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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Naples: On The Buses

With construction of the city’s Metro system not yet complete, public transport provision in much of central Naples has to be shouldered by the humble bus. What is on offer here is demonstrated as soon as you head away from the airport, with one exception, which will become obvious.

Outside arrivals, there are two different – and differently priced – bus services ready to take you downtown. The more frequent Alibus service offers new vehicles with air conditioning, but also costs three Euro a trip, whereas the more ordinary 3S service will only set you back the usual 90 minute fare of 1,10. But the 3S runs older buses without aircon, and its timekeeping is in the imperfect category (the city’s traffic makes sure of that).

And on board, the environment is decidedly Spartan: moulded seats without padding, large standing area, and the driver almost completely shut away behind a partition more severe than anything in the UK. For starters, bus drivers in Naples handle no money: you buy your ticket from retailers around the city before travelling, then validate it on board.

However, the 3S has at least one good point: even though there aren’t many seats, you should have no problem getting one of them, as loadings aren’t so heavy for most of the day. This is not the case with anything moving along the coast between central Naples and Mergellina, where crush loads are routine throughout daylight hours. Once again, the rule for maximum loading seems to be that there aren’t any rules: folks pile on board until no more can be squeezed in.

Things may get better when the Metro works finish: not only should that provide a fast underground link between the city centre and Mergellina (thus relieving both buses and the Cumana suburban rail link), but the disruption to the road network may also cease.

Until then, you’re on the buses. Move right down inside now ...

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 12

As widely trailed, Ofcom has reported following its enquiry into competition in the TV industry. And Rupe’s troops at Sky are not happy bunnies: unless the inevitable appeal succeeds, they will have to lower the price charged to competitors for content from the Sky Sports 1 and 2 channels.

The pay TV market is dominated by Sky: the broadcaster has an estimated 85% of total subscribers. So, unless rival providers were to massively increase their share of that market, the downside to Rupe’s empire seems small – especially as HD channels are exempt from the Ofcom ruling, allowing Sky to claw back the costs of bringing new technology to the market.

But that doesn’t wash with the Murdoch empire: Rupe and Junior don’t like regulation – any regulation. The Murdochs prefer places where they can do as they please, and serve up what they want, typified by their rise in the US cable market with the slanted and wayward “journalism” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). And, as the EU does regulation on a level Rupe doesn’t like, he and his media outlets are uniformly hostile to it.

However, help may be at hand for the Interfering Foreigner: Young Dave, who by the most fortunate of coincidences has won the backing of Rupe and Junior in the upcoming General Election campaign, has said that Ofcom, in its current form, will be abolished by a future Tory Government.

So that’s all fair and above board, then.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Naples: Traffic

For anyone who thought that the cacophony of car horns in The Italian Job (to underscore the idea that an exceptionally bad traffic jam has been created in the northern Italian city of Turin) was something exceptional, I can only conclude that they haven’t spent any time in the country.

That noise is one of the most persuasive reasons why you try and get a room at the back of the hotel if you’re stopping over in any Italian city. That or, as I found to my relief in Naples, you stop somewhere with recently installed double glazing.

Resorting to horn-sounding is the default choice of Italian motorists whenever anything interrupts their progress, be it another car driver picking up or dropping off a passenger, someone trying to access a particularly difficult parking space, not immediately moving at maximum speed when a light turns green, or stopping at a light before it’s shown a red for several seconds.

Given that all of these are in the category of stuff that happens, you’ll understand why there is so much racket from horns in any sizeable Piazza anywhere in Italy, whether it’s outside Stazione Termini in Rome, or Piazza Garibaldi in Naples (which has more traffic, and is therefore noisier).

But what of those that our Highway Code terms “road users on foot”? Ah well. That’s when it becomes proper fun. You see something that looks like a pedestrian crossing, but realise very rapidly that the rule is, not for the first time in Italy, that there are no rules. If you stand there expecting the traffic to stop, then you will tend to remain standing there.

You pick the gaps, see the vehicles moving a little more slowly, eyeball the driver, and out you walk (alternatively, if feeling squeamish about this, shadow a local, for whom it’s second nature). The traffic may not actually stop, but will slow down sufficiently for you to make your ground, but not for so long that everyone behind starts blasting their horns.

Which brings us back to The Italian Job: every time you successfully get across four or five lanes of traffic without incident, you recall the scene where Fred Emney nearly gets flattened by a Fiat 500 and exclaims “Blimey ... bloody Grand Prix”.

Bullying The Beeb – 2

Sometimes it needs a satirist to make a straightforward and all too obvious point. And last week, at the Broadcasting Press Guild awards, creator of The Thick Of It, Armando Iannucci, did just that when discussing the BBC and the attacks on it from Murdoch Junior recently.

In a speech covered by the Guardian, but missing from other “quality” papers’ websites (although the Independent managed a photo), Iannucci said of the Beeb: “My only wish is that whenever it is accused of something, even if it's something it hadn't done, I wish it wouldn't go to the first police station and hand itself in”.

And, as if that wasn’t a strong enough hint to DG Mark Thompson and the BBC Trust, he suggested that “Surely at the end of the day with all its skill and expertise and all the talent behind it and loyal following, it could find someone to articulately tell James Murdoch to f*** off”.

In other words, the BBC should display a little more cojones in its dealings with Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner, and cease beating itself up.

Monday, 29 March 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 11

So it’s really happening: although you’d be pushed to find the news on its own website, Rupe’s supposedly flagship Times will, come June, charge for access to that site. As with charging for sport on Sky, the numbers may stack up even if as many as 95% of the current audience decide to get their web news elsewhere: sums of almost two million quid a month from the remaining users have been pitched.

But that assumes a regular subscription from all of the 5%. Anyone who had previously looked in occasionally – and I’d be in that category – might not consider the one pound “daily pass” or two quid “weekly pass” worth their while, not when the content of the Maily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Beeb was still free to view. But Murdoch and his loyal footsoldiers have determined that journalism has a value which can be recouped through making websites pay per view.

And there are those swallowing Rupe’s line. But the founder of the original Internet Newspaper, The Huffington Post, has already warned Murdoch that he doesn’t get the new media. In a speech delivered on 1st December last, titled “Journalism 2009: Desperate Metaphors, Desperate Revenue Models, And The Desperate Need For Better Journalism”, Arianna Huffington debunks the Murdoch demonisation of aggregators, noting that the HuffPo also provides its own original journalism and a raft of featured blogs.

Moreover, that original content is in turn quoted by other aggregators, linked to by yet more blogs, and discussed and disseminated by even more commenters. Shutting a newspaper, or group of newspapers, away behind a paywall also shuts them out of that process. That potentially vicious circle of neglect is exactly what Murdoch doesn’t get.

Not that you would see any of the supposedly leading Tory supporting blogs making the same point, though. The one post I saw earlier today on the subject of the Murdoch paywall looks to have been pulled – no names, no packdrill – and elsewhere all is quiet.

Why should that be?

Naples: Election Time

While we in the UK wait on Pa Broon to fire the starting gun for our own General Election, Italy has been holding nationwide Regional Elections, the voting finishing today. In Naples, the most obvious sign of the upcoming contest, and a significant contributor to the city’s street rubbish, has been the customary poster blitz.

And the rules governing poster advertising, to outsiders at least, seem to be that there aren’t any rules. Across the city, poster boards abound, each hoarding plastered with layer upon layer of them, apparently fifteen to twenty deep. No one party, or coalition – this election is dominated by coalitions built around the PdL (”People of Freedom”) of “Duce” Berlusconi and the PD (Democratic Party) of Pierluigi Bersani – enjoys a monopoly on their use.

Here’s how it works: one of the two main protagonists gets its posters up on as many boards as they can manage in a day. Those posters may remain on view for a whole day, maybe even two. Then the other coalition deploy their posters over the top of those of their opposition. This, too, remains on view for a short period before the process is repeated. Hence the poster boards creaking under the increasing weight as more layers are added.

And, as not all the posters stick – last Monday afternoon, under steady rain, would not have given good conditions for poster longevity – many end up on the ground, pulped underfoot and otherwise giving the overstretched refuse collectors another headache they could do without.

So what of the public enthusiasm for these elections? Well, the last regionals, back in 2005, yielded a turnout of 67.7% in Campania, the region around Naples. That’s better than the UK’s 2005 General Election, with its miserable 61.3%, and way ahead of any local election here. But corruption is supposed to be turning off the voters, and has been endemic around Naples for decades.

Go figure that one out.

The Other Adman Cometh

A party’s choice of advertising agency has been held to have some influence on UK General Elections for over 30 years – since Saatchi and Saatchi came on board to help Margaret Thatcher into 10 Downing Street back in 1979. And parties generally stick with one agency throughout any given campaign – well, until last week, at least.

That same Tory Party had been using agency Euro RSCG, under whose aegis the much derided and defaced (but not airbrushed, honest) posters of Young Dave were dreamed up. But now Cameron has turned to M&C Saatchi (no relation nowadays to S&S) in what is being seen as an admission that events are not turning out as expected.

