Gale`s Westminster View – July, 2011.
July. Feel the heat. And the horror. Drought, pestilence, starvation and death in the Horn of Africa. The Euro heading for meltdown. O`Bama on the financial ba-rack.Britons are swinging the lead and work-shy. A spot of bother in the Westminster Media City as the Murdochs face the music in the Culture, Sport and Media. A thrice-censured Home Affairs Select Committee Chairman offers a grandstand view of the Metropolitan Police. And parliament celebrates its fastest recall ever.
With, at the time of writing, a couple of hundred thousand refugees having crawled through their desertified lands to reach refugee camps in Eastern Kenya, with a sticking plaster cosmetically covering the gaping wound in the PIIGS economies of Europe and with the world`s most powerful nation on the very brink of economic default a Martian might be forgiven for wondering why the Palace of Varieties has chosen to spend most of its political month, up to and including dragging the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom back from an important visit to a starving continent, distracted by the thought that News International in particular and the Diaspora of Fleet Street in general have been prying into people`s private lives, bank accounts and the high-tech equivalent of dustbins – phone messages. Forgive me, please, if I leave these peelings until their proper priority at the very bottom of the garbage bag of news.
Life and death matter. The drought in the Horn of Africa has been on the radar screens for months. It is more than a year since the refugees began to arrive, from Somalia and the Sudan, at refugee camps in Eastern Kenya. All of the warning signs have been there but it is only when the European media has nothing more politically squalid to focus upon that the images of desperate mothers and emaciated and dying babies appear on our television screens that the western world flickers an eyelid and begins to take a smidgen of notice.
Is that too cynical? I think not. My good friend, the Chief Executive of SPANA (The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad), Jeremy Hulme, was in similar camps well over a year ago when the very first arrivals, still there today, were being sustained by overseas aid because in our wisdom the relief charities concentrate their efforts upon saving today children that will without much question, die tomorrow. Within the Disasters Emergency Committee (Chief Executive Mr. Brendan Gormley) there is not one represented charity specialising in the preservation of livestock or working animals and, without those beasts, those fleeing desolation have absolutely no livelihood to return to.
It is now the best part of five years since Jeremy and I first called to see the then Secretary of State for Overseas Development, Hilary Benn, to press the case for the need to represent livestock on the DEC. On the basis, I assume, of what I have, I hold” there is still no such representation but very recently Mr. Gormley, on behalf of the now considerably expanded DEC charities, has said that Their crops, their livestock and their homes have been taken by drought”. Swap drought” for flood” and a year on you will find that millions living in rural communities in Pakistan still have no means of earning a living or of providing for themselves because they have lost the goats, and mules, and cattle, and chickens upon which they depend for their survival.
One day those in power will wake up to the reality that a future” means being self -sufficient. Until then I am devoting my own efforts and donations not upon response to the vastly expensive fund-raising activities of the DEC charities but upon Medicins sans Frontiers, SPANA (of which I declare an interest as a Trustee) and other livestock-related charities.
May we, in polite company, talk about the future of the Euro? Brussels, demanding a 100billion rise in its budget contributions, insists that this is not a rise”. The word cut” does not, as I took the opportunity to suggest at the last plenary session of the Council of Europe, appear in the European lexicon. Which is why, of course, the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) are wallowing in financial swill while requiring the more still-solvent of Euro-nations to bail them out. We have, throughout this past month, been teetering on the brink of the failure of a currency” to which, happily, we do not subscribe. Unfortunately, however, those of our national banks that we have spent so much of our taxes bailing out (to what purpose?) have put our shirts on some of this European debt to the tune of about £214 billion. We therefore have what might be described as an interest” in this pantomime horse race.
It has been a toss up, for weeks, which of the spendthrift nations would make the first critical demands. Initially it looked like Italy, then Ireland and Portugal out of the traps but it was finally the home of the historic Olympics, Greece, that made the running. The choices? One hundred billion over the next three years or default upon a two hundred and ninety billion debt and the withdrawal of that country from the euro zone. Say it fast enough and it hardly makes you blink. The seventeen eurozone countries have, inevitably, come up with a 96.3 billion rescue package, underwritten largely by Germany, that has rearranged the deckchairs while the euro-Titanic, instead of taking a bow-first plunge, settles gracefully holed below the waterline. As a precautionary measure extended credit lines” have also been offered to Italy and Spain. Which is why the IMF has indicated that France, as one of the underwriters, may shortly find its credit rating cut. How long will the eurozone or, indeed, the euro itself, survive? Faites vos jeux.
