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Friday, 30 July 2010

Holding Aloft Our Shining Trident – 4

The rumour I discussed recently has now become fact: the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, has confirmed that the cost of renewing the Trident Missile System will have to come out of the MoD budget – the Treasury will not be picking up the tab.

This is a direct rebuke to Liam Fox, minister with special responsibility for keeping foot out of mouth, who has been pitching the line that Trident’s capital costs should be met by the Treasury, given the national security implications. But from stories appearing across the news media today, there is a suggestion that the MoD spin machine is going in to bat for its minister.

Indeed, the line as given to the Beeb is that the capital cost of Trident replacement – at 20 billion notes, three billion more than when I last looked – is “half the annual defence budget”. As the cost would be spread over ten years, the comparison is spurious. The news as given by the Guardian and Maily Telegraph refrains from reprinting that one, although the reports there tell of the defence budget coming under “severe pressure”, and that Osborne’s decision is a “huge blow”.

For those who prefer a choice of broadcast voices, I did check the website of Rupe’s troops at Sky News (“first for breaking wind”), but they didn’t – as at 1135 hours today – even have the story at all. What to make, though, of those media outlets that have bothered to cover the story? The impression is given that Osborne’s decision is somehow unfair, and, as that impression does not vary even in the pages of the Maily Telegraph, this suggests the hand of the MoD at work.

Will they succeed in their spinning? Very doubtful. Push is slowly but inexorably coming to shove in the arena of defence spending. A 24/7 ability to deliver nuclear weapons is of little use against enemies whose arsenal consists of rifles, RPGs, IEDs, surface to air missiles, and an assortment of knives. Moreover, such enemies tend not to belong to any one country, and you need a country sized target when delivering nukes.

If we do decide to retain nuclear capability, there are less expensive options, as I’ve discussed previously. Trident cannot be sacrosanct: if the decision goes against its replacement, then the Royal Navy will just have to get over it.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

What The Fox? – 6

There has, earlier today, been another development in the Shirley Sherrod case, and it’s come from Sherrod herself.

This morning, Sherrod announced that she was “definitely” going to sue Andrew Breitbart, whose BigGovernment website initially posted what was later discovered to be a selectively edited version of a recording of a speech she made to an NAACP gathering.

Her case may rest on proving that Breitbart, who claims to have been sent the tape already edited, edited it himself. Interestingly, Breitbart has not been responding to emails thus far today.

Maybe he’s visiting his lawyer.

A Load Of Bull

Decades ago, when my family took their very first package holiday, we visited the island of Mallorca. The resort reps, then as now paid not very much, pushed a range of excursions – for which, as ever, they earned a commission – to enable us to see more of the island. And that range included the bullfight.

We didn’t take them up on that one. And the supposed spectacle of the bullfight has declined over time, with some Spanish regions having little interest in it: the bull ring in the Canarian city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife had fallen into disuse by the late 80s, and it was no surprise when the Canaries banned bullfighting in 1991.

Then, last year, the city of Viana do Castelo in northern Portugal – a country where killing bulls in the ring is forbidden – banned bullfighting, with the city’s bull ring slated for demolition and redevelopment. I was not surprised: the bull ring in northern Lisbon was closed for some years recently, and is only a viable proposition through the addition of more of those “retail opportunities”.

So when the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia, in a free vote, banned bullfighting yesterday, it was hardly a shock. The decline of bullfighting – the province’s only functioning bull ring is in Barcelona – and the move by Catalans to demonstrate independence of mind, have come together to end the practice.

The next of Spain’s autonomous regions to ban bullfighting may be Galicia. One to watch.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

It Was A Hundred Days Ago Today

Today marks an anniversary that the oil industry might rather forget: it is a hundred days since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf Of Mexico, the event that started the “spill” which has dumped crude into the Gulf and on to its beaches in huge amounts.

The use of the word “spill” may suggest something trivial, but this has seen serious amounts of oil leaked: tens of thousands of barrels at times have been gushing from the damaged well on some days.

Today, to mark that hundredth day, the HuffPo has put together a hundred images showing what happens when so much crude finds its way into the sea and on to nearby beaches. Some of the photos do not make for easy viewing.

Something to think about the next time you get the car out.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Picking On The Poorest – 6

After considering the latest “research” from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, I concluded that this was part of a drive to cut welfare benefits and abolish the minimum wage. Having also deduced that these actions were not altruistically driven, I also concluded that this was not good enough. Such moves, I believe, should be resisted, and, after the fullest debate, consigned to the scrapheap where they belong.

However, the question may then be simply put: what would I do? The benefits system does indeed suffer from poor take-up of some benefits, while here and there are overpayments, underpayments, errors, and all too inevitably, fraud. Even so, all of this is no excuse for the TPA’s solution, which would guarantee the removal of significant purchasing power from the economy, potentially making those “tough fiscal times” yet tougher.

Any examination of the benefits system should be non partisan, and that means Astroturf lobby groups like the TPA should be kept out of the process, as one would keep urban foxes away from the local kindergarten. Moreover, the rest of the right leaning “think tanks” may also be kept at arms’ length: Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Adam Smith Institute, this last a museum of outdated economic ideas whose inmates have fraudulently appropriated the name of the founder of economics.

Simplifying the range of benefits may be the way forward, and here a good idea has come out of the TPA report. However, merely telling that times are hard as an excuse for lowering the poverty line is out of order, and any such idea should be set aside. Also, the Government should restate their commitment to the National Minimum Wage, thus demonstrating to the TPA and all the other lobby groups that their campaigning in this direction is misplaced and should stop.

And then the debate can be had.

Blue Rondo A La Turk

The EU has spent decades on the admission of one country to the club, without giving any date for that admission, or even confirmation that the admission will ever happen. It’s a saga of delaying tactics that has carried on far longer than the longest treaty negotiation. And it needs to stop.

The country is of course Turkey, and thereby hangs the problem. Here is the ultimate test for the EU to show that it is not merely a Christian club. Modern Turkey is now a secular democracy, although its population is overwhelmingly Muslim, a product of the move by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to remorselessly, indeed ruthlessly, force his country to face West.

Nevertheless, a variety of EU member states, notably France and Germany (the latter always happy for Turkish labour, even parking its unemployed part outside its borders), have advanced a variety of excuses, and deployed yet more stalling tactics, to stop the talks on Turkish accession from making progress. From “associate membership” in 1963 it took 42 years to get to the start of “proper” membership negotiations.

So it’s been refreshing to see that the UK is not only on the side of Turkey, but willing to shake up the rest of the club. Credit where credit’s due to Young Dave: he has gone in to bat for progress on Turkish entry, with one very memorable line in his speech to the Turkish Parliament:

I believe it is just wrong to say that Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit in the tent

Cameron’s reference is to Turkey being part of NATO and effectively guarding the bridge between Europe and the Middle East. The country keeps a large standing army as part of that commitment.

For once, I agree with Cameron and will continue to speak up for Turkey’s efforts to be admitted to the EU. If Europe really is a union of member states and about freedom of speech, trade and movement, then it cannot fall back on any kind of religiosity.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Picking On The Poorest – 5

The so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance is not known as a source of philanthropy. So when it releases a report purporting to be of assistance to the less well off, the first question might be best directed at their own particular motivation. And, thanks to the candour of their so-called “Research Fellow” Mike Denham (or Wat Tyler, if you prefer) we can see clearly where the lowering of the poverty line, and the 55% “taper rate”, is heading.

Because where it’s heading is the abolition of the national minimum wage. This is not mere scaremongering: Denham blogged on June 7 last that “alongside a programme of welfare cuts, we need to junk the minimum wage”. Last week’s report is the welfare cuts, and, whatever the list of names on the front cover, Denham is the author of most of it (he is the one on rebuttal duty). If the poverty line were to be lowered, then the amount of earnings needed to hover just above it would be that much less.

This may, on the face of it, seem anachronistic, but in the world of Mike Denham, it makes complete sense. Here, the most recent significant economics textbook is probably Alfred Marshall’s Principles. It is a world where labour need only reduce its cost to enable the market to be cleared: wages remaining stubbornly high, or being “sticky”, are an aberration, as is lasting unemployment.

It is a worldview that does not allow for the possibility that jobs might just not be there, and as such, it is the kind of economics that failed us in the 1930s. Exhumed via the urging of Milton Friedman, high priest of economic quack doctory, in the late 70s and early 80s, it failed us again. Any further exhumation of this by now putrefying corpse will fail us once more, a certainty as sure as night following day.