So what? Well, the first effort from the new old boy shows that the base instinct for negative campaigning has won out for now: Pa Broon is the target in another round of predictable knocking copy, something I looked at recently. Not that negative campaigning is a less than legitimate weapon: all parties do it, and oppositions manage to run entire by-election campaigns on it.

But we are no longer in mid-term, and so turning a campaign negative so soon risks the predictable counter: folks will take on board the knocking copy, but will then ask what the negative campaigners are offering that is positive, different, and new. What, they may ask, of the Tory C-word – what happened to the positive projection of “Change”?

In other words, there is a real risk of mixing up the message merely to satisfy those who want to kick Brown. Someone seems to have forgotten what happened when the Super Soaraway Currant Bun laid into him over a handwritten letter to a dead soldier’s mother, and it backfired on them.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Naples: The Fringe Workers

It is early afternoon in Naples, with shoppers and early shift workers heading home. Into the basement Piazza Garibaldi station of the suburban Circumvesuviana railway system pour thousands of punters en route to suburbs along the Amalfi coast, a short ride away by graffiti-daubed electric train.

On the northernmost platform, a little girl of around four years old, with big dark eyes and dressed in pink, mingles with the crowds. But she is not travelling. She shuffles from one punter to the next, with her sad, appealing eyes looking up hopefully as she holds out her hand. This little girl is one of the youngest of the city’s all too numerous beggars.

In one respect, Naples is no different to any other southern European city: each has its own underclass. But here, there seem to be so many of them: the elderly woman in her usual spot outside Stazione Centrale, the man stepping out into the Mergellina traffic queue brandishing his plastic cup, and a host of itinerants slowly moving around the city with their belongings piled onto elderly prams and pushchairs.

At first, you wonder why the man running the station Tabachi where you buy bus tickets does business from behind a glass screen. Then, having taken ticket and change, you turn around to see an outstretched hand: another of the regulars working his patch. And then there are the more entertaining beggars.

Accordion players are a class of entertainer you will see on many street corners: on occasion, they will follow groups of likely looking tourists in an attempt to increase punter yield. But they are not nearly as determined or sophisticated as those musicians working the Cumana and Circumflegrea commuter trains that run out to the western suburbs.

Here, it is not unusual to be serenaded by a duo who have brought along a small amplifier for the vocalist, avoiding the stringent ticket inspection at Montesanto terminus simply by being on the train’s inbound working and staying put. Accommodating these extra passengers is an achievement in itself, given the lines’ routine daytime crush loading.

The dubious reward for those heading out to Bagnoli and Pianura is to be treated to a mix of easy listening with the accent on popular Italian standards: tourists will be reassured to know that they will hear Volare at regular intervals throughout their journey, along with the passage through the train of the chosen collecting vessel.

Which, of course, is why this disparate group is out there. Naples has well established and chronic unemployment, but its citizens still need to get by.

Naples: The Way In

There are few cities that generate as much bad press as Naples, and this in turn generated a curiosity that would only be satisfied by going there and finding out for myself. What would the world be like beyond the terminal building at Capodichino Airport?

Well, getting off the aircraft and into that building brought its own taster, as the ground staff had decided to strike. Fortunately, some of them were still prepared to bring steps up to the plane, and I had no checked baggage. For some of my 137 fellow passengers, it was shaping up to be a frustrating day.

So what of that bad press? Well, the warnings of choking traffic, few green spaces, streets strewn with rubbish, dreadfully maintained roads, incessant noise (if not from all that traffic, from the interminable construction projects intended to alleviate it), horribly overcrowded public transport, poverty, mass unemployment, and graffiti on a post industrial scale are all true, and in spades.

But to be repelled by all of this is to miss the point: all Naples’ flaws are also part of what makes it so fascinating. Here is a city that is in your face: there is no pretence otherwise. And there is a lesson for all: the joining of corrupt local government and organised crime into the public-private partnership from hell does not make for happy outcomes.

So it was that, after a slow and bumpy bus ride, I alighted at Piazza Garibaldi, an uninspiring, sprawling, filthy and cacophonous part of the city centre, ready for a very different city break experience.

Welcome to Naples.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Back – Nearly

Having flown in to Liverpool (wet and not at all mild) from Naples (sunny and getting warmer by the day) this afternoon, I have a raft of topics to bring to Zelo Street, but before then, another day out with the camera awaits tomorrow.

I’ve been subject to a total news blackout for the past four days, so there is also some catching up to do. No doubt the blog will be back up to speed before too long.

In the meantime, a variety of preparations await. Back properly very soon!

Sunday, 21 March 2010


The time has come for a break from routine, so there will be less content appearing on Zelo Street for the next few days.

I should be back up to speed by next weekend, by which time we should have had this year’s Budget, and maybe the Election date will have been announced.

But the world will be, generally, the same shape as before. A sense of proportion is always useful.

Bullying The Beeb

At the beginning of the month, during a Newsnight interview, Tory education spokesman Michael Gove made an extraordinary threat to interviewer Kirsty Wark: pointing his finger, Gove warned “We’ll be watching”. The effect, coming from someone not possessing an attack dog reputation, was hardly overpowering, but the intent was clear. And this is not an isolated example.

I recently considered the shelving of a Panorama programme about Michael Ashcroft, which has been put down to legal threats. However, it appears that there was also considerable pressure on BBC DG Mark Thompson from senior figures in the Tory Party. The argument from the Tories is that transmission may be prejudicial in the run up to the General Election, but the counter is that this is an attempt to bully the Corporation, with the implicit threat of a Cameron Government taking revenge for what the Tories are increasingly trying to call bias.

It will surprise no-one that the attack from the Tories is coming at the same time that the Super Soaraway Currant Bun is laying in to the Beeb, with its recent broadside digging up a six year old Basil Brush Show (yes, before Cameron became leader), and trying to smear the Beeb with the footage of Young Dave tidying his hair, which was filmed by Rupe’s troops at Sky News (“first for breaking wind”).

Attempting to silence impartial reporting for political ends should, in any mature democracy, be off limits to all mainstream politicians, so perhaps Young Dave will come out and tell his cheerleaders to desist. Or perhaps not: after all, the Tories are desperate enough to get their hands on the levers of power for this kind of tactic to be declared legitimate, albeit perhaps only informally.

Expect lots more bullying of the Beeb in the next few weeks.

Health Of The Nation – 2

The crucial vote on health care reform approaches, and the Democrats are letting it be known that they “have the votes”. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama has been rallying his troops, but the ugly side of the so-called Tea Party protests has seen a number of congressmen subjected to homophobic and racial abuse.

Those in the UK who might not have understood the concept of being “uninsured”, meanwhile, were given a brief insight into the consequences of losing insurance cover when a news bulletin showed a conversation between a pharmacist and a customer who was no longer covered. The cost of one prescription would now have to be paid in full.

The amount? Just 460 dollars, or in UK money, around 300 quid. Just think on when you stump up seven pounds an item. And don’t forget that, in the UK, we spend a lot less on health care than the USA, and get better outcomes. That is what it’s all about.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Republican Wrong – Ultimate Parody

On Comedy Central’s Daily Show, satire is centre stage, dealt by host Jon Stewart. So politicians, slebs, and talking heads from other networks can expect to find themselves skewered during the half hour programme. So it was on Thursday last, but in spades: Stewart gave the full treatment to the increasingly eccentric Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The extended segment can be viewed in the UK on 4OD: here, not only does Stewart capture the ridiculously paranoid style of Beck, but Beck himself is shown in the background almost as a Big Brother figure, an idea that is genuinely scary. It is this idea that puts the piece in the standout category.

And, as a bonus, it’s very, very funny.

That’s Life, But Not As We Know It – 3

The war of words over who may or may not be standing in the constituency of Luton South may have started off as an extension of the row between the Maily Telegraph and Tory MP Nadine Dorries, but thanks to the generosity of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, former That’s Life presenter Esther Rantzen has been able to wade into the dispute via her column in the Daily Mail.

And La Rantzen kicks off with another revelation concerning Stephen Rhodes (né Tommy Keenan): she had met Rhodes two weeks ago, at his request, and he had inferred that he would be standing as an Independent in neighbouring Luton North. In the intervening period, Rhodes somehow either lost his bearings, or decided against the united Independent approach.

Moreover, Rantzen asserts that there is at least a whispering campaign in Luton South suggesting that she may withdraw from the contest, or even that she has already withdrawn. Who may be behind this is unclear, but she does note that, when Rhodes contacted the Maily Telegraph about Nadine Dorries – the episode that, it seems, was intended to stop the paper investigating her – he taped the conversation and this recording may have found its way to Dorries’ lawyer.

Unless she has changed her legal representative recently, Dorries’ lawyer is none other than Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF) CEO, and senior partner of Griffin Law, Donal Blaney. La Rantzen might usefully ask herself whether Rhodes was wired when the two of them met the other week, and what she may have let slip during the conversation.

There might just be more on this story yet.

