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Monday 31 December 2012

Goodbye 2012

So. 2012 is almost over. What have we learned from the year?

Politics: the Coalition held together, but started to show signs of distress, which suggests it might not now make it to a full term. In the meantime, Mil The Younger started to find the Question Time range, to Young Dave’s increasing annoyance. The Tories started to pay far too much attention to UKIP, as did an increasing number of gullible pundits, while not asking about Nigel “Thirsty” Farage and his mounting pile of European Parliament expense money, or when UKIP would finally have their “Orpington Moment” and win a seat at Westminster.

Press And Media: Lord Justice Leveson reported, something that not even the wildest flailing of the Fourth Estate could prevent. An irrational and almost hysterical frothing from hacks, pundits, editors and even those who pretend to teach responsible journalism (yes, Tim Luckhurst, I’m looking at you) confronted anyone who spoke in Leveson’s favour. The press routinely disgraced itself over Plebgate. The Express told whoppers about miracle cures, the EU, and winter weather. And Paul Dacre downgraded much of his swearing to merely calling his underlings “f***ing tossers”, but still failed to retire.

USA: the Republican party, in concert with Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) talked up its imminent victory in the Presidential Election. And then it lost, as all rational pollsters had said it would. There were more multiple shootings. CNN was still a distant third in the cable news ratings. And the country’s most trusted newscaster was still fronting a programme on Comedy Central.

Climate: after eight months of unprecedented weather conditions, the penny is starting to drop with many people that all that extra CO2 may be having an effect. To compensate for this, the likes of James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole ratcheted up the abuse and compared wind energy advocates to paedophiles. As the end of year weather was comparatively mild, he kept quiet about it. For once.

Astroturf: groups like the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) are still plugging away, despite broadcasters and some newspapers getting wise to them, while persuading gullible Tory MPs that their message is worth hearing. It isn’t.

Blogosphere: it still required the otherwise hated MSM to get stories broken. The right and libertarian leaning blogs continued to lose edge and credibility. This was typified by a trust rating of a mere 4% - lower than any newspaper, or Twitter and Facebook – awarded to the Guido Fawkes blog.

And finally: we are, unlike last year, possibly a little closer to a grown up debate on drugs. Have a happy and peaceful New Year.

Unhappy Mail New Year

While you’re looking forward to celebrating the arrival of 2013, spare a thought for the pundits who labour in the service of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, some of whose pent-up hatred of anyone appearing to enjoy anything remotely resembling a good time has rubbed off on those around him. At Dacre Towers, they’re not going to be even slightly full of good cheer this evening.

Why the f*** should I cheer up, c***?!?

The mood having been already set by Peter Hitchens’ decision to blame the murder of church organist and lay preacher Alan Greaves on “rich liberals” and ascribe the condition of his attackers to “drugs”, things could only get more miserable, and to kick things off in style has come Simon “Enoch Was Right” Heffer, who has found that he cannot take his dog into his favoured public house.

Were I the licensee, I could think of a host of reasons not to want the Hefferlump on my premises, so there could be an ulterior motive for giving that reason for barring what must qualify as one of the potentially worst pub bores known to humankind. Heffer protests that the dog occupies the food preparation area at his house and it hasn’t caused him any harm. Yet.

Meanwhile, Andrew Pierce appears to have had to wait a few minutes longer for his tube train recently, given his rent-a-rant outburst at Bob “Scare” Crow of the RMT. Whatever Crow does is by definition A Very Bad Thing, especially the recent action in support of contract train cleaners who are being paid the minimum wage, which does not go very far in London. Others may not be in total agreement.

One bright spot is the admission by Melanie “not just Barking but halfway to Upminster” Phillips that her inability to swim, and general fear of getting in the pool, is irrational. A word in your shell-like, Mel: it ain’t the only thing about you that’s irrational, as anyone involved in the drugs debate, and any moderately observant follower of The Prophet, will know by now.

But the strangest slice of New Year misery, laced with cattiness and topped with a less than deliciously unhinged nuttiness, comes from the appalling Liz Jones, whose latest offering is reminiscent of those albums chucked together by bands desperate to fulfil their record company’s contract obligations and be shot of them. Liz is unhappy with women who have a life of their own.

This is of course unacceptable to this battiest of Glendas: all those with whom she communicates must by definition be available for conversation and meeting at whatever time of the day or night Ms Jones decides that they should be. If not, she’ll enter a period of advanced sulking and dash off another column of satisficing dross about the whole thing. And she won’t be happy.

So she’ll fit right in at the Mail, where nobody else is happy. Bah humbug!

Telegraph Annual Rail Fare Rant

In another demonstration of London-centric behaviour, those at the Maily Telegraph and its Sunday stablemate have gone into their obligatory annual why-oh-why-fest over the cost of rail travel, on which so many of their hacks depend, but which is rather less of an expense to those of us who tend to commute over shorter distances, or work where there are alternative means of transport available.

New stock for Telegraph staff: South West Trains' Siemens built Class 444 unit at Clapham Junction en route to Weymouth

Rail fares have gone up 50 per cent in the past decade” is the howl of protest masquerading as a headline, followed by the highly questionable “no perceptible improvement in services” assertion. Fare levels, whatever the protests about management pay or drivers’ hours, are mainly down to the policy of all main political players that passengers should pay more of the total cost.

In other words, were these to be lower, that would mean more subsidy, often from those who don’t use the railway. And as to the assertion that services haven’t improved, well, I can only speak from my own experience, and based here in Crewe have to say that this contention is total crap. For starters, in the past decade, Virgin Trains has put a complete new fleet of trains into service.

And so has regional operator London Midland, which provides services to Liverpool, Birmingham, and a slower but cheaper one to London. On top of that, Arriva Trains Wales has switched newer trains to its Manchester – Crewe – Cardiff route, and has refurbished the rest of its fleet. East Midlands Trains has also refurbished its trains. Cross Country has mainly new trains with a few refurbished ones.