That is not to denigrate Alfred Marshall: he told of the world as it was back in the nineteenth century. But that world has moved on. It is something that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, and their so-called “Research Fellow” Mike Denham, are clearly reluctant to concede. Like the calculation of the poverty line, it is a case of “because it used to be done this way”.

And that, once more, is not good enough.

Picking On The Poorest – 4

The report into reform of the welfare system by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance contains lots of figures. The impression given – probably deliberately – is that this report is therefore authoritative. However, this is another area where a little examination suggests otherwise.

And one area where scepticism can be easily aroused is when the authors, more or less, tell their readers “trust us”. Near the top of Page 19, we are given a superb example of this: a figure on “non-pension benefit expenditure” turns out, when the footnote is consulted, to be from “Authors’ calculations”. Nobody familiar with the output of the TPA’s so-called “research fellow” Mike Denham will be surprised: he does rather a lot of this. And, without some further explanation, this kind of thing must be disregarded.

The cost of implementing the TPA’s solution is also on shaky ground: here we are introduced to something called “back-to-work providers”. These, the report tells, may be “public, private or voluntary organisations”. Sounds interesting. They may be rewarded by results. Yet nowhere in the report does the cost of these bodies get so much as a mention. They are most unlikely to do the work for nothing.

There is, however, some mention of administrative cost in Appendix B, table B.1: here it is stated that a 50% reduction in costs is assumed. The amount saved would be over a billion and a half notes, so if possible, it would be a useful saving. But then there would be expenditure on all the “back-to-work providers”, the benefits system would still be there and would still need administering, and there would be transitional costs associated with any new scheme, which are either ignored, omitted, or assumed to be part of the amount allocated.

As with the work on incentives, so it is with the figures. That is not to say that there is merit in looking afresh at the benefits system, but the TPA approach can be seen to be flawed. It is as if there was a component missing from their jigsaw.

However, thanks to the candour of one of the report’s authors, we can now find that missing piece. That comes next.

Picking On The Poorest – 3

Incentive to work is key, so the latest report from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance tells us. And it is also used to spread characteristically misleading information about the benefits system.

For someone taking a job paying the minimum wage and at the same time losing all three of tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit, the TPA asserts, the extra income from working would be only an extra 26p an hour. However, as they fail to even estimate the number of people so affected, this can be assumed to be no more than a headline grabbing figure, and will be treated with the contempt it deserves.

The TPA do, however, quantify the number of households facing a “benefit withdrawal rate” of 60% or more: this is put at 2.5 millions. The “benefit withdrawal rate”, which becomes a “taper rate” when it forms part of the TPA’s proposals, refers to the amount of benefit lost per pound of money earned, so earning a hundred notes a week while losing 60 in benefits produces a rate of 60%.

Here, the marginal extra income from working at the national minimum wage comes out at 2.32. But what if the rate were even higher, leaving a mere two quid extra? Let’s consider that scenario. Would I get out of bed for another two quid an hour? Dead right I would: 80 notes a week more for working means working. But how can I be so certain?

Those at the least well off end of the spectrum inevitably have more needs than the amount of money available. Benefits do not bring affluence or comfort, whatever the comfortably off at the TPA might suggest. Every pound gets spent, whether or not the goods purchased meet with the TPA’s approval. Propensity to spend is at its highest here. That 80 quid extra may go on better clothing, more enjoyable food, or even a good session down the nearest bar. But it will get spent, and there will be little problem providing the motivation to take the work that delivers it.

Have the TPA investigated the area of motivation? Doubtful. There is nothing in their report to suggest that those subject to a 70% “taper rate” will be significantly less motivated to take work than those subject to a 55% one. We have to take that on trust. And that, not for the first time, is not good enough.

But at least the figures will be reliable in such a thorough and rigorous report, won’t they? Don’t bet on it – more next.

Picking On The Poorest – 2

Reading through the latest “research” from the so-called Taxpayer’s Alliance, the measures it proposes seem initially to be reasonable, attractive even, until they are subjected to a little stress testing. First of these is the argument for lowering the poverty line.

At present, the definition of poverty is 60% of median income. The TPA is urging that this be reduced to 50%. Together with this, they also lay out a new definition of household income, which excludes any benefit payments, as this is considered “circular and seriously misleading”, or put more directly, enables that median to be set lower.

Why reduce the poverty level? One argument put forward in the report is that this is how it used to be done. Along, no doubt, with a road network without motorways, smogs, poor food hygiene, a far higher cost of travel and therefore less mobility, appalling safety standards at work, and black and white television available in 405 line form only.

Here, it is useful to have the insights of one of the report’s authors: the TPA’s so-called “Research Fellow” Mike Denham writes the original “Burning Our Money” blog – under the hilariously original pseudonym of Wat Tyler – and through this medium, he allows us to get a flavour, however unpalatable, of the underlying philosophy.

Denham has argued that the poor are not really poor after all. Moreover, he has asserted that the present definition of relative poverty should be replaced by one of absolute poverty. Clearly, the sight of the less well off owning fridges and washing machines is, to some of the more affluent, distressing. But today’s employers are less forgiving of poor personal hygiene, so the ability to keep body and garments clean is not optional.

Also, I would argue that Denham is out of touch with another reality facing the less prosperous: many of these people have access to a car, for no other reason than that they are unable to get to and from work without one. Most employers expect their workforce to commute by car, a situation that has been exacerbated by the decline of the bus as a means of commuting. A car is no longer the luxury it once was: here, the clock cannot be rolled back.

The definition of poverty has been arrived at, not, as Denham suggests, by the “constant wailing of the poverty lobby”, but through a process of pragmatism and, yes, civilisation. Redefining poverty merely in pursuit of ideological purity, justified by the catch all excuse of “tough choices”, which is more or less what the TPA is urging, is not good enough. Moreover, it isn’t going to happen.

Next, I’ll look at those incentives to get folks back into work.

Picking On The Poorest – 1

Here in the UK, provision of welfare benefits costs a significant amount of money – rather more than 150 billions, in fact. So any significant saving in this area might be thought a good thing. However, when the proposals come from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of taxpayers, and still no up to date accounts or list of donors), there is a natural tendency to scepticism.

And that scepticism is well placed: the publication last week of Welfare Reform In Tough Fiscal Times: Creating A Better And Cheaper Benefits System [pdf] by the TPA achieves its objective of simplifying the system while reducing its cost mainly through the use of one crude device, that of reducing the poverty line. Moreover, the report, while giving the impression of detailed costing and rigorous analysis, does not completely explain how much the system it proposes would cost.

Analysis of the TPA report is made less than straightforward by its sheer volume – much of it unnecessary. Parts of the text are repeated, some several times, while part of the appendices goes into an excessive level of detail on such items as computer records and payment frequency. One feature characteristic of much TPA “research” is the use of graphs and equations to demonstrate to anyone still awake that this is a learned and serious document.

But, surely, the themes it stresses – maintaining a “safety net” for the least fortunate in society while giving them an inventive to take up work – are sound? In themselves they are. But lowering the poverty line – not just its level but also its definition – coupled with the all pervasive “incentivising” does not tell us the full story. Fortunately, one of the report’s authors, by his candour, has told us where the TPA is really heading.

As ever, we start at the very beginning – a very good place to start. Stay tuned.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 16

An apology: no blogposts yesterday, and only the one on Friday. There’s a reason for this, and it lies with our old friends at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of all taxpayers, and still no full up to date accounts or list of donors).

Last week, the TPA released another supposedly major piece of “research”, this latest on their suggestions for reforming the benefits system. The “report” stretches to a whopping 53 pages, although much of the bulk is caused by padding – there’s an awful lot of repetition in there – and unnecessary micro-specification of how a new kind of benefit would be delivered.

Put directly, the TPA have called for the poverty line to be lowered, so that those on benefits would cost the economy less. This is a course of action much in favour among those with a comfortable living standard and regular income – those that would remain unaffected by such action.

The excuse given by the TPA for this action is that this enables those out of work to become incentivised to get back into work. However, as I’ll be showing in a series of posts on this report, there is more than mere incentives in the TPA strategy, and thanks to the candour of one of the report’s authors, the missing pieces of the puzzle can be slotted into place.

The TPA “research” has already been given an initial filleting by Don Paskini on Liberal Conspiracy: anyone following the link and checking out the comments will see that the TPA deployed Matthew “C5” Sinclair, one of their Clever People Who Talk Loudly In Restaurants, to attempt rebuttal.