First Strike

So British Airways’ cabin crew have gone on strike. Union members are demonstrating and picketing around Heathrow, but there are no scenes of angry passengers for the broadcast media to show, mainly because BA gave them notice of the upcoming disruption and they revised their plans accordingly. The flights that have been confirmed as running are indeed running.

What of the political fallout? Government ministers have made suitably disapproving noises, and there have been the usual pleas for wiser heads to prevail, but ultimately there is no power to coerce the strikers back to work. The main weapon deployed by opposition parties is that Unite, the union representing the strikers, pays money via its political fund to Labour, but those hoping for a voter backlash may be disappointed.

Why so? Well, BA strikes have been a regular feature of holiday periods, whatever the stripe of the governing party, for some years. And the number of swing voters likely to be swayed by this action may not even show up in the polls: most folks jetting off over Easter will be flying by charter or budget carrier, and they don’t carry the inherited baggage of BA’s staff perks, nor their woeful industrial relations record.

So if Young Dave and Corporal Clegg think they’re on a winner with this strike, they think wrong. But Pa Broon and his gang aren’t out of the woods yet: on the railways, there is the potential for a signallers’ strike, and that could be bad for the Government. More and more people travel by rail nowadays, including commuters for whom the rising cost of season tickets is not matched by any guarantee that they will even get a seat for their journey.

The potential for another wave of action to match that of early 1979 is limited, but the trains will not run if there is nobody to signal them. And if folks cannot get to work, and earn their crust, then they might just change their minds about who gets their vote.

Friday, 19 March 2010

They’re Off!

Here in Crewe we are not upmarket enough to even consider whether we have heard The First Cuckoo Of Spring. But we do know that the General Election campaign has begun in earnest, as the first fart of Prescott has most certainly been heard somewhere in the Nantwich Road area.

Yes, “Shagger” himself (“Traditional misbehaviour in a modern setting”) has breezed in to lend his bulk to David Williams’ effort to regain the seat for Labour. This has enabled Williams to get on the front page of the local free sheet, and he’s there again on Page 2, fortunately this time without Prezza.

Poor Edward Timpson has to be content with one appearance, on Page 13. The offices of the Crewe Guardian are not yet being bombarded with complaints from CCHQ, and this should not be seen as in any way indicative of the election result. Polls can go down as well as up.

Not Fair!

Just in case you didn’t know that Rupe’s troops over at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun were rooting for Young Dave and his jolly clever chaps, a scan of today’s online content will put you straight.

Today’s tracker poll result shows the Tory lead, which had briefly risen to 5%, falling back to 4%. No matter; the photo is still of Young Dave, and the comment lets us know that “There is grim reading for Gordon Brown today”. Given that Labour have hardly started the serious campaigning yet, Big Al and Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole must be hoping it gets grimmer still.

Meanwhile, Rupe’s finest, perhaps mindful that the strapline “It’s the Sun wot lost it” might not shift too many sales, have decided to put the boot into the Beeb (which it has to call “state owned”, because Murdoch Junior says so), in an attempt to further the Murdoch agenda, and give them a get out clause just in case their blatant cheerleading for the Tories backfires.

The article, unsubtly titled Blatantly Biased against Conservatives (geddit?!?), whinges about the amount of coverage that the BBC have given the Ashcroft affair, while apparently failing to realise that sister Murdoch title The Times is today carrying a headline cartoon depicting a less than flattering caricature of that same Tory peer with William ‘Ague.

The attack is somewhat undermined by the Sun choosing as its leading talking head the increasingly eccentric Douglas Carswell, best pal of Dan, Dan The Oratory Man, who declares that “The BBC is in the hands of a left-wing elite”, otherwise code for “they don’t believe the world is as flat as I do”.

The Sun’s clinching argument, or if you prefer, its most blatant act of barrel scraping, is that a recent Basil Brush Show had a nasty politician called Dave who had a blue rosette. Quite so: here in Crewe and Nantwich we have a candidate called Dave and he has a red rosette, so the Beeb is clearly bang to rights.

Boom boom Mister Rupert!!!

That’s Life, But Not As We Know It – 2

Yesterday, I noted that the Maily Telegraph and Mid Bedfordshire Tory MP Nadine Dorries have previous. Today, the Telegraph has shown it intends to carry on the niggle-fest with an article “outing” Ms Dorries’ supposedly “main” home, a one bedroom cottage in the Cotswolds which is a long way from both Parliament and her constituency.

Given the benefits from designating the cottage as her “main” home, and their enthusiasm for outing many other MPs’ expense claims – some representing the party that they want to see in Government – it’s strange that, over at ConservativeHome, all those Clever People Who Talk Loudly In Restaurants have rushed to defend La Dorries and kick the Telegraph.

What Tim Montgomerie and his pals don’t seem to understand is that having a press that is free to select what stories it covers may be a good thing. He also fails to grasp that there is a reason that Private Eye long ago awarded its current nickname to the Maily Telegraph.

Think about it, Tim.

Politics Of The Shrug

Yesterday evening, BBC2 showed a politics documentary that was both instructive and profoundly dispiriting. The People’s Politician, with retiring MPs Ann Widdecombe and Richard Caborn joined by a number of other retirees providing background and comment, pointed up just how easy it is to find voters who are totally disconnected from the political process.

Widdecombe and Caborn both try their best to enthuse punters in their respective constituencies of Maidstone and Sheffield Central, but both find the going difficult. Ann Widdecombe sticks to her task and ultimately, at least, some of her less well off constituents begin to engage with their representatives, although she describes many folks’ attitudes as the “politics of the shrug”.

Worse, seeing the actual mood on the street, and then looking at the cheerleaders for the various parties – especially the Tories – the thought enters that merely bringing on all these new MPs will not in itself change public perceptions. And neither will the move by all parties towards happy, smiling and photogenic wannabes.

Richard Caborn might have been selected for Labour in 2010; Ann Widdecombe would not be able to say that about today’s Tory Party. Does it matter? I believe it does. None of us is free of eccentricity, and perhaps a little more character in our politicians would help to enthuse the disaffected.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Smelling The Coffee In Belize – 7

And so the Michael Ashcroft show rolls on, despite attempts by the Tories to drive it off the news agenda. The release of new documents has seen William ‘Ague at last admit that he was wrong to pitch the idea that Ashcroft would pay “tens of millions of pounds in UK taxes”, but Master ‘Ague’s confident fielding of questions on Radio 4 this morning hasn’t stopped them coming.

Ashcroft’s peerage, it seems, was waved through while confusion over his “undertakings” reigned. There appeared to have been no-one in place to ensure that he had taken up residence in the UK. Of course, this could be a simple misunderstanding. But if it is not, the Tories could be deep in the brown smelly stuff.

Meanwhile, the Independent, against which Ashcroft has initiated legal action, has today reported that the Beeb, who have produced a Panorama programme about the Tory peer, have shelved transmission after apparently being leaned on by him. The thought occurs that the legal action to stop the programme might do the Tories more harm than letting the broadcast go ahead.

Expect more “non story” flannel around the Tory cheerleading elements in the blogosphere, which on current form looks like the web version of peeing into the wind.

That’s Life, But Not As We Know It

The electorate in Luton South may, this morning, be wondering what they have done to deserve not one, but two, less than A-List slebs fetching up on their manor ready to try and propel themselves into the Commons. And there is a bizarre back story involving an MP who is not yet out of the woods on her expense claims.

The constituency is presently represented by Labour’s Margaret Moran, who has herself been mired in expense problems and is therefore standing down at the General Election. Unwisely coming in to supposedly clean up politics is former That’s Life presenter Esther Rantzen. So far, so marginally important. But now, another radio and TV presenter, Stephen Rhodes (real name Tommy Keenan) has thrown his mike in the ring.

Which still is unlikely to set pulses racing, that is, until the Maily Telegraph, which has not exactly been in the shrinking violet class on parliamentary expenses, unearthed a close relationship between Rhodes and – yes, it’s her again – Mid Bedfordshire Tory MP Nadine Dorries. The Telegraph and Ms Dorries have previous, after the MP said what she thought about the paper’s motivation on expenses, and lawyers for the Telegraph’s owners had her blog taken down.

Moreover, the Maily Telegraph has now asserted that Rhodes attempted to stop their investigations into Dorries’ expenses. And as if that isn’t quite enough to be going on with, Nadine Dorries has recently agreed to go on Have I Got News For You in the near future. On the wisdom or otherwise of that, I have only one word of advice.


The Beauty Pageant

The latest issue of Private Eye (Number 1258) has a front cover with the banner title “Leaders’ Wives” (geddit?!?). It reflects the use by Pa Broon, Young Dave and Corporal Clegg of their wives as electoral assets, and yes, we are likely to see more of this in the run-up to the General Election.

But this is a sideshow in comparison with the image war surrounding the leaders themselves. As I noted recently, the triumph of style over, well, anything else has been an increasingly significant feature of politics, and not just in the UK: John McCain was handicapped in the 2008 US Presidential Election by his age, so bringing Sarah Palin on board was immediately useful, whatever her policy stances.

