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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Calm Down Dear, It’s Only A Smear

Last week in the House of Commons, there was much heckling from the opposition benches directed towards Young Dave. One Labour front bencher, Angela Eagle, was clearly getting on Cameron’s nerves, so much so that he delivered the wonderfully witty and original put down “calm down dear” to her.

This was not well received. Dave, though, doesn’t do apologies, well, not since he strode into 10 Downing Street, so despite further stick from the likes of “Auguste” Balls, the remark – which Cameron repeated, so side-splittingly funny was it to the more tribal of his jolly good chaps – was allowed to stand.

But there was clearly some concern about this utterance in the right leaning part of the Fourth Estate, because while pundits lined up to show support for Young Dave, they were so hasty to kick Labour as to show their ignorance of Parliamentary procedure, and more than a little hypocrisy.

For starters, Cameron – or anyone else speaking at PMQs or in any other Commons debate – should be addressing the Chair (that being the Speaker, or deputy Speaker). He must not address other MPs directly: this is a weakness that Young Dave has shown before. So his remark was a blatant display of unparliamentary language, and in that context alone is indefensible.

But this cut no ice with the hacks, particularly those taking the shilling of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail. Here, both tired and boorish Quentin Letts – who is supposed to know his parliamentary procedure – and overmonied windbag Richard Littlejohn – who is supposed to do research (but never mind, eh?) – knew the answer to the problem.

Quent and Dick were as one: it was because Ms Eagle was a lesbian. Straightforward hypocrisy: neither would use such patronising language towards openly gay MPs like Alan Duncan or Ben Bradshaw. And Littlejohn’s idea of being close enough to “pat” the victim of his cheap and sneering laddism might just land the clumsy dinosaur in more than a little trouble in future.

Neither hack could concede the obvious point: Cameron shouldn’t have said it, but as he did, should then have had the grace to withdraw it: to do the latter would have shown real Prime Ministerial quality, not weakness (according to one David Cameron, when Pa Broon was PM). And to justify comments with “It’s what Michael Winner said on the telly” really is scraping the barrel.

Heck, that’s almost as bad as saying “I read it in the Quentin Letts or Richard Littlejohn column in the Daily Mail”: not even a Tory MP would contemplate sinking so low.

Funiculi, Funicular

Today has been spent out of town, with a journey to the lake side at Como, just under 30 miles out of Milan. Switzerland is visible in the distance, especially if you ride the funicular to Brunate, which is high enough up to be noticeably cooler than down by the lake. The train fare from Milan to Como is just over four Euro each way.

Funiculars are just as common over in Switzerland, and in Austria, as in Italy, though the latter country is the one that folks tend to think of first. After all, Naples has four of them, all very much part of the local public transport system, and not tourist oriented at all.

Click for larger image

Although the Como to Brunate funicular derives much of its loading from tourism, it too is used by many locals: it’s commonplace to see people returning home with their shopping mingling with sightseers.

And how steep is it? The photo gives some perspective at the top of shot, with the lake and waterside housing clearly visible, as well as the building to the left of the ascending car.

Some Chicken, Some Neck

That phrase, coined by Winshton back in the dark days of World War 2, came readily to mind when I saw that there has been yet another tirade against the European single currency, or Euro, this time in the right leaning land of make-believe that is ConservativeHome.

Messrs Montgomerie and Isaby have published a piece by North West Leicestershire Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, who pitches the unequivocal and memorable line “the Euro was a political project that was destined to fail”. In case anyone missed his message, he then says “The Euro project was always doomed to failure”.

Bridgen, sadly, does not have the soundest of grasps on the countries on which he is passing judgment. He claims that Portugal “has had a socialist party Government for most of the last two decades”, while not realising that the PS is a socialist party in name only: It is very much a mainstream Social Democratic party.

He also deviates from his subject by throwing in attempts to frighten his audience: there are “suggestions” and “rumours” of new taxes, and VAT being “taken directly”, which it isn’t going to be. He also confuses a loan guarantee over the Portuguese bail-out plan with an actual contribution.

What may happen in the various Eurozone economies I do not know. But I’m damn sure that Andrew Bridgen doesn’t know any more. He has no reason to suppose that measures will not be taken in the supposedly weaker members of the Eurozone to deal with their debts. And he fails to float the idea that there may be a so-called “haircut” for some of the debtors in what will amount to a debt restructuring.

This will not come as a surprise to those lenders who are lower down the food chain than the ECB and other Governments: that is why interest rates have been so steep for some countries recently. As the saying goes, on the risk part, it’s “priced in”. My feeling is that the haircut will come sooner rather than later. Look to Greece and Ireland first.

In any case, the markets do not share Andrew Bridgen’s pessimism: at the end of last week, the Euro was trading at over 88.5 pence, and over 1.48 US Dollars. As Winshton might have said, shome project, shome failure.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Wedding Laugh In – Unintentional But Hilarious

There I was, thinking that the Royal Wedding was done, and that was all there was to it. I had not considered the horde of wittering hacks, all ready to open their mouths and insert both feet. Laugh? I confess I did.

Leading off with, sadly, no style at all, is Harry Mount in the Maily Telegraph, apparently unaware that he is a complete prat. “Huw Edwards hasn’t got the historical knowledge for Royal commentary” he sniffs, equally unaware that the viewers are tuning in to see two young people getting hitched, and not get bored crapless having to suffer a history lesson.

Mount’s fellow Telegraph pundit Nile Gardiner fares no better. Gardiner, who keeps telling his readers how rubbish Barack Obama is, while forgetting that the US economy is still not out of the woods, and that the GOP doesn’t yet have a credible challenger for 2012, says that the Queen has better approval ratings than Barry. Of course she does, she doesn’t do politics. Another prat.

It’s no better over at the Mail, where Paul Connolly berates Christine Bleakley for going on about Kate’s wedding dress. Yes Paul, unlike Maysa Rawi in the, er, Mail – that’s the same paper you’re writing for. But Connolly did what Paul Dacre ordered: he rubbished Sky and looked down his nose at the Beeb. Another dose of prattery.

At least Paul Connolly was sticking to the main event, unlike “Daily Mail Reporter” (too embarrassed, perhaps?) who penned “Is Earl Spencer turning into his father at the age of 46?” to which the answer is that Nobody At All Cares About Earl Sodding Spencer. One more for the prat pile.

But it’s back to the Telegraph for the coup de grace: Christina Odone, one of those hacks who is happy to accept invites from the Beeb while laying into the corporation on the slightest pretext, tells that the Royal Wedding proves thatBritain is still very much a Christian country”. No it doesn’t, it just means that a couple got married in a Christian church. But there’s more: this made the event “more significant than a catwalk of preposterous hats, gleaming uniforms, and Union Jack bunting”. Oh no it didn’t.

My full house of prats, and I’ll raise you. Time to open the vino. Does anyone take these hacks seriously?

Cripes Chaps, A Bike Scheme With No Bank!

Back in November last year, I observed that, unlike the London cycle scheme, which for reasons best known to Bozza and pals had to have the name of Barclays Bank plastered all over it, the one in Barcelona managed with just the sign of the local authority.