Service levels are at least as good as in 2002 – the Birmingham to Crewe and Liverpool route has seen a doubling of frequency, we get four trains an hour to Manchester on weekdays, there are three an hour to London and hourly services to Scotland – and reliability is better. Timekeeping is certainly no worse than a decade ago. Passenger information is better. Stations are generally more pleasant.

But there’s no pacifying the Tel, where Jake Wallis Simons (one of their features writers) has thundered “It’s time to bring the railway bandits to justice”. His main gripe is that his annual season ticket costs £4,372, which sounds a lot until you realise that he lives in Winchester. This means, assuming 240 round trips per year, that he pays £18.22 per return journey, or 13.4 pence per mile.

On top of that, South West Trains – who run the services from Winchester to London – have in the past decade taken delivery of a brand new fleet of trains from Herr Siemens, including the Class 444, arguably the best new build medium-distance electric multiple unit on the network. That’s the unit that provides Simons’ service for him. Compare and contrast with the cost of running a car over those distances.

Some folk don’t know their good fortune. Even if they do work for the Telegraph.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Hopi Gets Tory Woes Nearly Right

Right leaning but avowedly mainstream pundits – inasmuch as such beings still exist nowadays – have been poring over the Tory Party’s problem of how to put together the kind of popular vote that can get them over the win line of 325 seats in a future General Election. The subject has recently taxed Paul Goodman and Matthew d’Ancona, both published in the Telegraph.

Observing this has been Labour supporting, but fiscally cautious, Hopi Sen, who has concluded that these august pundits are not only looking at the problem from the “wrong end of the telescope”, but are ignoring the practicalities – what the Tories actually do, rather than the froth and gloss – and instead obsessing with how that mythical floating voter perceives the party.

As Hopi says, if the politics are effective, and perceived by the electorate so to be, then those vital swing votes – and the seats they will shift from one stripe to another – will surely follow. Few of the 1979 or 1983 undecided voters gave a flying foxtrot whether the Tories were posh, elitist, or establishment types. And John Major was returned in 1992 not by Labour triumphalism, but straightforward money worries.

At those times, the Tories had no problem in assembling a majority. Tick off the factors: opposition exhausted and/or divided, economy bad but then improving, new and popular ideas (home ownership, union reform, share ownership), leadership unequivocally committed to supporting the country’s interests, a party united behind its leader, and the worry that the other lot would cost you more.

But not only are some Tories worried about their image, as Hopi points out, they are now also playing catch-up as the party becomes increasingly fractious – potentially in a far more destructive manner than in the Major years – and the wider Conservative Movement begins to infiltrate and influence the Tories into swinging right and embarking on needless campaigns.

That in turn makes an increasing number of Tory strategists nervous about UKIP (which in reality has taken votes from all three major parties), so some within the party think that whatever movement they have made to the right is not sufficient. But the electoral arithmetic is clear: UKIP aren’t going to win any seats, and all the trimming will do is to carve out more opportunities for Labour.

The only unknown here is how the Lib Dems will be able to decouple themselves from the Tories and retain a decent vote share, something which is clearly beginning to exercise that Party’s leadership. But in the meantime, the Tories are lacking ideas, discipline and coherence, and no amount of navel gazing can avoid the reality: parties in that state do not win elections.

And it is not clear how they can pull that round any time soon.

He Gove But Also Taketh His Credibility Away

The worst thing to do with current and former journalists is to give them a taste of executive power: if there was ever a lesson from history, it was provided by Max Beaverbrook being made a Government minister and forever after assuming (as did far too many of his friends and readers) that this bestowed a righteous insight onto his every utterance, without exception.

Now we have partial reverse of the concept: a former hack becoming a Cabinet Minister, but as with Beaverbrook using the papers to talk up his favoured policies while laying into his opponents. Today’s unlikely hero – if only in the mind of Himself Personally Now – is Michael “Oiky” Gove, who has enlisted the assistance of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre to get his message out there.

Gove faces war with equality activists as he axes Labour’s PC curriculum that dropped greatest figures from history lessons” screams the headline, the article telling readers that those rotten lefties had expunged poor Winshton from the history syllabus and then citing Gove’s unhappiness at undue emphasis being placed on covering the two World Wars. Er, hello, Mail people?

Exactly how do we cover two World Wars and leave out Churchill? The piece is no better on the abolition of slavery: William Wilberforce is “out”, but then it is conceded that “pupils will still have to learn about social changes such as the abolition of slavery”. And then we get “references to cultural, ethnic and religious diversity have been cut, although they will still be taught about immigration”. Yeah, right.

Did anyone at the Mail think for a minute that this is little more than muddle headed drivel as a cover for Gove’s propaganda? Or is this yet another example, coming hot on the heels of Plebgate, of how the country’s best resourced newspaper is no longer capable of decent investigative journalism, being able only to take what is served up to it, whether sourced from partisan politicians or unhappy coppers?

Gove is on a mission which, whether or not it is intended to benefit education, is geared to benefiting his own cause, and to this end, whoever may criticise him is confronted not by anything so arcane as face to face meetings and any kind of direct intellectual engagement, but by being instantly briefed against and otherwise smeared in any number of compliant media outlets.

Such an outcome awaited the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, who Gove upbraided for calling out waste, while of course he and his pals are happy for the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance to do just that, while themselves wasting millions in public funds on their FoI fishing expeditions. It’s only a pity that he can’t put all that effort into a coherent education policy.

After all, if he really cared about that, he’d put it first, and propaganda second.