And the Tories, being jolly clever chaps, are playing this card relentlessly: their key question to any wavering voter is simply “Do you really want another five years of Gordon Brown?”. Thus far, the approach appears to be gaining traction, but with Big Al back in the Labour inner circle, there will be a suitable riposte cooking away.

What might that be? Well, the idea that voters look beyond Cameron at the rest of the Shadow Cabinet may be one approach. After all, Young Dave polls well ahead of the rest of his party, so shining the spotlight onto the ones who poll less well is one of those no-brainers.

And that’s before the likes of Ashcroft and the variously dubious groups on the fringe of the party get mentioned.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Signs Of Strain – 3

There is one problem facing the Government of Israeli PM Binyamin Netenyahu which I had not previously covered, and that is the need to progress a programme of domestic legislation, while keeping the electorate on side, and of course holding together a coalition between parties.

That means that Netenyahu cannot merely accede to pressure from Washington without first considering the domestic consequences. Also, when the Obama Administration says it wants no expansion of settlements, it appears to mean exactly that: under “Dubya” Bush there was inevitably wriggle room.

The pressures on Netenyahu, and a view from the heart of the Israeli Government, are discussed in an interview given by Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin that appeared on the website of Ha'aretz today. Netenyahu may not be in the most favourable position right now, but he is the great survivor of Israeli domestic politics.

A subject to revisit soon.

It Was Just One Year Ago Today

Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? Zelo Street was started on this very day just a year ago. Although much in the world has moved on, the issue that provoked the very first post – Network Rail’s potty idea to move Crewe station out of town, just to give them a nice little earner – has not completely gone away, and continued vigilance is the order of the day.

Elsewhere, the world of politics is in many ways no further on, although we’ll have to have a General Election soon, so there is plenty of spectator sport in the offing. The blog will get stuck in to all that, and hopefully there will be posting from more locations across Europe, to add to Vienna, Amsterdam and Lisbon from last year.

The only thing left to say is, well, happy birthday to myself personally now [apologies to Steve Bell].

Whelan Dealin’

After several days thinking through their options, Young Dave and his jolly clever chaps have decided that the root of all evil on Pa Broon’s patch, and key to the upcoming industrial action at BA, is Unite’s political officer Charlie Whelan. So it was that Cameron majored in Unite bashing at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), advancing his cause very little in the process.

Why the idea of Whelan as bogeyman? Ah well. Even in Labour circles, Charlie Whelan is not universally popular: as one of Brown’s associates in the late 90s, he was believed to be behind the revelation of mortgage impropriety concerning the man now known as Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole. Tories have tried to include him in the Draper and McBride email affair. And now Unite have called their members at BA out on strike.

But the argument that a trade union’s Political officer should have the power to pull rank on his General Secretaries (Unite, being formed from two smaller unions, has two of these) and magically call off a strike is ridiculous. The best that he might manage is to make communication between those General Secretaries and his old boss a bit easier.

But for the Tories, there is a pressing need to demonise Whelan as a way of deflecting the Ashcroft question, so he will continue to get it in the neck, whatever his real power.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Too Much Blarney – 7

I doubt that Dan Taylor and Tim Ireland know each other particularly well. But they have both encountered Donal Blaney, CEO of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF). And both have found out that freedom of expression is not always welcomed by the YBF’s head.

Ireland runs bloggerheads.com, and back in early 2008 made a number of observations about the behaviour of Paul Staines, who blogs under the pseudonym of Guido Fawkes. Staines, whose blog is published through a firm registered in Nevis, prides himself on being “a libel lawyer’s worst nightmare”, but is not averse to threatening legal action himself, which he did against Ireland.

And who should Staines turn to in his hour of legal need? Well, Donal Blaney, despite Blaney apparently being a tax specialist, rather than majoring in defamation. Ireland has published his part of the email conversation he enjoyed with Blaney, in which he maintains a robust approach to Blaney apparently trying to force him into revealing his address, and retaining his own lawyer (a not inexpensive move).

Ultimately, as can be seen, Ireland called Blaney’s bluff, and the “action” fizzled out. But if Ireland had retained a lawyer, and even if there had been nothing more than a “Letter Before Action”, he could have been several hundred pounds worse off. And a similar course of events unfolded just over a year later with Dan Taylor.

Blaney accused Taylor of defaming him, suggested he obtained legal representation, and told that Taylor would be receiving a “Letter Before Action”. He also made the slightly sinister comment “You are about to learn a lesson about life the hard way”. Taylor has helpfully related the episode on his blog, leaving nobody in any doubt as to his opinion of the YBF chief. As with Tim Ireland, the “action” petered out.

There’s a word that I reckon describes this kind of behaviour very succinctly, and that word is bullying. And it’s consistent across both these cases. So, faced with anything that looks like bullying, where can someone turn for assistance? Fortunately, as many legal practices have an on-line presence nowadays, help is close at hand.

And in the vanguard of on-line legal practices is Griffin Law of Hawkhurst in Kent. Top subject on their website is “Bullying and Harassment”, so they’re clearly up for dealing with this kind of thing. So who is behind Griffin Law? Well, one click on “About” shows that the Senior Partner is none other than ... Donal Blaney!

No comment.

Signs Of Strain – 2

It did not take long for the less than happy state of affairs between the US and Israel (which I mentioned yesterday) to be picked up by groups representing Palestinians. Both Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat, and the more militant Hamas, have set off protests which have resulted in skirmishes with Israeli border police.

The reawakening of Palestinian protests is not unconnected to the Obama Administration’s apparently deliberate ratcheting up of the pressure on the Israelis. And it’s not just about the proposed expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem: Washington wants the Israelis to engage in talks with the Palestinians, not just “talks about talks”.

The summoning of the Israeli ambassador to the State Department for a carpeting last week merely underlines the determination of the Administration to move the peace process forward. The message is blunt: the Bush era is over.

The Republican Wrong – Christ In The Crosshairs (2)

Recently I looked at the invitation from the Rev Jim Wallis to the increasingly eccentric Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), to call and discuss Beck’s attempt to demonise any church majoring on “social justice”. Rev Wallis did not attack Beck personally, but urged him to join in a discussion on the issue.

At the time, I said that Wallis would be in for a long wait, and he is still waiting for Beck’s call. But Beck has responded via his radio show, and the nature of that response has been threatening and sinister in equal measure. Part of Beck’s message, from the Monday 15th March edition of his show, was:

So you go ahead and you continue to do your protest thing, and that's great. I love it. But just know -- the hammer is coming, because little do you know, for eight weeks, we've been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you

That sounds plain nasty. And it’s plain out of order. Rev Wallis is challenging Beck’s assertion that “social justice” is code for Nazism or Communism (apparently interchangeable in Beck’s mind), and is asking that the two of them talk about it. The response has more than a hint of Joe McCarthy in it.

And any friend of the USA will not want that country to go back there. Ever.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Signs Of Strain

Ever since the Suez business showed them where the real power in the post war world lied, the Israelis have been allies of the USA. For a while, they were the US’ only allies in the immediate area. But when Veep Joe Biden visited the country last week, it was not a totally happy tour.

Because, as Biden made his visit, the Israeli Government announced plans to extend settlements in East Jerusalem, on disputed land. Israeli PM Binyamin Netenyahu later admitted that the timing was unfortunate, although the idea that the story got out without his knowledge is not credible.

And Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, has asserted that relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb for 35 years. It is believed that the US has pressed Israel to stop the project, but Netenyahu for one is strongly supportive of further settlements in East Jerusalem: he differentiates between that area and the wider West Bank.

What will come next? Israel depends on the US for a variety of things, not least military hardware and aid that recently was equivalent, annually, to around a thousand dollars for every Israeli citizen. It is unlikely that such generous assistance would be available from anyone else, so Netenyahu and his Government could be playing an ultimately futile game.

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel lobby has weighed in against the Obama administration.

The Cam And Sam Show

As I noted some time ago, the Guardian, contrary to the witterings from some out there on the right, is nobody’s house journal. Reinforcing this point, just inside the front cover of of Saturday’s main paper was a whole page dedicated to the ITV special interview of Young Dave by Trevor Macdonald, together with a large photo of wife Samantha.

And one rumour was thoroughly squashed when preview clips from the ITV show were aired: SamCam, as she is now being styled by the tabloid press, does not sound especially posh, whatever her family wealth. However, whether she can eclipse Sarah Brown, with her million plus Twitter followers, remains to be seen.

So how did the show play? Well, not to so many viewers, unfortunately: with the competition of Match Of The Day 2 over on BBC2, only 1.7 million watched Young Dave on ITV. This is less than half the number – 4.2 million – who saw Pa Broon in conversation with Piers “Morgan” Moron.

[Note: Sarah Brown’s Twitter followers now number more than 1.1 million]

Brown Is Through

Another managerial casualty in the Premier League: Phil Brown, brown by appearance as well as name, has been “put on gardening leave” by Hull City, which means he’s been sacked. The chances of the club being sent through the relegation trapdoor come the end of the season have therefore increased.

