Archive for the ‘Journalism and News Reportage’ Category

What is to be done?

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)What a depressing day this is, despite the sunshine. I have been trying to hide from the reality of Donald Trump being on the ballot for the US presidential election in November. But last night’s victory in Indiana and the withdrawal of the two remaining opponents from the Republican nomination guarantees his candidacy. And with it, the very real prospect of power.

Back in the UK, the punitive Trade Union legislation entered the statute book. It is a bare-faced attempt to outlaw strikes (in the public sector) by forcing a minimum of a 50 per cent turnout for strike ballots and a 40 per cent positive vote amongst those eligible to vote. Let me get my head around that. 40 per cent of the eligible voters have to be in favour even if they choose not to vote. Basically, choosing not to vote counts as a “no” in a strike ballot. Put another way, very few of our Members of Parliament meet those criteria for their own election.

What else? Ah yes, another unsavoury character, John Whittingdale (right), the inappropriately appointed Culture Minister, isWhittingdale desperate to abolish the BBC. Now I’m no lover of the BBC – with the exception of its factual output, essentially BBC4 – but abolition leaves us to the mercy of commercial media and commercial agendas. Whittingdale has already been kite flying arguing that the BBC should not be able to go head-to-head with commercial rivals; for example, Strictly Come Dancing against the X-Factor on a Saturday evening. He wants to top-slice the BBC licence fee to give to commercial broadcasters in the interests of fairness. The BBC has already had to subsidise pensioners with the free licence and take on the World Service, traditionally the responsibility of the Foreign Office. But last week during a Cambridge Conservative Association speech he described the demise of the BBC as a “tempting prospect”.

Pictures: Donald Trump By Michael Vadon (Wikipedia)

John Whittingdale – johnwhittingdale.org.uk

 

A bit rich coming from Lynton Crosby

Lynton_Crosby_Political_Strategist

So, according to Lynton Crosby, the architect of the Conservative’s 2015 election campaign, the Labour Party demonstrates an arrogance in the Beckett Report into the causes of the election defeat. Let us get this straight, Crosby said at a rare lecture for the Centre for Opposition Studies last week: “They [the voters] weren’t saying that Labour overspending caused the failure of the global financial system. What they were saying is that Labour overspending meant Britain wasn’t well equipped when the financial crisis hit.” In addition he said, “[t]he point is, the voters have spoken and they have made their judgment – not once but twice – and in a democracy their view is the most important”.

First of all, the Conservatives did not win the election in 2010. They governed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Second – and I am no apologist for a reprehensible Labour Government – when the financial crisis hit, the Labour Government bailed out a series of rotten banks that deposited a huge “debt” on the country’s balance sheet. It was the Labour Party that had the gumption to rescue these banks (and probWrecking ballably the British banking system more generally) from collapse. The head of the Government at that time was the long-serving former Chancellor, Gordon Brown, regarded even by Conservatives as competent. The Cancellor was Alistair Darling. That took quite a bit of courage and the state of the public finances before the crash which – let us be reminded, no one predicted – is seemingly irrelevant. Moreover, even if his statement is correct, it is a myth that the public finances are in such a parlous state. The debt is manageable, it does not in itself warrant wholesale budget slashing and the contraction of the state. That is the ideological response – an opportunity to privatise the public sector.

PocketFinally, the Labour Party does not need lessons from a man who mis-informed and lied his party to victory.  Crosby’s character assassination of the Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, represented a new low in negative politics. Readers may recall, Michael Fallon, the Conservative Defence Secretary is quoted as saying 10 days before the election “Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.” That was Crosby at his mendacious worst. And maybe we may not see a Labour government in the foreseeable future because decent and honourable politicians do not stoop that low. Näive, I know.

Should I admire Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Mhairi_BlackLast week I was driving to work listening to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Jenny Murray, the programme’s avuncular anchor, was interviewing the 21 year old Scottish MP, Mhairi Black (left). It was a general discussion about policy, life, MPing, etc. She made her maiden speech in parliament on 14 July 2015 and was roundly lauded for it, despite having broken the protocol that maiden speeches should be largely apolitical.

It transpires, however, that Ms Black is an admirer of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset. This is not someone that is at the top of one’s list for admiration. I find him extremely divisive and not a little annoying. But listening to the interview a seed of doubt was implanted in my brain. Ms Black said that although she fundamentally disagreed with him he was a) very polite to her and b) articulate such that he would always give a reason for his position (something which I would have thought was true of all MPs, but seemingly not).