Hitchens Desperate As Ever

As 2012 moves towards its end, there is one constant in the world of punditry, and that is the increasing desperation of Peter Hitchens to blame all the world’s ills on “rich liberals”, while not understanding that this definition covers such a vanishingly small part of the population that the idea they can somehow wield society-changing power shows that he is not dealing from a full deck.

Hitch has become more than usually annoyed at the death of Alan Greaves, who was severely beaten by an as yet unidentified person (or persons) while walking from his home to the local church, where he played the organ: “he met evil on a suburban road, as it is now all too easy to do” opines Hitchens, although if this were “all too easy”, then incidents like this would be happening a lot more often.

And while the Police investigate the apparently motiveless attack, Sherlock Hitchens knows exactly what caused it: “The horrible, diabolical injuries he suffered suggest that his assailant’s mind is in some way unhinged, quite possibly by the drugs which we have effectively legalised in our pursuit of pleasure at all costs”. So not by reading intolerant punditry in the Mail, then.

In any case, Hitch wants you to “look over there”: “Those who pontificated grandiosely about a school massacre in America will see no lesson in this, because it does not suit their views”. This informs the discussion not at all, except that one should note that if anyone has pontificated grandiosely about the Sandy Hook shootings, that person is Peter Hitchens.

Meanwhile, he’s decided that the attack was a result of “those who have subjected this country to a vast, 50-year liberal experiment” (no doubt the cops will move to arrest them at the first opportunity). “Authority, punishment, morality, self-discipline, patience, thrift, religion were all deemed to be outdated and unnecessary, not to mention repressive, backward and unfit for this wondrous new century”, as well.

Really? Now, I don’t know what happened to set off the attack on Alan Greaves, but what I do know is that Peter Hitchens doesn’t know either. But such occasional attacks like this have not just started happening in the past fifty years, although the reporting of them is far more comprehensive and immediate than it was then. Sadly for Hitchens, he cannot grasp this concept.

Instead, he blusters that “I don’t want the past back. I just think we chose the wrong future”. One can only marvel at the prospect of a future where ranting pundits can solve crimes without being there or knowing the unpleasant details. But at least Hitchens can reassure us all on one common misconception: “I have no great affection for the Fifties”, says the great man.

Which is probably as well, as fifty years ago wasn’t the fifties, even at the Mail.

Friday 28 December 2012

Plebgate – Wrong Call Year End Round Up

What we now know about the incident known as Plebgate is that there is rather a lot that we don’t know about it. But that was not the case either in the beginning – when everyone was certain that there was a difference of opinion between former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell and the Police – and certainly not after the Police log of the incident was leaked to a paper that wanted to publish it.

At that point, all those who were certain that there had been a difference of opinion became certain that Mitchell had behaved outrageously badly towards a number of unfortunate law enforcement officers and therefore had to go. And they were equally certain that the arrest of one of those officers signalled the end of press freedom, democracy and everything that they held dear.

Alongside that was the idea that Lord Justice Leveson, who was held to be in league with the Hacked Off campaign, was behind it all. “A PC arrested for revealing the truth? This is the world Leveson’s enthusiasts crave. Choose democracy, oppose Hacked Off” Tweeted Tim Luckhurst, whose own democratic mandate, sadly, does not exist. Nor, it now appears, does much of that “truth”.

Luckhurst’s rant was echoed by Collette Walsh, Tweeting “Now we’re arresting PCs who expose the truth ... disgrace”. What was a disgrace, though, was that hacks like her were taking a single source – that has brought us a whole series of whoppers in the recent past – and taking it as unimpeachable fact without bothering to do the most basic research as to whether it really was “the truth”.

Even John Mullin of the Independent on Sunday called the arrest “unbelievable” without stopping to ask why it had happened. That’s doubly worrying, given the IoS’ usually sound journalism, and added to Luckhurst being the originator of a highly regarded degree course for aspiring journos while being unable to stop and think makes one wonder if the Fourth Estate has lost the ability to do its job.

There were seemingly no barriers to being taken in: Neville “stylish masturbator” Thurlbeck was another of the old hands (ho ho ho) assuming something sinister about the arrest: “This is the sort of country failed/embittered/wannabe/neverwillbe journalists of Hacked Off want you to live in” he Tweeted. So that’s another who is happy with a single unverified source, then.

And to cap it all, Neil “Wolfman” Wallis managed to suggest something scary was at work behind the scenes: “I’m no conspiracy theorist, I promise you, but at every turn those who pay lip service to press freedom are combining to try and kill it”. Well, combining to not bothering to check out that single source and thereby killing the freedom of the public to know the facts certainly looks to have taken place here.

So who did that, assembled hacks? That would be you, not Hacked Off or Leveson.

Falklands French Fantasy Fable

It’s the end of December, and that means only one thing for hacks keen to find a historic angle on the news: the release of Government information previously embargoed under the thirty year rule. So now we are able to see what Margaret Thatcher and her ministers were up to in 1982, and much of that has to do with the conflict over the Falkland Islands.

But here a problem enters: not only do we know what happened, but we also know the minutiae of the Argentine junta and its decision making process, the stance of the Reagan administration, the various attempts at mediation, the effect on domestic UK politics, the involvement of the United Nations and NATO, and not least the role of what is now the EU in assisting the British cause.

However – and with the Fourth Estate there is inevitably a however – the press has pages to fill and an often Europhobic agenda to follow, and so after pausing to note that the USA was not always totally in our corner at the time (Ronnie and his pals had to make sure they kept everyone in Central and South America on side, so the Special Relationship wasn’t so special), the fire is turned on the French.

Why so? Well, the now infamous Exocet missiles were part of France’s arms industry, and they were horribly effective when it came to being loosed off from aircraft, potting a British warship and a container ship (the only saving grace in the latter case being that the Argentine pilot thought he’d got one of our aircraft carriers). The UK’s diplomatic effort was directed to stopping them getting more of the things.

