Take Me To Your Leader Writer

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...has written more leaders (newspaper editorials) than anyone alive or dead, an honour still to be recognised by the Guiness Book of Records or the Nobel judges. I have produced them for the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Sunday Mirror, Today, the Sunday People, the Evening Post (Hemel Hempstead), the Caithness Courier and the Student (Edinburgh). My creed is: Have opinions, Will travel.

Monday 31 January 2011

Hallo. Hallo. Is anybody there?

Why is Bob Crow so outraged at the thought that his phone may have been tapped? In the old days, it was considered an insult if your phone wasn't bugged.
It wasn't dirty-mac hacks who were doing it then but the security services, desperately trying to keep the nation safe from dangerous Leftists.
Trade unionists, journalists and political activists all had their phones tapped. Even Peter Mandelson, for God's sake.  He certainly has been a threat to the country but not in the way the security services thought he was.
At least journalists might get a story out of listening in to Bob Crow.  Such as him planning to take his wife out for dinner or that there was something wrong with his dog.  The sort of story that would really interest the public.
But what did the security services and police ever think they would learn from listening in on the calls of hundreds, probably thousands, of people considered a threat because they were "Left-wing". (Some of them weren't even that - just thought to be a threat because they held a union post or were a reporter who had been sent to cover Northern Ireland or strikes).
When the late Paul Foot picked up his phone to make or receive a call and heard the tell-tale click that showed someone was listening, he tried to hold a conversation with them.
I'm not defending phone hacking by the News of the World or any other paper but why is that any worse than the illegal phone-tapping by security services that went on for years and probably still does? And has never been criticised by the vast majority of politicians or journalists.

Friday 28 January 2011

Freedom of the press for what?

I spent yesterday at a seminar for journalists organised by the EU's Journalism Network, though the majority of participants weren't from EU countries.
As I listened to how some of them have to work I got the same feeling of inadequacy I do when judging the British Press Awards' Foreign Journalist of the Year.
It is so easy for British journalists compared with those in many other countries, including some in the EU (step forward Hungary, current holder of the EU presidency while installing the most draconian media laws).
So I sat there getting ever more agitated about how we use our freedom and in particular the nature of the stories journalists were after when they hacked into mobile phones.
If they were investigating corruption or criminality, I would defend the practice. But those were hardly the stories they were after from Sienna Miller and her mother, Max Clifford and Graham Taylor, and the doubtless hundreds of other celebrities.
The sheer stupidity of what Clive Goodman did wasn't that he tapped Prince William's phone but that he thought it was worth destroying his life for a "story" about the heir to throne thinking about having acupuncture.
Maintaining the freedom of the press is the most essential defence against despotism, as the experiences of those journalists I listened to yesterday would have made anyone but a despot realise.
But freedom to pursue tittle-tattle about irrelevant people? I don't think so. It gives the politicians itching to control the media, particularly after the expenses exposures, an excuse for cracking down.
The press is its own worst enemy. I have long thought that and finally I may be proved right. Though I hope not.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Black Sky thinking...

The destruction of the BBC World Service - for that is what the 25 per cent cuts there are the start of - is a startling acceptance by the Government that this country is now Little Britain.
It has as much a failing of vision for the UK's place in the world as Richard Lambert says it does of our economic future.
The Tories - and not just the right wing but most of the current crop, including Cameron, Osborne and Hague - hate the EU because they believe we can stand on our own. At least, that is the implication.
But on our own as what? Certainly not as a great power - that went long ago - or even as a significant force in the world, other than to hang on pathetically to the US coat-tails.
We do have some things going for us. Our language, obviously; our culture, including music, films and television (sort of). And we can cling on to what is left of our international reputation despite the worst endeavours of Tony Blair.
That all came together in the World Service, which has a justified reputation for honesty and integrity. That's not good enough for the current Government, though.
The cuts just announced are just the start of it.  In a couple of years the entire burden of funding will be passed from the Foreign Office to the BBC, which will take it on at the same time that it struggles to cope with huge cuts to its own budget.
The World Service will suffer again, instead of the phalanx of human resources managers, press officers and non-creatives which the BBC employs on the Birtian Model. The day can't be far off when the World Service will no longer exist and the BBC will fade into insignificance, to be replaced by Sky.
The Government is working towards that. It will happen in Rupert Murdoch's lifetime, letting him die a happy man.,

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Even they aren't all in this together