The decision to relieve Brown of his duties was made by the club’s board, headed by chairman Adam Pearson. That’s the same Adam Pearson who was chairman at Derby County in late 2007, when that club sacked manager Billy Davies, who had previously got them promoted to the Premiership.

Derby then went on to be relegated before the end of the following March. Pearson has since re-appeared at Hull City – late last year – and has already engaged in the ancient and singularly pointless sport of “sack the manager”. One can hardly blame any bookies deciding to pay out right now on the club going down.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Too Much Blarney – 6

So, while I might not find the prospectus of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF) even remotely appealing, the question remains: what do those young people taking up training opportunities with them get out of it? Moreover, what’s in it for those – whoever they are – who bankroll the organisation? To get a handle on these questions, we need to have another browse around the YBF website.

The YBF claims to be “non partisan”, but equally admits that it “promotes conservatism” (an interesting circle to square). This, it tells, counters the left wing bias of, well, almost everything, and especially the education system and media. The YBF gives young people “the chance to hear alternative viewpoints presented by conservative speakers”.

So far, so unthreatening, but reading a little further brings this snippet: “YBF ... places philosophically sound conservative (sic) in full-time jobs and work experience in the City, the professions, business, the media, academia, and politics”.

Have a re-read and a long think about that.

Now consider what the response of many parts of the print media would be if this were a left leaning organisation, training philosophically sound socialists and placing them into a range of business opportunities.

The response would include a range of pejorative terms, not least “indoctrination”, maybe even “brainwashing”, certainly “infiltration” and perhaps even “entryism”. We know this because we have been there before. Left wing bias in the media? Don’t make me laugh.

But, when all is said and done, the YBF and its chief executive Donal Blaney are merely one of a number of organisations across the political spectrum, free to make their pitch and define the world as they see it. Freedom of expression, and of activity, is for the UK a universal thing.

So Donal Blaney wouldn’t want to curtail that freedom of expression, would he?

Stay tuned.

Man In Fire Engine Out In Front

It’s an unreal location for Motorsport: Bahrain has just hosted the opening round of the 2010 Formula 1 season. The circuit didn’t look to be thronged with anything in the way of crowds: fortunately there will still be hundreds of millions watching the live transmission and the inevitable highlights later.

So what’s new? Well, not very much in the way of leading teams and best drivers – except for the reappearance of Michael Schumacher – but the combination of the two looks, in one case, ominous.

When he was struggling with a clearly uncompetitive car at Renault, Fernando Alonso was still regarded as the best pound-for-pound driver in F1. Now that he has his hands on this year’s Ferrari, he’s proved it beyond doubt. He won today’s race with ease.

There is a rumour that the Prancing Horse may yet have reliability issues this year. But if they don’t, Alonso might just run away with it. After all, the select circle that won for Ferrari first time out includes Juan Manuel Fangio, who was also the best of his time.

A Sad Goodbye

Many people in the UK will not have heard of Juanita Goggins. But this former trailblazer for civil rights, who has died at the age of 75, was the first black woman to be elected to the South Carolina legislature, majored in improving education, and was twice invited to the Carter White House.

Goggins had left active politics as far back as 1980, citing health reasons, and had become increasingly reclusive, so much so that many of her neighbours were unaware of her achievements, or even her presence. Her apparently becoming estranged from her family cannot have helped.

But the saddest news was that she died of hypothermia, in a house where the electricity had been cut off for non payment, despite having the money to pay the bills.

Murdoch Is Served (13)

Recently, I considered the kind of stories that could come to life and thereby make a difference to the upcoming General Election campaign. And right on cue, late last week, came yet another development in the saga that is Phonehackgate.

MP Tom Watson, a man not renowned for any closeness to Rupe and Junior, has used Parliamentary Privilege to raise the possibility that the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and the Murdoch Screws might have been a little too close.

For her part, Solicitor General Vera Baird has confirmed that the issue will be examined, and in her reply to Watson, said “It is an issue well raised”. And the timing of Watson’s intervention will keep the affair nice and warm as the campaigning starts in earnest.

What Rupe and his troops (and Young Dave) will have to hope is that it doesn’t boil over and make a nasty mess all over them.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Too Much Blarney – 5

Although his blog is still, as I write, hidden away from view, Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF) chief executive Donal Blaney can still be read and appreciated over at the YBF website. Here, the true nature of this supposedly “non partisan” organisation is not hard to see.

For starters, check out Resources ... YBF suggests to see recommended reading familiar to anyone on the right. High priest of economic quack doctory Milton Friedman, the frankly disturbing advocate of schoolchildren carrying guns Ann Coulter, and Newt Gingrich, who wanted to be Bill Clinton’s nemesis (but wasn’t) all feature. There is also “The Case Against Barack Obama” a book which carries the baggage of one of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories – that the media, which the Neocon right in the USA for some reason believes is in thrall to the left, got Obama elected, rather than the more mundane reason, that the Republican challenge wasn’t good enough.

Down at the lower right of the page, a section helpfully titled “Know Your Enemy”, and written by Blaney himself, leaves the reader in no doubt that this organisation, far from being “non partisan”, is Conservative to the core. I particularly enjoyed his description of Liberal Conspiracy as “venal and unpleasant”: having just contributed a guest post to LibCon, I am honoured to find myself the target of such weapons grade drivel.

The assumption of left wing bias in media and education, transplanted directly from the Republican right, is presented in the About part of the website, though the idea is one that the right talks about rather more than it actually proves: the idea of schools and universities as leftist hotbeds might have gained some traction in the late 1960s, but not now. As for the media, with the Mirror the sole print cheerleader for the left, the idea of bias hinges on demonising the BBC – also talked about rather more than proved.

So what might the YBF’s disciples bring to politics? Well, there is the Summer Conference Programme to give you a hint: this tempting looking trip to the USA (with the possibility of meeting creepy Newt Gingrich and scary Ann Coulter) includes such destinations as the Nixon library, named for the last President to jump shortly before he would have been pushed. Moreover, the programme itself is named after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: the President who oversaw the doubling of his nation’s indebtedness, and the Prime Minister who gave us well over three million unemployed.

All this and Donal Blaney too? I’ll pass on that one, thanks.

Remembering The Battle Of The Asda Checkouts

[This item has featured as a guest post on Liberal Conspiracy today: my thanks to Don Paskini]

Crewe and Nantwich is only one of almost 650 constituencies on the political map of the UK. But the by-election there in May 2008 holds important lessons for the protagonists in the upcoming General Election.

Following the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour were between the proverbial rock and hard place: whether they called a snap by-election, or played a longer game, the Government’s unpopularity put them at a disadvantage. Moreover, they needed to select a candidate, and quickly.

Both Tory and Lib Dem already had candidates in place. Edward Timpson was, apparently, not well regarded by Tory HQ, but the crucial and sensible decision was made by Eric Pickles, chosen to manage the campaign, to stand by him. The Lib Dems, seemingly in a moment of panic, ditched their man in favour of Elizabeth Shenton, who then had start over with local activists. This gave the Tories a head start.

Fat Eric then managed expectations well, while basic research would have told him that the seat was easily winnable. Hence Young Dave telling that the Tories “would give it their best shot”. The press were fed stories of a “rock solid working class seat”, which could be easily disproved by a trip out to Nantwich – solidly Tory – or to outlying villages, and those new housing developments full of potential swing voters. But during the campaign, most of the assembled hackery saw little more than the area between Crewe station and the town centre, and so bought into Fat Eric’s well crafted myth.

Surprisingly, the media did little analysis on past elections, which would have disproved the myth of the working class stronghold. The last time a majority Tory Government was returned – in 1992 – Dunwoody’s majority was under 2,700. There had been only one instance of a five figure majority, that in 1997: then, the Tories had been caught in a perfect storm, unpopular nationally and disliked locally after the rail sell-offs caused delays in new train orders and the Works had to lay off staff.

Labour selected Dunwoody’s daughter Tamsin to fight the seat. Was this a good or bad thing? My take is that it had no bearing on the outcome. I reckon she was the best candidate, but Timpson’s shortcomings – he’s not a natural talker and doesn’t do charisma – were managed by Pickles guiding and coaching him, making sure he got his talking points over. It would be different in a General Election campaign, where the luxury of a personal minder would be missing, but that would be to miss the point. The matter at hand was winning the by-election.
The Tories were allowed to make the running from the start, and their focus was incessantly negative, and personal towards the PM. They stuck to this tack and their discipline held firm. Labour’s attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light made little impact. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Shenton was having difficulty making herself heard, despite Vince Cable being ever present.

The saturation media coverage, and the dispatch of every well known politician to Crewe and Nantwich, also had little additional impact: on one Saturday in mid-campaign, Simon Hughes turned up to assist Ms Shenton, while earlier, Jack Straw had brought his soap box to Crewe town centre, and took questions from all comers, but they need not have bothered. The same could be said of the “love bombing” of often bewildered shoppers in Asda, who for a moment were considered important enough to have Young Dave pack their shopping. The parties’ efforts cancelled each other out.