However, a “sample of one” can be unrepresentative, so I made a mental note to check out any further schemes I encountered on future visits. And I have to report that there is a cycle hire operation in Milan, and that it too manages without the use of a major partner or sponsor.

This scheme is called BikeMi (website HERE, in English), and this well populated cycle station is situated just behind the east end of the Duomo. The bikes don’t look all that different to their London cousins, except that they bear the scheme name and logo of the Comune di Milano (and that’s that).

All this and a day ticket for public transport priced at just 3 Euro. These dastardly foreigners might be trying to tell us something. Yikes readers!

Toby Jug Royal False Equivalence

While the happy couple prepare for their honeymoon – as if they’ll get any peace and quiet once the Fourth Estate find out about it – the interpretation of today’s Royal Wedding continues. And pitching in to the fray has been not very good Maily Telegraph blogger Toby Young with a characteristically poorly argued, but freshly steaming, pile of stuff.

Tobe thinks that “It’s taboo to try and score political points on public occasions such as these”, and then does so anyway. Perhaps with one eye on the Rally For Cuts that he will be joining next month, and knowing that not very many will bother to turn up for it, he has decided to paint today’s wedding as a response to the March For The Alternative, although it is nothing of the sort.

Young manages to miss the obvious point: many ordinary folk, like those who marched on March 26, will be celebrating the Royal nuptials today, especially as it’s a bank holiday. The idea that the two events would draw mutually exclusive audiences is plain daft: there’s a love of all things Royal in many working class people. Tobe shows he doesn’t understand them.

The false equivalence doesn’t stop at misreading the makeup of the crowd, though: Young equates the event to the Coronation in 1953, except of course that this isn’t a Coronation, and his suggestion that it will translate into popularity for Young Dave and his jolly good chaps is utter tosh.

Tobe’s history looks shaky, too: the monarchy’s “soaring popularity under Queen Victoria” didn’t continue for long after Albert passed away. By the time Edward VII had succeeded to the throne, he knew that he needed to be seen rather more than his late mother, who had spent an increasing amount of time out of public view. Edward gave the monarchy back its purpose, and today’s Royals follow his lead.

And then Young manages to call today’s wedding a state occasion, before saying (correctly) that it isn’t one. I do hope, for the sake of the Telegraph’s credibility, that they don’t have to pay him to write this drivel. But then, if Toby Young has figured out how to make it pay, one cannot begrudge him his returns.

After all, if Littlejohn is worth paying serious money, anyone can rake it in.

The Big Day Italian Style

So. It’s The Big Day. What special things was everyone doing today? Full admission: even though I’ve deliberately left the country for the duration, I’ve checked out popular tourist locations in central Milan to see if Royal Wedding fever has travelled to the land of, shall we say, controversial Prime Ministers.

Not Red Nose Day in Milan

There’s local competition, as well, as there is yet another election campaign in progress. Although the poll appears to be a purely Milanese one, the inevitable presence of “Duce” Berlusconi is all over the posters, as is the graffiti that defaces them. This example is typical.

Mid morning, with a sprinkling of rain in progress, a look round the area in front of the Duomo showed no Royal Wedding fever at all. Nor was there any trace of the upcoming celebration in the Galleria Emanuele II. In fact, I couldn’t find anywhere broadcasting from the UK.

The only signs have been after the event: the likening of the bride’s dress to that worn by Grace Kelly when she too became royalty, and a family group boarding a tram holding little Union Flags on sticks. No doubt there will be afters, but workers and sightseers appear to have carried on as usual here in Milan.

And the rain has stopped, the cloud lifted, with the result that we have a warm and sunny afternoon in progress. Ciao!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Who To Blame For Royal Rain?

I just checked tomorrow’s weather forecast for London. And it says there may be the odd “heavy shower”, which must mean rain, rather than Richard Littlejohn. Now that may not come to pass – the forecast for Milan both yesterday and today has been for showers, and all that turned up was a brief sprinkle yesterday evening – but whatever happens, some mileage can be gained from dishing out blame.

If there is no rain, then every BBC and Met Office hating paper (for which read the Sun, Daily Star, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Maily Telegraph, for starters) will have a field day. Lack of precipitation will be held to confirm all the scare stories and slanted opinion pieces about the integrity of both organisations, plus climate change generally. A dry wedding will be cited by James Delingpole as the summation of his life’s work.

But if the rain does turn up, this presents a more difficult one for the press to call. Some may use it to play a long game: if the marriage ever hits a rocky patch, the weather event can be quoted as a bad omen. This, however, means that hacks must forego any immediate gain, and that is one big ask.

An easier fallback is to kick the Beeb once more: the forecast may be held to have jinxed the happy couple’s special day, and can be condemned as unpatriotic, a show of elite liberal bias, and a total lack of respect by whoever is on BBC coverage duty (especially Huw Edwards). The hacks will tell how we could have far more reliable weather without having to shell out for the licence fee.

It seems impossible, but an opportunity to work Muslims into the story will be dredged up somehow: the Mail will have Melanie Phillips on standby to explain how weather has become radicalised, but only in London and definitely not in Paris. Littlejohn, meanwhile, will try his best (so not very hard, then) to turn out one of his “spoof comedy sketches” in celebration, but nobody will be amused.

While editors are deciding how to call any rainfall, the ever prurient Mail Online will be watching for any “wardrobe malfunctions” caused by the damp: nothing will be too explicit, because even if it shouldn’t be published, it will be, so that the why-oh-why brigade can then sound off about how it shouldn’t be. Similar guff will be available on the Express website, but not until the following day.

And to round things off, Phil Space may be employed to tell how a wet wedding just shows how the UK has declined ... Brussels behind it all ... end of Empire ... asylum seeker reference ... benefit culture worked in somehow ... is the bar still open ... will this do? [No. You’re fired – Ed]

The Old Art Of Recycling And Copying

Back in 2009, as the economic downturn took hold, the news in the retail trade was all about discounters: supermarkets that major in own brand ranges and sell at a permanent discount price, without (mostly) the special offers and price volatility that characterise the big players.

So, back in the days when the Times was available without subscription, the paper reported that the owners of Aldi and Lidl had broken into the retail top ten. This, however, became more than just one story: whenever sales went up at Aldi and Lidl and fell at Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, it could be wheeled out again, with the new data inserted.

Thus another journalist stand-by was created. So when the “discounter effect” showed itself in data from the first part of 2011, the Maily Telegraph was on the case. The piece – published early this morning – correctly attributes the new figures to Kantar Worldpanel.

Not to be outdone, the Express has now run the same story, but with a different emphasis on the data. Whether Richard Desmond’s finest got it from the PA wire or the Telegraph is hard to tell, given that only the date is shown. But one elementary howler has entered in the retelling.

The source of the information is attributed to Kantar Worldpane. Someone at the Express in a bit of a hurry, methinks (and remember, no sub-editor to correct it).