Oh dear! Should I now reconsider my feelings towards Mr Rees-Mogg (below right)? Fortunately, to the rescue, came today’s edition of the Radio 4 Sunday morning magazine programme, Broadcasting House, for which he was a guest newspaper reviewer (along with former Business Secretary, Vince Cable and Hon_Jacob_Rees-Mogg_MPShelagh Fogerty, a radio presenter in London). They were discussing privatisation, and in particular the privatisation of Channel 4 Television. Cable argued that privatisation would undermine its public service ethos, particularly its flagship news programme, Channel 4 News.

And so Mr Rees-Mogg did what he does best, plausibly lie. First, he said that there are many private-sector news outlets that have high journalistic integrity. Hence Cable’s argument was not valid. He must have been thinking about Sky News and the integrity of Rupert Murdoch’s unimpeachable global news empire. He then went on to say that there should be a management buy-out; seemingly the best of both worlds, a privatised broadcaster with the existing management’s public service broadcasting ethos.

Now I have spent a good part of my life studying privatisation (UK bus and rail industry). In both of these cases, management buy-outs were seen as good options. Many of the former national bus company regional operators were transferred to the private sector by means of management buy-outs. The same is true of railway franchises. But where are they now? The bus and rail industries in the UK are dominated by large – increasingly international – conglomerates. One of the exemplar management buy-outs in the rail industry, Chiltern Railways (operating trains out of London’s Marylebone Station) held out for 6 years before finally succumbing to corporate ownership. It is currently owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway operator. A few bus companies still hold out. In my home town of Hull, East Yorkshire Motor Services remains stubbornly independent. I cannot think of many more.

The point is Mr Rees-Mogg, management buy-outs are simply a means for corporations to access strategic assets at probably a little more than they were originally purchased by incumbent managements. The best way to protect strategic assets from corporations – if this is a desirable objective – is to keep them publicly owned. In this I include housing (wholesale transfer of public housing and right to buy). Mr Rees-Mogg is deliberately specious. He needed to be challenged on his plausibility. He was unfortunately deemed to be presenting a plausible argument. Speciousness is a deeply unadmirable trait.

Pics: Mhairi Black – SNP (through Wikipedia)

Jacob Rees-Mogg – LadyGeekTVFlickr

Journalists reporting on Greece

I was relatively late to the world of Twitter as a source of news. Naturally, one needs to follow a few journalists as well as informed individuals and institutions in order fully to appreciate its special immediacy. When it comes economics, I follow, amongst others, Paul Mason from Channel 4 TV in the UK and Simon Nixon from the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London. What these two journalists have in common is a passion for Greece and for reporting on the nature of the current Greek crisis and potential – though unknowable – solutions.

Paul MasonMason has taken to vlogging on a daily basis, usually from a cafe with an ATM in view of himself and/or the camera (left). He’s reflective and tries desperately to understand and articulate what is going on and what is needed from both sides to, at least temporarily, avert a potential conflagration across the Eurozone and Europe more generally. It seems to me that his tolerance of the Greek government and its leadership is based on its democratic legitimacy, the flawed logic of austerity as a means to economic growth and, perhaps, the sense that this crisis does have the potential to bring about a change in the global system of sovereign debt relief that, largely, benefits rich countries at the expense of the poor. He is not anti-capitalism.

By contrast, Nixon, is a conservative steeped in the belief in the legitimacy of the global system as it is. The crisis in Greece seems to have brought out worst in him. The tweet below, for example, demonstrates his belief in his own ability to diagnose the problem; namely, Syriza, and Yanis Varoufakis particularly.

So, for Nixon, there seems to be little recognition of any culpability for the previous, seemingly corrupt, Greek governments; the Euro project itself; the EU or monetarism. Only Syriza. My Twitter feed was overwhelmed on Tuesday evening with Nixon’s tweets from the “yes” demonstration in Athens. Whilst it was impressive, it is not surprising that there is a polarisation of opinion and that people take to the streets to express it. It does not make it right or viable. Ultimately we do not know. We cannot know.

Twitter, however, remains the most immediate way of following fast-moving stories.

The Economist would say that, wouldn’t it?

