Welcome To Zelo Street!

This is a blog of liberal stance and independent mind

Saturday 31 March 2012

Mel And Her Sources

Some folks can’t leave their pet subjects alone, and with Melanie “not just Barking but halfway to Upminster” Phillips, that means not just the Middle East but Israel. And despite the inconvenient fact – that the IDF has never been defeated in battle – she keeps screaming about the peril in which the state is supposed to be right now, especially because of Iran.

Neither fair nor balanced

Mel’s latest rant follows the publishing of an op-ed piece by Middle East specialist Mark Perry – who Mel doesn’t like, as he is insufficiently pro-Israel and therefore an “established Israel-basher” – in which he asserts that the IDF has gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, and that the US authorities have found out. She then calls Perry and Barack Obama (personally) out for betrayal.

There are only the two problems with this analysis, and sadly for Mel, individually either would derail her train. Together they ensure it never leaves the station. First is the assertion that the US has deliberately leaked the information – yes, to a journalist – in order to pull the rug from under Benyamin Netanyahu and forestall an Israeli strike on the Iranians.

This is complete crap: if the Israelis have any presence, or potential presence, in Azerbaijan, the Iranians, if their intelligence is up to scratch, will know already. The idea that the regime in Tehran needs to read Foreign Policy magazine to keep abreast of events in the country next door is ludicrous. It’s only a pity that the preposterously pompous Simon Heffer hasn’t scrutinised Mel’s copy beforehand.

The second problem for Mel is her sources. One is an appearance on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) by former US ambassador to the UN John “Wiggy” Bolton, who is far enough to the right to be not only adjacent to Attila the Hun, but also right wing when compared to most of the rest of the Fox punditerati. Of course Bolton agrees with Mel. He’s equally batshit.

Mel’s second source is Israeli paper HaYom, which sounds like an authentic news source until you find out that it “has been criticised for its right-wing political slant, with its content being described as ‘propaganda’”. HaYom is unashamedly right leaning – supporting the Likud over Kadima and Labour – and populist. It’s not about to give a Democrat President of the United States a break.

Small wonder, then, that it talks of the “Iranian pharaoh”. Mel, you won’t break out from your small circle of believers at Mail Online with arguments and sources like these. But that’s your choice: it must get awfully lonely in that echo chamber.

Labour And Those Blair Wins

The difficulties facing the Labour Party as it reorganises and pulls together its policy portfolio is being compared unfavourably with the three consecutive General Election victories pulled off by the saintly Tone between 1997 and 2005, especially by the likes of Dan Hodges, who claims to be within that party, while not realising that he is on his way out – one way or another.

Eye 806 - Major already in deep trouble in November '92

But to compare Labour’s opposition today with what Tone and Pa Broon faced in the mid-90s verges on the insane. Then, the Lib Dems had just 20 seats, the Tories were utterly exhausted and apparently terminally divided, and in the wake of Black Wednesday, the latter’s poll ratings had been bumping along the bottom. “Shagger” Major and his party were dead men walking.

Eye 821 - recriminations as Lamont goes

As so often, the front covers of Private Eye magazine from the time give a flavour of the mood. Even in the wake of Sterling’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), Major was mired in conflict over Europe, an issue that didn’t register on most voters’ radars. They weren’t interested: seeing the Tories fighting like ferrets in a sack, many turned off – and turned away.

Eye 846 - John Smith passes

There then came bitter recriminations after Major kept Norman Lamont at the Exchequer after Black Wednesday and effectively forced him to carry the can for a policy – the ERM – that he had opposed. Ken Clarke was a better Chancellor, but it was to little effect: Major was increasingly a figure of ridicule, and the poll ratings remained dire.

Eye 847 - Major begs for a victory

And every Tuesday and Thursday – it was twice a week before Tone changed things – Major would be ritually trounced at PMQs by John Smith. Small wonder that the Eye cover following Smith’s unexpected death in 1994 had the paper seller asserting that “He’d still beat Major”. And the very next cover shows how desperate the Tories were for votes: the party lost all eight by-elections they defended in that Parliament.

Eye 896 - Blair keeps winning by-elections

The election of William ‘Ague as successor to Major didn’t improve things: as the cover of Eye 927 suggests, he was taken even less seriously by party and media alike than Major. The Tory spin machine was more or less non-existent. Labour had Big Al and Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole: the Conservatives had little with which to reply.

Eye 927 - William 'Ague no better than Major

Labour’s victories in 1997 and 2001 did not need Blair: Smith would have trounced both Major and ‘Ague. So would his protégé Pa Broon. And whoever had disposed of those two would have had no difficulty seeing off Michael Howard. The Dan Hodges of this world are woefully wrong to paint anyone as delusional on that score, except for themselves. Labour was kicking in the rotten door. It didn’t need Blair.

And it doesn’t have to be a Blairite, or Blair Lite, next time.

Galloway – Enjoy It While It Lasts

While the pundits have pored over George Galloway’s by-election victory in Bradford West, little attention has been given to his – or his party’s – prospects of repeating the feat in 2015. Because, if the proposed boundary changes are implemented in the intervening years, that chance will be not unadjacent to zero, as a check on those changes makes all too clear.

Moreover, the chances of Labour taking the constituency back will be seriously hampered by the mix of voters being brought in, especially as the two wards being taken out of Bradford West, City and Manningham, are each represented by three Labour councillors. Both have significant Asian populations, and would also have provided the bedrock for Galloway’s victory.

So what comes in in their place? Most intriguingly, Shipley ward – which from memory was called Shipley West in the past – last returned three Green Party councillors. But historically it returned three Tories, while Shipley East, now called Windhill and Wrose, was solidly Labour (last time round, it was two Labour and one Lib Dem representatives).

The Tories could expect to benefit most at the next General Election from adding Shipley to Bradford West, especially as the Bingley Rural ward – which includes relatively upmarket settlements like Cullingworth and Wilsden – will also be brought into the constituency. Bingley Rural is solidly Conservative. And then there is the former mill town of Queensbury.