On the other side of the pond there is trouble at t`hill. As I write, and of course this will change within the next forty-eight hours, the United States America, Land of the Free and home of Capitalism, is about to discover that having racked up so many trillions of dollars of debt that even my framed Robert Mugabe banknotes suddenly seem valuable, cannot pay its pensioners or its welfare benefits or, more significantly, its frontline soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Buddy can you spare a bullet”? suddenly seems like a realistic proposition. We are told that it is the bright young (Republican) things of the Tea Party that are holding the Greatest Nation on Earth to ransom and this has prompted St Vincent of Cable, no less, to describe them as Right-wing nutters who are a risk to the economy”. You would expect a fellow-travelling liberal to say that but it does seem to me that what is actually being sought is a plan to cut profligate vote-buying public spending, reduce the deficit and set an economy that is at present stagnant back on the road to recovery. If what is on offer is a six-month deal that falls, inconveniently, due for renewal in Borat O`Bama`s election year and if this economic embarrassment has caused fears for his Presidency”, as we are told, then that in itself might just concentrate a few hitherto high-public-spending minds. More tea, Mr. President?
Not that our own economy is precisely where Dave and George might like it to be. Our population growth is at its highest for fifty years which, if they can find jobs, might mean that one day there may be more young working people to contribute to an economy that is, at present, trying to support the aged. A third of today`s graduates, though, are taking non-degree jobs and the business community has informed the Secretary of State for Work and pensions that Britons are lazy. Faced with a round of public-sector strikes IDS suggests that the British have lost the work ethic as it is revealed that, contrary to popular and trades union misrepresentation, public sector salaries are in fact in the region of 8% higher than private sector incomes.
Into this equation Mr The Legacy” Blair injects the helpful thought that Gordon Brown wasted his legacy” and that from 2007 Labour lost the driving rhythm”. That, presumably, will be the rhythm” that feathered his own nest and from under which the results of the Chilcott inquiry is very likely to pull the rug – but more of that next month. And talking of fiddling while Rome burns it is comforting to know that the Governor of the Bank of England found it possible to spend a whole six days watching tennis at Wimbledon. Twitter and blackberries must be a godsend if you are trying to run the nation`s finances from a seat on Centre Court. Running finances, of course, is what Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs are trying unsuccessfully to do. The Treasury Select Committee has announced what, to those of us dealing with constituency mailbags have known for months: HMRC is a badly managed failing organisation incapable of responding efficiently to telephoned or written enquiries from tens if not hundreds of thousands of taxpayers `and not fit for purpose. The boss, one Mike Clasper, says that he is sorry. The real question is what on earth are he and his modest army of highly-paid and, so far as I can ascertain, incompetent, Departmental Directors, still doing drawing their BBC executive-sized salaries.
The BBC itself claims to have reduced executives` pay by 43% This means that the Director General, Mark we have failed to address the issue of immigration” Thompson, is, instead of trousering – I hesitate to say earning” - the £838 thousand that he received in 2009/2010,now pocketing, before tax, something like a mere £616 thousand pounds or more than three times the salary drawn by the Prime Minister. Lord (Chris) Patten, the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, has indicated that he wishes to create a BBC that stands up for the silent majority” and I wish him well in that endeavour. The silent majority believes, I think, that there are far too many BBC executives that do not contribute to the programme-making process but earn far too much and that not all of the BBC`s star” performers earning more than half a million pounds a year (Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight, falling ratings, £800 thousand a year, for example) are worth their modest crust.
The BBC`s Director General has not ruled out the cutting of a television or radio channel to meet the real-terms reduction in license fee that the Corporation over which he presides faces. The fact that he takes responsibility for squandering millions of pounds transferring productions from purpose-built and perfectly serviceable facilities in London to the Media City” in Salford Quay (Jeremy Clarkson: Salford is nowhere near any court that matters”) might have something to do with the deficit. The sad fact is that it will almost certainly be the candle-ends of broadcasting, local radio and television services, that will bear a disproportionate amount of the pain while the fat-cat services and expenses of the metro-centric executive will remain. What is needed in short order, Lord Patten, is a new Director General.