Which means that my money would be on it being copied from the Telegraph in the first instance.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

TPA – Missing The Elephant

Today we got the first quarter figures for the UK economy. They made for less than happy reading: although there was 0.5% growth, this came on the back of a 0.5% contraction in the previous quarter, that having been put down to the severe weather in December. So over the last six months, there has if anything been a slight drop.

With the spending cuts just coming into view, that is not good news. So how has the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), which is clamouring for yet more cuts, spun the news? Head non-job holder Matthew Sinclair, who actually believes in Ricardian Equivalence as a fact even though it isn’t, attempts to produce a fog of whataboutery and thus avoid discussing the elephant in the room.

The growth that there has been, in areas like transport, could easily be accounted for by higher rail fares and catching up on work not done during December’s cold. Finance sector growth may be down to end of tax year activity, and any growth in the Government sector may be the bills coming in, again, at the end of the financial year.

In other words, that growth may not carry through into the second quarter of the year. Sinclair focuses on the construction sector, having to dredge up a Tweet from a Maily Telegraph hack to try and stand up the assertion that it’s just a little volatility. As spending cuts start to bite in the new financial year, it could turn out to be rather more than that.

Otherwise, Sinclair suggests that the UK’s performance is “average”, but fails to cite any figures in support of his assertion. Although he is urging yet more spending cuts, the thought that these might harm growth does not enter. After all, he represents an Astroturf lobby group that has urged lowering of the poverty line, and would abolish the minimum wage, which together would remove enough spending power from the economy to do it serious harm.

Thus the TPA fails to notice the elephant in the room: the economy is stagnant, the Government is about to enact cuts and throw tens of thousands out of work, and all that Sinclair and his fellow non-job holders can do is whine about the 50p tax rate, suggest that folks have somehow factored in the cuts through a lowering of confidence, and spin the tale of “an L-shaped recovery”.

So what the TPA’s finest is saying is that he doesn’t have a clue. No change there, then.

Meet Peter Witt

As mentioned earlier, Milan still runs tramcars (streetcars for those of you in the USA) that date back to the late 1920s. They are known as Peter Witt cars, after the Cleveland Railway commissioner who designed them.

Click for larger image

And here is one of them: although many routes in the city run more modern – and spacious – trams, these grand looking vehicles are fine for routes that don’t need so much capacity. There are still 200 of them at work.

There’s Low-Costs, And Then There’s Low Cost

It seems that our old friends at Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care) are in the news again, and for the wrong reason: misleading advertising, something that I’ve noticed before. And something that may be news to those who think that you only get bargain fares on “low-cost” carriers is that full service carriers offer them too.

When looking for possible destinations for my Royal Wedding avoiding break, I looked at the usual places in southern Spain, and found that Ryanair would have charged me just under £160 for a return flight to Alicante (flying out today) from Liverpool. And that doesn’t include checking a bag.

Today I flew with Swiss – and no, I’m not getting paid to type this – from Manchester to Milan Malpensa via Zürich, and the return fare was £168. That includes checking in a bag. You get a snack and drink on board (only a drink between Zürich and Milan, but then, it’s only a 35 minute hop), and the staff are helpful.

The flight arrives at an airport near the city being visited – Malpensa is just over 30 miles from Milan, but there is a rail service that gets you downtown in just under half an hour – as opposed to being near another city: Ryanair fly into Bergamo, which is somewhere to the north east of Milan.

This is the fourth time I’ve flown out via Zürich, and although it can be a bit of a dash to get the connection, it always waits, and the luggage always makes it too. So when you’re looking at destinations like Budapest, Rome, or Vienna, if nothing from the low-cost brigade appeals, check out Opodo, and there may be availability with Swiss via Zürich.

Then you can fly with a real airline.

Welcome To Milan

And so the escape from the upcoming Royal Wedding was effected successfully. The start was early, but the flights (two of them) uneventful, barring the customary quickstep through Zürich Airport, a subject to which I’ll return. For the next few days, the Zelo Street blog will be coming live from Milan, mainly a business destination, which is a pity, as it’s ideal city break territory.

So far there is little sign of the Royal Wedding, bar the papers I glanced at en route – for which the Express, bless it, has to take the prize for sheer inanity. There is also little sign of the chaotic traffic that I remember – and not at all fondly – from places like Rome and Naples, probably because getting into Milan and parking are not for the faint hearted, and ferociously expensive.

Folks get around by making use of a – thus far – very good public transport network, although many of the trams, some of which are late 1920s vintage, have high floors. It’s not expensive: one journey costs one Euro, and a day ticket just three Euro. Compare and contrast with London.

This is the Duomo, the centre of the city, and the third largest church in the world (says the guide book). This part of the city is off limits to cars. Unlike Naples, things like pedestrian lights not only exist, but are obeyed by road traffic. And missing in Milan is the feeling you get in both Naples and Rome that the transport infrastructure would not need much prompting to collapse in short order.

Tomorrow – weather permitting – come sights and maybe old trams. Enjoy? I certainly will.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

TPA – A Question Of Attribution

I have to give an A for Effort to the non-job holders of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), who have released another “briefing note”, on the subject of Corporation Tax, but on the occasion of the Easter Monday bank holiday. Clearly there is no rest for the wicked.

The conclusion of this exercise, authored by one Anthony J Evans, finds adversely on the tax concerned, which chimes admirably with the objectives of the so-called “2020 Tax Commission”, the pretentiously titled body set up by the TPA and the Institute Of Directors (IOD), which advertised itself as working to urge simplification of the tax system, while – as I’ve already shown – recommending abolition of the minimum wage.

What is one to make of this note? It is blindingly predictable that right leaning organisations such as the TPA and IOD will denigrate Corporation Tax – or, given half a chance, any tax – while those elsewhere on the political spectrum will argue in its favour. The release of this latest salvo brings little new to the table.

One can, however, discern a flavour of where the “2020 Tax Commission” is coming from by the august bodies referenced by Evans in his “research”. Such is the range over which his net has been cast that even a blog has been included in his list of attributions.

The Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, which gets six mentions, sounds authoritative. But it has been bunged five million notes by the Hundred Group, a lobbying organisation, which puts its contribution into perspective. Other cited organisations are from the predictable: three mentions for the American Enterprise Institute, two for the Cato Institute, and two for the TPA’s own stalwarts.

Three cites are for Tim Worstall, “fellow” of the Adam Smith Institute, a museum of outmoded economic thought which has fraudulently appropriated the name of the founder of economics, and whose recent contribution to a debate on NHS elective surgery included the assertion that it was “shite”.

The level at which this “research” has been pitched shows in the use of the FCABlog as a source – twice – with an equal number of cites being for the Maily Telegraph and Daily Mail. The Guardian also gets two mentions, but only so that Evans can kick it.

But the conclusion is in accord with the TPA and IOD agenda, so that’s all right, then. It would have been most unfortunate had the result been otherwise.

Let Sleeping Dick Lie

As the Easter break comes to a close, it is – albeit briefly – back to business as usual, which means more unresearched and overrated drivel from the self-aggrandising windbag that is Richard Littlejohn. Today, Fat Dick is trying to align himself with the legacy of the late John Sullivan, his reasoning being that he occasionally likens those he smears to characters from one of Sullivan’s sitcoms.