Leaders are only as strong as the people around them. That may not have been true in bygone ages but it certainly is now.
The pressures from media and politics are so great that even the most single-minded and determined prime minister is going to be weakened within a unified committed team.
I always thought that Thatcher started to wobble when she lost some of the people who had helped bring her to power and advised her in the early years of her administration. She was left with Bernard Ingham (Good and faithful servant though he was, in Robert Harris's words) and Charles Powell. By 1990 they were too close to her.
The same happened with Blair. For various reasons, those who were the focus of the New Labour project began dropping off. Alastair Campbell, for all his faults, was a crucial part of the team and irreplaceable. So was Anji Hunter. Mandelson went off to Europe. The only one of the orginals at the end was the other Powell.
But with Thatcher and Blair, the process of losing the crucial courtiers took years. Cameron is losing his at an alarming rate and he has only been in power for a few months.
As everyone has said, Andy Coulson is a huge loss but only the week before he lost Paul Brown, his grid keeper. Conor Ryan, who knows about these things, believes this will have catastrophic consequences.
The inner circle has already been reduced to little more than Steve Hilton, who has few political instincts. As the hoo-ha over the collapse of the Big Society shows, the Hilton Big Idea is disappearing fast as the cuts bite.
George Osborne has his own agenda which is diametrically opposed to the Cameron/Hilton one. Nick Clegg has a mini agenda of his own.
No one is pulling together (Gove and Lansley off on ego trips of their own). No one is holding things together. Not only are we not all in this together, they aren't even in this together.

Friday 21 January 2011

A ray of hope on a bad day for politics

One problem with writing leaders is that there are some day on which nothing has happened so there is nothing to write about. Other days there is an abundance of riches. This is one of them.
What should I write on? Coulson? Johnson? Balls? Blair? All worthy subjects crying out for comment. So let's do them all - one par on each.
Andy Coulson: A decent man who ultimately had to go. As I have said before - and as David Cameron virtually said on the Today programme - this is not a press secretary who would do what Alastair Campbell did. Whatever involvement he had in phone tapping at the News of the World, he would have been a responsible and honourable public servant. Unlike Campbell, McBride, Whelan and a few others I could mention. Sad for him that he has gone, very bad news for Cameron and bad, too, for good government.
Alan Johnson: Another decent man who will be a real loss to public life and to Labour. He was a different kind of minister to the intense young things we have become used to. He always gave the impression of looking rather askance at whatever new job he was given, then buckling down and getting on with it rather well. I am sure he would have done the same as Shadow Chancellor. We will never know.
Tony Blair: Each fresh performance becomes even more despicable than the last one. He is so deeply mired in lies, misinformation, distortion and self-justification that blood-pressure-lowering pills should be given out for all who listen to him squirming in front of the Calcutt inquiry. What makes it even more galling is that he is allowed to get away with what he says about weapons of mass destruction, his relationship with Bush and the UN resolution. This is not a decent or honourable man.
Ed Balls: I have not been a fan of his. He was, in some ways, worse than Gordon Brown and his role in keeping Britain out of the euro was shameful, though he boasts of it. Yet now it may be a case of "Cometh the hour, cometh the man." He could be exactly what Labour and the country need in these desperate times.
Ed Miliband and the rest of them have been bullied by the Tories into accepting deep cuts, thus leaving themselves open to the sneering accusation that they don't know what cuts they would make. Balls should stick to his guns (which he does anyway) and insist that the majority of the cuts being made aren't necessary at any time and few of them should be done now.
It has been a dark 24 hours for politics but maybe, just maybe, Ed Balls might be the one ray of hope.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

The stupid party hasn't gone away, you know

The Tories used to be known as the stupid party and one of David Cameron's tasks in changing its public image was to get out the message that the idiots had been replaced by bright young things.
It was never going to happen. It was impossible to get rid of all the old fools and in any case their replacements were mainly silly young things. Their bizarre grasp on reality is made worse by being fed a party line ( a la New Labour) which they only partially grasp and think it substitutes for intelligent debate.
When listening to Graham Stuart on the Today programme this morning I couldn't help thinking that he should be at school - in a remedial class, perhaps - rather than chairing the Children, Schools and Families Committee.
Instead of holding a meaningful discussion with Sally Hunt of the lecturers' union, he fell back on the pathetic one-note line of challenging Labour and the unions to say what their proposals are for cuts to solve the financial crisis "of their making".  Playground politics.
Stuart was defending the Government decision to end Educational Maintenance Allowances, one of the most disgraceful, short-sighted moves even by this administration's standards.
It doesn't make sense in any way and won't save money. It will just drive many young people out of education.
The decision is papered over with the results of a lone, discredited survey which concluded that most of those receiving EMA would continue in education without it. All other investigations, plus the advice of just about everyone running colleges, come to a very different conclusion.
This is not the first time that Graham Stuart has been wheeled out to defend Government policy rather than provide the independent-minded analysis which we should expect from committee chairs.
If this is the result of letting MPs elect the chairmen of Commons committees, let's go back to the old system.