We used to joke about Queensbury being “above the snow line”. The former home of Black Dyke Mills – now long defunct – is now mainly residential, with some farming communities in outlying villages. It last returned two Independent councillors and one Conservative, and as with the other two wards being brought into Bradford West, would be expected to benefit the Tories most in 2015.

But, the objection may come, the Tory vote collapsed even more spectacularly than the Labour one on Thursday. This is true. But much of that support may have been abstention after a disastrous PR week for the Coalition – the Lib Dems also lost ground – with some habitual Tory voters switching to back Galloway as the best means of embarrassing Labour.

If it looked like the Tories had a chance – and they ran a respectable second all the way from 1974 to 2010 – those voters, in wards like Thornton and Allerton which returned three Tory councillors last time, would desert Respect and switch back. So enjoy your win, George Galloway. There won’t be another for you in Bradford.

[Trivia note: the Tories’ highest number of votes between October 1974 and 2010 was achieved in 1987 by a bloke called Iain Duncan Smith]

Friday 30 March 2012

Say Goodbye, Dan

Last night, Labour lost the Bradford West by-election, which, it is generally agreed, they should have held, although the party’s majorities in recent years have not been particularly high (less than 4,000 in the high water mark year of 1997), nor consistent (the Labour vote share fell in 1997, but rose in 2010). And the significant factor in the loss was the larger than life presence of George Galloway.

The former Labour MP, expelled from the party in 2003 over the Iraq war, fought a campaign that homed in on the Asian vote, and with the electoral wards of City, Manningham and Toller making up much of the constituency – along with Labour not seeing the man from Respect coming, with his stoking of resentment against recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – he prevailed.

That this was a unique set of circumstances and a worrying potential outbreak of sectarian politics, though, did not deflect one increasingly bitter and desperate critic of Labour from, by his own admission, jumping up and down: step forward Dan Hodges, whose expert knowledge of limited companies extended to believing that Ken Livingstone’s wife was a freelance worker.

Hodges, who is becoming not so much a Blairite as a Blairite caricature, can be seen at his silliest when saying “It’s not just one by-election”. Wrong Dan, Bradford West is indeed just one by-election. He doubles down by also telling “When we had two leaders who backed the Iraq war we won Bradford”, not noticing that under one of those leaders Labour lost one seat in the city in 2010.

And Dan cranks up the hyperbole in his new role as supposed Labour presence at the bear pit that is Maily Telegraph blogland: “This morning the Labour Party is no longer fighting to win the next election. It’s fighting to stay in existence ... [this] is the most catastrophic result for the Labour party since Roy Jenkins and the SDP’s challenge in Warrington in 1981”. Jenkins lost that by-election, though.

And opinion polls at that time briefly predicted a Tory wipe-out at the next election. Instead, they scored a majority of over 140. What the heck, though, Hodges is away and running: so desperate is he that he (characteristically) asserts that Sunny Hundal has said something he hasn’t, in order to take the heat off. And his comments fail to grasp the reality of what happened in Bradford.

Galloway secured the services of Naweed Hussain, who had been the campaign manager for retiring MP Marsha Singh, so his campaign had a head start, with probably the best local knowledge of all the participants. Labour made the mistake of not tackling him early on, and stopping the Respect bandwagon in its tracks.

Hodges isn’t for analysis, but for pulling the mardiest possible strop as Labour chose a leader he doesn’t like. Say goodbye, Dan. You’re out of time and credibility.

TPA – An Inconvenient Truth

I’ve said previously (summary HERE) that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) does not engage with the Government bodies it so joyously and routinely demonises, but rather snipes at them from a distance, relying on Freedom of Information (FoI) fishing expeditions, and otherwise making false claims and assumptions from little more than job adverts. And now they have been caught out.

A lack of research from the second floor

On Wednesday, the TPA’s “grassroots coordinator” (the archetypal non-job) Andrew Allison took aim at Labour controlled Camden Council (those who believe the “non partisan” label take note) for promoting what he called a “non job”. The customary TPA circular logic is matched to the false assumption that there is already waste, and by this method, Allison concludes that there is indeed waste.

There is also a little sleight of hand: he claims that the Council now has more employees earning over certain thresholds, but this uses the same trick as the TPA’s so-called “Town Hall Rich List”, where anyone taking redundancy has their pay-off added to any salary and expenses to make it look as if that salary was far higher. The thought that this is a one-off expense is not allowed to enter.

The smug Andrew Allison did not, however, have long to enjoy the fruits of his lack of labours: Theo Blackwell, Camden’s cabinet member for finance, weighed in and upbraided him for not having bothered to get in touch with Camden, then pointed out that the Council is actually making £43 million of savings over the next three years, along with the abolition of a thousand posts.

Moreover, the job advert that Allison picked on was not, as he asserted, “extra staff”, but cover for maternity leave. And it has to be pointed out to him that someone looking after what is intended to be a five year strategy is crucial if services are to be maintained and – hopefully – even improved. The councillor’s response underscores what I have said about the TPA’s approach.

Another commenter notes the point about using redundancy pay-offs to make salaries look higher, and suggests that this could account for the apparent increase in the numbers of Camden staff being paid over £50k, and that this number, given the reduction in posts being undertaken, may actually be falling. The impression is given that the TPA has again been selecting numbers to suit its agenda.

As a third commenter puts it, “Mr Allison’s silence on the matter speaks volumes”. It certainly does.

Express Says Don’t Panic!

As the prospect of a strike by tanker drivers, and the potential for forecourts to run dry over the Easter break, is brought into some sort of proportion – no thanks to idiot politicians like Francis Maude, now facing the significant task of removing boot from mouth over his “jerry cans” advice – the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate has been caught facing both ways over the affair.

This is typified by the Daily Express, which today is attempting to calm a panic that it was partly responsible for stoking in the first place. The typically shameless process began on Tuesday, as the front page lead screamed “Petrol Strike Chaos To Cripple Britain”, despite there being no more than a ballot result from the disgruntled drivers, whose concerns were, no doubt by coincidence, not told.