And some ties. Why, when the mourning nation of Norway, reeling in the aftermath of a horrific bombing and slaughter spree perpetrated by an amok serial killer, was gathered in worship to pay homage to their dead and their bereaved , were the BBC`s reporters covering the event not able to turn themselves out respectfully dressed? Tired and harrowed they may have been but surely even in this day and casual age a little courtesy and attention to detail might have been appropriate?
Standards of journalism leads us back to the kangaroo in the room. Or hackgate” as the press so creatively dubs the story”.
I have been a public critic of the Murdoch empire since the day when The Sun decided that it was in order to break the long-standing embargo and to publish the text of the Queen`s Christmas speech two days before the broadcast. The paper`s action was crass and a gross discourtesy to Her Majesty but as important to me was the realisation that an American Australian Republican newspaper-seller so clearly felt that he was sufficiently powerful to be able to flout our traditions and customs with impunity. That is why I am on the official record, in Broadcasting Bill debates, opposing News International`s satellite ambitions.
I am surprised, though, that anyone else should be surprised that the Diaspora of what used to be known as Fleet Street” should have descended from the gutter of salaciousness into the sewer of gross intrusion into the privacy and grief of those bereaved by murder of terrorism. Once you decide that anything goes” then there are literally no depths to which some will sink.
And it was one such depth, and the public exposure of the fact that a man in the employ of Mr. Murdoch has hacked into, and altered, the mobile phone messages of missing, found murdered, schoolgirl Millie Dowler that finally mobilised public opinion against the press.
We should not allow ourselves to be beguiled by the sanctimonious attitude of other newspapers into believing that the excesses that have now been revealed have been confined to Mr. Murdoch`s titles alone. The technology may have changed but I doubt that there is a single national newspaper, down to and including The Guardian and The Observer, that has not either directly or through hired help, waved chequebooks, scoured dustbins, tapped or eavesdropped upon private telephone conversations or peered through telephoto lenses in the course of gathering information that, they will always claim is in the public interest”.
The public interest” defence wears pretty thin and even in the hands of The Telegraph, The Times or The Independent, has become a euphemism for interesting to the public”. In other words, in a dog-eat-dog world, it sells newspapers.
But while the other” media – which includes the left-wing Guardian, the bourgeois Mail and the socialist BBC – have been engaged in considerable glee at the discomfiture of Mr. Murdoch and his family and red-headed acolytes, they are now also watching in some distress at the realisation that the wind that they have sown is likely to reap a regulatory whirlwind and that the scrawny birds that they have sought to pass off as chickens are coming home to roost.
In The Mail one Mr. Stephen Glover opines that Democracy will pay a heavy price for Mr. Cameron`s terrible judgement” while others bleat that This Scandal Must Not Be Allowed To Destroy The Press”. No, my friends of the Fourth Estate, it was not the Prime Minister`s hiring of ex News of The World Editor Andrew Coulson, The Milipede`s employment of Murdoch Man” Tom Baldwin or even the incestuous relationships of the Chipping Norton Triangle” that have brought the press low. It is your own dishonest, self-serving, immoral, amoral, destructive, prurient, self-righteous, sometimes downright criminal charade that has brought us to this pass.
The self-regulation of the Press Complaints Commission has been the matter of criticism and a busted flush for years. The resignation of Baroness Buscombe, the recipient of the honorarium at the time that the music stopped, is far too little and far, far too late. Self-regulation by a body financed by the press, owned by the press and the creature of the press has failed. That newspapers have bought” a few corrupt police officers will come as no great revelation to anyone who has made the simple connection between some political and showbiz” scandals and Scotland Yard and the mere fact that the ex-Commissioner of the Met Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, should have found it appropriate to take a recuperative freebie at a health farm following an operation should have sent out alarm signals – at least to those who were hired to guard his back.
The demise of The News of The World as a title following an exodus of its advertisers from the stinking ship, , the arrest of Mr, Coulson and Rebekah Brooks-Wade, the insipid inquisition, by some members of the DCMS select committee, of Clan Rupert and the equally ineffective but rather more self-important interrogation of senior police officers by The Home Affairs committee team will have made, I suspect, no more real impact upon the public than the Westminster Village obsession with who knew what when” amongst senior politicians, who kissed whose backside (remember Koala Blair and the flight of fancy to Australia?) and which senior police officers will be tasked with the duty of feeling other officers` collars. Parliament was recalled” for a day after the formal end of term in order that Man David, having cut short his visit to an Africa currently under Chinese domination, could make his case to parliament. Two inquiries, under the Chairmanship and guidance of Judge Leveson, are now in hand and in the fullness of time some, at least, of the facts behind this unedifying saga may emerge.