And that effort was successful: no more air launch Exocets got through to Argentina during the course of the conflict, and they only had five of them in the first place. This, though, is not good enough for the press, so readers are told of “Maggie’s war with treacherous Mitterand over Exocet missile” (Mail) and “Thatcher’s blistering attack on French over Exocets during Falklands” (Telegraph).

But there was no treachery: the correspondence unearthed today is no more than a storm in a teacup. The Mail shows this when it concedes “At the start of the conflict, Mitterrand had declared an embargo on French arms sales and assistance to Argentina and allowed the British fleet to use French port facilities in West Africa” which does not exactly smack of treachery.

The article goes on: “He also aided British efforts to stop Argentina acquiring Exocets on the world's arms market and provided detailed information about planes and weaponry France had sold to Argentina”. And what neither Mail, Telegraph nor Sun mention is that France did what it did not because of the entente cordiale, but mainly because we were both EU member states.

But no good can come out of the EU, so it’s not mentioned. No change there, then.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Daily Mail Kicks The Disabled Again

Today, the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre has returned to one of its favourite subjects, that of state-disbursed benefits, with another piece under the overarching title of “Benefits Britain”. Readers are told “Britain leads the world in handing out disability cash: Nation spends twice as much as U.S. and six times as much as Japan”.

What's f***ing wrong with fact selection, c***?!?

Note that, in Dacreland, disability benefits are “handed out”, and that disability is in this article lumped in with “taxpayers fork out more than £4million every single year on incapacity benefit for people who are obese ... two thirds of them have been languishing on the sick for more than five years ... sharp rise in the amount paid every year in IB for drug addicts and alcoholics”.

Moreover, in a reprehensibly sloppy piece of journalism, disability benefits is also connected to “it also emerged earlier this week that record numbers were receiving winter fuel payments from the UK despite living abroad”. The article gives every impression of having been put together to make the disabled look undeserving and workshy, but this is just not true.

Almost half of all disabled people of working age – 48% of them – are in work, and so are paying the same work related taxes as all other employees. So let’s desist from painting the disabled as an amorphous mass of shirkers: it’s not only not true, but demeaning and defamatory. And then we can have a look at the source of that headline, which to no surprise at all is not new news.

The source of the figure of 2.4% of GDP paid in disability benefits comes from the OECD statistics for 2010 – it’s two and a half years old – and a little further study suggests that what each country categorises as “disability benefits” may vary. For instance, when you look at sickness benefits, the UK is not third out of 34 countries, but 22nd. Taking both together puts us in seventh place.

And the ignorance on display extends to Matthew Sinclair, chief non-job holder at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, whose rent-a-quote intervention is “Welfare is there to help the most vulnerable but for too long it simply consigned people to a life on benefits regardless of what they were capable of ... Reforms must ensure that help is available to get those who can work into employment”.

So he either ignores the 48% of the disabled that are in work, or doesn’t know what he’s talking about – which latter would appear to put him into the same category as Daniel Martin, whose name appears on the by-line of the Daily Mail article. Because what we have here is a slice of knocking copy that cherry-picks figures in order to make the disabled look bad and set the Mail’s readership against them.

Plus it’s another example of the Mail’s inability to perform investigative journalism.

Boris’ Anonymous Christmas Message

Nowadays, Christmas messages are not confined to Royalty. The Pope delivers one. The Archbishop of Canterbury follows suit. Young Dave has his own jolly good variation on the theme. And so does London’s occasional Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, whose message to the nation has been brought to us courtesy of a supposed third party whisper to the Maily Telegraph.

Gosh chaps, rumbled by that Zelo chappie again!

However – and with Bozza there is inevitably a however – there is next to no chance of him actually putting his name to the piece, which instead carries the by-line of deputy political editor James Kirkup (perhaps Benedict Brogan declined the opportunity to play obedient conduit for The Great Man). But that Bozza is the author of much of the content is in no doubt.

Tories preparing Boris Johnson’s return to Parliament” proclaims the headline, with the sub-heading telling “Several Conservative MPs in safe seats are prepared to resign and allow Boris Johnson to return to the Commons within weeks of the next general election, Tory sources have revealed”. But there’s only one MP prepared to make way for Bozza, Zac Goldsmith, and it’s not a particularly safe seat.

So the “several MPs” may be wishful thinking. And the key line in this article is this: “a senior party figure close to the Mayor told the Daily Telegraph that Mr Johnson is more likely to wait to see the result of the [2015] election first”. Who is this senior party figure? Well, who writes a weekly column of stream of consciousness guff for the Tel and gets £250k a year for it? That is Bozza speaking.

When the “source” says “There is absolutely no need for Boris to show his hand so quickly. He can wait for the result and play it by ear”, then, that means “There is absolutely no need for me to show my hand so quickly. I can wait for the result and play it by ear” (give or take the odd “yikes”, “oo-er” and “crikey chaps”). This is so obviously the result of a chat with the man himself.

And when the “source” then says “Getting a seat is no problem for Boris. There are several he can have whenever he wants ... It wouldn’t take long at all. It could be done in weeks, if it was necessary”, that is Bozza talking up his value to the Tory Party. Who these MPs are who would immediately roll over and play doormat for Johnson is not told – because he doesn’t know anyone who would do so.

In the old days when many Tory MPs used being an MP as a second occupation, that might have proved true. Now that so many are career politicians, Bozza may find himself getting told to shove off and look elsewhere. And he may also find that all those vanity bikes, that vanity cable car, the vanity buses and the fares hikes have caught up with him and his reputation come 2015.