Economist_election_coverRegular readers will know that I recently ended my long-standing subscription to the New Statesman on the grounds of poor writing, bigotry (relating to transgender discrimination) and all-round listnessness and lack of progressiveness. I have maintained my subscription to the Economist on the grounds that one needs to know what the enemy is thinking. Its endorsement of David Cameron and the Conservatives for the election on Thursday 7 May (left) justifies this decision.

Here are some of the arguments presented in favour of a Conservative-led government after 7 May with some easy responses:

1. The Economist says: reducing the deficit is the priority. At 5 per cent of GDP that has to be reduced and public sector cuts are necessary in order to achieve it.

Strassenbahn13 says: the deficit is not the issue. It is a finance question, not an economics question. The economics question says, is the deficit manageable? What economic policies are necessary to ensure growth such that social utility can be maximised across all constituencies? If the deficit is the priority, economics goes out of the window. We have austerity for the sake of it, or to meet the neo-conservative objective of the limited state; that is limited public provision of services ranging from the NHS (ongoing privatisation) and housing (forcing housing associations to sell their assets) to public transport and street cleaning. The deficit does not make us poor. An under-productive, non-inclusive economy that does not make tangible and socially useful products makes us poor. That is the one the Conservatives are promoting.

2. The Economist says: the Conservative’s record in public services is good. People are more satisfied with services such as the NHS than they were before the cuts from the first term in government.

Strassenbahn13 says: essentially, the Conservatives argue that we can have cuts to services without quality being affected, or at least the sense that the quality is diminishing. This is nonsense. The good ratings have been achieved by proud and loyal public-service workers working harder. I am one. I see it every day. The tipping point will come. Just look at Accident and Emergency in hospitals.

3. The Economist says: the UK has a higher proportion of people in work than ‘ever before’.

Strassenbahn13 says: whatever is meant by ‘ever before’, the economy is dependent on low-paid immigrants, zero-hours and temporary employment contracts, insecurity and exploitation.

Here are the arguments against a Labour-led Government made by the Economist with some even easier responses:

1. The Economist says: It is harder to believe Labour will be successful with the deficit. The numbers are ‘vaguer’.

Strassenbahn13 says: As noted above, the deficit is a red-herring. But vaguer than the Tories £8bn savings from some undisclosed source proposed by the Conservatives?

2. The Economist says: tax the entrepreneurs and wealth creators and they will go somewhere else.

Strassenbahn13 says: is that the best argument there is? There is no evidence of this because people come to London in particular not because of the tax rates, rather it is a modern, liberal, tolerant, multi-cultural and global city. Some of them, I would very much welcome to leave. But often their threats are empty. I’m still waiting for that great entrepreneur Paul Daniels to leave after Blair claimed power.

3. The Economist says: Labour believes that living standards are being squeezed because markets are rigged and that the Government can fix them. Markets such as energy (dominated by six big oligopolistic players); zero-hour contracts and housing (private-sector landlords in the ownership of a basic of life and in limited supply).

Strassenbahn13 says: Miliband might just be right by this. Markets are rigged. They are imperfect. They work for some, but most of us are usually fleeced. Regulation is inadequate. And that deficit is caused by market failure, not public-sector workers. Where the Economist wants more markets – particularly in the NHS – most of us want fairness.

4. The Economist says: Labour would have to be in coalition with the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) ‘which leans strongly to the left’. This leads to ‘the certainty of economic damage’ arising from a Labour-led government.

Strassenbahn13 says: I would have thought the certainty was on a future Conservative-led government. Their economics are hugely damaging and the social unrest that these policies may unleash is real. And with less money for the police, that is going to be yet another management challenge (though, presumably, that is why Boris Johnson has bought the water cannon for London?). Actually, a coalition with the SNP seems like a very exciting and progressive option.

For all politicians and commentators – where is climate change?

There’s more, Cameron will push for the legalisation of fox hunting. If ever there was an indicator of a de-civilising policy, that is it. How we treat animals matters in itself. But to openly advocate cruelty to animals as an election promise is positively sickening, if not sick.

And let us not forget that the Conservatives are pathological liars. They have published two ‘independently written’ letters from business people endorsing the Conservatives to have been shown to be dishonest. And then Grant Shapps lying about his business interests and having an unusual relationship with  his own Wikipedia page. What can one say about him, other than he is the Co-chair of the party?