But, sad to say, this will not turn the overmonied and tedious Littlejohn into a creator of new comedy (and definitely not Tolstoy): rather, it signifies the onset of yet more very old and thin comedy, well beyond its sell-by date. Dick says of Sullivan “his output was prodigious, his quality control rigorous”, so on the latter point the two already diverge sharply.

My noo sitcom, Guv - issa larf, innit?

And the plagiarising of Sullivan’s characters is explained thus: “The reason I occasionally write a spoof sitcom ... is because the characters are instantly recognisable to millions”. No, Dickie boy, it’s because you aren’t capable of sufficiently original thought, and nicking someone else’s creation is another example of your lazy and derivative hackery.

But any irritation at the return of the Littlejohn regurgitation machine is soon swept away when he arrives at the subject of Labour leader Ed Miliband. He tells of Mil The Younger’s upcoming operation, and then lets slip “Every time Miliband comes on the TV he gets right up my nose and I immediately fall into a deep, life-threatening sleep”.

I hadn’t previously warmed to Ed, but that’s made my mind up. More Ed Miliband on the TV, less Littlejohn. It’s a deal!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Telegraph Hits Rock Bottom

Recently I observed that the publication now known as the Maily Telegraph could no longer be counted as a paper of record. Now, by its own hand, we can see that it has reached rock bottom, crudely and blatantly indulging in agenda driven hackery – note that I do not use the term “journalism” – in order to produce the kind of knocking copy that might even have Astroturf lobby groups like the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance thinking twice.

The Telegraph has had access to some of the Wikileaks information. This has revealed that a London telephone number was found in several seized notebooks and mobiles. That much is routine and uninteresting. The assertion is then made that the number was associated with the BBC, and the Telegraph believes the Beeb location concerned to be Bush House, where the World Service is based.

But, so what? Someone who has been detained by security forces somewhere in the world has a phone number for the BBC World Service programmed into their mobile. It’s hardly proof that some kind of terrorist cell is operating out of the Beeb. It could possibly be that someone has been trying to pass propaganda to the BBC, but that doesn’t mean anything got through to being broadcast.

And what apparently does not occur to the Telegraph hacks is that there may have already been a follow-up investigation. It is most unlikely that this information was gathered, connected to the BBC, and then left on file. Given that there have not been any arrests involving Bush House staff, it’s more than likely that there is no Beeb terror connection.

Moreover, I can provide a little information that the Telegraph may not have known about: Bush House and the nearby former UK head office of a multi-national corporate in the energy business had, for many years, blocks of very similar phone numbers. Wrong numbers were an occupational hazard, and Bush House regularly complained about the number of wayward calls they received.

As far as is known, the large corporate left its former UK head office well before the period covered by the Wikileaks material. But the phone numbers will still be in use. So it’s entirely possible that the BBC has been wrongly fingered, and that would make the Telegraph look doubly foolish.

Thus the continuing descent of a once great newspaper.

Who Won The War?

In a moment that connects icons of the capital, globalisation, and the rotten garlic crunching French, the hacks at the Mail On Sunday have made a groundbreaking discovery: there are Foreigners Running Our Buses. Not only that, these Foreigners are French, and they’re putting pictures of a French River on Our Iconic Red Buses.

This may come as a surprise to many Mail readers, who, unless they live in Greater London, won’t otherwise be fussed about such ghastly things as buses. Mail readers are aspirational folk. They are on their way to bettering themselves, or so they think, and they remember well what Margaret Thatcher said about buses.

In any case, the acquisition of some London bus routes by RATP Group is not the first foreign presence in the capital. In 2009, Abellio – that little logo at top right of the name is the symbol of Netherlands Railways (NS) – started bus operations there. Abellio already has a part share in rail franchises Northern and Merseyrail, and has been shortlisted for two more: Greater Anglia and InterCity West Coast (ICWC).

Northern: a Netherlands connection

French company Keolis, which already has a part share in the Transpennine Express rail franchise, is also on the shortlist for ICWC, with French state rail operator SNCF. Keolis has a part share in Govia, which operates rail franchises London Midland, Southern and Southeastern. Hong Kong based MTR has a part share in London Overground.

All of these operations add up to rather more than a few London bus routes, so one has to wonder why the Dacre hackery haven’t been kicking off about foreigners running our transport companies before. And that’s before I mention the war, er, sorry, Germans.

A German logo big enough for hacks to see?

German state rail operator DB runs Chiltern Railways, which operates services out of London’s Marylebone terminus, and has a part share in London Overground. It also runs the UK’s largest rail freight operation, branded as DB Schenker. And last year it acquired Arriva.

Germans getting close to the Tube ...

Arriva also runs rail franchises Arriva Trains Wales and Cross Country. It runs a whole load of London bus routes, as well as bus operations across England and Wales. And now it’s been annexed by the Germans. Where oh where is all the why oh why copy from Paul Dacre’s finest?

Chance is that anything more than a logo on a London bus is too taxing for the Dacre hackery, and in any case, it’s really about kicking the French. Keeps it simple. Cuts out thinking – no change there, then.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Herding Refugees’ Cats In Wakefield – 4

The saga of housing provider WDH and practising Christian Colin Atkinson appears to have reached a conclusion. Last Wednesday, after a meeting with the company’s management, Atkinson agreed to a deal in which he attached his eight inch high palm leaf cross (the “personal item” causing all the fuss) to the front of the van’s glove compartment, rather than the dashboard.

Is this such a big deal? Well, it gets all concerned some breathing space, for starters. The hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre have clearly been poring over WDH’s head office sufficiently to know what kind of objects are displayed in employees’ cars, and have been inside that head office with a cameraman.

Having the tabloid press hanging around outside will not have been pleasant for anyone working at WDH. Colin Atkinson is less than a year from retirement, and yielding a little – but it is only a little – at least gets the Dacre tanks off the lawn. The agreement lets Atkinson have his cross travel with him, but for others to see it, they would have to know where to look.

Not that the Mail wants its readers to know that, of course, so it is left to the end of today’s otherwise triumphal story, where the prominently displayed talk is of “climbdown”. More emphasis is given to more of those refugees’ cats: stories that are not material to the case. And most of the items in that category are about WDH Environment Manager Denis Doody.

Doody, we are told, has “a fascination for Cuba”. He has visited the island more than 40 times. He has spoken and written in support of the Cuban Government. He was involved in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. He is a trade union official. He was once a bricklayer. He lives in a former council house. He has attended international union gatherings. His mother’s obituary was published in the Morning Star.

And, it has to be pointed out, none of that has anything whatever to do with his fitness to discharge his duties at WDH. There is no entry in the UK’s criminal code for “being of Socialist views with malice aforethought”, or “carrying a union card with intent”, any more than there is any sanction against someone walking on the cracks in the pavement.

But there has to be a villain in this story, and Doody presses all the Dacre hate buttons, so that’s all right, then. He’ll never buy the Daily Mail anyway.