Zelo Street will be delving further than the LC post. More tomorrow.

Failure Among The Cotton Mills – 3

Continuing the saga of West Coast Railway Company (WCRC) and their pride and joy Scots Guardsman, there have been more developments. And, unfortunately, there have been more failures. The good news is that, as with the precautionary cancellation of part of the Cotton Mill Express tour recently, there was nothing that resulted in failure out on the road.

As I mentioned before, the problem on the Cotton Mill Express was the middle cylinder, more specifically the packing of the cylinder gland. This was fixed and, something I found surprising, Network Rail (NR) did not insist on a test run. The locomotive and its empty stock then left Carnforth for Scarborough to work the popular Scarborough Spa Express charters.

And then there was another problem: on Wednesday last, the tour got to Scarborough, and Scots Guardsman was again failed. It was once again fixed, worked the next day’s tour, but was then failed as a precaution because of yet another problem. Now, while I’m impressed by the ability of WCRC to keep up to the problems of the loco, those problems keep coming.

I know that steam operators take great pride in the appearance, performance and reliability of their charges, and am sure that WCRC are as hacked off as the punters at Scots Guardsman’s niggles, but isn’t it time for someone else to have a good look at this loco? I know that WCRC have (less than ideal) previous with the people at Crewe Heritage Centre, so perhaps it could stop by at the National Railway Museum? After all, they restore and look after steam traction too.

Just a thought.

A Peek At The Top Shelf – 4

The UK’s newest terrestrial broadcaster has a new owner: Channel 5 (or is it just “Five”?) has been sold to Richard “Dirty” Desmond, owner of a variety of adult oriented publications as well as the increasingly trashy Express and Daily Star titles, and for a sum far greater than any rival bidder was prepared to pay.

So what is the future for Five? There will still have to be proper news coverage – none of the vapid minority bashing of the Desmond tabloids will get past Ofcom. It’s rumoured that Desmond may negotiate down some of the previously agreed cost of imports from the USA, which will help the channel’s cost base.

But high on the agenda, I believe, will be more reality shows (it’s cheap) along with tie-ups with the Desmond papers, particularly the Daily Star (and perhaps OK! Magazine, too). Channel 4 is dispensing with the Big Brother franchise in the UK, and this would be a starting point: the real exclusives would appear first only in the Desmond press.

And other formats would inevitably follow. What is usually called “exploiting synergy” will be done remorselessly: Desmond wants to make money, and plenty of it. Look at all that potential revenue, Guv!


The Hurricane Blows Out

The obituary writers had plenty of time to prepare: Alex Higgins, who has died aged just 61, had been suffering with throat cancer for the past decade. Many of the tributes have told of his two world snooker championships, his temper, and his battle with the drink and the smokes, but that misses the real tragedy.

When Higgins first became a household name back in the early 70s, snooker had yet to become a big money sport. Players wouldn’t be flown or even chauffeured between tournaments: Higgins would often be seen waiting for the next train, having paid his own fare.

Sure, he made millions later on, but it was small beer compared to those who came later. And there was no restraint there when he blew it all on a variety of addictive substances and pastimes.

Not much of a reward for someone who put his particular sport on the map.

Friday, 23 July 2010

What The Fox? – 5

So, as the week draws to a close, has the Shirley Sherrod affair vanished from the Stateside screen? Well, no it hasn’t. And now the backsliding, repositioning and blame shifting has begun in earnest.

And those nice people at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) have been attracting a mounting tide of criticism, some of which their “stars” are finding hard to take. Over at MSNBC, the genuinely polemicSpecial Comment” midweek by Keith Olbermann appears to have spurred colleague Rachel Maddow into laying into Fox with some relish.

Maddow put forward her take on the Fox agenda: that it was to frighten white voters into believing that blacks are coming after them, coming to take their jobs, their livelihoods. But what made for interesting viewing for the average Joe and Joanne was uncomfortable for Fox, so much so that Bill O’Reilly hit back the following evening in his “Talking Points Memo”.

This was classic Bill-O: he started by apologising to Shirley Sherrod, but then went on to pick at the rest of her speech to the NAACP, questioning her language and suitability for Government service. It was typically disingenuous: the language Sherrod used, and which caused O’Reilly such discomfort, was used to show how she had felt at first, before she realised that she had a duty to help all those less well off, whether black, white, hispanic, or whoever.

And then Bill-O made a big mistake: he patronisingly went after Maddow. Bad move. O’Reilly’s comments on Fox’ superior ratings, as she pointed out, were only used to allow him to evade the issue. After all, she pointed out, the wrestling and Spongebob got bigger ratings than Fox – so what? As Maddow showed, Fox in general and O’Reilly in particular are wrong on those little things called facts.

And that’s a fact.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

What The Fox? – 4

Events have moved at some speed since it became obvious that Shirley Sherrod had been ordered to resign for something she had not done. Not only have a number of figures in the Obama administration made suitably grovelling apologies, and many media outlets acknowledge they were suckered by Andrew Breitbart’s misleadingly edited video, but Ms Sherrod has now been offered another job at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But there is no expression of regret coming from the media outlet that screamed so loudly for her to be sacked, Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). The instant judgment of racism chorused by Fox “stars” Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly has not been rolled back. Instead, Fox is now kicking the USDA and the Prez (who, rather like Pa Broon in the last months of his premiership) is somehow responsible for every decision taken in the vicinity of the Hill.

This morning, on Fox and Friends (featuring another blonde woman, but not Gretchen Carlson) the line was still pushing the Sherrod story in the present tense, as MMFA has observed. Meanwhile Ms Sherrod, who has refused Fox’ invitation for an interview as she does not trust them to be, well, fair and balanced, has appeared on NBC’s Today programme and spoken plainly about Breitbart, who has not as yet offered to apologise to her.

And speaking very plainly indeed on the matter on last night’s MSNBC Countdown was Keith Olbermann, whose “Special Comment” on the matter gives Fox and Breitbart (Olbermann calls the former a “perpetual fraud machine” and the latter simply “scum”) both barrels in some style. It needed saying and certainly got said: this is 24 carat Olbermann.


Will Black Be Back?

Earlier this week, a 65 year old man was released on bail from a low security prison in Florida. The event would not have been otherwise significant, had it not been for the identity of that man: Conrad Black, former owner of the paper now known as the Maily Telegraph, ennobled in 2001, and whose worldview has included stating with a straight face that the UK should leave the EU and join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).

Black, a supposedly still wealthy man, spent his first night out of jail in his former Palm Beach house, recently sold off at a knock down price in settlement of a debt. His assets are apparently in Canada, but his bail conditions prohibit his leaving the USA.

Despite this less than promising start, there has been much media froth generated already, not least by Andrew “Brillo Pad” Neil, speaking to the Beeb yesterday evening, who said confidently that Black would be back, and looking for revenge. But, as the court case that saw him put in jail was in the US – and there are apparently many more lawsuits against him still outstanding there – it may be some time before he can credibly think of going after anyone in the UK.

And who would he be after? Well, as Roy Greenslade has noted in the Guardian, one target could be Tom Bower, who specialises in “unauthorised” biographies of public figures, and who has written one about Black. But here a note of caution might enter: the last one to sue Bower, Richard Desmond, came badly unstuck in the courtroom and lost. Better perhaps to follow the example of Richard Branson, who clearly disliked Bower’s biog, but said his piece and declined to take matters further.

In any case, Black is now yesterday’s man. The fact of his new status may not immediately register with him or those who, for whatever reason, idolise him. But, as the song goes, that’s just the way it is.

He would be best advised just to leave the stage.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

What The Fox? – 3

Lest anyone think that the race baiting I mentioned earlier is some kind of isolated incident, there is also the case of Shirley Sherrod, demonised by our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) and subsequently forced to resign her position at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A video relating events from over 20 years ago – well before Ms Sherrod took up her job at the USDA – has been selectively edited to suggest that she had discriminated on the basis of race. The editor will also be known to readers of this blog: step forward the face of the BigGovernment website, Andrew Breitbart, who was also a player in the heavily edited ACORN “sting” tapes.

However, the whole video reveals that Ms Sherrod did not discriminate on the basis of race, and the white farmer she talked of has confirmed this. Moreover, he is certain that without her help, he would have lost his farm. But for Ms Sherrod this has counted for nothing: the “story” has been incessantly flogged by Fox, with “stars” Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly weighing in against her.