It could be rather more difficult than dictating copy to the Tel. Cripes readers!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Telegraph Classic EU Car Whopper

The Maily Telegraph loves to kick the EU: if it isn’t another fairy story about budget air travel being banned by Bruno Waterfield, or Christopher Booker telling his readers that Europol’s HQ was once used by the Gestapo (difficult, as it was only opened last year), it’s a scare story about “Brussels” about to make part of our deeply cherished way of life illegal.

And so it proved last Thursday, when Transport Editor David Millward proclaimed “EU backs down over threat to classic cars”. It has? “The Commission had drawn up plans for a ‘roadworthiness test’ directive which would have required all components on a car to conform with those on the vehicle when it was first registered” he goes on, but sadly this is total bullshit.

We know this because of a previous round of equally bogus reports that were published back in September, leading to the EU’s office in the UK issuing a rebuttal: “Reports in the press that the European Commission has proposed to make modifications to cars illegal, or to ban classic cars unless they are unchanged since manufacture are entirely wrong”. And, as the man said, there’s more.

The Commission’s proposals would not, if agreed by the Member States and the European Parliament, make any difference to the current situation regarding MOT testing in the UK except to make most classic cars more than 30 years old exempt from testing if they are not used day-to-day on the roads”. It was about raising the roadworthiness test standard, but the UK’s is already high enough.

There was an effort to get that information more widely circulated: “The Commission is writing separately to all the newspapers concerned, none of which checked the facts with us before publication” [my emphasis]. But, as Millward’s piece confirms, the Tel was deaf to that one. So there has been another mention of this in the Holiday season bumper Euromyths special.

Not, of course, that you will read any of that in the Telegraph, which once again underscores why this publication long ago ceased to be fit to be called a paper of record, and gives an insight as to why Tony Gallagher is tipped to succeed the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre as the next editor of the Daily Mail. The only pity is that many of the Tel’s readers believe this drivel.

And that, folks, signals the start of the Christmas break for Zelo Street. Blogging will not resume until Thursday 27 December at the earliest, and is likely to be light to moderate until after the New Year. My thanks to everyone who has looked in, commented on and publicised the blog – have a peaceful and relaxing festive season and remember: don’t take this business too seriously.

Top Six – December 23

So what’s hot, and what’s not, in the past week’s blogging? Here are the six most popular posts on Zelo Street for the past seven days, counting down in reverse order, because, well, I’ve got presents to wrap and cards to write. So there.

6 Mail Victorious In Banning Itself The Daily Mail proclaimed victory in its campaign to filter internet access for youngsters, but seemed unaware that this may well stop access to sites that deal in premature sexualisation of young women – like their own.

5 Plebgate Bites Back – Press Clueless The story of former chief whip Andrew Mitchell and his altercation with Police officers over opening the gates at the end of Downing Street was shown to be suspect. But the papers that happily published the story failed to stop and think that it was their own fault, not that of the cops.

4 Littlejohn Gets Plebgate Wrong The Daily Mail’s tedious and unfunny churnalist Richard Littlejohn claimed the arrest of a Police officer over Plebgate was the silencing of a whistleblower. But had he bothered to do a few minutes’ research, he would have found that it wasn’t. He gets a million quid a year for that.

3 Paedophile Smear Ban Not Fair Says Del Boy Yes, James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole was not happy that the Australian Press Council had censured him for comparing wind power advocates to paedophiles. After all, he claimed, he’d get away with it in the UK. Not for long he won’t.

2 Panorama – There May Be Writs The BBC’s current affairs strand was about to screen a programme on the activities of Frederick and David Barclay (aka The Fabulous Bingo Brothers). Anyone wanting to see it was advised to tune in or record it, given the Bingos’ penchant for litigation.

1 Delingpole – Trouble Down Under The Australian had featured a piece authored by James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole. There had been complaints. The Australian Press Council upheld three of them and the appropriate health warning was applied to the online version of Del Boy’s article. He was most unhappy. Good.

And that’s the end of another blogtastic week, blog pickers. Not ‘arf!

[No Top Six next week, folks – the feature will hopefully return on January 6]

Saturday 22 December 2012

Plebgate – Publish No Evil

The saga that is Plebgate has moved on: first we had the unquestioning publication of whatever certain members of the Metropolitan Police supplied to the more credulous part of the Fourth Estate, then the realisation that this might not have all been factually correct. Now has come the kicking of the Police for supplying tainted information as a means of getting readers to “look over there”.

Because what those who scrabble around the dunghill that is Grubstreet cannot allow to take hold is the thought that much of what happened to former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell came about not because of the Police, but the messengers who gladly transmitted their message and then got their dubiously talented array of pundits to talk up as immutable fact.

And, as any fule kno, the press cannot under any circumstances admit that they fouled up, nor that this shows, as I pointed out last week, that much of the Fourth Estate is no longer capable of performing investigative journalism: the Jimmy Savile revelations were sparked by ITV, the Winterbourne View care home scandal by the hated BBC, and the reality of the Mitchell saga by Channel 4.

Most prominent among the pundits pushing back at the rozzers is the preposterously pompous Simon Heffer in the Mail (and, of course, late of the Telegraph) who recoils in horror at the prospect of dishonesty at the Met: “When the Police lie about politicians we should ALL be very worried”. That’s as opposed to lying about newspaper sellers, Brazilian electricians and Muslims in Forest Gate, of course.

The Hefferlump is certainly worried: “The effect of this is cancerous to confidence in the rule of law, and the Home Secretary must act to remove this militant tendency in the force”. So no removal of the equivalent tendency in the press. Instead, Heffer talks of the Met’s “flawed investigation into alleged phone-hacking at News International”, as opposed to the Mail’s flawed coverage of it.

Things are little better over at the Tel, where Charles Moore stresses that he said Mitchell wouldn’t have called someone a “pleb” at the outset. But his paper got hold of the Police log of the incident and published it unquestioningly. It, too, was either unable or unwilling to do the relatively small amount of work performed by Michael Crick when he unearthed the facts about the “corroborating” email.