After the Government weighed in without first engaging brain – after all, there had still been no confirmation of a strike, and seven days’ notice would be needed beforehand – the paper was at it again: “Pumps Run Dry In Petrol Panic” came the Thursday splash. There was only one result going to come out of this kind of hackery, and that was yet more panic buying.

And so it turned out: because of inept Government urging to “top up” tanks, and yet more inept advice to store fuel in “jerry cans” (resulting yesterday in a woman suffering 40% burns after attempting to decant petrol from one can to another in her kitchen – there’s a good reason petrol stations are open plan and they ban smoking), the pumps did indeed run dry.

But nothing stands between the Express and its headlines, so today has come “Time To Stop Petrol Panic”. And it is finally admitted in the sub-head that no strike has yet been called. Problem is, immediately underneath that is “Food and fuel prices to soar”, which will have precisely the opposite effect intended by the main headline. It’s as if nobody at the paper is capable of prior thought.

Words can have consequences, Express people, even when your title is shifting no more than 650,000 copies against the two million plus of the Daily Mail or Sun. It would be good to see a little thought deployed and responsibility shown before some of those cheap and nasty headlines were composed – the panic means some poor soul is now in the burns unit at Wakefield’s Pinderfields Hospital.

The Tory buffoon Francis Maude may well pay for that with his job in Government. But the Express will keep on peddling cheap and nasty frighteners, and Dirty Des will keep trousering his wedge. And we know what that means: another Benchmark Of Excellence.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Fabrice Muamba – Not In The Eye

The near-death experience of Fabrice Muamba is by now well known: at the age of just 23, and with no previous history of serious illness, the Bolton Wanderers player collapsed on the pitch at White Hart Lane during a cup-tie with Spurs after suffering a cardiac arrest, to the clear distress of players and fans alike. He is now making a gradual and encouraging recovery.

Following the incident, there has been an initial outpouring of sympathy, and then – as seems obligatory nowadays – has come the questioning of why people do this, failing to see that the celebrity culture, especially concerning footballers and other sports stars, has been relentlessly promoted by the kinds of papers whose pundits are now in why-oh-why mode about it (pace Littlejohn).

Red Issue 260: insensitive or just satirical?

And so in turn there has been yet more controversy about whether some of the do-we-have-to-do-this-every-time-a-sports-star-or-sleb-is-in-the-news copy is appropriate in the circumstances. Wading into that controversy in typically unsubtle style has come Manchester United fanzine Red Issue, which prides itself in word bubble covers, in the style of Private Eye.

However, rather a lot of those passing outraged adverse comment on that cover do not seem to have read the words in very large point size saying “Grief Junkies Run Riot”. The point being made is that there is an awful lot of grief poured out over figures that are in the public eye: a Red Issue spokesman pointed out that the cover was directed “at the circus surrounding [the incident]”.

The thought also entered that the amount of grief poured out over slebs and sports stars is of an order far larger than that over those being trashed by the Syrian army, or even the steady escalation of the death toll among those fighting in Afghanistan. And those who assemble Red Issue will probably know that the Eye was there some time ago, after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Eye 932: click for larger image

Many outraged subscribers cancelled those subs following the publication of Eye 932, with its “Media To Blame” headline. Again, the point of the cover – that the media had been insatiably pursuing the Princess for years, only to forget their culpability in the death and blame someone else while all the time milking the subsequent outpouring of grief – was lost in the horrified reaction.

The media is still largely to blame: while the pundits look on from the platform of sites like Mail Online, readers are force fed an unending diet of slebs and sports stars, the clear inference being that these are Very Important People, and indeed that they are more important than everyone else.

That’s not to diminish what happened to Fabrice Muamba, who is happily making a steady recovery. It’s just to show that we sometimes get things out of proportion.

Motorman, Perjury, And Dacre

On occasion, the timing of information releases hits the sweet spot, but the revelation yesterday by ITV News – coming just after their re-launched website was given the thumbs-down for being short on, er, information – of the true scale of the trade in illegal information undertaken by Steve Whittamore from his home at 3 Orchard Grove in New Milton, was in one respect too late.

Who're you calling a f***ing liar, c***?

Previously, it had been estimated that those labouring in the service of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail had been in pole position on the Motorman grid with a total of 985 requests to Whittamore over a three year period. The ITV News finding still had them in that position, but the pile of requests after a recount has now reached a whopping 1,728.

Moreover, the Mail on Sunday, also under the ultimate control of the constantly and unfeasibly angry Dacre, racked up another 578 requests. The total paid out by the two titles is estimated at over £205,000. Even totalling up all the Trinity Mirror titles – and, with the People, there is one more in the stable – gives around £196,000. The Dacre empire was the clear leader.

Strangely, though, the Murdoch Screws and Sun only paid out £24,500 between them, but then, the Screws had Glenn Mulcaire happily hacking away, and the Sun is now in the mire for dropping bungs to a variety of law enforcement officers. So the red top that did most business with Whittamore, and by a long way, was the Mirror, which for the daily title means Piers “Morgan” Moron.

But there has been little movement from the usual suspects in the direction of the man who took Larry King’s slot at CNN. That may be because the Mail was very obviously soliciting rather more illegal activity, and proportionately far more. Sadly, though, the opportunity for Dacre to be quizzed on the matter has slipped as he has had his time before the Leveson Inquiry. But he may not be in the clear yet.

His reaction to the use of Whittamore was to brush off the taint of illegality: the information “could all be obtained legally, but it would take time. This was a quick and easy way to get that information”. No it couldn’t: 45 “blags”, five criminal record checks, 155 “friends and family” lists of phone numbers, and a whopping 1,574 ex-directory numbers were all obtained illegally.

So that’s £4,050 for “blags”, £2,500 for criminal record checks, £48,720 for “friends and family”, and an eye-popping £102,310 for ex-directory numbers. That comes to £157,580, paid out by papers over which Paul Dacre exercises ultimate editorial control, for illegally gathered information. So what he said under oath is not true, and it is entirely possible he knew it. The impression is given of potential perjury.