As the video has been shown in its proper context, Andrew Breitbart has been attracting forthright criticism, notably from Eric Boehlert at MMFA, and apparently the decision to ask for Ms Sherrod’s resignation is being reconsidered. But at Fox the troops are unrepentant: Glenn Beck has theorised that Ms Sherrod “obviously has some Marxist or redistributionist qualities to her”.

And Andrew Breitbart, poster of the edited video, now says he “feels sorry for Sherrod” and that it was “the media” who went after her. No, Andrew, it was your selectively edited video and your pals at Fox who went after Sherrod.

Another day, another episode of race baiting involving Fox News, the organisation headed by one Roger Ailes, past master of attack politics and adverts, including ... yes, the Willie Horton one that did for Michael Dukakis.

Expect more of the same as the mid term elections approach.

What The Fox? – 2

Right now, over in the USA, a substantial storm is being forcibly brewed up in a relatively small teacup. And the forcing is being done by an organisation well known to anyone reading this blog: yes, it’s our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The story that Fox are pushing at present – another example of trying to frighten its overwhelmingly white audience with overhyped tales of fringe black groups – is another example (remember ACORN?) of the network taking a non-story, talking it up out of all proportion, then beating up on the rest of the broadcast media for (rightly, in this case) ignoring it. Fox can then claim to be fearless, investigative, trusted, and otherwise wonderful.

So what’s the story? Well, back at the 2008 elections, two members of a fringe group called the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) were hanging around a polling place in the city of Philadelphia. One of them was carrying a nightstick. The police were called and escorted the two off the premises. Subsequently, the one with the stick was served an injunction by the Department of Justice (DOJ) but the case was then dropped for lack of evidence.

So that’s it? Well, yes and no. For Fox, the narrative is clear: this was a case of voter intimidation. Worse, the DOJ has a problem – or is that some kind of Obama administration policy – with prosecuting black people. From this follows the suggestion that the Dems are behind some kind of vote rigging exercise. What has followed is that a disproportionate amount of airtime has been dedicated to the NBPP, with its leader occasionally brought on as a kind of pantomime villain.

The affair has been the making of Fox newcomer Megyn Kelly (she’s blonde, but aren’t all Fox women?) and has been used to kick the rest of the broadcast media by Bill O’Reilly, the “acceptable face” of Fox, recently restored to top of the ratings after a drop in viewing figures for the increasingly wayward Glenn Beck.

From this, we have the sad sight of the reliable and trusted faces of more mainstream channels having to justify why they haven’t been hammering this non-story like Fox. And, Megyn Kelly and Bill-O, if this is about voter intimidation, how about doing some proper journalism and finding a voter who got intimidated?

Because, if there isn’t a voter who got intimidated, there’s no story. Unless, of course, it’s just race baiting.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Holding Aloft Our Shining Trident – 3

The issue of defence is moving swiftly right now: hardly had I committed the previous post on this issue, than Liam Fox, minister with special responsibility for keeping foot out of mouth, held forth at the Farnborough air show and said this about the UK’s defence programme:

The defence programme is entirely unaffordable – especially if we try to do what we need to do in the future while simultaneously doing everything that we've done in the past

Fox has also been urging defence contractors and suppliers to “improve value for money to the taxpayer”, amid rumours that the capital cost of the Trident Missile System, formerly paid by the Treasury, would have to come out of his budget – if the system were to be replaced.

So, how much would it cost? Well, at today’s prices – and, it should be borne in mind, prices in the defence arena have a nasty but all too common tendency to escalate over time – we’re talking around 17 billion quid over ten years. And that, as far as is known, is just the capital element.

With operational costs bundled in, we could be looking at two and a half billion every year – maybe more. With the coalition looking for savings anywhere they can be found, the defence supplier that offers an air delivered nuclear option at a fraction of that – say half a billion a year – may find doors opening rather easily at the MoD.

But what of the opposition from the Royal Navy and its allies in the Fourth Estate? Indeed. Hence any move to force a debate on Trident early on in the life of this Government: the hope will be that settling the issue, and containing the chorus of dissent now, will mean that a less grand nuclear future would be established, and accepted, when a General Election comes round.

How might we know that the Government is moving to consider ditching Trident? Expect the usual suspects in the Tory cheerleading part of the blogosphere to start suggesting that Trident is not such a big deal, that nothing should be ruled out of an upcoming defence review, and that we have to equip our soldiers properly while getting the best value for money.

I’ll give that a fortnight tops.

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

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 17

Little more than two weeks after Rupe’s supposedly upmarket troops at the Times and Sunday Times vanished behind their paywall, the first figures on the effects of that disappearing act have been released, but not by the Murdoch press.

And those figures – there has had to be some guesswork, given that Rupe and Co are not cooperating in the exercise – suggest that the loss in traffic is in the region of 84 to 93 per cent. So is the whole thing worth it? Do the paying punters make up for the loss of readership?

One group which may be less than totally impressed is that placing its advertising online. The fees for the Times and ST sites must come down if anyone is to run their advertising there – rather than at the Maily Telegraph, Independent or Guardian.

And how much of the remaining online readership is made up of the Times’ body of subscribers, who get their online access without extra charge? Potentially tough times ahead for Rupe and his troops. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bloke.

Holding Aloft Our Shining Trident – 2

Hardly had I posted on the potential lobbyfest that might accompany any thought of ditching the Trident Missile System than some more detail was laid out – with the strong suggestion that Trident could indeed be for the chop.

Perversely, one factor that may score against Trident replacement is that the new and improved two-headed donkey could paint it as part of the New Labour past. Of the coalition partners, the Lib Dems are firmly against renewal, and the Tories may decide to bodyswerve the decision, claiming no ideological linkage, and leave the military to figure out their priorities from whatever budget is allocated.

So far, so logical, but the elephant in this particular room is the Royal Navy and their formidable lobbying capability. Together with weapons manufacturers, their agents, and a wide convocation of hangers on, the Senior Service will fight to the bitter end to retain this jewel in its crown. And in so doing, it will have the support of most of the Fourth Estate.

Of the print media, only the Mirror, Independent and Guardian could be expected to treat the issue of Trident replacement on its merits. All of the Murdoch, Rothermere and Desmond papers will come out for replacement: their tone towards any move to abandon the system will be uniformly hostile. This will be used by the Navy to browbeat the coalition into finding the money to keep Trident.

Meanwhile, the lobby group that loves to harp on about “waste”, the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), will remain silent, even though the savings from cancelling Trident replacement would dwarf many of their other pet hates. Why so?

Well, the success of the TPA lies in its ability to get its stories into the papers. If its stories ceased to chime with the agenda of those papers, the stories would not get published. Worse, those papers that had previously treated TPA propaganda as established fact might start to treat that propaganda strictly on its merits – or lack thereof.

There’s waste. But, also, there is good old fashioned patriotism, married to self interest. This can be used to gloss over the inconvenient fact that the country cannot afford, and does not need, the Trident Missile System.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Departure Time? – 4

Another day, another assessment of the war in Afghanistan comes to the same conclusion as so many others: the war is not being won, we’re propping up the same kind of corrupt Government that the US did with such painful results in Vietnam, and it’s not worth it.

This latest warning has come in an analysis by former State Department man Richard N Haass, writing in Newsweek magazine. And the impression is given that Barack Obama does not have to send all those additional troops. In turn, that brings reminders of the escalation in Vietnam that ultimately did for Lyndon Johnson: Democrat Presidents not wanting to look weak, and paying too much attention to the military.

The piece by Haass joins a list which I’ve considered previously (HERE, HERE and HERE). Haass points out that the Karzai Government enjoys dwindling legitimacy, as did the various régimes in South Vietnam. There too, corruption and despotism characterised Government. Considering those backed by the US in Vietnam, J K Galbraith observed:

With President Diem, the Nhu family and the politicians that followed as in a revolving door, the impression of villainy was inescapable

[The Age Of Uncertainty, p. 249]

We know all too well what happened in Vietnam. Better for all of us that we do not have to learn the lesson over again.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Holding Aloft Our Shining Trident

Defending the United Kingdom against potential attack has allowed the armed forces – and the industries that supply them – to get away with spending hefty amounts of money over the years, easily justifying Eisenhower’s caution against “The Military-Industrial Complex”.

And there is no finer example of how our money has been sunk than the UK’s now sole nuclear deterrent, the Trident Missile System. In return for an investment of several billion pounds, we get four submarines, carrying sufficient numbers of missiles and warheads to lay waste to a significant amount of the planet’s surface, of which just one is on patrol somewhere – all the time, mind.