Mail – Royally Full Of You Know What

With just five days to go before the wedding of Prince William of Wales to the future Princess Catherine of Berkshire, the monarchist part of the Fourth Estate has been winding itself up into an expectant froth. And no paper is more monarchist than the Mail, with royal stories coming thick and fast.

Problem is, the stuff is coming so fast that quality control is slipping, with an early casualty being credibility. Hack Katie Nicholl – the cause of an outpouring of refreshing candour from Lily Allen recently – has suggested that the Duchess of Cornwall went through the guest list with a red pen, and removed Annabel Goldsmith’s name, along with several others. This is pure invention.

Having allied herself with the Goldsmiths – the trashier end of the nouveau riche – Nicholl pauses to scold Clarence House for mis-spelling “Eton”, before tackling the guest list, and protocol. “Organisers were faced with a delicate problem when it came to styling certain dignitaries and their spouses” she tells us, making a big deal of SamCam being styled “Mrs David Cameron”, contrasting this with Nick Clegg’s wife being styled “Ms Miriam González Durántez”.

Katie Nicholl: trouble smelling her worms

Nick Clegg’s wife ... it seems has no wish to be defined by her husband” sneers Nicholl, showing her crashing ignorance of Spanish nomenclature, as well as spelling Durántez incorrectly, for which she will, no doubt, rightly scold herself. The rest of the piece contains a cheap and nasty jibe at Elton John and David Furnish which is beneath contempt.

Fortunately, help is at hand with churning out the relentless succession of royal copy, so Nicholl can take a breather as “Daily Mail Reporterreveals that beer will not be served at the wedding reception, to which I say Big Expletive Deleteding Deal. And the quality is no better, with Westminster Abbey’s North and South Lanterns getting mixed up.

DM Reporter: Lantern Inversion Syndrome

But the author does at least try and bring a little decorum to the piece, telling that “It is well-known that Miss Middleton has never particularly enjoyed drinking – preferring to sip one small glass of wine”. Strange, that – I thought she had been described as being able to “drink Prince William under the table”.

Who might have made that assertion? Why, someone called Katie Nicholl, of course, “longtime royal watcher” and, er, someone who writes for the Mail. Like, for instance, most of the guff cited above.

The Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday: they’re full of crap, and so are their hacks.

Not Yet Time For A PFJ Moment

Splitter!” shouted the less than massed ranks of the Peoples’ Front of Judaea across the amphitheatre in Life Of Brian. A split in such a small group was farcical, but the same kind of behaviour from the present Government would be serious, which is why, despite the rhetoric being cranked up over the upcoming Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, it isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.

Yes, the alliance between Young Dave’s jolly good chaps and Corporal Clegg’s motley platoon is going through a rough patch – with the two partners campaigning for opposing sides on the AV question, that is inevitable – but a split now would almost certainly bring down the Government, and neither party wants that.

Cameron could try to carry on as head of a minority Government if the Coalition split, but without some kind of understanding with the Lib Dems – and following a fractious split, that might be a big ask – there could be no certainty of passing any legislation, along with the knowledge that every minor party would demand concessions for their support. It would present a circle that could not, for long, be squared.

That would mean another General Election, and less than eighteen months after the last one. This might prove a difficult sell to an electorate beginning to come to terms with spending cuts at both a local and national level: any grudging respect for the determination to push through their package of cuts would vanish if the politicians failed to stay the course.

Any “war dividend”, with the conflict in Afghanistan still unresolved, and the Libyan adventure not moving to a conclusion, would be minimal. The opportunity for the Tory right to move against Cameron, in the vain belief that success would come through ideological purity, might be good news for Labour, but it would bring the potential for groups like UKIP to grow.

The Lib Dems, though, would be most vulnerable to the vagaries of the electorate, as well as the potential for internal strife. The party could easily fracture into its “social liberal” and “libertarian liberal” parts – the Lloyd George and Asquith traditions – but from a base rather smaller than that in the 1920s. From there the journey would be only downhill.

So there are no upsides to either Coalition partner in breaking apart their current – if uneasy – alliance. That’s why, after the AV referendum, they will put the mud-slinging of this particular campaign behind them, and carry on.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Shot Down By Odyssey Dawn

Airlines are not the only organisations that use airports: in many parts of the world, the military also uses them, and in some cases has first call on resources. So operating a scheduled service from an airport used mainly by combat aircraft may be inexpensive – as the military will be paying for runways, taxiways, lighting, approach systems and local Air Traffic Control (ATC).

This has proved an irresistible proposition to our old friends at Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care) when selecting an airport on the island of Sicily. Like rival carrier EasyJet, they fly into Palermo, but use the lesser known Trapani-Birgi airport as a base, the latter also playing host to the Italian Air Force’s 37th Wing as well as being a NATO forward operating base.

This would not present any problems, were the Mediterranean an area of total and lasting peace. But, starting with the uprisings in first Tunisia, and then Egypt, this has not been the case. And when it was decided to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, Michael O’Leary’s finest ran into problems.

At first, the carrier moved flights to Palermo. This continued until the end of March and beyond. Now, although the aircraft Ryanair has based at Trapani-Birgi can operate out of the airport, other flights cannot, and from early May these will be cancelled. The wording of the news item is classic Ryanair.

Ryanair is no longer willing to inconvenience its passengers to/from Palermo Airport and must cancel these non-based flights on a rolling basis until Trapani Airport is fully reopened to Ryanair flights” reads the notice. The thought may enter that having a flight cancelled is possibly a greater inconvenience than landing in Palermo rather than Trapani. And Ryanair don’t have to cancel.

But it’s the last part of the notice that takes the biscuit. “Ryanair has contacted the management of Trapani Airport to express its concern over the ongoing restrictions” it says. As if NATO is going to put its mission on hold so that O’Leary and Co can have an easier life. Perhaps Mike would like to get on the phone to Muammar Gaddafi and see how far his usual negotiating stance gets him.

Unless there is a capacity constraint at Palermo, Ryanair could fly their “non-based” flights in and out of there. That they will not suggests that the airport’s handling fees are more than at Trapani-Birgi, and it’s another case of Ryanair won’t pay. It is not the fault of the Italian Air Force, NATO or even the Libyans.

The Ultimate Enthusiast Tour

There are rail enthusiasts. And then there are serious rail enthusiasts. How serious? Serious enough to pay as much as £2,842 each to spend nine consecutive days on a steam hauled train – with nights spent at hotels en route – as it journeys from London to the north of Scotland to the south west and then back to the capital.

My enthusiasm for rail and steam doesn’t go nearly that far, but the Railway Touring Company is now on its fourth Great Britain tour, catering to enthusiasts from mainland Europe and north America, as well as the UK. This endeavour stopped off in Crewe yesterday, having already visited Edinburgh, Inverness, Wick, Kyle Of Lochalsh, and Glasgow, with Bristol and Penzance to come.

If it's Friday, it must be Crewe

Taking part in this kind of tour requires real commitment – and plenty of spare time. The first day’s travel, from London to Edinburgh, uses up well over eleven hours, around seven hours slower than the fastest service trains, and five hours slower than the pre-war “Coronation” flyer. Why so slow? Well, the railway is no longer geared up to service steam traction, so the frequent water stops eat into the journey time. And progress is limited to 75mph.