And remaining at the Tel, Andrew “transcription error” Gilligan also wants to talk about Police failings over Phonehackgate while not mentioning that his own paper failed even to report the matter for months, if not years. And in suggesting that the Police has been on occasion corrupt, he fails to explain why the Tel, and so much more of Fleet Street, hasn’t been fussed about such things before.

None of them will admit their part in this affair. Will their readership believe them?

Nadine’s Selective Christmas Cheer

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that not everyone out there is as fortunate as those of us with houses, cars, well stocked fridges and freezers, up-to-date white goods, and the full range of consumer electronics. And yet more folks are less able to get out and about than the majority: these, too, are among those we are told should be in our thoughts this festive season.

So it is good to see our elected representatives taking time out to remind us of those little things that we can do to help those in need, including MPs like (yes, it’s her again) Nadine Dorries, who has taken to Twitter with “a plea to buy a homeless person a sandwich and a coffee”. So fair play to the fragrant Nadine, and perhaps some of her usually less charitable friends will take note.

Ms Dorries is also showing her appreciation at being invited along to another of what must be an increasingly tedious succession of pre-Christmas bashes, the latest being the folks at ConservativeHome, which of course includes our old friend Tim Montgomerie. And very sound advice from the Member for Mid Bedfordshire to take the train when you’re out celebrating.

Sadly, though, Ms Dorries’ spreading of seasonal cheer is not universally given, as the disability awareness group Able2UK discovered recently. Who they? Well, it’s a source of free advice for potential employers, it aims to motivate those with disabilities and to show their able bodied peers just what they are capable of, and has even organised a disabled awareness concert.

Part of this is, inevitably, fundraising: getting those in the public eye to give something, maybe an exclusive interview or quote rather than money. So the Able2UK Twitter feed twelve days ago came up with “RT if you think it would be nice if @NadineDorriesMP donated £1K out of her £40K payment from I’m A Celebrity to a disabled charity”, which hardly looks unreasonable.

But the Able2UK people were in for a shock: not only did it take the Dorries Twitter feed eleven days to respond, but when that response came, it was simply “There was nothing like 40k and she has done. If it wasn’t Christmas – I would call you a moron. Blocked”. Some may be shocked to read that: sadly I am not one of them, having never had a Twitter discussion with Ms Dorries, yet being blocked anyway.

Nor, I suspect, will those who she has smeared as “Stalkers, which even includes Linda Jack, her Lib Dem opponent at the last General Election. Nadine Dorries has a worrying habit of coming over all sweetness and light to those she deems worthy, while being thoroughly nasty to others, especially if they disagree with her views or otherwise criticise her. It is not the kind of behaviour becoming of an MP.

Something George Young and his boss might bear in mind during their deliberations.

Friday 21 December 2012

Media To Blame – Need More Guns

[Update at end of post]

Today the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) broke their week-long silence following the killing of 20 six and seven year old children (and six adults) in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, calling a press conference. This was addressed by the NRA’s head man Wayne LaPierre. But he would not be taking questions, so it was more a speech than a presser.

LaPierre blamed everything for the killings: video games, mental health, and of course lack of guns. But guns were somehow not to blame: that the shooter’s late mother had six of them in her house – all acquired and owned legally – was for the NRA not a problem. That one of those weapons was an assault rifle capable of discharging up to 900 rounds a minute was not, for Wayne LaPierre, an issue.

That countries in Europe and elsewhere that have enacted strict gun laws have a murder rate a fraction of the USA, and have gun deaths of a yet smaller fraction, is for the NRA not a problem. No, for Wayne LaPierre and his merry men, the problem is that there are not enough guns. Having six guns in one household is not sufficient. And he was very specific about where there should be more guns.

LaPierre wants more guns in schools. He wants every school across the USA – that’s the thick end of 100,000 of them – to have an armed guard on duty. This is because, in his words, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. The NRA cannot or will not consider that the ease with which the bad guy can get tooled up may be the problem.

And, it seems, these armed guards will not be so expensive for the taxpayer because they will be unpaid volunteers. Yeah, right, so that’s someone otherwise unable to find work – or maybe retired – given a free weapon and no money to feed and clothe himself. Does that not sound like a recipe for some of these people to, how shall I put this, step out of line at times of personal necessity?

Moreover, why isn’t the NRA also advocating armed guards for movie theatres? Or armed guards for Safeway or Wal-Mart? With so many more armed people on the streets, it would only be a matter of time before one of them – maybe accidentally – let one of those guns off. And, if they’re going to deter assault rifle owners, they’ll no doubt be issued with their own serious firepower.

But enough: Wayne LaPierre’s suggestion is crap. The next time a school gets shot up, an armed guard will be no use unless he gets the first shot in. If not, he’ll be a dead armed guard. Or perhaps he’ll engage the shooter in a good ol’ fashioned fire-fight and then we can have lots of what is sometimes termed collateral damage. Like more dead children and teachers. This whole idea is absurd.

Like the NRA’s own security – two protesters managed to get in to that presser.

[UPDATE 22 December 1210 hours: even the New York Times, normally a bastion of restraint and understatement, was scathing about Wayne LaPierre, who among his other accomplishments managed to dodge his appointment with the USA's most lethal recent shooting war - Vietnam.

The NYT called his speech a "mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant", observing that in the world of the NRA, no blame could be attributed to gun dealers - legitimate or otherwise - and nor could it be attributed to those who make available ever more lethal weapons.

In other comment, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell noted that the NRA's proposal for an armed presence in every school would cost $6.7 billion annually, and that Columbine High School did indeed have an armed Sheriff's Deputy on hand, but that he failed to stop the killing (he fired four times at the killers, but missed - and fortunately missed anyone else).