So maybe Leveson would like to ask the Vagina Monologue for an explanation.

Not That They’re Tories – 2

[Update at end of post]

The attempt by a variety of right-wingers to derail the campaign for the London Mayoralty being fought by Labour challenger Ken Livingstone continues, though not with the success they might have expected. Following yesterday’s woeful misunderstanding of London’s Irish community from the Guido Fawkes blog (whose owner is an Irish citizen), comes another plea to HMRC.

Not a good clean fight to get in here

The latter has been made by Matthew “Gromit” Elliott, lord of all he surveys at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). Elliott has been in touch with the Revenue with another allegation about Livingstone’s tax affairs, but what he has not told is that HMRC has taken such a relaxed stance on the matter that they have not yet given him the time of day.

So not only has no investigation been started into Elliott’s allegation, HMRC has not even considered the letter serious enough to warrant making a decision on it. This explains the urgent tone of the follow-up. Undeterred, he repeats his “belief” that there has been wrongdoing, and then in true TPA fashion, adds a blatant false assumption and asserts it as fact.

And here we find that Chelsea and Fulham MP Greg Hands, yet another of those Hammersmith and Fulham Tories with links to the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), has also been stirring the pot over Livingstone’s finances by contacting the Electoral Commission. Hands was rather slow on the draw, though, as the status of the donation he had complained about had already been sorted.

But the reply received by Hands, which has by the happiest of coincidences found its way to the TPA, has spurred Elliott to assert “There therefore now appears to be prima facie evidence that Mr Livingstone was channelling untaxed income paid to Silveta Ltd directly to the Labour Party as a political donation-in-kind, which I understand to be a stark breach of HMRC rules”.

The key word here is “untaxed”. That is the blatant false assumption, and well Matthew Elliott knows it. Without a sight of Silveta’s books, he has no reason to make it. This is yet another circular argument where guilt is assumed at the outset, in order to try and prove guilt. But Elliott has to make it look serious, so continues “I trust that you will investigate this matter with the greatest seriousness and urgency”.

He’ll be lucky if they stop laughing long enough to desist from chucking his time wasting correspondence in the bin. What was that about the TPA being “non partisan”, Matthew? Pull the other one.

[UPDATE 31 March 1430 hours: predictably, the Elliott allegation has been picked up by the Standard's less than fair and balanced "City Hall correspondent" Peter Dominiczak and presented as fact. Livingstone is alleged to have been "forced" to admit that his company had made a donation to the Labour Party, which is somewhere between exaggeration and dishonesty.

Only in the eighth paragraph of Dominiczak's piece does he admit that the allegation came from the TPA, which suggests he's aware that they're known for peddling dodgy motahs. That HMRC haven't yet given Elliott the time of day is, no doubt by sheer coincidence, not told. Plus, with Bozza getting his pal Sarah Sands into the editor's chair at the Standard, there will no doubt be more of the same on the way]

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Guido Fawked – Not In The Navvy

The current propensity of the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his tame gofer, the flannelled fool Henry Cole, to devote the Guido Fawkes blog to kicking Labour London Mayoral challenger Ken Livingstone knows no bounds. Today, the less than dynamic duo has latched onto an interview Ken did with the London Irish Post, which they call out for being patronising.

Sadly, the Great Guido and his equally clueless sidekick have not done their homework: not only are workers from the Republic of Ireland represented in the construction industry in proportion to the country’s population, but there are also many more from the Irish Diaspora bolstering their numbers. Livingstone is correct to say that a downturn in construction hits the larger community hard.

Had Staines or Cole ever worked in the civil engineering sector – and here I plead some years’ knowledge – they would know that not just construction sites, but entire businesses, close over Christmas and New Year, often for a fortnight, because many of their workers use that time of year to return to their extended families, and that this involves long and time consuming journeys.

Those journeys now include destinations around eastern and southern Europe, but still include Scotland – and Ireland. And the Fawkes blog has committed another display of ignorance when it tells “Ken Patronises Irish As Navvies”. Workers in the construction sector are not “navvies”, and neither have they been thus called in living memory – well, not within the industry, anyway.

And the idea of the “Irish Navvy”, the nineteenth century figure that is supposed to have proliferated across England as the railways were built, has recently been shown to be a myth. The overwhelming majority of navvies in England were English, and reoccurring reference to the Irish has more to do with latent prejudice – still prevalent into the 1960s – than reality.

So if anyone is patronising the Irish, it’s Staines and Cole for labelling them as having been navvies, when they largely weren’t. One might have thought that Irish citizen Paul Staines would be better clued up on this subject, as well as explaining why the Fawkes blog has not linked to the London Irish Post article. Maybe that’s because it’s calledMay the force be with you Ken”.

And the paper has found adversely on the behaviour of Boris Johnson, with the headlineBoris, your attitude stinks”. That was a response to Bozza’s gaffe over the annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner, which the current occasional Mayor called “a dinner for Sinn Fein”. Calls for Boris to apologise went unheeded, and were not echoed by Irish citizen Paul Staines.

Not that he’s a hypocrite, of course. Another fine mess, once again.

Desmond Facing The Endgame

I’ve got so much money it’s ridiculous” claimed Richard “Dirty” Desmond in a June 2010 interview with the Independent. But has he? Hardly had Rupe’s downmarket troops launched the Super Soaraway Sunday Steamer than Des was demanding cost cutting measures across the Express and Daily Star titles that will see around 70 redundancies in an already threadbare workforce.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here

Desmond has got himself into a price war with Murdoch, and while he may claim to have money coming out of his ears, the speed with which the cuts were announced suggests otherwise. But here we face a problem: Northern and Shell, Desmond’s holding company, is owned privately by him, although we do know that he did not buy the Express titles out of petty cash.