Was the “Tory Toff” line wrong? Maybe, given that Timpson, although part of the shoe repair dynasty, is not a man of ostentatious wealth. But Labour make Young Dave visibly uncomfortable whenever he is the target of such attacks, so the idea that this contest going the way of the Tories would stop them is groundless.

One controversy was generated by a Labour campaign leaflet, which Fat Eric called out as “racist”. I saw the offending flyer – the contentious part was the policy of ID cards for foreign nationals – and sent it on its way. Was it racist? I think not. Clumsy maybe, and more likely a policy cut and paste job. But racist it had been called, and once more the Tory discipline held: all those from the party venturing an opinion on the matter toed the line. Pickles is supposedly known for his “anti racism”, but on this occasion it seemed more a case of “accusing the opposition of racism at a time likely to cause them maximum damage, and keeping up the attack in order to prevent them effectively rebutting the accusation”. Given Fat Eric’s role in the upcoming General Election campaign, look for that one to be wheeled out again.

The Tories then completed their mission by keeping up the campaigning until polling day. Labour did not. On the last Saturday, I spoke with a Labour supporter who assured me that they would return to get out the vote, but later that same day, a conversation with the campaign HQ on Nantwich Road left me with the impression they had given up. So it was: the evening of polling day was a quiet one in what I call “Redbrick Crewe”, the area that returns Labour and Lib Dem councillors. Labour had already admitted defeat: the Tory majority therefore flattered Timpson.

What will happen at the General Election? Well, unless the Tories score a substantial swing, Timpson will be unseated. David Williams, his next Labour opponent, has the presence and the patter: he is a natural politician. Edward Timpson will have served his purpose.

The Republican Wrong – Christ In The Crosshairs

Religion is big business in the USA, and rather bigger than here in the UK. The idea that anyone running for elective office should demonstrate their allegiance to a (preferably Christian) church would not enter in British politics. Over in the States, it’s second nature. And those in the broadcast media also proclaim their status as God fearing citizens.

One of those so proclaiming is our old friend Glenn Beck, increasingly eccentric “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), who is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, aka The Mormons. But Beck is also hot on the trail of all those liberals and “progressives” at whose door he lays the blame for all evils besetting the USA – past, present, and future.

So it was disappointing, but not surprising, when Beck recently went after all churches who place any emphasis on “social justice”. This phrase, he told, was a “code” used by Nazis and Communists, two creeds that for Beck are interchangeable. Anyone discovering this, Beck decreed, should leave that church if it would not “reconsider” the emphasis on “social justice”.

The Reverend Jim Wallis has taken issue with Beck, saying that his claims are not only false, but at odds with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Rev. Wallis appeared on MSNBC’s Countdown last week, discussing the issue with guest host Lawrence O’Donnell, revealing that leaders of the Mormon church have called him to apologise for Beck’s outburst. He hopes that Beck will call him too.

However, I suspect that Rev. Wallis may be in for a long wait.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Lead Narrows – 4

Tucked away on the website of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun is today’s instalment of the daily YouGov “tracker” poll. And it shows, yet again, that the Tory lead is slipping: it’s down to just 3%.

As this is a Murdoch title, though, there is still the usual photo of Young Dave, with the reassuring caption that his vote is “Steady ... remains unchanged”. The accompanying blurb suggests that bad news next week may knock back the recent improvement for Labour.

What it doesn’t say is that, all over the UK, local Labour – and Lib Dem – activists are scenting what a few months ago would have been an impossible reversal of fortune. This may have been helped recently by the Ashcroft factor, and there may be more trouble for Young Dave if the Guardian has more in the tank on the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), or Phonehackgate.

Of course, it also depends on Labour and the Lib Dems not putting their collective feet in it when they start opening up on the Tories.

Interesting times ahead.

Friday Food (Delayed Again) – 7

Apologies to anyone who expected something food related last Friday: part of my time was consumed by putting straight one of the blogosphere’s practitioners of freestyle expletive spattering, with rather more resource devoted to getting set up for Saturday’s visit to London, devoted unashamedly to the sad rail enthusiast stuff which may not appeal to all, but here on Zelo Street trumps so-called Libertarians effing and blinding at one another.

But, as Clive James has said many times, I digress.

The big supermarkets have promotional pushes of all manner of products from time to time, and recently there have been some almost desperate offers on what I call the “sauce in jar” range. I don’t usually bother with the curry ones – my preferred weapon when in curry mode is the smaller jars of paste – but the pasta sauces are worth a dart.

But, the inevitable answer comes back, what if you don’t fancy yet more beef mince? Well, that’s a top question, and I never fancy the stuff in the first place. You don’t have to bow to what many see as the default choice. Fish and chicken will do just as well.

I dice the chicken beforehand: alternatively you can get it minced, or mince it yourself. Fish should have firm flesh, or of course you can use prawns. And to give the whole thing an extra tang, some garlic goes well with chicken. If you’re not able to go through the fresh variety at the kind of speed that avoids having to throw some of it out, there are alternatives: minced garlic (often sold as “slow” or “lazy” garlic) is convenient but not cheap, or there is the preserved kind, which has even made its way into Asda. It keeps well when refrigerated.

Also, don’t feel that you have to replace a given amount of mince with the same quantity of chicken or fish. Try less of either and making up the difference with one or two peppers (the ultimate versatile veg).

Another Cautionary Tale

Following my less than happy experience last September, when I was relieved of the instrument I call my LumpCam (tm) and then, worse, nobody wanted to do anything about it, another problem has occurred with photographic equipment. The LumpCam (tm), so named as I replaced the stolen one with another of the same kind, has decided not to retain its memory card. This makes saving images a tad difficult.

So earlier this week, spurred on by the award of another Fotopic Front Page, I have tried to get the thing repaired. And this, surprising as it may seem in this age of supposedly half decent customer service, has not been a particularly rewarding experience.

First off, the manufacturer’s representative on earth did not want to return my call, which is elementary bad manners. When called again, there was little enthusiasm, except to suggest that I post the camera to them, or alternatively stop by at a well known camera chain that has a branch in Crewe: they would do that for me, or so I was told.

No they wouldn’t. Apart from confirming what I already knew, they too couldn’t really be bothered. Given that the shop was otherwise bereft of customers, and that there were at least three bods behind the counter, one might think they would be keen to show willing – who knows, that might even generate future sales and recommendations.

So, having generated a storm of apathy from two go-getting private sector organisations, I fetched up at Crewe Post Office this afternoon, with my LumpCam (tm) boxed and labelled ready for posting, and quite prepared for the Royal Mail to make it three yawns in a row. Oh ye of little faith!

The helpful person at the Post Office counter advised a range of parcel post tariffs, explained the benefits of using Special Delivery, did all the admin, let me pay by debit card, and did all of this with a positive attitude and a smile.

There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Too Much Blarney – 4

Things must be getting frustrating for Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF) chief executive Donal Blaney: this “provocative” and “opinionated” fellow has still not allowed his blog to be subjected to public scrutiny since the weekend, and even the amateur football punditry on his Twitter feed has (thankfully) dried up. But he has challenged the Guardian over its article about him and the YBF, which I mentioned previously.

Why Blaney should make such a challenge is not clear: there was little in the article that stood out as even remotely contentious, and his Twitter comments, such as “Seriously, was that it?” and “Still stunned at how lame Guardian pieces are” hardly suggest the onset of litigation. But there could be a more straightforward reason.

And that is the possibility that the Guardian article may not have been a one off. So will there be a follow up? I don’t know, but one strong possibility is that Blaney doesn’t know either. And it would do him no harm at all if any investigation were to be shut down: no news is good news in this case.

What might the Guardian – or any other interested media organisation – want to investigate? Well, the YBF itself may be brought into focus. And there are a number of well known individuals involved here, not least the YBF “President”, none other than occasional Euro-Tory and guest on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) Dan, Dan the Oratory Man.

But there is more interest within the YBF’s “Advisory Board”: here are folks like Matthew “Gromit” Elliott of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (the organisation that demands transparency in all places except its own back yard – still no sign of those pesky accounts), evergreen flat earth economist Patrick Minford (now of Cardiff Business School), and Andrew Griffith.

Andrew who? Ah, but Griffith is finance director of BSkyB, so here we have a Murdoch connection. Added to this are the TPA, a body that exists to demonise Government, and the prophets of a long outdated view of economics.

So what are they all up to? I’ll consider that next.

The Republican Wrong – Guilt By Representation

Anyone viewing the 9th March edition of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (seen in the UK on More4 at 2030 hours yesterday, and available on 4OD) will have seen a longer than usual interview, this being with former Dubya Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Put it this way: there was no meeting of minds between the two.

Thiessen is yet another from the Bush years who has no problem with the variety of controversial interrogation techniques visited on those suspected of al-Qaeda association. But he goes further in suggesting that lawyers who represent such people are in some way in league with them, or at least sympathise with their alleged goals.