But, with Trident replacement – life extension or no – coming into view over the horizon, questions are being asked as to whether we need to spend so much on this particular bringer of Armageddon, just to remain in the nuclear club. And that question was put this morning on the Andy Marr Show to Liam Fox, minister with special responsibility for keeping foot out of mouth.

The Fox response was all too predictable: we need nuclear weapons because of North Korea ... and Iran ... deterrence ... by which time I had been distracted by the need to finish my second daily cuppa. The North Koreans won’t break wind without the Chinese causing them to desist, and Iran’s target list, if they ever get a nuclear weapon, is unlikely to have our name on it.

But maybe we could, even should, retain some sort of nuclear deterrent? The debate should at least be had. Then, if a case for nuclear capability is made, there would come the question of cost. And the likelihood is that some kind of air-delivered bomb or missile would give, for want of a better expression, the biggest bang for the available buck.

Unfortunately, this would not be the end of the matter. Why so? Ah well. Trident belongs to the Royal Navy. Anything air-delivered would belong to the Royal Air Force, and if the RAF were to lose its independence, then anything in their domain would become part of the Army. And for the Senior Service to lose out to the RAF would be bad, while losing to the Army would be unthinkable.

To this end, there has been, and will continue to be, furious lobbying on behalf of the Royal Navy in support of keeping the nuclear deterrent with them. In this, they will be supported by weapons manufacturers, suppliers, and maintainers, all of whom have a corner to fight and their eyes on the largest possible prize.

That the country cannot afford another Roller does not enter. Eisenhower was right.

Failure Among The Cotton Mills – 2

Back in February, I looked at the problems suffered by West Coast Railway Company (WCRC) in reviving the popular “Cotton Mill Express” charter trains. Then, after the second attempt to run the tour had ended in the second failure of WCRC’s pride and joy Scots Guardsman, the locomotive was repaired and recently had even travelled south to work a charter from Weymouth to London.

So, despite yesterday morning bringing typical cotton mill weather to the North West, hopes were high that it would be third time lucky. And first signs were good: Scots Guardsman drew into Manchester’s Victoria station (unfortunately now submerged beneath the mass of the recently built Arena) on time, and then took the climb to Miles Platting – wet rail and all – in its stride. It sounded well – at that point.

Forward to early afternoon, and those waiting at the former mill town of Darwen were looking forward not just to seeing the tour passing through, but enjoying the sound of a steam locomotive restarting its train on a tricky uphill gradient, as the “Cotton Mill Express” was scheduled to pass a service train on this now single track route. But the loco of the approaching train did not sound well.

The train drew up at the red signal, and presently the service train cleared the section. Then, as Scots Guardsman restarted the charter, it was clear that there was steam coming from where it should not have been. The exhaust was literally missing a beat. Even so, the tour kept time and even took some enthusiasts by surprise as it passed through Salford early.

But, once back in Manchester, the sensible decision was taken to cancel the remainder of the tour and fail the locomotive. Had the tour continued, there could have been a far worse failure out on the road, which would have been costly for all concerned. Better news was that, later in the day, Scots Guardsman made its own way back to WCRC’s Carnforth base with its train.

Could this latest problem have been foreseen? It may be that February’s failure – the catastrophic collapse of the middle big end – damaged the middle cylinder, but that the damage went undetected. In any case, there will be another repair at non-trivial cost, and another test run under the watchful eye of the folks at Network Rail.

And it won’t be the only rectification work at WCRC: their “other” steam charter yesterday also ended in a locomotive failure, making it a weekend they will want to forget.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Spectre Of Vietnam

I’ve previously looked at the similarities between the long and ultimately futile war in Vietnam, and the increasingly long and potentially futile conflict in Afghanistan. And, over time, voices in the USA have been making the same comparison. Now, Kai Bird, in an opinion piece for Politico, has also made that comparison.

Most significant and disturbing aspect of Bird’s analysis is that the land war in Vietnam lasted from 1965 to 1973 – eight years – but that the land war in Afghanistan has now overtaken that timescale. The corruption that had worked its way through the South Vietnamese Government appears to be equally endemic in that of Afghanistan.

Moreover, as has been seen in the past week, the Afghan army is not the most reliable fighting force. As Bird notes, the USA wanted to hand over to the Vietnamese army as a way of disengaging from the conflict: this was futile, given its utter ineffectiveness – something like fifteen thousand VietCong were consistently outplaying an army of around a quarter of a million.

Now, the push in Afghanistan is to hand over to the Afghan army. The parallel, together with the ever lengthening timescale, is significant. As Bird concludes, “If the war has become a quagmire like Vietnam, then the Afghans should be fighting it”.


Veni Creator Spiritus

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest, yet most controversial of composers, that being Gustav Mahler. So it’s no surprise that the BBC Proms season opens this evening with his Eighth Symphony, a work requiring immense orchestral and choral forces, and which was first given in 1910, with the composer himself conducting.

Mahler’s journey reflects the way Europe was in the 19th Century, but also how it was changing, despite ingrained prejudice and an established social order. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic, to a relatively poor Jewish family, but later converted, for practical reasons, to Catholicism (a Jew would not have had a chance of securing the directorship at Vienna’s Hopopfer).

Much of the press at the time of Mahler’s years in Vienna, and underlying public opinion, was variously anti-Semitic, yet as a conductor, he enjoyed great success, despite the resistance to his often autocratic methods. As a composer, though, acceptance was slow, and in his lifetime he was not well regarded.

The Eighth Symphony was an exception: the first performance, in Munich, was a triumph. But less than a year later, he would be dead. His music was only rescued from a period of obscurity by the advent of the long playing record, and the advocacy of those who had studied with him, like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.

So this year we will hear much of Mahler’s work. The BBC are carrying the opening Proms concert live this evening, when once again we can hear the Albert Hall organ sound the first chord of an opening movement setting of Veni Creator Sprirtus.

Extraordinary music from an extraordinary composer.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Daytripper Meets Ivor

While on my travels around North and Mid Wales, stopping off to see the odd castle and a few of the Great Little Trains (as sad rail enthusiasts are wont to do), I wondered if one of these might have given Oliver Postgate the inspiration for the character of Ivor The Engine. A little train somewhere in the “top left hand corner of Wales”.

Meet The Earl

And so it came to pass that I found a close match in the town of Welshpool (or Y Trallwng, if you prefer). From its terminus at Raven Square on the fringe of the town, the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway runs through pleasant and green countryside to Llanfair Caereinion, eight and a half miles away.

But, you might have observed, The Earl is black, and Ivor was green. Indeed, but The Earl has a sister locomotive, The Countess, which is green. Both are now over a hundred years old. They are part of a tourist industry that brings people, and business, to the more rural parts of Wales.
You can see more of those Great Little Trains right HERE.

How Tired Is Your Pilot? – 10

Some business names remain synonymous with the brands they built up, even after they have taken a back seat or left the stage: Bill Gates, for many, is still Mr Microsoft. So it is with Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Most still associate him with EasyJet, even though he no longer has a controlling interest in the company and has even been in dispute with it recently.

And one of those mistakenly aligning Stelios with EasyJet has been Michael O’Leary, the combative and usually unapologetic CEO of Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care). But in O’Leary’s case, his mistake has led Stelios to slap a libel suit on him, with the whole business being settled – not in O’Leary’s favour – in court.

Ryanair have for some time goaded EasyJet about the latter no longer releasing punctuality statistics. And little good it has done them. So the focus of the attack was switched to Stelios, whom Ryanair portrayed as a Pinocchio figure. Stelios took exception to the clear suggestion of personal dishonesty, and now Ryanair are 50k worse off, plus perhaps another 200k of legal fees.

But, for those of us who occasionally tire of Ryanair’s in-your-face publicity, the icing on the cake is that rare thing, an official and unequivocal apology. It’s on their website right now. And over at the EasyJet equivalent? No mention, and for one very good reason: it’s nothing to do with them.

And Ryanair are no nearer getting those statistics. Marvellous, as Harry Callahan might have observed.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A Foreign Language

Not his preferred kind of bird

In a corner of the square in central Caernarfon, overlooked by the castle, is a statue of the area’s most famous parliamentarian, David Lloyd George, who represented the city at Westminster for 55 years. LG was the only Welshman to become Prime Minister, and had English as a second language. He was reckoned to be a more charismatic orator in his native Welsh.

