’t do the Tories much good in 2005. And Johnson could be hobbled if the upcoming spending cuts impinge upon his adopted manor. I’ll consider one project that may be in the balance – Crossrail - in a future post.

Saturday 11 September 2010

It Was Nine Years Ago Today

Today is the eleventh day of September. Or, as US English puts it, September 11. It was on this day nine years ago that a terrorist franchise effectively declared war on the United States by hijacking four commercial aircraft and flying three of them into targets in New York and Washington DC.

And so today, citizens of the USA, and especially those in New York, where the World Trade Center was destroyed with the loss of three thousand lives, will commemorate the event. Many around the world will think of them, and will also remember the effect it all had on their own lives.

Sadly, the event is this year overshadowed by unease stoked by anti-Muslim rhetoric and slanted coverage by parts of the media. The otherwise inexplicable overreaction to the Islamic centre proposed for the site of the former Burlington Coat Factory in Park Place is typical of the suddenly intolerant stance of some people.

This was addressed today in his weekly radio address by Barack Obama, a Christian and US-born President – just to point out two facts to those who have been maliciously attempting to suggest otherwise – when he said “We do not allow ourselves to be defined by fear”. That echoes the inaugural address of Franklin Roosevelt, another President who, like Obama, was smeared as socialist and even communist by opponents who ought to have known better.

Let us remember September 11, those who died, and those who are trying, in the face of mindless hostility, to govern the United States at this most difficult of economic times.

Friday 10 September 2010

Well Out Of Gauge

Budget airlines. They all look different. But there is one similarity they all share: you shouldn’t trust them further than you could chuck them. This was underlined by a recent BBC Watchdog investigation.

BMIBaby – the airline with allegedly tiny fares – have been caught using under sized hand luggage gauges. What they? Well, a gauge is what they use to show that your carry-on bag is within the size limits. For this carrier, it’s 55cm by 40 cm by 20cm.

Differently sized gauges were being used by the airline: those using conventional check in (and paying extra) got the gauge that accepted anything up to those measurements. Those checking in online and going straight to the gate got a smaller one. Result? Smaller gauge doesn’t accept bag, bag has to go in hold, thirty quid extra.

BMIBaby have been making a variety of excuses about this one. But, for a carrier facing an uncertain future, and not making money, the use of a device that enables them to add a nice little earner to their revenue stream gives off a decidedly unpleasant aroma.

This one is well out of order.

Greetings, Pop Pickers!

Over the last few days, Total Politics magazine has been releasing the results of their Annual Blog Poll. This took place in late July – it seems a long, long time ago now – and I asked Zelo Street readers for their support.

Well, someone must have answered the call, because Zelo Street has entered the Top Fifty Non Aligned list at number 36. Is that good? Well, it’s just nine behind the excellent Tabloid Watch, six behind the Beeb’s Stephanie Flanders, and one behind Inspector Gadget.

And - a source of pride as I read his blog - thirteen places in front of Robert Peston. Just hoooooooooww good is that? And nine in front of Andrew Gilligan, but then he’s just a total [characterisation omitted].

Many, many thanks to all you folks who voted for this blog. Let the blogging continue!

Thursday 9 September 2010

Murdoch Is Served (20)

And still Phonehackgate refuses to go away. Despite the constant moaning sound coming from the right and libertarian part of the blogosphere, the issue is if anything gaining momentum. Those who, for whatever reason, try and characterise it as a minor party political spat now have to face the unwelcome fact that the Government has today agreed that this is a matter for Parliament.

And that agreement came from Sir George Young, leader of the Commons, today. The matter will be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. There have been calls for Rupe himself to give evidence – might be a big ask, that one – and also his Representative On Earth in the UK, Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), who managed to bodyswerve the last enquiry, from which Rupe’s troops emerged with little credit.

Young Dave is understandably otherwise engaged right now – his father died yesterday, after suffering a severe stroke while on holiday in the south of France – and so his chief spinmeister Andy Coulson will not be going anywhere in the next day or two. But his future is looking increasingly precarious, despite all the efforts to shout down the story.