As O'Donnell also pointed out, the NRA's own board includes conservative politicians like Grover Norquist, who would oppose that additional spending on armed guards. The NRA has attracted derision and contempt for its pronouncements yesterday - perhaps this time there really will be a change in the gun laws]

Barratt’s Last Box

I once bought a house in Huddersfield – this was a long time ago – and before settling on my final choice, dozens of estate agency flyers passed before my inspection. So many of these were from one particularly notorious development, in fact, that agencies were told to filter them out. It should surprise no-one who bought in the 1980s that the estate in question had been built by Barratt Developments.

A Birkby Barratt Box - no thanks

The Barratt estate in Birkby was the Siberia of Huddersfield’s owner-occupied housing: everyone knew where it was, and nobody wanted to go there. Horror stories abounded: the houses had apparently been thrown together rather hastily, there were settlement cracks in some, many suffered from draughts, the square protruding bay windows gave problems, and as a consequence many remained unsold.

So on reading the fawning obituaries of Lawrie Barratt, founder of the company that threw that estate and many more together, I experienced one of those moments when reality and the world in which hacks look back on it suffer a significant disconnect. The “wonder of housing accessible to the masses” sits uneasily with the 1980s memory of the “Barratt Box”.

From the way the Mail sings Barratt’s praises, one might think that no-one else built new houses for private buyers until he came along. This is total bunk: names like Wimpey were already making their mark in towns and cities across the UK, and here in Crewe we have an extensive example of the genre in the north west of the urban area. There are others nearby in Altrincham and Hartford.

But instead of getting a sense of proportion, hacks resort to remembering the TV adverts, probably because they featured a helicopter and this bestowed some measure of cachet. That Barratt offered buyers “starter deals” is held to have been a key factor in the expansion of private ownership, while the easing of mortgage controls and more players entering the market for house loans is forgotten.

This last, together with a steady expansion of private sector housing that had started decades before, is what gave us the variety and quantity of buildings that is today’s housing stock. Yes, Barratt was a player in this process, but in the great scheme of things did not change the landscape on his own. And, fortunately, at least the Telegraph mentions the problems with those 1980s “boxes”.

Those would be the houses that Lawrie Barratt never had to suffer, and which the hacks penning the fawning obits have either long forgotten or never knew in the first place. It’s not a case, as the Mail has put it, of “defying the snobs”, but of making a fast buck from selling a product which was often shown to be seriously deficient. And that’s something you won’t be reading about today.

Instead, the man who brought us the “Barratt Box” is almost canonised. Sickening.

Telegraph Travel Frightener – Don’t Panic!

Nowhere is the insularity and ignorance of the Fourth Estate more visible than when they start to bang on about travel, another subject where most hacks and editors come over all clueless unless a third party serves the information up to them. And, as the pre-Christmas getaway starts in earnest, the Maily Telegraph has demonstrated that it can do cluelessness as well as the rest.

London-centric bad journalism gets off to disastrous start, indeed

Christmas exodus gets off to disastrous start” screams the headline, which will come as something of a surprise to anyone in my part of the country. There’s some replacement of trains by buses following local flooding, but that should be sorted later today. The A34 has also been hit by floods, but the motorways are OK and traffic is moving reasonably freely.

This, though, does not occur to the Tel, which suffers from the mentality that says, roughly, that because their offices are in Canary Wharf, the only travel news that matters is the latest foul-up on the Jubilee Line, the roads being clear for those executives who cannot bear to be other than chauffeured, and the availability of easy access to long haul flights from Heathrow.

But there has been disruption to the Heathrow Express this morning, so panic has set in at the Telegraph. To illustrate the problems at London’s Paddington station, a photo has been used which shows a station which is (a) not in London, and (b) not on the line west out of Paddington (first glance suggests it’s Peterborough, which is 76 miles north of London). So far, so clueless.

But one can travel to Heathrow by Tube. So the Tel panics the readers yet more by telling of a signal failure on the Jubilee Line, which is stuff all use to prospective air travellers as Heathrow is served by the Piccadilly Line. And the news that lots of people are due to fly in and out of London’s busiest airport is not news: lots of people travel through it every day of every week.

That the hacks’ panic is just that is underscored later in the piece when it is admitted that many rail operators are actually seeing lower numbers travelling right now, as many commuters have taken an extra couple of days off and that has not been matched by the increase in those off to see friends and family. Eurostar is carrying lots of passengers, but without any problem.

So perhaps the Telegraph could join most of those in the real world and chill a little. And get itself a decent picture editor – that motorway photo wasn’t taken in December.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Paedophile Smear Ban Not Fair Says Del Boy

Following his censure by the Australian Press Council (APC), James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole has taken the idea that he might, after all, not be so “right about everything” rather badly, taking to the bearpit that is Telegraph Blogs to launch a sneering assault on all things Australian that have to do with stopping him comparing his opponents with paedophiles.

Still not fair or balanced

Australia you are so totally gay” he sneers, in the style so beloved of his adoring fans (Sid and Doris Bonkers). Not that he’s getting at gays, you understand, but instead using the word as meaning, well, gay. Del Boy sneers that Oz is nowadays all about “gag-making political correctness ... handed in its testicles to the progressives long ago”. Progressives are people who disagree with Del.

And he is unrepentant about his piece for The Australian, which now carries an APC health warning: “I stand by every word of the piece – especially the bit about paedophiles ... If Jimmy Savile were alive today he would definitely be heavily into wind farming”. Then he whines about it only being an opinion piece, on which he has a point, but there is no need to be dishonest or abusive.

What a pleasant chap he is

Then Del sells the pass, by contrasting what happened to his article in The Australian to his experience of the PCC in the UK. The latter body let him off, but what he does not let his readers know is that the PCC accepted his evidence as fact, and that the Telegraph deployed the “Littlejohn Defence”, which holds that it is OK to say something that is not true because it’s just being done to make a point.