Back in 2004, when Des made his now legendary goose-stepping tirade against Telegraph executives, there were brief concerns about his relationship with German lender Commerzbank, which had provided him with around £125 million to fund the purchase of Express Newspapers. At the time, this facility was said to be “on a revolving credit line”, which meant it was being rolled over.

So how long was it rolled over for? And was any loan facility involved in the Desmond purchase of Channel 5, for which he paid then owners RTL in excess of £100 million? Des may be worth an estimated £950 million, but if he isn’t pumping it into the business, and instead relying on rolling over one or more loans (which can be offset against tax) then it doesn’t figure.

The continuing presence of loans taken out to finance acquisitions, and subsequently rolled over, along with the Express and Daily Star titles having been run on a shoestring for several years – there have been two previous rounds of staff cuts in which most of the sub-editors were sent down the road – would mean that the titles could not survive a drawn-out price war.

Reinforcing that thought is the suggestion that Desmond’s Health Lottery – promoted heavily in his papers – is subsidising the newspapers, as its poor performance is one reason cited for the cuts. Add to that the motion passed by the Express Newspapers NUJ Chapel – his own hacks – asserting that Des cannot be called a “responsible publisher”. And that judgment bears citing in full.

Richard Desmond presented himself to a Commons Select Committee as a responsible publisher but we deny that he can be any such thing when he is prepared to run four profitable national newspapers down to a point where they will no longer present value for the reader”.

Running four newspapers into the ground while sitting on a billion quid of lovely lolly? That’ll be another Benchmark Of Excellence.

TPA – Teachers Are Not Taxpayers

[Update at end of post]

A survey from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has considered pay levels in both public and private sectors. That much is routine. But the conclusion – that public sector workers were paid on average just over 8% more than those in the private sector – triggered an all too predictable response from the dubiously talented collection of non-job holders at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA).

The resulting post, “Unions try to mislead taxpayers over the public sector pay premium”, authored by Emma Boon, recently featured on Question Time fraudulently asserting that the TPA was there to “stick up for taxpayers’ money”, tells that Trade Unions are “desperate”, that the findings “discredit” them, and that they are “selfish ... to organise strikes and protests”.

So far, so predictable, right down to Ms Boon asserting that the pay gap between public and private may in reality be even greater. In support of this claim, she cites, er, a three year old Comment Is Free piece by Matthew Sinclair, who by the most fortunate of coincidences happens to be the TPA’s chief non-job holder. Moreover, she asserts, we’ve forgotten about all those “skilled tradesmen”.

But there is one false assumption of significant proportions being made here, and that is to characterise this as Unions on the one hand (and by implication their membership) and “the tax-paying public” on the other (quite apart from the TPA providing a “calculator” to show how right they are, which defaults to private sector workers getting a zero employers’ pension contribution).

So the inference is clear: “the tax-paying public” is a separate entity to not only the Civil Service and local Government workers, but also police, firefighters, teachers and everyone who works in the service of the NHS. Yes, all those doctors, nurses, specialists, surgeons, anaesthetists, receptionists, midwives, counsellors, pharmacists, porters and their managers are not real taxpayers.

And this is not an isolated occurrence of the genre: Ms Boon was at the forefront of the recent TPA demonisation of the Motability scheme, feigning outrage on behalf of all those taxpayers while managing to miss the fact that many of the disabled people who use that scheme are also part of the tax-paying public. Motability is a significant part of keeping them able to make that contribution.

That attack, as I pointed out at the time, was shabby, vicious and unnecessary. The latest one is equally so: as the ONS paper states at the outset “It is difficult to make comparisons of the two sectors because of the differences in the types of job and characteristics of employees”.

But the attack satisfies the TPA’s sole objective, to demonise Government – any Government – along with public service and public works. So that’s all right, then.

[UPDATE 1810 hours: consultant group Income Data Services has passed adverse comment on the ONS' attempt to compare public and private sector pay, as reported by the deeply subversive Guardian. The group argues that such comparisons are "farcical".

This, of course, is not reported by the TPA, which selects only articles and other information that matches its Government bashing agenda. No change there, then (many thanks to Colin Hewson, who tweets as @old_oak, for pointing out the link)]

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Gilligan Says It’s A Lie!

The Maily Telegraph’s so-called “London editor” Andrew Gilligan, also known as the capital’s supreme exponent of dodgy journalism, has once again accused Labour’s Mayoral challenger Ken Livingstone of “lying”. This comes on the back of his co-authoring a piece about HS2 and the West Midlands that gave every appearance of doing something not dissimilar. Maybe it takes one to know one.

The race for this place gets down and dirty

Or maybe not: the main plank of the latest Gilligan-says-vote-Bozza manifesto is the contention that Livingstone was significantly responsible for the London Development Agency (LDA) blowing hundreds of millions of pounds, because the Wheatcroft Review, whose panel of five was chaired by a Telegraph hack and had two Tory council leaders on it, said so.

As Mandy Rice-Davies might have said, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Of the rest of Gilligan’s arguments, one could have hours of harmless fun with them, but by then he will no doubt have spun yet more creative retelling. This is, after all, the hack so slavish in his love for all things Bozza that he alienated and misquoted transport commentator Christian Wolmar just to try and stand up a story.

That was the ever-popular “driverless trains for the Tube” one, which as I’ve already told, will not be happening any time soon. Gilligan, in a roundabout way, admits this when he tells that stations will need platform doors as part of the conversion. This is not only expensive, but also likely to disrupt the ventilation provided by the running of trains. That will constrain platform space yet further. So it may never happen.

On top of that, Gilligan’s constant rooting round after supposed Islamic extremists sits uneasily with his past willingness to work for Press TV, the broadcaster owned by the Iranian administration in Tehran. Yes, while Livingstone is being otherwise berated for occasionally working for the same broadcaster, his main critic, who was once reputed to be Press’ highest paid pundit, gets a free pass.

It was not always so: Rod Liddle gave Gilligan a serious interrogation over his Iranian connection, and Mehdi Hasan at the Staggers – not one to let slip a chance to pen a few hundred words – also weighed in on the Gilligan approach to selective hackery, pointing out in addition that the Tel’s current London man had also developed a habit for editing Wikipedia in his favour.