Forward to 2010, and Welsh is still the first language of the area. Around the square, perhaps more folks can be heard speaking English, but this is also tourist country. A few hundred metres away, where shoppers queue for their buses back to outlying towns and villages, most speak Welsh.

When some tourists fetched up at a pub in this part of Wales, and found the locals speaking Welsh, the story started that this was merely out of dislike and to stop the tourists understanding what was being said. This story is complete baloney: the locals speak Welsh because, well, that is what they speak.

However, my experience these last few days, when out and about in the area, is that those same locals assume that strangers will have English rather than Welsh. And they are most welcoming people.
Cymru am bach!

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 15

The fallout from cancelling the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme has continued: now it seems that local authorities committed some 160 millions to the scheme, which is now lost. Moreover, contractors have also put up and lost about another 100 millions. So that’s 260 million quid, well, wasted.

Hang on a minute, isn’t there a non partisan group committed to calling out waste? Well, yes there is, and it’s our old friends at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance. So they must already be on the case, yes?

Well, actually, make that a no. They haven’t even raised a murmur about it. After all, the TPA (which, as we all know, is not close to the Tory party, despite many of its members also being paid up Tories) has much more important fish to fry.

Such as its latest “report”, complete with “research”, compiled jointly with its offshoot called the “Drivers’ Alliance”, which has lots of “figures” about speed cameras. As with the “report” about parking fines, it fails to mention the awkward question of cost, which makes it appear that all those speeding fines collect themselves.

And it comes to a staggeringly wrong conclusion, that the appearance of speed cameras has stopped the decline in the number of road accidents and therefore casualties. The TPA contends that speed cameras have caused more casualties on the roads.

The laughably slanted “research” makes one central – and, to no surprise, unstated – assumption in reaching this conclusion, and that is that all speed cameras appeared at the same time. As they didn’t, the “research”, including a spurious but very serious looking regression analysis, is effectively worthless.

No consideration is given to how cars were made safer over time (and when the greatest advances in this field were made), nor is there any consideration of other road traffic (the “research” uses passenger kilometres, and therefore does not consider the effect of all those lorries). Nor is any consideration given to the economic situation over time.

If one didn’t know better, the thought might occur that the “research” has been tailored to make a good fit with the required conclusion. Unfortunately, though, the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate uses the TPA’s “research” to provide cheap and easy space fillers, rather than indulging in such things as Proper Journalism.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Reckless By Name ....

Last week in London, the weather was warm well into the night. And the House of Commons sat until past midnight last Tuesday, as the Finance Bill was debated. Many MPs found themselves with time to kill as they waited for crucial votes, and, it seems, gravitated to the Commons terrace. Here, as the comedy legend otherwise known as Gerald Wiley might have observed, several of them became Elephant’s Trunk And Mozart.

So far, so routine: Honourable Members getting themselves into what Private Eye might have called an overtired state is hardly a new thing. But some of the behaviour then spilled back into the chamber as voting time approached – except for one MP, Tory new boy Mark Reckless, who has represented Rochester for just two months. Sad to say, he was in such an advanced state of alcoholic derangement that he was unable to even stand up, let alone return to cast his vote.

Although this evening of indulgence gained cross-party support, most of those getting themselves comprehensively totalled were Tories – deputy chief whip John Randall, member for Uxbridge, and Sheryll Murray, who represents South East Cornwall, prominent among them – so it might be thought that the right leaning side of the Fourth Estate would not be so vocal on the issue.

And that thought would be wrong: the Beeb mentioned Reckless’ indiscretion, while the Guardian, Independent and Mirror had not, when I last looked, carried the story at all. The noise is all coming from papers that would normally cheer for the Tories – or at least put the boot in to Labour. The Maily Telegraph goes into some detail, but for sheer righteous indignation you have to turn to the Daily Mail, where the disciples of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre have gone into why-oh-why overdrive.

The Mail article tells “One cabinet minister was said to be slurring his speech ... some MPs barely knew where they were, let alone what they were voting for ... several people were legless”. And, of course, we are reminded that all this is subsidised by the taxpayer, so we’re meant to get really annoyed about it.

Meanwhile, Mark Reckless has declared that he won’t be in future: “It was a mistake I will not be repeating”.


Friday, 9 July 2010

Crumbling Edge Of Quality – 1

Many in the hotel and catering industry – and any other industry that depends to a greater or lesser extent on tourism – would dearly love more of us Brits to take our holidays in the UK. And those on the Railway would no doubt fancy a slice of the action as well. Unfortunately for the latter category, their act needs some work before it will be even a little appealing to the discerning punter, as I discovered yesterday in North Wales.

An eminently strollable prom prom prom

Consider the town of Llandudno, a straightforward journey from Merseyside, Manchester or the West Midlands. Lots of holiday accommodation, attractions on the doorstep (including Conwy Castle just up the road), and a nicely preserved promenade all help to bring in the visitors. Pity about the railway station.

It was former BR head man Peter Parker who coined the term “crumbling edge of quality”. Had he been alive today, he would have had no trouble in pointing to Llandudno’s bare and unappealing terminus as a prime example of what he meant.

Not much of a roof

This is the sight greeting those arriving by rail. Note that the wall holding up the roof at left appears to have been partially demolished. And that roof is all you get: there is no shelter at all on the platforms. But at least the clock works.

There is some seating out of shot to the right, but the waiting room is closed after early afternoon – yes, that’s when the day trippers arrive back at the station for their trains home – and the only human presence is a taxi office.

Not much of a welcome
Adding to the impression of decay is the west side of the station, where there are two now abandoned platforms, together with an assortment of apparently randomly discarded junk.

Fortunately, there is a pub opposite the station, so at least passengers can have a drink and keep dry when, as happened yesterday, the clouds came and brought a few spots of rain.

I’m aware that the industry is going to be squeezed by spending cuts in the next few years, but this station is a disgrace, especially in such a well kept town.

Muslim Scare Stories – Here And There

You don’t have to look far among the outpourings of the Fourth Estate to pick up on the constant barrage of anti-Muslim drivel. The red tops of the Murdoch press, and the domain of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, are straightforwardly venal and unpleasant, while the Desmond titles are off the scale in their frothing, proto-BNP bigotry.

So how about the USA? Sad to say, frightening the masses using the spectre of Islam is all the rage there too, but with the inevitable twist: leading the charge is not the press, but our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Nothing, but nothing, is off limits to Fox: the revelation that space agency NASA includes “reaching out to the Muslim world” among its outreach goals sent them almost into meltdown.

Also being given rather a lot of coverage at Fox is any controversy over the siting and building of mosques, rather like, well, the cheaper end of the press in the UK. Fortunately, this behaviour has also come to the attention of Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who gave Fox both barrels on Wednesday evening.

That edition was shown in the UK on More4 yesterday at 2030, but in case you missed it, the show, with Fox “star” Steve Doocy verging on self parody, is available on 4OD (right HERE). There are adverts, but you won’t have long to wait: Stewart tackled this one in the first half of the prog.

It Is A Warm One

Back in early May, I suggested that this Summer could be a warm one. And so it came to pass: 31 Celsius in London today, 30 tomorrow, and uncomfortably warm nights as well. Heck, it’s even forecast 25 for Crewe, and it feels at least that, even with cloud cover.

Going further south and east, many European resorts are similarly hot, but with even warmer nights (typical for the Greek islands is a minimum of 24 Celsius). It could well get warmer still. So how could I make that prediction with any level of confidence?

Ah well. One thing it’s not based on is any idea that we must be due a warm one, having had an average one last year and two stinkers before that. Here’s a clue: think of what happened across Europe after that Icelandic volcano kicked off.

And I’ll revisit the subject, with the answer to that one, later.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 14

So farewell then, Mark Wallace: another of those clever people who talk loudly in restaurants has left the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance for pastures new, which of course will not be any kind of sinecure, public service appointment, or one of those non-jobs he has spent his time at the TPA banging on about.

Wallace, who has also contributed many blog posts to ConservativeHome – not that there is any connection between the TPA and the Tory Party, you understand – has overseen some staggeringly inept “research” during his tenure, including the infamous “report” that accused the previous Government of paying firms to lobby it.

Unfortunately for Wallace and the TPA, Mick Fealty at the Slugger O’Toole blog asked the very obvious question: just because the Government were making payments to companies who also did lobbying (among other things), was it not possible that the payment was for something else? Were the TPA making an assumption that they could not prove?