And Thiessen is not alone: making up for the low profile adopted recently by former Veep “Dick” Cheney is the less than subtle stance taken up by his daughter Liz, whose group Keep America Safe put out an advert recently, which echoed the opinion pitched by Thiessen on the Daily Show. Liz Cheney also appears from time to time on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

But the attempt to demonise those who merely continue in the long US tradition of giving legal representation to all who come before the courts has drawn fire from many others on the right: a total of nineteen Bush administration officials have signed a letter describing the Keep America Safe ad as one of a “shameful series of attacks”.

And in the Senate, Republican Lindsey Graham, a military lawyer with almost 30 years’ experience, has put it directly: “This system of justice that we’re so proud of in America requires the unpopular to have an advocate, and every time a defence lawyer fights to make the Government do their job, that defence lawyer has made us all safer”.


[UPDATE: The Guardian has contributed this article on the subject]

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Too Much Blarney – 3

What a difference three and a quarter hours makes: yesterday I noted that the three blogs named by Donal Blaney, CEO of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), in the video where he also smeared Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick, had not said a word about him or his organisation since Blaney featured in a Guardian article at the weekend.

Following my observations, one of those bloggers, Paul Staines, who styles himself as Guido Fawkes, belatedly weighed in on the YBF’s behalf. Unfortunately, his post contained an elementary howler which not only undermines the credibility of his attack, but suggests that he may not have read the Guardian piece in the first place.

Staines infers that the Guardian are suggesting that, because YBF wannabes on visits to the USA visit firing ranges, this is a sign that Young Dave will repeal the handgun law if the Tories come to power. As any fule kno, no such suggestion was made: rather, the emphasis was on Blaney’s advocacy of a more liberal firearms policy.

As for Blaney, Staines does not mention him by name. The Blaney blog is still hidden from public view, his Twitter feed has been reduced to filling the airwaves with amateurish football punditry, and the best he can do in response to the Guardian article is to sneer “Guardian faces commercial ruin if the Tories win”.

The reality is that the Tory Party has cut Blaney loose, for the time being at least. Paul Staines is not pleased with Fat Eric on this point, but Pickles is a practical politician who exists in the real world: for him, the luxury of accommodating fringe wingnuts does not enter.

[The Guardian article has been updated to acknowledge that a legal complaint about it has been made on behalf of Donal Blaney]

Smelling The Coffee In Belize – 6

The realisation has slowly dawned on Michael Ashcroft’s supporters and beneficiaries that trying to howl down the constant flow of adverse media coverage by sniping “non story”, “weak”, and so on, will not make that part of the media go away. So, some days after Ashcroft was forced into admitting his tax status and embarrassing the Tories, the cheerleaders have started to fight back.

And in their crosshairs is Labour “non dom” Lord Paul, with suggestions being made about his stewardship of at least one company pension scheme. The company concerned, Caparo, closed its final salary scheme back in 2002, and the ruckus this caused was covered in some detail by the Guardian back then, so it’s hardly new news: that the story is being used to stand up allegations of bias against news organisations like the BBC is strange, given that the Beeb also covered the story in some detail at the time (all these links are readily available on the BBC website).

Plus there is the possibility that those of suitably enquiring mind, having observed this less than subtle attempt to deflect the spotlight, may decide to look more closely at Michael Ashcroft and the place which he has previously made his home, that being Belize. And in that part of the world, there is much of interest.

Ashcroft is a major shareholder in British Caribbean Bank Holdings (BCB), an organisation that clearly knows a thing or two about asset stewardship: the BCB share price has fallen over the past four years from around 360 pence to about 90 – that’s a drop of 75%. BCB owns Belize’s largest bank, and has interests in the Turks and Caicos Islands. As the report linked says, “Shares of BCB are now incredibly undervalued or there are major negative surprises afoot” [my emphasis].

Nor should anyone be fooled into believing that Belize is some kind of tropical paradise: Ashcroft may have made money there, but for ordinary folk, the picture is one of widespread poverty, with the rise of drug and gang crime making it unsafe to venture out after dark. This report also covers the increasingly acrimonious relations between Ashcroft and the current Belize Government.

Yes, there is more digging to be done over the “non doms” backing UK political parties. The problem for the Tories and their cheerleaders is that it may re-focus on Michael Ashcroft, whatever their preference.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Understanding A Little Less – 2

Credit to all three major political parties on one hot topic: none of them have attempted to use the recall to custody of Jon Venables for political advantage. After Justice Secretary Jack Straw made his Commons statement yesterday, he was questioned with some precision by his Tory shadow Dominic Grieve, with the Lib Dems also chipping in, but there was no grandstanding or points scoring merely for the sake of it.

The truce, though, did not extend to those cheerleading for Young Dave, and inevitably the Murdoch Sun has gone into characteristically crude party politics mode on the affair. What the Super Soaraway Currant Bun does not seem to get is that the saturation coverage given to this story, though it no doubt enables the rag to move more copies, can have unpleasant and even dangerous side-effects: the paper has also reported that a man living on the Fylde coast has been wrongly identified as Venables, and is now in fear of his life.

But this is routine for Rupe’s empire: at least one host on a cable network of differing political outlook to Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) has received death threats for having the temerity to challenge the increasingly wayward assertions of “star” presenter Glenn Beck. Murdoch won’t be too worried about that, though: all that interests him and his clan is that the numbers stack up. The collateral damage is someone else’s problem.

Heck, it might even help shift more papers, and build better ratings.

Too Much Blarney – 2

Last Sunday, the vain and boorish Donal Blaney, chief executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF), tweetedSorry to disappoint my enemies: returning online shortly”. Two days on, his blog is still hidden away, and now his former allies in the Tory Party look to be cutting him loose.

Of the three blogs that Blaney promoted in the video where he also smeared Ken Livingstone as a “Communist” – linked in the item I posted yesterday – only ConservativeHome has even mentioned the original Guardian story about the YBF. None of them – the other two were Iain Dale’s Diary and Paul Staines’ Guido Fawkes blog – have said a word about Blaney since.

And there may be a hint for the YBF’s head man in that silence: the General Election is looming closer, the Tories’ poll lead has faltered, the Ashcroft business has made their opposition believe that a Tory victory is no longer inevitable, and the last thing Young Dave and Fat Eric need is association with another wingnut.

So it looks like Blaney is being told to shut it – and, at least for now, leave the stage. And that brings us back to the Blaney Twitter feed, in an item sent at 1352 hours on Sunday last: “You learn who your friends are when you are under attack – and who looks the other way”.

Well, Donal, they’re all looking the other way. Learnt anything yet?

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Republican Wrong – Real Hypocrisy

Of all GOP supporters, you might think that none would be more principled than former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and especially on the subject of health care reform. After all, it was Palin that started the story about “death panels” which was then linked back to health care systems in the UK and Canada – the story which was voted the year’s biggest whopper by PolitiFact readers, but nevertheless gained traction at a key moment.

But now, Palin has admitted that, many years ago, she crossed the border into Canada to take advantage of a health care system that she spent so much of last year demonising. It’s good that she has come clean, but shows the way in which political expediency intrudes into the real world.

After all, when economic quack doctor extraordinary Milton Friedman suffered a heart attack in the early 1980s, he was taken to hospital courtesy of a free ambulance service. Following Friedman’s own dogma, that service should not have existed, being provided out of taxation rather than being the outcome of customer choice.

It’s a funny old world out there on the Right.

Too Much Blarney

As if the Tories didn’t have enough negative press right now, the Guardian has unearthed another strange character wielding influence within the party: step forward chief executive of the Young Britons’ Foundation (YBF) Donal Blaney.

Blaney, who is not one to be backward in coming forward, took his blog away from all except “invited” readers after the Guardian article – it featured at the foot of Saturday’s front page – told how he had described the YBF as a “Conservative madrasa”.

Coupled with Blaney’s ideas that the UK should have a firearms policy like the USA – an idea likely to win him no friends at all in any of the emergency services – and that the NHS should be “scrapped”, the impression is given that, with friends like him, Young Dave is in no need of more enemies.

Since the Guardian published, there has been the predictable reaction of Blaney’s pals weighing in with the usual excuses: the article is “weak”, “poor”, “feeble”, “lame”, a “non story”, with the variation of “is that all you’ve got?”. So just how nice a guy is Donal Blaney? Check out this video where he calls Ken Livingstone a “Communist” and casually smears Lib Dem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, stresses that he is “homosexual” and is “going to lose”.

Just how Blaney squares that kind of attack line with being a friend of Iain Dale is not clear. But that he is in the camp of the rabid right certainly is: a look at his Twitter Page includes messages like “@glennbeck is right: progressivism is the cancer in politics that needs to be cured”.

And now that those of progressive mind have been woken up to his presence, all that is needed is for Blaney’s repellent blog to come out from behind its cloak. Shooting fish in a barrel just got that bit more appealing.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Smelling The Coffee In Belize – 5

Young Dave and all his cheerleaders have declared it a “non story”, and have either stopped talking about it, or are trying to equate the status of Michael Ashcroft with that of Lord Paul, ennobled on the recommendation of Labour. But some members of the Fourth Estate have declined to do Cameron’s bidding.