Can it get any worse? You betcha, says Sarah: Gilligan’s largely grovelling interview with Syrian despot Bashar al-Assed for the Tel is now being re-assessed, along with the nuggets “He could both make, and take, a joke ... lives in a relatively small house ... he thought the protests were diminishing”. Hell’s teeth, the al-Assads are a bunch of ruthless, butchering SOBs, and here’s Gilligan playing softball with them.

Gilligan, you’re a bigger disgrace than I thought. You’ve no room to criticise Ken.

Murdoch Is Served (70)


[Update at end of post]

As if Rupe and his troops were not in enough trouble, what with the arrests of many senior Sun hacks and executives, and the continuing parade of litigants in the fallout from Phonehackgate, yesterday brought the suggestion from a BBC Panorama investigation that the fall of ITV Digital was not only not an accident, but that a Murdoch company was intimately involved.

Moreover, as is now coming clear, this may be just the tip of another significantly sized iceberg: the Independent has piled in on the affairs of NDS, founded in Israel back in 1988 but acquired by News Corporation in 1992 and subsequently becoming a world leader in satellite TV access technology, with its headquarters moving to Staines in west London.

With Panorama letting the thought enter that the hacking of the – supposedly un-hackable – access keys for ITV Digital, and the subsequent flooding of the black market with pirated copies, could have been done deliberately by NDS in order to hobble the rival in its battle with Murdoch’s Sky, the Indy also suggests that a rival to Rupe’s operations in Italy was also hacked that way.

And the computer hacking allegations don’t stop there: investigators are following up claims that a New Jersey based advertising firm and Murdoch rival had been hacked by News America Marketing. There had already been a civil lawsuit over the claims that had been settled out of court, when the Murdoch subsidiary shelled out almost $30 million to buy out its rival.

All of which is bad enough, but then come yet more questions over the background of at least one of the players in the NDS story. Their security man Ray Adams was formerly a Commander in the Met, and is connected to not only the Stephen Lawrence murder and gangster Clifford Norris, but also the mid 1980s investigation into police corruption.

Just before Adams was due to give evidence to anti-corruption officers, his close associate, DC Alan Holmes, who had already been interviewed twice, shot himself. Holmes was alleged to have been working with private investigator Daniel Morgan to expose that corruption. Morgan, as is well known, was then found in a south London pub car park with an axe in his head.

Jonathan Rees was one of those subsequently charged with the Morgan murder, only for the trial to collapse. His firm, Southern Investigations, worked with the now closed Screws in the surveillance of DCS David Cook and his then wife Jacqui Hames during their investigation of the Morgan case. Does it stink, or does it stink?

[UPDATE 28 March 1150 hours: the allegations of computer hacking involving pay-TV smartcards have now spread to Rupe's native Australia. The transcript of the interview on broadcaster ABC, available online, suggests that the Australian Financial Review has a bundle of emails from "a former commander in Scotland Yard".

That sounds like a reference to Ray Adams (see above), deeply implicated in covering-up for the Norris family after the Stephen Lawrence murder, equally implicated in police corruption in the Met during the 80s, and later head of security for Murdoch subsidiary NDS. Now it stinks even more]

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Mosley

The city of Chester had been a solidly Conservative seat – going all the way back to 1910 – when in 1992 Peter Morrison, who had been a stalwart supporter of Margaret Thatcher to the very end, decided to call it a day. His successor, Gyles Brandreth, proved less popular with the voters than the viewers and listeners, and squeaked home by a mere 1100 votes.

Brandreth marked his time as MP with occasional gaffes, such as his forthright declaration of support for the city’s football club, only to commit to making a presentation before kick-off one match day and then getting lost en route to the ground. He lost in 1997 by over 10,000 votes, but in 2010 the Tories regained Chester through the efforts of Stephen Mosley.

So what kinds of causes are espoused by the new MP? Well, he was against the idea of the Alternative Vote (AV), but betrayed a rather tenuous grasp of the subject when he described AV as “a convoluted system that gives some people multiple votes”. It isn’t the only instance of Mosley exhibiting confusion as to his priorities and the limits of his power.

Here he is giving reassurance that he is on the case of the Vauxhall factory at Ellesmere Port, and going as far as to stress that he has been in personal contact with Business Secretary Vince Cable. One might not only feel sympathy for Vince over this piece of shameless opportunism, but also point out that Ellie Port is in the constituency not of Mosley, but Labour’s Andrew Miller.

The latter somehow fails to merit a mention, and this is not an isolated occurrence: here, Mosley Retweets the good news that the rail line between Chester and Wrexham is to be returned to double track after another of those ill-judged BR economy measures of the past. But he had nothing to do with the project, which has been approved by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Nor are Mosley’s efforts all being focused on his constituency: yesterday evening he proudly Tweeted that it was “Just going dark as I finish my evening of door-knocking for Boris in Ealing”. Not unreasonably, one of his voters put the question in reply “what part of the Chester district is Ealing?” but reply came there none. But he does show support for local causes.

Indeed, only last Saturday he Tweeted “At the Chester Association of Old Kings Scholars annual dinner at the Chester Grosvenor” (The King's School is the Chester one, not his alma mater King Edward’s School in Birmingham). Most of his constituents couldn’t afford to walk through the door at the Chester Grosvenor And Spa, even if they got past the doormen.

But then, shameless is as shameless does. Voters take note.

Monday 26 March 2012

Free Press Hypocrisy

Whether you characterise it as “Cash for Cameron” or “Cam Dine With Me”, CrudGate has shown that the Fourth Estate has its uses. And the lame defence by the Tories this afternoon in Parliament – a hapless Francis Maude being asked by a forthright Dennis Skinner if Young Dave’s absence was because he wasn’t being bunged enough – has if anything made their plight worse.