Mail Online? Pah! Amateurs!!

But there are benefits from taking things a little more steadily than usual. Stopping off en route allows punters to take a stroll, check out whichever of the nine chosen locomotives is at the head of the train, and exercise the camera. Yesterday’s stop at Crewe added an unsubtle but undoubtedly popular hostess photo opportunity. It’s probable that the presence of the legendary Ray Poole at the regulator went unnoticed at the time.

Departure: just two and a half days to go

And then a few blasts of the whistle summoned those dedicated punters back on board, and it was time to depart, for Shrewsbury, Hereford, the Severn Tunnel, and Bristol. Today the Great Britain IV takes its passengers to Penzance, before returning to London tomorrow.

Also, maybe those who shell out for this kind of experience aren’t as daft as all that: many more will willingly spend far longer on board cruise ships, without the reward of the scenery, and knowing that it’s hardly a once in a lifetime experience.

Friday, 22 April 2011

For Whom The Del Toils

Some remarkably inaccurate statements are made about the blogosphere and its inhabitants. Those that come from without – such as Andrew Marr’s intervention last year – can be forgiven, at least, after full value has been extracted from passing adverse comment on the author. Those from within are just bewildering, especially that posted today on the Maily Telegraph site by our old friend Dan, Dan the Oratory Man.

Hannan discusses the apparent toll of blogging on its practitioners, observing that James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole is under doctors’ orders to take things easy (one might more readily sympathise with Del Boy, were his approach not so venal and unpleasant).

Dan then bemoans the expense of blogging, suggesting that he could make more money from turning his ramblings into copy for the benefit of the dunghill that is Grubstreet. Having on occasion read his oeuvre, I have to say that on this point he is in Ron Hopeful territory.

But it’s when Hannan gets onto the idea that blogging burns out its practitioners that he really sells the pass. “Few blogs last more than two years” he proclaims, then gives in example Iain Dale, who scaled back his blogging activity (Dale still posts occasionally) after seven years.

And, on a personal level, having just celebrated the second birthday of Zelo Street, I have to tell Dan that I’m just getting warmed up. There’ll be no burning out in this part of the blogosphere any time soon.

An Easter Message

Today is Good Friday. It is a public holiday in England and Wales. Next week begins with Easter Monday, which is also a public holiday in England and Wales. Both are Christian festivals, as is that of Christmas. These three, taken together, commemorate the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is no public holiday within the UK that commemorates any festival or event of any other religion. Thus the orientation of these islands towards Christianity, whatever other faiths may be represented. To suggest otherwise should not be a credible position; that it is reflects badly on those who take such a stance.

And what of the message that Christ brought to his brief time on this earth? Jesus told his followers of commandments that included “do not give false evidence; do not defraud”. Also, he said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” and above all he preached forgiveness, understanding, piety, and peace.

How, one might ask, does this sit with a mindset which richly rewards those who readily give false evidence, while lacking any understanding or spirit of peacefulness? How can Christian values be cited by those who assume the right to judge others, in flagrant violation of Jesus’ teaching?

How can anyone call their values “Christian” when the nearest they get to a state of piety is pushing a camera lens in the face of those judged in advance of any hearing? How is understanding reached by rummaging in rubbish bins, scouring car parks for religious symbols, pushing one’s way into company premises, and encouraging a climate of fear?

As Christians mark the earthly passing of Jesus Christ, there are so many more for whom it will be very, very hard to enter the kingdom of God, whether through wealth, sin, or an unhealthy combination of both.

May your God go with you. Have a peaceful Easter.

[Quotations taken from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12]

TPA – A Policing Deception

Just in time for the Easter break has come yet another “report” from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), this time picking over the cost incurred by police forces around England and Wales in meeting their statutory duty to produce a Local Policing Summary (LPS) every year. The amount over which the TPA is haggling is around a million quid in total.

As usual, there is a list demonstrating that the TPA has made lots of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, and there is a misleading conclusion: that if all the police forces concerned put their LPS online, the million notes would be instantly saved and could therefore be ploughed into an increased number of officers on the streets.

What is not explained is whether this solution would satisfy the statutory requirement placed upon the forces. Moreover, the authority held up as an example by the TPA – Devon and Cornwall – incurred other printing costs, despite having its LPS available online.

Also, when the TPA’s head non-job holder Matthew Sinclair tells that putting the LPS online costs “next to nothing”, there is, not surprisingly, no example given of what costs may be incurred in doing this. No explanation is given of how the information could be disseminated when those requiring it do not have access to the Internet.

It is, therefore, typical TPA “research”: a number of FoI requests are made, wasting substantial sums of taxpayers’ money, an alternative is put forward without any costing (other than to assert that it can be done “for free”), and along the way the odd casual smear is dispensed (printed information is called “glossy leaflets” to make it sound bad).

And, as with all the other TPA “reports”, it’s not good enough. Good to see that the Association of Police Authorities (APA) is not concerning itself with a response – it’s not worth it.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Herding Refugees’ Cats In Wakefield – 3

The saga of electrician – and practising Christian – Colin Atkinson and housing provider WDH continues, at least for the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail. Worryingly, though, the affair has begun to suck in fringe groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and the British National Party (BNP), the latter bringing a particularly sinister tone.

As WDH appear unmoved by the Mail’s bombardment of whataboutery, the paper has cranked up the rhetoric, characterising Atkinson as “persecuted”. The assembled talking heads now include Ann Widdecombe, who has demanded to know “where is the difference between a cross for a Christian and a verse from the Qur’an for a Muslim”, the answer being that company rules do not apply to employees’ own vehicles.

Meanwhile, no attention has yet fallen on the body pitching in on Atkinson’s behalf, the Christian Institute, an evangelical lobby group, who tell us that “The Bible is without error ... Christians must, therefore, submit to its supreme authority ... in every matter of belief and conduct”. That could be difficult, as the Bible is a deeply ambiguous work.

The Christian Institute has previously taken action over Section 28 (failed), another over legislation in Northern Ireland (failed), supported a registrar in Islington who refused to do the paperwork for civil partnerships (ultimately failed) and also supported two Christian hotel owners who would not let a gay couple stay (so far failed). If I were in Colin Atkinson’s shoes, I wouldn’t be too confident of success.

But it’s the far right’s involvement that is most worrying: the EDL have accused WDH of being “an enabler of Sharia norms” and demanded they cease any disciplinary action. Even so, the EDL have nothing on the BNP.

The BNP – showing that they are becoming desperate – have written to WDH threateningan escalating campaign” against WDH if disciplinary action is not stopped. The company’s action is described as “far-left, pro-Islamic, Common Purpose-style bullying of decent people”, and the letter concludes “From now on, actions such as your persecution of Colin Atkinson will have consequences. The BNP will see to it”.

BNP leader Nick Griffin is in accord with the action, telling of “this anti-Christian Islamo-Marxist jihad”. Put directly, it’s turning nasty, and someone needs to turn down the rhetoric, and soon.

That someone is Paul Dacre.