And that is because, as I noted earlier, this is all about one thing that does not know party political boundaries, and that is straightforward criminality. Trying to blame this affair on the Beeb, the Guardian, the NYT and the Labour Party is as pointless as it is feeble, and totally misses the point.

Waiting For Wally Godot

The Office for Budget Responsibility, set up by the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, did not get off to the best of starts when Alan Budd, its first chief, decided not to stick around after his initially agreed first three months. Since then, there has been much speculation as to who would replace him.

Today the speculation ended, as Robert Chote, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), was confimed as Budd’s successor. Osborne was suitably upbeat about the appointment, telling that Chote has been “one of the most credible independent voices on the public finances, taxation and public spending”.

So perhaps the right and libertarian side of the commentariat will be as happy as the Chancellor? Well, not if some of the previous verbiage coming from that direction is anything to go by. The IFS has recently asserted that Osborne’s recent budget was not “progressive”, as he told at the time, but regressive.

This conclusion caused deep distress to one commentator, who riposted that the IFS “swing to the left”. There was a suggestion of a conspiracy including the BBC. The IFS were a body with a “slightly pinko political perspective”. There is only one thing wrong with this analysis: it’s utter drivel.

So who was that commentator? Step forward – yes, it’s him again – Mark Wallace, former stalwart of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of all taxpayers, and still not publishing up to date accounts or a list of donors).

So far, the fearless founder of PlonkFartWally dot Com (Probably out to lunch) has not seen fit to comment on Robert Chote’s appointment. Fancy that. As the title suggests, we may be in for a long wait.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Rat Joins Sinking Ship

The original US cable TV channel – the name says it all – is CNN, the Cable News Network. And back in the early 90s, it was the cable channel. Not any more: CNN languishes in third place, behind Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) and MSNBC, which recently overtook CNN for second spot.

Back in the good old days of CNN, the undisputed star of the evening line up was Larry King. At 2100 hours EST, those trademark braces meant Larry King Live, the original cable chat show. King is still at CNN, and still doing his show, but time and tide wait for no man, and Larry is set to bow out.

So CNN needed a replacement. What to do? Well, things must be bad at the channel, because, in an act of apparent desperation, King’s time slot is to be handed to none other than Piers “Morgan” Moron, famous for being himself, turning the Daily Mirror into a laughing stock, and being decked by Jeremy Clarkson.

What might The Percy Moron Show look like? Oh, I dunno, how about running a few of those Euro NCAP videos, just to get an idea? Seriously, the impression is given that someone at CNN really doesn’t know what a grade one meathead this bloke is. The competition will not be quaking in their boots.

So what is the competition? Well, on cable, over at Fox the 2100 time slot means Sean Hannity, whose politics I dislike intensely, but whose ability to pull in the audience is proven. And MSNBC field Rachel Maddow at that time: she’s rapidly gaining popularity with younger and more liberal minded folks.

It may be worth catching The Percy Moron Show just the once, though, so you can say you saw car crash TV put paid to CNN. They could even get Clarkson to guest – just to put the whole thing out of its misery.

Overpaid, Overrated, And Over Here

Going unreported by most of the print and broadcast media in the UK – not even the Beeb appears to have picked up on it – has been the arrival in the country yesterday of a number of lobbyists aligned with the so-called Tea Party movement in the USA. This grouping, which has foisted a number of candidates on the GOP, is of course also intermittently promoted by our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The usual suspects are in the van: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. All are, more or less, vehicles for the well off to push for lower taxes on themselves personally now. Ordinary US citizens are, when required, brought on board in support, although they are the expendable cannon fodder of this particular war.

The title for this convocation of the wealthy and selfish is the European Resource Bank conference. It’s another example of ad-man’s claptrap used to gloss over the real purpose of the event: the “resource bank” of the title will involve, mainly, discussing and promoting ways for a small number of rich people to keep more resources in their chosen bank.

Fortunately, the Guardian at least is now calling the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of all taxpayers, and still no accounts or list of donors published), which is organising the conference, for what it is. The article puts it directly: “aggressively promotes an anti-tax, anti-state, anti-Europe agenda”.

It’s good to see that the TPA, an organisation which majors in demonising Government – any Government – being called for what it is.