But there is also the juggernaut that is the Leveson Inquiry rumbling on in parallel, and the fear that its conclusions might emasculate the freedom of the press (although there is more chance of hell freezing over). So what better opportunity to stick it to those who have been lining up to tell of tabloid excess, intrusion, hacking, blagging, surveillance, and the rest?

While those at the Telegraph agonise over Maude’s car crash on the Today programme this morning, and his attempt to use the affair to launch a Commons whataboutery attack on Labour, over at the Mail Melanie “not just Barking but halfway to Upminster” Phillips seized the moment and went on a characteristic rant at Leveson and all who sail with him.

The expose of Peter Cruddas by Rupe’s upmarket troops at the Times was, for Mel, exactly the kind of thing that may be in the firing line from Leveson, especially if he gets the support of all those in the “political class” that she so despises. Just to make sure readers get the point, there follows a list of stories that proves her point. But one paper and one story does not appear.

No prizes for guessing that the story is Phonehackgate and the paper the deeply subversive Guardian. Mel once worked on the Guardian, but now the mere mention of the title sets her off raging against all those rotten liberal lefty Islington types with their supposedly hateful views which never somehow coincide with her authoritarian and intolerant view of the world.

This is important for two reasons: the hacking, blagging and bribing was not being reported by any other papers because they were not only benefiting from it, but breaking the law themselves, and often on an industrial scale. Moreover, the idea that “dog doesn’t eat dog” meant that the Guardian, and later the Independent, were the only ones prepared to report the scandal.

Leveson is not going to touch the kind of reporting that brought CrudGate to light. And Mel probably knows that. But the idea that Leveson is A Potentially Very Bad Thing is being advanced by politicians – pace “Oiky” Gove – and editors like the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, and for one reason: they want to be able to keep on setting the rules themselves, and keep on intruding when they see fit.

That is what Leveson must resist. My money is on him doing just that.

TPA – It’s Infectious

No-one could accuse Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson of being part of any extremist or ideological movement within the Tory Party. He is as middling and mainstream as it is possible to be nowadays. He works the constituency most weekends. He talks up local industry. He even volunteered for work at Leighton Hospital, some of that work of necessity menial.

Propaganda Central on Tufton Street

But even he has become infected with the propaganda from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). I know this because I am one of thousands within the constituency to receive his occasional email bulletins (today’s is number 116). As befits a Government supporter, he kicks off with the debate over alcohol pricing, telling of the health costs to the local PCT (£31.5 million a year at the latest estimate).

Then, further down the bulletin, his press coverage is summarised, demonstrating how he gets his name and causes into the papers. And here we read that he has taken Cheshire East Council to task over cuts to the Dial-A-Ride service – while its workers are paid “above average mileage rates”. Suddenly, for seasoned TPA watchers, it all sounds very familiar.

And so we know what’s coming right around the corner: “making cuts which affect the elderly and vulnerable while allowing councillors and staff to claim mileage rates 7p above the maximum 45p recommended by HMRC”. HMRC, as I’ve pointed out previously, is not in the business of making recommendations. It is in the business of raising revenue. The claim is bunk.

Back in 2000 – and on this I plead some knowledge because of the car I drove at the time – the mileage allowance was as high as 63p a mile. It didn’t come down to 40p (since raised back up to 45p) because the cost of motoring miraculously fell by over a third, but because HMRC became less generous and effectively imposed a tax rise on motorists using their cars on employers’ business.

But a tax rise is something against which the TPA would normally campaign ferociously, so why not here? This is not known, other than that they have instead turned HMRC’s less generous attitude into a stick with which to beat local Government, something they enjoy doing very much. But the fact remains that the 45p allowance is not a recommendation.

Those noting – correctly – that the TPA has very little actual support, and next to no grassroots, should take note of its ability to get its propaganda slipped into public discourse and made into received wisdom, even when it is factually incorrect. That’s why all those right-wing groups major in media training, and the TPA always has a talking head on hand to put before the cameras.

Because when you control the airwaves, you control the message.

Express Bagged On EU

[Update at end of post]

The increasingly cheap and nasty Express had not managed an EU horror story front page splash for some days, but all has been rectified by Martyn Brown’s piece leading today’s paper. “Now EU Bans Plastic Bags” screams the headline, and regular Express watchers will not be surprised to know that the EU is not banning plastic bags any time soon, and that no fury was sparked last night.

No ban, no tax, no facts, no problem

Granted, there is – as so often – a factual nugget buried somewhere underneath this pile of freshly steaming bovine by-product, but a ban is not in sight. The European Commission has been consulting – the exercise began in May last year – on measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste. Some countries have already acted unilaterally: no free plastic bags on your shopping trips to France.

And this will feed in to a Green Paper, which will, in true EU fashion, lead to yet more discussion before decisions are made. And those decisions will not be made by the dreaded and hated “Eurocrats”, but by agreement between democratically elected representatives of all 27 member states. Even if this goes through by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) it is very rare for the UK to be in the minority.

This, of course, does not deter the Express, which gets the usual talking head (UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall (maybe Nigel Farage was down the pub)) to engage full why-oh-why mode. The article is rounded off with the magnificently deployed red herring that plastic bags are only 1% of household waste, which ignores the fact that much of the rest can be recycled, while those bags, as the paper concedes, cannot.

And this particular Express crusade has a problem: the editorial line at the rather more influential Daily Mail is all in favour of getting rid of one-trip plastic bags. So when the latter paper lifted the Express news, the story was not only relegated far down the list of priorities, but spun to remind readers that the Mail has been campaigning for the ban for years.

The Maily Telegraph was non-committal, reminding its own readers that there is already a charge for bags in Wales. Business in Cardiff has not come to a standstill. Shoppers in Wrexham are not besieging trains and buses bound for Chester to register their displeasure. Surveys show that some kind of action on the proliferation of plastic bags is popular with the public.

But none of this matters to the Express, where the myth of People In Brussels Talking Foreign Coming To Get Decent Hard Working Ordinary Brits For The Benefit Of Themselves Personally Now must be propagated whenever possible. What’s more, it makes a cheap front page scare story.