Problem is, that kind of behaviour by the PCC is exactly what has caused it to become a laughing stock: it picks and chooses which cases it will deign to consider, it deploys the most ludicrous and twisted logic to excuse the target of the complaint, and is so obviously in the pocket of the press that it is supposed to be regulating that it ceased to be taken seriously long before Phonehackgate.

And since the hacking scandal, and the PCC being absent and deaf with it, nobody has suggested that it would be a credible option for it to continue in its present form – well, except Del Boy, that is. Both Young Dave and Mil The Younger have called for it to be replaced. The PCC claimed to have found no evidence that it had been misled over hacking – except that it had been. Seriously misled.

Even the NUJ has called the PCC an “abysmal failure”. It is such a poodle of the likes of Paul Dacre that the Desmond titles were withdrawn from it. Yet James Delingpole approves of it because it allows him to liken his opponents to paedophiles, along with whatever other smears and abuse he wishes to deploy. Well, I have news for Del Boy – what happened in Oz is coming here very soon.

So he’d better get used to being called out for dishonesty when he uses it.

Mail Victorious In Banning Itself

The legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre must be rather pleased with himself today, given the front page of his mighty organ: “Victorious!” is the claim, as readers are told of two campaigns which have allegedly been brought to a successful conclusion. One of these is to stop young children from accessing pornography, something which Dacre has long held to be A Very Bad Thing.

After all, that is his chief complaint about Express Newspapers passing into the hands of Richard “Dirty” Desmond – that Des also runs a stable of what are euphemistically called “top shelf” magazines. It is also Dacre’s main gripe at Channel 4 over the years, so much so that the Daily Mail referred to former CEO Michael Grade as “the pornographer in chief”.

So what of this supposed victory that Dacre and his obedient hackery have declared today? Well, actually there isn’t a victory at all: what has happened is that Young Dave, who has written a jolly good column for today’s Daily Mail, has said that the issue of children getting hold of this porn malarkey is jolly serious and he’s going to get one of his chapesses to have a jolly extensive think about it.

Who f***ing says it's an own goal, c***?!?

Cameron also tells Mail readers that this is all about the equally jolly serious issue of young people becoming sexualised prematurely. He asserts that “I have appointed Claire Perry MP to be my adviser on preventing the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood ... I pledge to do whatever I can to preserve that innocence and protect our children. Nothing matters more”.

Now, those who know the Mail Online site of old may at this point be wondering exactly how Paul Dacre and Martin Clarke are going to manage this one: after all, it was only last month that I called out the appallingly righteous Peter Hitchens after he had railed against doctors for prescribing contraceptives for the under-16s and had tried to give the impression that it was all the Government’s fault.

The problem for Hitch – and it’s the same one for anyone who sounds off on the subject in the Mail – is that Mail Online has serious form when it comes to premature sexualisation of the young. This is, after all, the website that routinely publishes photos – often lots of photos – of girls who are not merely under age, but as young as 13, under the pretext of their “growing up fast” or looking “all grown up”.

So if the web is to have prematurely sexualised images screened out – and not everyone, as Mic Wright notes, is convinced that the move would work – this could end up blocking access to Mail Online, and thus stopping all that hit-bait that lurks in the infamous “sidebar of shame” luring the curious and keeping the advertisers shelling out. It’s a strange victory that gets your own product banned.

Not that the Daily Mail is full of hypocrites playing both sides of the field, of course.

Meteorology For Express Dummies

Last winter, I called it the “reverse Express weather curse”: apart from a brief cold spell in the second half of January, it was a mild winter, despite the Express serving up an almost daily diet of apocalyptic weather frighteners, as if the paper was willing a repeat of December 2010 on us. Now, as winter is on us once again, the scare stories are being repeated.

Not so far it isn't

This was signalled back in late November when the Express’ resident weather “expert” (ho ho ho) Nathan Rao proclaimed “Coldest Winter In 100 Years On Way”, which if true would be worse than 1978-9, 1962-3, and 1946-7. Having had first hand experience of two of those, I have to say that whatever its nature, it would have to be pretty severe and extremely cold.

But Rao has been claiming recently that the Express has “a firm reputation for leading the way when it comes to the weather”, which has been comprehensively debunked by the customarily excellent Tabloid Watch – so effectively that Rao has taken to his own blog to whine about being called out. So, what of that “Coldest Winter In 100 Years” he predicted?

Sadly, I have bad news for Nathan Rao: it won’t be happening in the next week. How do I know this? Well, instead of cobbling together scare stories based on the outpourings of fringe forecasters, I’ve been indulging in two things absent from Express weather reports: research and meteorology (the latter being the scientific study of the atmosphere). So what have I found?

Well, looking at the Met Office website – yes, I know this will have the climate change denial lobby engaging auto-sneer, but it does forecasting better and more consistently than the Express – the synoptic (aka surface pressure) chart for Sunday next shows an area of low pressure over the UK, with much of it experiencing a moist south-westerly airflow.

The associated temperature forecast for that day right now – this from the BBC five day forecast – is 11 degrees Celsius, which is above the seasonal average, not, as the Express would have its readers believe, significantly below it. And the Atlantic Jet Stream forecast (this from metcheck.com) suggests that the weather will continue to be driven by westerly winds for some days after that.

Here is the Jet Stream forecast for Thursday next week, showing the winds in the upper atmosphere coming most emphatically from the west. It would be nice to have the Jet Stream tracking a little further north, but what it won’t be doing on this evidence is going anywhere near that “Coldest Winter In 100 Years” just yet. Thus my introductory tutorial on meteorology for Express dummies.

Not that Nathan Rao will be taking any notice of factual evidence, you understand.