Monday 17 January 2011

The question that didn't bark on the Today programme

John Humphreys missed a trick when he interviewed David Cameron on the Today programme this morning.
On more than one occasion the PM referred with apparent approval to the fact that the UK now spends close to the European average on health care.
You may remember that this was a promise made off the cuff on television by Tony Blair to the annoyance of Gordon Brown. But the promise was kept.
Presumably the huge amounts of extra money poured into the NHS played a significant part in pushing up public spending.  Yet Cameron is always going on about the "structural deficit" caused by Labour's profligacy.
Humphreys should have asked him if he is happy with the level of spending on health - as he appeared to be - and, if so, why he now considers it to be part of an unsustainable deficit.
May I answer for you, Mr Cameron?
It is true that the Labour Government spent money like it was going out of fashion but much of it went where it should go - on health, education and benefits, to name a few. What it didn't do was control how the money was spent. Such as the massive rises given to doctors and dentists, chief officers at local authorities, the people who run universities, an army of press officers and communications staff (several armies, in fact) and so on.
Cameron and his lot don't get it because deep down they are involved in a dogmatic destruction of much of the welfare state rather than curbing public spending in a sensible, contructive and sypathetic way.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Gove bottom in league table of ministers

Has there ever been a more preposterous, out-of-touch Education Secretary than Michael Gove? And that is really saying something considering the track record of some who have held the post.
Even the heads of independent and other academically-focussed schools have said that his Baccalaureate league table is ridiculous.
Gove believes that vocational subjects - which he describes as "soft" - are worthless and that all that matters educationally are strict academic courses.
How does that fit in with what I understood to be the Government's plan for more young people to study vocational subjects? Presumably Gove thinks they should leave school to follow them. Let's lower the school leaving age to 11, then.
We have an Education Secretary who cannot understand that not all young people can cope with strict academic subjects. Just as not all of them can run a mile in under four minutes or perform other athletic feats.
As I have said before, Michael Gove is bonkers yet he has been unleashed on the education system. He is already doing appalling damage to a generation of young people - apart from the lucky minority who conform to his notion of intelligence.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

BBC insults us all, not just women

The victory of Miriam O'Reilly in her age discrimination case against the BBC was followed by inevitable claims that this would change the way television presenters were treated. Dream on.
Television in general and the BBC in particular is obsessed with youth. Rather like the Daily Mirror was during some of the time I was there.
Yet the bulk of those who watch TV - and who read newspapers - are older. A fascinating survey which I saw in The Guardian a couple of years ago showed that the average age of those who watch television at peak viewing times is well into the 50s. The average age. (Newspaper readership is even older: hence the success of the non age-obsessed Daily Mail.)
That doesn't mean younger people shouldn't appear on TV - of course they must - but it does mean viewers aren't turned off by older presenters. And, naturally, the ones who get kicked out are always women.
Miriam O'Reilly seemed to me to be the right sort of presenter on Countryfile and the audience it was aimed at. But presumably the Jay Hunters who moved the programme to a peak time thought they needed to turn it into a teenyboppers version because viewers at that time are too stupid to accept a slightly older woman.
That's not just insulting to women but to all of us.

Footnote: Reports of the O'Reilly industrial tribunal result mysteriously don't appear on the BBC website.

Our lack of understanding is another bonus for bankers

If I remember correctly, it was part of the research for the Polly Toynbee/David Walker book which produced some fascinating polling on what people thought the average wage was.
The more someone earned, the higher they believed the norm was. City types, rolling in their big salaries and even bigger bonuses, assumed that the average income was close on £100,000.
Perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that those on huge incomes have no idea how ordinary people live, especially ones on low wages. But I have come to the conclusion that the reverse is true, also.
Ordinary people - and I include the middle classes - don't really grasp how the very rich live.
Most of us don't know what we would do with a big Lottery win. So how can we imagine winning the Lottery every year. Year after year. Money for those who are on that gravy train is simply meaningless by the standards of the huddled masses.
How many homes do you need? Cars? Holidays? Servants?
Remember, these are mainly not people who grew up like that but the ones lucky enough to have taken a particular fork in the road when they started work. The fork which was signposted: This way to investment banking.
The British people are cross but they aren't so angry that they will take to the streets or absolutely demand that the Government stops the rabid bonus culture.
Is it because they have fallen for the coalition - and New Labour - nonsense that the billions poured in to save the banks was due to an international Act Of God. Or is that they just don't grasp how the bankers are taking the piss at our expense?