Oh, and, the Conservatives cut the budget for helping refugees crossing the deadly Mediterranean Sea. They have this and other blood on their hands.

I could go on.

Ched Evans – rape and re-habilitation

WH_webI was not going to comment about this case. I’m not particularly qualified in terms of the law and the crime, but three things in particular have prompted this post. First, some background for readers not familiar with the case. Ched Evans was a footballer for Sheffield United, a third league club in England. He was convicted of rape in 2011 and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. He served half of his sentence and is now ‘out’ on licence and seeking to relaunch his football career. It is clear that his old club was keen to take him back, but sponsors pulled out and the negotiations ended. Oldham football club then took up the case and was offered guarantees against losses incurred if sponsors pulled out by Evans’s future father-in-law, Karl Massey, a rather wealthy businessman. That has now fallen through after pressure on the club and its employees. The precise details are unclear. Evans insists he is innocent of rape. He had not offered apologies to his victim whose identity has apparently changed 5 times since the crime. Since the Oldham contract fell through, Evans has now apologised for the effects of his actions, but still protests his innocence. Then yesterday some extraordinary things happened. First, Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers’ Association – the trade union for footballers – likened the case, wrongly, to victims of Steve_Brucethe Hillsborough disaster where 96 people were crushed to death because of police incompetence and then blamed for it after a police cover-up. Taylor has since apologised. Then the Manager of my club, Steve Bruce (right), inexplicably waded in saying that he had looked at the evidence himself and he thinks that there is a case for appeal. Mr Bruce, Hull City are in trouble at the bottom of the league. Concentrate on that, and leave well alone of Ched Evans. And then to make matters worse, a so-called academic – wrongly claiming to be from my university – engages on a debate on the issue and not only advocates for Evans but also says that people from ‘lower classes’ are more likely to engage in criminal acts. On the former he is quoted as saying in the Argus newspaper “it would be ridiculous to allow the conviction to ruin Evans’ career”. All of these three men have one thing in common. They do not get it. At the very least, can I suggest all three listen to the clip from BBC Woman’s Hour. And then listen to it again. I’m not a great fan of Hadley Freeman from the Guardian, but this is as good an exposition as I have heard or read.

. Pictures: top – screen grab from Woman’s Hour website; Steve Bruce: Ronnie Macdonaldhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/ronmacphotos/6270169911/in/photostream

Magazine subscriptions

I subscribe to two weekly magazines – the New Statesman and The Economist. The former for twelve years, the latter perhaps four years. The Economist is an essential read for my work. The New Statesman feeds my interest in political debate. I took up reading it when I ended my daily subscription to the Guardian newspaper.

NS_coverWhen big public holidays arrive, both magazines publish bumper editions – sufficient to keep readers satiated for the two weeks that the magazines are on holiday, as it were. The New Statesman’s bumper edition is, generally, full of pap and even some of my favourite columnists let the side down. This year, for example, Will Self has taken to writing about another columnist in the same magazine! And to make matters worse, when that columnist started a few years ago, I only managed a couple of weeks before I lost the will to read any more, life being too short and all that. Holding the fort are the veterans Peter Wilby and Hunter Davies.

The Economist, however, fills out its pages with features on history, culture and science. Although it is unashamedly Economist_coverconservative, neo-liberal, it is at least well written and thoughtful. Hence I’m prompted to relay one of those features to readers (20 December 2014, pp82-84). It tells the story of the rise of pork as a symbol of affluence in China. It is a favourite food. Seemingly, Chinese citizens eat the equivalent of half a pig each per year (that is 500 million pigs annually). Such is its importance for the Chinese government seeking social stability, it is subsidised to the tune of $22bn per year. However, this leads to environmental and resource challenges.

Most are factory reared. Consequently they are routinely fed antibiotics to stave off disease that could decimate what is increasingly an in-bred, non native pig population. They are mainly fed on cash crops, particularly imported soy beans. These are grown predominantly in South America on land much of which has been cleared of rain forest. Moreover, the Chinese pork industry is responsible for 50 per cent of the total global soy market. Each kilo of pork requires 6kg of feed.

PigThen there is the waste. Each pig produces, apparently, 5kg of waste per day. Traditionally, pig excrement was highly valued as a fertiliser; however, mass produced pigs generate contaminated waste – antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc., not suitable to spreading. There is also too much of it. Pigs and pig waste have become increasing sources of water and soil pollution.