And we know what that means when you’re sending another 75 unfortunate hacks down the road to keep your profit margins up. Another Benchmark Of Excellence.

[UPDATE 1700 hours: the claim made by the Express in its front page headline has been examined by the folks at FullFact, who have noted that the EU Green Paper has not yet been published and no decision has been made.

The idea that "Meddling EU bureaucrats" are planning a ban on plastic bags is described as "presumptuous" and the conclusion is reached that, as there has been no decision, the headline "could have given casual readers a misleading impression". Most restrained, those people at FullFact]

Sunday 25 March 2012

Letts Not Take A Drive

[Update at end of post]

For many observers of the domain of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, the first name that comes to mind when asked to nominate a pundit unable to penetrate the mysterious world otherwise known as “five minutes’ Googling” has to be Richard Littlejohn. For Dicky Windbag, research is as foreign as all those nasty people he routinely demonises in his tedious and unfunny column.

Harry Potter and the Transport of no delight

But now Littlejohn has competition from the deeply unpleasant Quentin Letts (let’s not), whose inability to garner a number of facts greater than zero has landed him in moderately hot water with Labour MP Jamie Reed. As the ever watchful Tabloid Watch has noted, Letts was so keen to put the boot in on Commons Speaker John Bercow that he told a significant porkie about the Member for Copeland.

While Reed pursues the odious Letts and his permanently angry editor – and good luck to him say I, given the lengths that many have had to go to over the years to extract a retraction from Dacre and his hackery – it seems that Letts’ whopper about Reed’s relationship with Speaker Bercow was not an isolated occurrence, as a look at his latest underwhelming column demonstrates.

Quent has latched on to a Government consultation on the future of Motorway Service Areas (MSAs), and has discovered to his horror that 21 of these are still publicly owned: “There are 21 of them, including such celebrated specimens as Newport Pagnell, Membury and Watford Gap. Why on earth does the state own motorway service stations? They are the object of special Department of Transport regulations and circulars”.

Very good, Quent. All Motorway service stations are subject to special Department of Transport regulations, as a few minutes’ Googling reveals. So operators have to provide free parking for all, free access to toilet facilities, disabled access, pay telephones, and a fuelling point. It’s on the Highways Agency website.

What is also on that very same website is this nugget of information that answers Letts’ question on ownership: “Prior to 1992, the Department of Transport was responsible for developing MSAs by acquiring land, funding construction and leasing the completed sites to operating companies. 21 MSA sites are still owned by the Government”. So there you have it.

And when Letts drones on “some Tory MPs want him simply to sell the sites altogether”, he shows once again that he can’t be bothered checking his facts. Many of them have already been sold off – there were a lot more than 21 of them in 1992 – and you can’t just flog the things without first consulting. It’s a Government, Quent, not a car boot sale.

Letts, you’re just making it up. Try adding the odd fact to justify your wedge.

[UPDATE 28 March 1630 hours: Jamie Reed MP has confirmed via Twitter the good news that he has obtained satisfaction from the Dacre empire. "They've behaved very honourably - apology, letter and even a lovely postcard".

Twitter watchers may also note that he did not dissent from my characterisation of Quentin Letts as "odious". Now there's a surprise]

Gilligan’s HS2 Story Is Disgraceful Recycling

[Update at end of post]

Countryside planning revolution: ‘new city’ proposed for Midlands” proclaims the headline of a Telegraph piece which covers two favourite bogeymen, the HS2 project, and the Green Belt. Yes, not only is HS2 going to be built – which is not new news – but also there may be new housing and other developments built on the back of it. Who’d have thought that, eh?

High speed trains not frightening the locals in Madrid

Sadly, one look at the by-line and the appearance there of Andrew Gilligan, purveyor of the most misleading journalism known to Londoners, tells readers that this motah may be a dodgy one. And Gilligan does not disappoint: not only is there a significant amount of exaggeration and dishonesty here (Gilligan watchers would expect nothing less), but the supposed ‘news’ is over a week old.

The event that has set Gilligan and co-author Robert Watts off and running actually took place on the Thursday before last. At Derby’s Roundhouse, the iRail 2012 event took place, and was rounded off with the Distinguished Lecture, given by Andrew McNaughton, who is Chief Engineer of HS2. So far, so nerdy, one might think, but McNaughton’s comments have since been creatively picked over.

He told that the area around Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre would become a new city. This should not be too surprising, given the confluence of motorways, railways and Airport. Much of the area is already built up, and the arrival of HS2 could well kick start Airport capacity increases. An extension of the runway is already under way.

McNaughton also opined that the new Curzon Street terminus in Birmingham would drive development of the city’s East side. This too is unsurprising, but in the Gilligan retelling the two potential developments “would effectively obliterate the open countryside east of Birmingham to create Britain’s longest continuous conurbation, stretching 40 miles from Coventry to the far side of Wolverhampton”.

Moreover, the news that “the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham was regarding the [Old Oak Common] development not just as a railway interchange but as a West London equivalent of the Docklands regeneration area” morphed into “HS2 would create a second ‘Docklands’ in a densely populated area of west London”, just to make it look that bit more scary.

All that then remains is for Gilligan and Watts to add in “Up to 100,000 homes would be built on green belt”, throw in a Shakespeare reference, get a suitably hyperbolic response from those opposed to HS2, and use phrases such as “concreting over the countryside”, and the Telegraph target demographic is angry, frightened, and already lobbying the nearest MP.

It meets the Telegraph agenda. But as journalism, it’s not good enough.

[UPDATE 26 March 1200 hours: the Gilligan frightener has been lifted - and without attribution - by the Mail. Under the by-line of Daniel Martin, the piece repeats the baseless assertion that there would be a "conurbation stretching 40 miles from Coventry to Wolverhampton".

The contribution of the representative from Coventry council, however, was edited out. The anti-HS2 campaigner fared better, and his sentiments were left in. Private and voluntary sector organisations are more the Mail's "kind of people"]