Express – Late And Loaded

Yesterday I looked at the descent of the Maily Telegraph from its position as a paper of record to an increasingly vapid broadsheet version of the Daily Mail. But, despite the decline in quality of the reportage, at least the Telegraph got its EU story a day ahead of the Express, which is fast becoming a joke.

Richard Desmond’s supposedly flagship title, which also got the Wakefield housing provider versus electrician story a day late earlier in the week, did not cover the EU Budget request when the news first broke, despite the paper running an anti-European “crusade”.

But the story, when it finally arrived, pressed all the necessary buttons: “Massive EU Budget Hike Lands UK With £10BN Bill” screamed the headline, so already the impression is given that any budget increase means another 10 billion for the UK to pay. And the Express takes the biscuit in style when telling of “a furious attack on EU bureaucrats last night”, because by last night everyone else had seen the story and the news cycle had moved on.

The language, though, is vintage Express (well, inasmuch as this kind of trashy hackery can claim a vintage): “hard-pressed British families ... stump up ... huge budget hike ... surge ... colossal ... brazen demand ... juggernaut of EU excess” thundered “political correspondent” Martyn Brown.

Anyone reading the Express piece would conclude that the budget increase had been imposed and that it was a done deal, such is the appalling standard of the product. But the same conclusion would be reached from the Telegraph article as well, which allows the thought to enter that the latter was the source for the former.

In case anyone allows that thought to linger for long, though, Des’ finest have added some unique content via their talking heads: one from Open Europe, one from UKIP, and Bill Cash, who is just about in the Tory party. And they’ve added an “analysis” piece, to try and show how fair and balanced they are.

Before anyone gets their hopes up, however, this extra item has been authored by UKIP head man Nigel “Thirsty” Farage. Not exactly an even handed analysis, then, but one that would find favour across the north Altantic with our old friends at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

There’s a word for that kind of content: loaded – as in biased, only worse. But there’s a sale in the offing, so there won’t be much more of this drivel. That’ll be another Benchmark of Excellence, then.

HS2 – The Equation Changes

Yesterday, there was little to cheer about for the so-called HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA), which got its name from a desire that there be no action on HS2. Their spokesman Bruce Weston, in an unusually terse statement, said “It looks like a pretty crude rubbishing of what is regarded as the frontrunner alternative”. He is right to keep it short, as the figures are changing.

Weston and his pals, egged on by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), an Astroturf lobby group dedicated to demonising Government – any Government – along with public service and public works, have constantly put forward a series of upgrades to the West Coast Main Line (WCML) as an alternative to the proposed high speed rail link known as HS2.

However, the upgrades proposed by HS2AA and the TPA, known as Rail Package 2, previously costed at £5.37 billion, have been re-evaluated and re-costed, with the total now £8.9 billion. HS2 opponents are already bringing their own particular spin to bear against the news, with one telling that “Rail Package 2 delivers benefits across the country and not just this extremely narrow corridor that HS2 does”.

Except that the scheme delivering benefits across the country is HS2: Rail Package 2 delivers nothing outside the WCML corridor, it produces most of its claimed extra capacity at off-peak times (when it’s less needed), there is no provision for growth of freight traffic, the timetable is unworkable, and an unnecessary extra fleet of 97 new trains would be needed to satisfy its objectives. I’ve previously discussed this HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.

Now that the figure for Rail Package 2 has been revised, opponents of HS2 have two very clear options: they can continue the debate but accept the new figures, or can produce their own analysis to counter the revision, and so prove that their choice can be brought in at the lower cost. However, given the reluctance of the TPA to bother themselves beyond parroting soundbites and issuing FoI requests, the latter course is unlikely to be pursued.

And, right now (1045 hours April 21) neither HS2AA nor TPA are commenting. I’m sure that is merely to ensure the thoroughness of their analysis and the insights arising.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Telegraph: End Of The Record

There was once a time, and within living memory, when the publication now known as the Maily Telegraph was justifiably considered a paper of record. The separation of news and comment was such that it was not a problem for Guardian readers, finding their preferred selection sold out, to take the Telegraph instead, but by-pass the comment part.

True believers, too, had no problem with this approach: just in case the piece being read didn’t tell them what opinion the paper held, an editorial or pundit column would be discreetly signposted. Sadly, though, those days are over, and today brought an example of just how far standards have slipped, along with the merging of news and comment.

The piece, titledBritish taxpayers face £600 million bill as EU defies Cameron’s call for austerity”, under the by-line of Bruno Waterfield (whom we have encountered before), tells in its sub-heading that “Brussels has demanded that British taxpayers stump up more than £682 million”, and that the EU has “defied” Young Dave.

What is yet more dispiriting is that most Telegraph readers, occasional or otherwise, will not find this introduction unusual in character. But in the days before the paper began its conversion into a broadsheet Daily Mail, any hack presenting such a piece for editorial consideration would have seen it instantly spiked, then told to go away and do the job properly.

I’ll go further: Bruno Waterfield would not have got anywhere near his berth as the paper’s Brussels point man by writing that kind of drivel, and had he started down that road once in post, would not have kept well for long. So the Telegraph’s readers would have been spared the stream of pejoratives, such as “[EC] will ignore pleas ... painful national cuts ... swell the Brussels budget ... demand for additional cash ... declaration of war ... soaring British contributions ... rocketing costs”.

In any case, Waterfield’s use of the term “demand” is plain flat wrong: the EC has made a request, and negotiations will follow (last year’s figure, first pitched as a near 6% rise, ended up at less than 3%). But then, once one creative reinterpretation creeps into the story, the temptation to go further, when editorial control absents itself, is clearly too much, and thus standards are debased, or even discarded.

If there is no attempt to separate news and comment, the paper concerned cannot consider itself a publication of record. The Telegraph has now passed that point.

The Aspirational Mousetrap

People make political and economic choices, so it’s told, substantially through self interest, hence the idea that the well-off vote Tory and those less so choose Labour. And this is supposedly true for the USA, except that the near 50% that choose the GOP are not universally well off, maybe even more so than the 35% of voters who chose Young Dave’s jolly good chaps in last year’s General Election.

Why many of those voters choose a party that is more inclined to back rich against poor, strong against weak, and establishment against change, is not that they are part of that comfortably off and strongly entrenched select body, but aspire so to be. So there is no shortage of stories telling that the 50p tax rate is A Very Bad Thing, Inheritance Tax is coming to get ordinary families, and private schools must keep their charitable status.

Thus the illusion is maintained: everyone can become a Premier League footballer (or footballer’s wife), or they can make their fortune in The City, or they can build a business through sheer drive and commitment, or they can be an inventor, or they can become a media personality, or they can otherwise break through and disprove the myth of glass ceilings. Or they can win the Lottery.

And so the 99.9% of the electorate who will never achieve any of these goals – no matter how diligent their toil – are kept believing that the finger may someday emerge from the cloud and point to them. Moreover, enough of that 99.9% are sufficiently convinced that they will support politicians who would not otherwise give them the time of day.