Moreover, the pigs themselves produce methane and nitrous oxide. These are potent greenhouse gases somewhat more damaging than carbon dioxide (300 times more so, it is argued).

I gave up meat 35 years ago. I may give up the New Statesman in 2015.

Nick Robinson and friends

Nick Robinson is a familiar voice and image as the BBC’s political editor. With that, I always thought came responsibility. Of late, Nick Robinson seems to have been pushing the boundaries of his brief. During the Scottish Independence campaign, Robinson was accused of pro-union bias.

But Robinson is increasingly indiscreet when it comes to images of himself. For example, in posing in aRobinson_selfie_1 ‘selfie’ by the Danish PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (right). Essentially, his though must have been that anything that is good enough for President Obama (he had a selfie with Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandala’s funeral) is good enough for him.

Well, maybe, but how does one explain his latest photo opportunity? At the election jayda-fransen-nick_3113661bcount of the recent Rochester By-election in the UK, he allowed himself to be compromised with a shared picture with the fascist candidate Jayda Fransen, of Britain First (left).

He has argued that it was a mistake. He was invited to have his picture taken and without too much thought, he posed. But he is the political editor of the BBC, not some trainee. Moreover, his penchant for photographs featuring himself is worrying.

As for Jayda Fransen, what a coup. Let us not forget, also, that Britain First removed themselves from the ballot paper and pledged support to UKIP so as not to split the right-wing vote.

Picture: Fransen/Robinson, Britain First

 

Wasted time

I regret the time that I have wasted in my life. Time that I could have used productively. But did not. Sitting on the train yesterday, as I often do, heading to my workplace (one hour), I glanced around and saw maybe two-thirds of the people on the train engaged in no activity other than looking around or out of the window. Immediately opposite me was a boy about 12 years’ old, I presumed with his mother. Both were, how I would describe, under-stimulated. I remember being that boy.

Class171Each Class 171 train has 124 seats. The train was full for the whole journey. For sections of the journey, there were people standing. So let us say there were 150 people on the train. If two-thirds were under-stimulated, that means 100 people. That is 6000 minutes going spare, 100 hours.

What could I do with 100 hours? I know that they are not mine to claim. I also realise that it is not for me to tell people what is good for them. However, I wonder whether this issue is not what is good for the individual, but rather society. Not using time productively, arguably, is anti-social?

The obvious activity for this sort of available time is reading. The boy in front of me had no visible reading material with him. He sat there patiently, commenting periodically to his mother about something that he had seen out of the window. I remember being that boy.

When I talk about society benefitting from those lost hours, I do so against the backdrop of what seems to be an almost  global breakdown in2014-07-31 14.02.02 human reason. The situation in Gaza, for example. It troubles me not least because the mis-information is so completely assimilated by our news organisations. It takes a bit of decoding when one is aware of it, let alone when reporting seems ‘balanced’. We are many of us under-informed (I include myself very much in this). Rectifying that would strike me as a good use for those 100 hours.

Picture of Class171: Mackensen

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP)

DRIPThis piece of legislation, pushed through the UK Parliament in 3 days, is wrong in so many respects. Enacted to protect innocent people against terrorists and paedophiles (nice juxtaposition) and supported unconditionally by all three main parties in the Parliament, including the Labour Party, unforgivably.

In this country the police can now demand from suppliers of internet services and mobile phone network operators details of all of my transactions. The police will legally be able to access details of my searches, sites visited and my emails – and all those with whom I engage. They have access to the duration of my visits, conversations, times of those conversations and my location.

So often, one is confronted by the trite response from politicians that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear. One has everything to fear. I am no libertarian, but the state has no right to enter my private space, and that includes my email inbox. I know now that if I, or any others, seek to become a whistleblower against corrupt public or private organisations, including the police, they will be able to find us.

The Open Rights Group is challenging the legislation. They say: “The European Convention of Human Rights, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and our own Human Rights Act – all exist to defend are rights and are where we will be able to challenge DRIP.” They intend to challenge the legality of the legislation in the European Court of Justice. The UK remains a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights for the time being. The Conservative Government is currently composing legislation to undermine its authority over UK legislation – a move that is thought to precipitate the UK’s withdrawal. In Europe, the only non-members are Ukraine and Russia.