In fact, the whole business is showing signs of dragging in other less than totally willing participants, with the suggestion that Tony Blair and the Queen may have been misled: the Lib Dems’ Lord Oakeshott has asked if the Ashcroft gong was given under false pretences.

Moreover, suggestions are being made that Ashcroft has been using his closeness to senior Tories such as William ‘Ague to get an inside track on business opportunities in countries such as Cuba. Ashcroft is now embroiled in a legal dust-up with the Independent as a result. And the Indie has not been put off digging.

But then, not everything in the Labour garden is rosy either: this morning on the Andy Marr Show, Harriet Harman was distinctly uncomfortable when quizzed about Lord Paul and other Labour “non doms”. If that party wants to maintain its advantage on this issue, they will clearly have to sharpen up – and maybe tread carefully.

Iraq Watch – 7

And so Pa Broon presented himself before the Iraq Enquiry, thus generating far more negative tweets than positive ones. Four hours, and then some, later he was done. So did we learn anything of any substance that was not previously known? More, did we expect to?

Most will answer no, and no, although perhaps with a resigned shrug of the shoulders: after all the hype beforehand, there may have been expectation that, at long last, some answers would be dragged out of the politicians who took the decisions, or, in Brown’s case, had to find the money for the adventure.

Instead, all that is learned – or relearned – is that professional politicians, suitably rehearsed and briefed, can bat away any essentially amateur bowling with ease. Brown’s style before the enquiry was diametrically different to the righteous certainty of Catholic convert Tony Blair, but it served him well enough.

The only morsel left for the assembled hackery to chew over was Brown’s assurance that “every requirement made ... by military commanders was answered; no request was ever turned down”. Some former military top brass have been spluttering into their afternoon teas over that, so perhaps they could put up some compelling evidence to show that the PM is in incendiary underwear mode.

Because, until and unless they do, the Government will not hesitate to restate the Brown line, with the side option of dumping on the MoD – which has already shown itself to be signally dysfunctional.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Smelling The Coffee In Belize – 4

Despite the best efforts of Young Dave and his array of spokespeople, the Ashcroft question continues to hang over the run up to the General Election. And nowhere are the effects being felt more acutely than in those marginal seats benefiting from the Ashcroft largesse.

Before proceeding, one item needs to be clarified: Michael Ashcroft has not, so far as is known, broken any law. Being a “non dom” does not prevent his obtaining a peerage, as witness Labour’s Lord Paul. That is not the point. What is at issue is his commitment to UK residency a decade ago, the constant obfuscation and evasion of a variety of senior Tories since then (the honourable exception being George Young), and Ashcroft’s intimate involvement in the party’s campaigning.

The last point, of course, brings us back to those marginal seats, where, as the Independent has revealed today, the Tory poll lead has slipped badly, from 7% down to a mere 2%, this despite the Tories outspending all other parties. And further revelations about Ashcroft are not likely to help matters.

Hard on the heels of the Independent poll news is a report in the Guardian telling that Ashcroft appears to have avoided a not insignificant VAT payment, by having the bill for a substantial opinion poll sent to his Belize company. Thus an amount thought to be around 40,000 notes did not have to be paid.

All this less than favourable press will inevitably find its way to wavering voters in those same marginal constituencies where the Tories must make substantial inroads just to get the slimmest of majorities – the presence of a substantial third party and all those nationalists making the maths rather more challenging than back in 1950, as I observed recently.

And those wavering voters are unlikely to be impressed when they find that, while they face an increasingly difficult future, the Tory campaign is being focused by someone who is also managing not to pay tens of millions of pounds in taxes.

While Michael Ashcroft continues to live in the style to which he has become accustomed, Joe and Joanne Public may take one last look at that carefully targeted, lovingly crafted glossy brochure extolling the virtues of their Tory candidate, hand delivered by a smiling party worker, before sending it to the waste bin, amid the growing realisation that they’ve been had.

The Devil’s Heatstroke

No politician can hope to command universal admiration. So it is no surprise that, among the generous and thoughtful tributes to former Labour leader Michael Foot, there would be an amount of petty, mean spirited and occasionally downright abusive dross. All these attributes are commanded by the blogger who styles himself Devil’s Kitchen, in a sneering, intemperate and all too typical post last Wednesday.

Devil’s Kitchen asserts that Foot “was one of those people who believed that the wider community (represented by the state) had the right [to] enslave the individual”, which is total drivel. As any fule kno, Foot was passionate about freedom, and no-one who has seen his defence of the press – fortunately preserved and freely available to view – could believe otherwise.

But this attack is no more than the parading of dogma politics: the use of the term “enslave” reveals the regurgitation of a libertarian creed that is as pure as it is divorced from reality. Therefore, the appreciation that politics is inevitably the art of the possible does not enter. Instead, there is a puerile attempt to equate Foot with Stalin and Hitler – Glenn Beck would no doubt have approved – while conveniently forgetting that Foot stood unequivocally against both.

Fortunately, when the dogma of libertarianism places itself before the electorate – that convocation of beings who exist within the real world – it is routinely relegated to deposit-losing ignominy. So, in deriving amusement and satisfaction from another wingnut faction getting their come-uppance, am I a supporter of what Foot stood for? Generally, no: many of his views were anathema to me. But that does not stop me having a respect for a man of principle and pragmatism.

For Devil’s Kitchen, though, there is only the principle of sneering abuse: here is a vacuous nobody, a self-important “keyboard hero”, an apostle of unreality. I was going to say that he didn’t reach up to Foot’s ankles, but that would have insulted the memory of a great public figure by equating him with someone whose intellectual reach extends only to substituting expletive-strewn abuse for reasoned debate.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

End Of Another Era

Back in the 1970s, you could travel by rail all the way from Paris to Lisbon – and Porto – by through train. The gauge change at the border between France and Spain was challenging – this involved jacking up the coaches and changing the bogies – but this, after all, was the Sud Express, one of the grandest of trains.

But nothing is forever, and over the years the Sud, as regulars know it, became a service only between Irún and Lisbon, the carrying of a second portion for Porto apparently no longer worthwhile, and the journey through France ceded to the all conquering Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV).

Even so, there was a restaurant car, couchette coaches, and for the best off, sleeping cars with well appointed berths. However, the coaches were getting older, and to build new replacements for just two trainsets was not a serious proposition. Something would have to be done: when I last saw the Sud leave Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia terminus on New Year’s Day 2009, the stock looked tired and unloved.

So, at the end of February, the Sud Express ran in its traditional loco-and-coaches form for the last time. Two “Hotel Train” Talgo sets – the kind of train I discussed some time ago – have been hired in, so at least there will be a service. But it will be that bit less grand.

The tendency to uniformity, and financial pressure, is universal.

Understanding A Little Less

I had been a paid-up Cheshire resident five years or so before the Bulger case, the beating and killing of a toddler by two ten year olds in Bootle. It was an ideal excuse for the tabloid media to whip up a frenzy, while of course selling more copies. But it was not the first “child killer” case in my memory, and I will return to that later.

Tabloid land has been raking over the killing of Jamie Bulger this week with the news that one of those convicted, Jon Venables, has been returned to jail for breaching the terms of his parole. What the tabloids have not been doing is to dwell even for a moment on their routinely disgraceful behaviour, both now and then, and towards the recent arrest of two boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire, for brutalising two other children.

For the print media, such cases are the best of news: the attackers are easy to demonise, the inevitably less well off families concerned cannot hope to sue – so making it easy to make up and print whatever appeals – and the copy generates more sales without the assembled hackery having to break sweat.

In the Edlington case, it was not easy to find out about the horrific home environment of the two boys arrested, and once the story had been found, it was not easy to read about: here is a bold attempt from the Independent (my thanks to a Zelo Street regular for the tip).

Unfortunately, public awareness is not helped by politicians displaying little more principle than the tabloids, and cashing in on events like the Bulger killing to boost their flagging popularity: both John Major, with his “society should condemn a little more and understand a little less”, and Michael Howard, illegally extending the Bulger killers’ jail terms, being prime examples.

The poverty into which many brutalised and brutalising children are born, and their convenient characterisation, is more than coincidental: here I return to that first “child killer” memory. Many years ago, my family lived on a mature and sprawling housing development in West Yorkshire: the estate had two large parts, “upper” and “lower”, the latter being generally older housing, including ours.

This was a generally well off part of the world, but it was not immune to criminality: two little girls were found murdered, and ultimately the killer was found to be a 13 year old boy, from the “upper” part of the estate. He had been known to have a sadistic streak, but his was a “good family”. There was no media scrum, no lynch mob, no mass descent of hacks on the neighbourhood. The name is still firm in my mind, but no trace can be found on the web, unlike Mary Bell and the Bulger killers, and so I do not give it here.

But the thought that the poor get screwed over, both perpetrator and victim, even in justice, has occurred.