This is particularly true in the USA, where previously hard won benefits – like collective bargaining, Medicare and Medicaid – are under attack from the right, cheered on by the "Tea Partiers", themselves egged on by the same kind of Astroturf lobby groups as the so-called Taxpayer’s Alliance in the UK, at present engaged in a campaign of routine mean spiritedness against the least well off, dressed up in a cover called “freedom”, “simplicity” and no doubt “choice”.

This apparent paradox was addressed yesterday by former Countdown host Keith Olbermann – who, unlike the customary right wing characterisation, has not gone away – in a “first guess” segment. The conclusion, that those aspirational mice believe that someday they will become cats, is as true today in the UK as in the USA, as is the sad fact that those mice cannot, or will not, admit that mice is what they are, and will always be.

The First Cuckoo Of Spring

As the days get longer, sunnier and warmer, spring has most definitely sprung, and out in the countryside can be heard – over the strains of Delius, no doubt – the call of that first cuckoo. And to provide a contemporary conjunction between season and news cycle has come our own modern day cuckoo, in the shape of the Daily Mail’s bigoted, bloated, blustering buffoon Richard Littlejohn.

Fat Dick has this week been taxed about the Taliban. And those who read the Guardian. And diversity. And Che Guevara. And Wolfie Smith. All this is in introduction to Mail readers, as Littlejohn pronounces judgment on the case of Colin Atkinson, the practising Christian at odds with housing provider WDH.

The customary sub-bar-room-bore rant is accompanied by the usual lack of research, personal attacks on those deemed not rich enough to sue, and the odd steaming pile of fresh bullpucky. So for Fat Dick, it’s business as usual. And that business kicks off with a Third Reich comparison, to indicate that the bottom of the barrel has been reached, and scraping is about to commence.

Fact? No way guv, issa flying pig, innit?

Colin Atkinson isn’t the first Christian to fall foul of the equality Nazis” whines Dick, not wanting to admit that the case isn’t about equality, but keeping company vans clear of personal clutter. Then a non sequitur is slipped in: “Remember the British Airways worker told she couldn’t wear a modest crucifix?” and yes I do, but Atkinson is not being prevented from wearing a crucifix. WDH has no problem with that.

But hey, forget those pesky facts! Dick knows what’s going on: “[WDH] say he is in breach of their diversity policy”. No they don’t: the company’s statement is HERE. For the benefit of lazy, bigoted and overmonied hacks, this is what it says: “WDH simply don’t allow employees to display personal items in our company vans”.

This factual snippet cuts no ice with Fat Dick, because he’s got the culprit in his sights. “His chief accuser is an overgrown Wolfie Smith wannabe, who displays a poster of the blood-stained revolutionary Che Guevara on his office wall”. It’s a photo repro, not a poster, it’s black and white, and there’s no blood. But Littlejohn has decided Denis Doody done it.

He brought Mr Atkinson’s heinous ‘crime’ to the attention of the organisation’s equality and diversity manager Jayne O’Connell, who chose to pursue it with Stalinist zeal”. This is pure invention, but neither of these unfortunate folks will be able to take Fat Dick and his legendarily foul mouthed editor to the cleaners, so all at the Mail have clearly decided to chuck as much dirt as they can find (or invent).

And Dick can identify the real villain: Harriet Harman. Er, what? Someone is protesting a little too much. It’s about keeping vans tidy. End of.

Meanwhile, in a distant meadow, a cuckoo sings. Don’t like the look of that fat scarecrow, mind.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Brown May Not Yet Be Through

The International Monetary Fund. There, you’ve turned off from this post already. But stay with it – the IMF is about to see a change in its head man, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn stepping down. Someone who would like to replace him, it seems, is Pa Broon, so when the matter was mentioned on this morning’s edition of the Today programme, with Young Dave guesting, many were hanging on the PM’s response.

Except that what Cameron actually said was hardly considered before both left and right reinterpreted it to suit their own agenda. Firmly on the right of the argument, and indeed any argument, are the hacks at the Maily Telegraph, who concluded that the Brown candidacy had been well and truly vetoed.

But then, in the sub-heading, came the phrase “will block”, so perhaps the deed has not yet been done. The impression was given that the Telegraph is less concerned with the fact of the matter than to put the boot into Brown, which at least shows a consistency of approach.

Over at the Staggers, someone else out of his blocks before the starting pistol has even been raised is David Blanchflower, the normally sound former MPC member, who has also assumed that the veto has been used to stop the former PM. Blanchflower is, however, right to suggest that to veto Brown would be petty, and is also right to paint Young Dave as “thin-skinned”, and someone who can’t take criticism.

What Cameron actually said was this: “it does seem to me that, if you have someone who didn’t think we had a debt problem in the UK, when we self-evidently do, they might not be the best person to work out whether other countries around the world have a debt and deficit problem. Above all what matters is the person running the IMF is someone who understands the dangers of excessive debt, excessive deficit, and it really must be someone who gets that rather than someone who says that they don’t see a problem”.

He is not, in that statement, saying “no”. There is sufficient wriggle room for him to say “yes” at a later time – like after the local elections and the AV referendum – while simultaneously covering his backside. Especially if no other credible candidate emerges. And even moreso if he can offload blame for the appointment onto another PM or President.

Herding Refugees’ Cats In Wakefield – 2

As I discussed on Sunday, a housing provider in Wakefield has a rule that bans the display of personal items in company vans. This in itself is not sufficient to get the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate worked up into a righteous froth. But add in a practising Christian, who has attached a cross to the dashboard of his van, and the whole weight of tabloid indignation comes crashing down.

Electrician Colin Atkinson had refused to remove the cross from his dashboard. He then went to the Daily Mail, whose hacks have today ratcheted up the rhetoric by calling Atkinson’s employer WDH “anti-Christian”, although the rule in question has been confirmed in a statement by the company not to discriminate on religious, or any other, grounds.

WDH has now moved Atkinson to another depot: his taking the story to the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre’s hacks will not have helped his cause. It certainly hasn’t helped the standard of journalism on display, as witness “In January Mr Atkinson was reported for continuing to display the cross in his van” and “was yesterday thrown out of his workplace ... for displaying a cross to mark Easter”.

And neither has the standard of talking head improved: today’s piece brings Mail favourite Philip Davies, nominally Tory and MP for Shipley, who commented “You have to wonder if [he] had displayed a symbol from another religion whether he would have been disciplined”, to which the answer – see WDH statement – is yes. And the last time I looked, the Shipley constituency did not include Wakefield.

Moreover, despite the talk of “anti-Christian” behaviour, the Mail hacks seem to have ignored the part of WDH policy that supports the wearing of religious symbols, and that there is a difference between what can be done with company vans, and what employees can wear, so Colin Atkinson could wear a Christian symbol to work if he wished.

Also, in case nobody has noticed in the welter of knocking copy aimed at WDH, no formal disciplinary proceedings have been taken against Atkinson. In fact, the company has gone on record saying it wants to sort this particular problem without so doing.

[Just in case anyone wondered about our friends at the Express, they got the original story a day after the Mail. Not that Richard Desmond’s finest copy their stuff from the previous day’s copies of rival papers, of course]