Wallace could not satisfactorily rebut Fealty’s question, and as a result the keeper of Slugger O’Toole had to tell the TPA’s finest that “it stands to reason you have no idea precisely what any of the companies in your research were actually paid for ... you were working on the basis of what their core competences were. In short, the research cannot be worth the paper it’s not printed on”.

This was, however, no problem to Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda, who happily reproduced the work of “those excellent people at the TPA” as fact.

There’s lack of bias, objectivity and even handedness for you.

[Mick Fealty, as he points out, is not delving into details of the TPA’s accounts or backers, but simply treating their “research” on its merits. Or lack thereof]

A Tortuous Compromise

Another Government, another enquiry: this one into the allegations that the UK’s security services knew about the “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects, and in some cases colluded in their torture.

So will this be a public enquiry? Well, not really: some of its sessions will be public, but how many, we don’t get to know. It will be led by a judge, and report by the end of the year, which means that anything not discovered in a period of less than six months doesn’t get in.

And what of those security services? Are they being made accountable by the process, or is the Government moving to appease them by limiting the enquiry’s timescale and scope? Liberty’s Shami Chakrabati has put it rather well: “this announcement leaves room for fears that government is bending towards the security establishment”.

Moreover, there will be no disclosure of evidence, and nobody will get guilty as a result. But there will be opportunities to dump the whole business on Tone. Business as usual in the world of party politics.

No change there, then.

It Was Five Years Ago Today

Where were you on the morning of July 7 2005? Confession time: I was sitting at my desk in an anonymous looking office block in Bristol, far away from the unfolding events in London.

The news filtered through slowly: at first we were told that there had been some kind of “power surge” on the city’s Underground system. But, as confirmation came through that there were fatalities, it became obvious that there had been a terrorist attack.

And the most devastating of the attacks occurred on a deep level Tube line: the blast from the explosion was constrained by the small diameter of the tunnel, and so projected along the train, causing the most substantial loss of life of all the attacks.

Today, there will not be any major commemoration of those attacks, which might not be universally popular, but I’d go with the low key approach. More, I’d be more impressed to know that the various intelligence agencies are working together more effectively and keeping their guard up.

The authorities in Madrid came clean after the bombings there, and admitted that they had been caught off guard. They soon rounded up the remaining culprits. Let’s have some of that in the UK.

Jumping The Gun – Revisited

Last year, I noted that there had been some less than sensitive treatment of South African athlete Caster Semenya following her routine trouncing of the opposition and persistent rumours about her sexuality. Put directly, it was out of order.

Now, following an eleven month ban from competition, the good news is that Semenya has been cleared to compete again. There have been yet more rumours, suggesting that she is no longer quite as fleet of foot as before, and linking this to an alleged course of hormone treatment.

But the lack of speed may just be down to her not being allowed to compete. In any case, as the IAAF investigation has declared the medial details of its case confidential, the press would be best advised not to speculate. But, as we know of the Fourth Estate, speculate is probably what they will do.

Meanwhile, the competition should concentrate on one thing: keeping up.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Parish Notice – Votes Required

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

It’s that time of the year again.

Not that there is any vanity about Zelo Street (stuff that), but if so many other blogs are taking part, then there’s no reason to play Billy No Mates and stand on the sidelines.

So what’s the event? It’s the Total Politics 2010 Blog Poll, sponsored, in even handed style jointly by LabourList, LibDemVoice, and TP head man Iain Dale (he’s a Tory ... you didn’t know that? Go and stand at the back).

Here’s the rules (taken from Iain’s blog post):

1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

Note that new for this year is that you only have to vote for five blogs – last year it was ten or nothing, which may have put some potential voters off.

Of course, I’d love folks to vote for Zelo Street, but as Our Graham used to say, the decision is yours.

Happy voting!

The Republican Wrong – Beck To School

The silly season must have arrived: in the news today is the opening of a new University, dedicated to home study. And this is no ordinary learning experience, for here is Beck University, the personal learning vehicle of Glenn Beck, increasingly erratic “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Beck’s website, which describes the Glenn Beck Program (that’s his radio show) as “The Fusion Of Entertainment And Enlightenment”, clearly benefits from a more than average amount of brass neck, and so it is no surprise to see his “University” sold as a “unique academic experience”.

As might be expected, it’s not taken long for organised ridicule to start, and Mother Jones’ Adam Weinstein has been as quick off the mark as any. My favourites from his suggested course list are “Fundamentals of Spelling and Grammar (Cancelled)”, “Great Military Heroes: John Wayne”, “Paranoia as Therapeutic Alternative”, “Studies in Moral Courage: Joe McCarthy”, and “Gym Crow”.

Perhaps Fox and Beck fan Donal Blaney might be interested in recommending it to the next group of takers for the training offered by the Young Britons’ Foundation.

If there is one.

Lies, Damn Lies, And EU Directives – 5

Comfort foods. We may disagree on what qualifies, but most will be hard put to argue against a list including chocolate and hazelnut paste Nutella, which has been spread generously over breakfast bread for more than four and a half decades. Nutella is made by Ferrero, a large but very private Italian firm which also produces the maybe over hyped Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and the Kinder range.

But the private world of Ferrero came out into the open recently when, so it’s been claimed, that same draft EU legislation that has spawned the spurious “EU Bans A Dozen Eggs” has threatened the very existence of Nutella. Given than, as I’ve pointed out, the screaming headlines and the reality were two different things where the “dozen eggs” story was concerned, the first thought that occurs is one of scepticism.

And this may be the right approach: the draft legislation talks of displaying such things as fat, salt and sugar content clearly on food packaging – so, in the case of Nutella, that would mean on the front of the jar. Would the revelation of how much sugar goes into the product be enough to kill it off, as some have suggested? Doubtful. What may be spooking the secretive folks at Ferrero is that some of their closely guarded recipe may be revealed to their competitors.

But then, any other firm – and this particular corner of the comfort food market does have other players – could just buy a jar of Nutella and figure out the contents for itself. Which leaves the thought that Ferrero may be doing no more than lobbying against what will be no more than a minor inconvenience, the kind of change to labelling that comes round every few years in any case.

Which appears to be the case: Ferrero have now acknowledged that there never was any threat to Nutella. But the case does demonstrate that it’s not just in the UK that the food industry will lobby, using suitably apocalyptic language, against an EU that is all too easy to demonise.

Monday, 5 July 2010

An Impending Report

Word has arrived from the independent review into the governance of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) that their review is to be published on Wednesday.

The report, once published, will be available on the Governance Review’s website. There will no doubt be much to comment on.

Anyone who regularly looks in on Zelo Street will know that I have a particularly low opinion of the PCC as currently constituted, given its apparently incestuous relationship with the Fourth Estate: the Editors’ Code Committee is chaired by no less than the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and managing editor of the Mail On Sunday.

Otherwise, I will not be rushing to pre-judge the report, but am not hoping for too much from it. The idea of a properly independent PCC, with the power of enforcement, may still be as far away as ever.

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 16

The iron determination of the Murdoch clan to make the punters pay to view online content has now borne fruit: the Times and Sunday Times have disappeared behind a paywall. I’ve wondered in the past whether Rupe and his troops can make the numbers add up, and although they’ve managed this task with Sky and the various sports rights that have been acquired, things might be different with newspapers.

Previously, I noted that pioneer of online journalism Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post aggregates content, but also produces original journalism and hosts several blogs, wasn’t convinced by Rupe’s arguments. Her speech, delivered last December, and titled “Journalism 2009: Desperate Metaphors, Desperate Revenue Models, And The Desperate Need For Better Journalism”, lays out clearly why she believes that the Murdochs don’t get it.

And in today’s Guardian, Clay Shirky, an internet guru who hates being called an internet guru, tells why he, too, doesn’t think that putting up a paywall will work. His verdict is as straightforward as it is damning: “I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don't think the numbers add up”. Moreover, he points out that what Murdoch is doing with the Times and ST is locking the wider public out of his papers’ conversations – deliberately throttling their reach.

The reach of the Times and ST was already in sharp decline following the imposition of registration (part of the move towards a paywall). Adding the further imposition of payment when there are so many more news sources out there will merely compound that decline.

The Bald Truth

In Saturday’s Guardian, columnist Simon Hoggart tells of when, recently, he was standing behind Young Dave at a party. Hoggart confirms that “he really is going bald. From the back, and spreading out”.

This is very bad news for a man looking to spend ten years occupying 10 Downing Street, and for one simple reason: you can’t get elected if you’re bald.

Since World War 2, the only time a bald man got to be Prime Minister was when the alternative was another bald man. Hence Clem Attlee beating Winshton twice, then Winshton winning the third time.