Monday 10 January 2011

Schizophrenic politics: Part Two

A couple of weeks ago this blog wondered how liberals could reconcile taking a hard line on men who take sexual advantage of women while at the same time defending Julian Assange from the thinkly disguised political attack on him and WikiLeaks.
Now here is another conundrum, this one for the Right.
They are always banging on about the dangers of too much freedom of speech infecting the brains of the young and the unbalanced. Clause 28 was imposed on schools because of the terrible threat that children could be turned into homsexuals simply by having it explaned to them.
Similarly they blame the liberal media (such as it is) for unleashing a flood of pornography and violence on the nation by dealing with it in an open way.
So presumably they would abhor anyone who encouraged launching a violent attack on politicians.
Afraid not - at least, not when the person doing the attacking is Sarah Palin.
Two months after she produced advertising with gun sights superimposed on various liberal Democrats, one of them has been shot through the head and nearly killed.
Yet the Right has risen up to protest that it is not Palin's fault nor Fox News's, nor any other ultra commentators.
The person who shot Gabbi Giffords is clearly deranged but would he have done it without being urged to by Palin?
If he wasn't affected by her blatant incitement, why should anyone else, stable or unstanble, be encouraged to do anything they wouldn't have done anyway?

Friday 7 January 2011

Empty homes, vacant politics

The Daily Mail today reports that 30 squatters - mainly young people from Lithuania and Poland - have taken over a ten-room mansion in Highgate. Outrage!
Personally, I agree that the law on squatters is a mess. In the highly unlikely situation that my home is squatted in while I am on holiday or away for the weekend, there ought to be swifter redress.
But squatting remains very much a rare occurence.  The real question to be asked - and which, naturally, the Mail doesn't - is why this home was empty. Like tens of thousands of properties up and down the country.
There is a housing crisis in Britain and the right-wing press loves to claim it is all the fault of immigrants. Absolute nonsense. The varied causes include a growing elderly population and increasing marriage break-up.
But one major reason is that far too many homes are kept empty, often because the owners live elsewhere or have more houses than they can occupy or are simply what I call "trophy homes" - something to boast about but not to reside in.
The former LibDem MP Matthew Taylor produced an excellent report on the crisis in rural housing for the Blair government. His main recommendation - that when properties changed hands they should be liable to a change of use planning application if they weren't going to be lived in - was naturally ignored.
That mansion in Highgate left empty by its TV mogul owner could have been turned into flats that would have housed people desperate for housing. Even if they had been Lithuanian, the Mail wouldn't have had much to complain about then.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Prepare to shed them now

The first lesson of life is that however bad you think it is now, things are going to get worse.
Just when it seemed that the apoplexy level couldn't get higher, out come the latest earnings figures.
In case you missed them - and you may have done if you weren't listening to the Today programme this morning, as they don't appear on the BBC website, or PoliticsHome or anywhere else I have searched - here they are. Those of a sensitive disposition may care to look away now.
Average earnings have increased by 2.2 per cent. This is a rise from the previous figure of 2 per cent, so hurrahs all round - except for the many people who got less, including those who received nothing.
Now comes the real story. Over the same period, the income of directors went up by 55 per cent. No, that isn't a typo. Not 5 per cent but FIFTY FIVE per cent. I make this 2,500 times more than the rises bestowed on their grateful employees.
Let us put this in context. No, not the context that the poor dears didn't get much last year because their companies had suffered in the recession. The workers didn't get much, either - in fact, they got a lot less even then than the the fatcats who employ them.
The context I mean is that bosses currently receive something like 80 times more than the lowest paid in their companies. So they now get 55 per cent more of that obscene figure. I suppose I could work out what it means in precise financial terms but my head aches just thinking about it.
And the apoplexy level has just burst off the scale.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Two very dark knights

Can I be the only person who wants the House of Lords to continue pretty well in its current form yet would abolish the honours system?
Giving people knighthoods and other baubles is absurd. Ordinary people who achieve something remarkable can be rewarded in other ways and the rich and famous who are the main beneficiaries can luxuriate in their self-importance without having "Sir" before their name or a few letters after it.
Every honours list contains some people whose inclusion is an insult to the system but the award of knighthoods at the new year to Roger Carr and Martin Broughton is about as low as it can get.
Carr is the chairman of Centrica, owners of British Gas which is currently inflicting huge price increases on its customers while enjoying the benefits of  a huge decrease in the wholesale price of gas.
Millions of people will suffer and the elderly, poor and those with large families will be in crisis. Meanwhile Carr will be able to toss another servant on the fire in his mansion if the temperature drops.
Broughton is the chairman of British Airways, a company which has done more to damage this country's name than BP. It treats its customers with contempt. Does he not bear any of the responsibilty for that?
Apparently not, according to whoever it is awards knighthoods.
Both Carr and Broughton are said to be outstanding businessmen. The real reason they have been made Sirs, though, is the help they have given to the Conservative Party.
Wonderful system, isn't it?