But, as soon as the electorate had the choice of a party leader with a full head of hair, there was no going back. Anthony Eden beat Attlee, and from that point the bald man always lost.

Alec Douglas Home lost to Wislon, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock lost to Margaret Thatcher, Kinnock then lost to “Shagger” Major, and both William ‘Ague and Michael “I’m not going to hurt you” Howard lost to Tone. It’s possible that John Smith would have bucked the trend, but his chance never came.

So Cameron and the Tories have a potential problem. How fast is Young Dave’s own very personal recession progressing? If it’s going to become obvious within the next two or three years, that could spell the end of his re-election chances.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Slasher Gives It To Us Straight

The man in line to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, until Young Dave and his jolly good chaps failed to turn the talk of a “Tory tsunami” into all out victory, was Philip Hammond, now at Transport and welcomed with the award of the nickname “Slasher”.

Hammond, unlike Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, has actually had a real job out there in the real world. His wealth is earned, not inherited, so he has a head start in the credibility stakes. When he says that there need to be spending cuts, we might not like the idea, but have to concede that the bloke making the statement knows one end of a set of figures from the other.

And on today’s Andy Marr Show, Hammond was living up to his nickname. There would have to be cuts in departmental budgets of 25%, or in some cases maybe more. That means a lot of job losses, but at least this has already been conceded. What has not found universal acceptance is the idea that all of these losses, and more, will somehow be compensated for by a substantial increase in the private sector.

Moreover, what Hammond wasn’t pressed on was the effect of such large cuts on that same private sector. If such things as road building projects get the axe, this impacts directly on the civil engineering sector. Less employment there means all the smaller firms that depend on the civils also suffer. And, as I’ve noted previously, cutting “back office” functions also results in job losses. This then impacts (for instance) on suppliers of IT services. Bad news for the M4 Corridor.

If the private sector is getting hit by the fallout from the cuts, just how is it going to put on all those extra jobs to take up the slack when the public sector shrinks? I suspect that Hammond is going to find that one harder to square. But at least he’s giving his news to us straight.

Iain, Meet Denis

A week has now passed since the Murdoch and Rothermere press splashed its erroneous “EU Bans A Dozen Eggs” stories, sparking some vigorous and often healthy debate, and unfortunately spawning a number of instances of knee jerk Europhobia.

And top of the Europhobic blog pops on day one was Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda. Moreover, a week on, he is still at it, suggesting that he has forgotten Healey’s Dictum, named after the former Labour deputy leader, which states, more or less, that if you find yourself in a hole, you are best advised to stop digging.

The timeline for the actual story, which Zelo Street has laid out in an exclusive yesterday, many will know by now. That for Dale and his digging may be less clear, so I’ll shed a little light on it in this post.

On June 27, the day that the Mail On Sunday, Screws, and Sunday Times ran the story, the Dale blog included a post with the untrue title “EU Abolishes A Dozen Eggs”. The post contained the equally untrue assertion that “No longer will we be able to buy eggs by the dozen”. At the very end of the comments – few readers would have seen it – was someone asking “Now that you've been proved wrong where is the correction and humbling apology?

Others then found adversely upon the press, and Dale came in for a routine amount of ridicule. But generally, the whole thing died down - until yesterday’s Zelo Street exclusive, which identified the Grocer magazine as the source of the story, and revealed the characteristically poor behaviour of the Fourth Estate over the matter.

Only then did Iain Dale wake up to the existence of the Grocer and editor Adam Leyland, although I’m sure he would not go so far as to concede that he had read it first in this blog. Moreover, he came over all righteous and declared “I have been plagued by Europhile idiots calling on me to apologise”. But, apart from a mere suggestion from one of his own commenters, there has been no movement to demand he apologises.

You couldn’t make it up? But it looks very much as if Iain Dale has made it up. Why make the hole bigger, Iain, when you could just stop digging? And, while you’re at it, try doing a bit of proper investigation for a change (as I did), rather than just assuming that your comments are somehow special.

You’re not a sleb, and you never will be.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Republican Wrong – Wrong All Round

The USA has had armed forces deployed in Afghanistan for some years now: the war as prosecuted under “Dubya” Bush continues to be fought under Barack Obama, despite the recent excess of candour from Stanley McChrystal.

And, it was thought, that the war should continue to be fought was one of those rare things, in that it enjoyed the support of both Democrats and Republicans. That was until the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) Michael Steele stood up to speak at a party fundraiser in Connecticut last Thursday.

Steele, apparently with a straight face, told his audience that the Afghan conflict was “A war of Obama’s choosing”. Moreover, it was “not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in”. Wow. Where has this man been for the past decade?

Even the most ardent of GOP supporters, such as “Dick” Cheney’s daughter Liz, have called for Steele to step down from his post. This example of what is now known as “mis-speaking” tells you why.

EXCLUSIVE: Lies, Damn Lies, And EU Directives – 4

As the Fourth Estate moves on to the next EU scare story, I can now reveal that the Grocer magazine was indeed the source of “EU Bans A Dozen Eggs”. I am not at liberty to say how the information found its way on to Zelo Street, but can say that this has been confirmed by Grocer editor Adam Leyland.

The timeline is straightforward: the Grocer article was first published on June 25 – not June 26, which is the date of the online copy – and it is believed that journalists at the Rothermere press are among the magazine’s subscriber base. No act of tipping off was required.

So far, so straightforward, but what I have also discovered is that none of the papers that ran with the story on June 27 – the Mail On Sunday, News Of The World and Sunday Times – bothered to check any details with the Grocer before publishing. Yes, that includes a Murdoch title that has just retreated behind a paywall, the justification being that we should have to pay for the quality of journalism being provided.

Except, in this case, all that Rupe’s clearly not very upmarket troops did was to lift an article from another publication and paste it into the Sunday Times. I doubt that they even acknowledged the source (the MoS didn’t). So where is the supposed quality? On the face of it, this is just another piece of lazy hackery dressed up as respectable journalism.

Moreover, I can reveal that only one paper, the Maily Telegraph, saw fit to check the story with the Grocer before committing to print. This may explain why they ran the story a day after the Murdoch and Rothermere titles, and also why their article referred, as I noted at the time, to pricing by the dozen (or whatever number).

Also, what is coming clear is that terms such as “A Dozen” will not be banned by any upcoming EU directive. You might have difficulty finding that information in any of the papers who were first with this particular Euro-scare: here is a superb example of concern within an industry (retail, in this case) being hyped merely to sell a few more copies, of the assembled hackery relegating mere facts in favour of a few screaming headlines.

The Fourth Estate may change its rules. But it is utterly predictable in its behaviour. And its standards never improve.

Friday, 2 July 2010

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 13

Another month, another “report”, full of “research” from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of all taxpayers, and still no accounts published). It is at least good to see that Matthew “Gromit” Elliott and his pals in their generously donated office suite are keeping busy, even if the stench of rank hypocrisy hangs over the whole enterprise.

Because today’s “report” is another of the TPA’s “rich lists”. This time, it’s a Trade Union one, which should be no surprise, given that many of those thought to be sponsoring the TPA are union hating industrialists who give the impression they would rather not be encumbered by such trifles as workers having rights.

So what is in the latest TPA “report”? Well, we find out that Bob Crow, head man at the RMT, is on more than 100k a year. I am not surprised. “Scare” Crow is head man at a large and still powerful union, he tends to get his members a good deal out of their various employers, and so he gets the rate for the job. End of story.

But the TPA clearly isn’t satisfied. It wants to accuse the unions of hypocrisy and suggest that they are living a life of “well paid luxury”. How would they know this? Given that none of the union men and women in the TPA “report” would be about to invite the TPA into their homes, this is mere conjecture – unless those same TPA folks were getting the same kind of money.

But then, the TPA has still not published up to date accounts, and neither has it told how much its variously comfortable staffers are trousering. We can guess the kind of middling TPA package, though, from the recent journey through the Government revolving door of Susie Squire, now on a pay grade in the 60 to 70k range.

Given that La Squire was “only” a middling staffer at the TPA, it’s quite plausible that Matthew “Gromit” Elliott is on a whole lot more, which might just get him over 100k and entry into the world of “well paid luxury”. Not bad for someone whose talents don’t appear to reach much further than being yet another of these clever people who talk loudly in restaurants.

So when, TPA people, are you going to come clean and publish those accounts? And, while you’re at it, how about another list, one of salaries for all your staffers, consultants, and other hangers on?