In the meantime we have to consider another question.
A free democracy does need a free press. Those of us who have spent a little parliamentary time working as international election observers in hot, sweaty and sometimes hazardous locations around the world have propagated that message over and over again. Freedom, though, carries with it the burden of responsibility.
The clamour is indeed for more regulation and those newspapers (including the Daily Mail as well as the Sun, The Mirror and other tabloids) who have found it necessary to pay damages in respect of unfounded and completely scurrilous stories relating to a man who did not commit a murder in Bristol might reflect upon the fact that they do not make the law, they are not responsible for the law and that, from now forwards, unless their stories are double-checked and copper-bottomed they would do well not to leap into print. And for the record I hope that the Mirror and Sun journalists responsible for the worst excesses in that particular case, and guilty of contempt of court, receive exemplary custodial sentences.
What is actually needed, though, is not more regulation but a better enforcement of existing law and guidelines and the replacement of the feeble Press Complaints Commission with a body wholly independent of the media and politicians and with the power to impose penalties and sanctions up to and including real fines and the suspension, if appropriate, of publication. We have to establish a proper balance between the right to investigate and to hold the venal, the corrupt and the criminal (including newspaper proprietors and trustees) to account and an ordinary citizen`s right to privacy without unlawful or unreasonable intrusion. What we do not need is another overweening, costly, bureaucratic institution staffed by the Quango Kings and Queens of Whitehall. The Independent Press Standards Authority” has the unfortunate initials IPSA!
Having campaigned before the European Court of Human Rights for the right of prisoners to vote in elections convicted murderer John Hirst is back before the same court complaining that prison pay may be docked to pay compensation to the victims of crime. Over my dead body, anybody?
Mr. Rio Ferdinand, a soccer player, does not believe that footballers should be required to serve as role models. I share his view. You cannot expect a man whose chief skill is the ability to kick a ball about a bit to set an example can you? So let`s cut the role-model stuff and apply a commensurate reduction in the weekly salaries as well. Payment for ball-games rather than celebrity seems okay to me. How about £100 per week?
`Elf and safety moves in mysterious ways. A massage parlour, curiously equipped with manacles and chains, has been closed by the authorities – because of high risk environment with low lighting” and the lack of a fire escape. Inspecting officers couldn`t take the heat? And President Berlusconi intends to stand down in 2013. I cannot think what made the connection between those two snippets of gossip.
After 67 years London`s Ritz Hotel, having survived the Blitz and the predations of boisterous and unruly guests is, following last season`s street riots, replacing its famous revolving doors with the more secure sliding variety. I`m sure those revolving masterpieces could find a suitable resting place just down the road – in Whitehall.
More safety but less `elf from Bridgend, Glamorgan, where the Council have expended one hundred thousand ratepayers` pounds constructing a footpath from the school gates to the local MacDonald’s, presumably so that pupils can take the half-mile walk to their fast-food without risk. Might have made more sense to allow Mac to open a franchise in the school.
Brussels wants to impose fines upon museums, galleries, theatres and the like that, having received largesse from the European coffers then fail to fly the European flag. We have to hope and pray that Thomas Lord`s cricket field does not, ever, take money from the wretched Union. Gin and seizures all round if the blue rag ever flies above the pavilion. Time to leave?
Shepperton, Surrey, home of studios and stars, is in the news. The WI have been banned, by Spelthorne Council, from tending the flowers that adorn the village`s memorial roundabout in case they are run over”. Too dangerous to cross the Yellow Brick Road.
The removal of the outrageous travellers` camp from Dale Farm in Essex was delayed this month. While the bailiffs were given `cultural awareness training`.
A 71 year old grandmother, Mrs. Spoor, has been tagged by a court following a conviction for failing to have her ageing canine companion, Dexter, put to sleep. I am not in a position to dispute that poor Dexter may have been past his sell-by date and I hold no brief for the neglect of dogs but was it really necessary to take this elderly lady to court at all? The prosecuting RSPCA says that the penalty, imposed by the court, is nothing to do with them. I have terminated my longstanding membership of the RSPCA.
Display of the Duchess of Cambridge`s wedding dress upon a headless mannequin has prompted Her Maj to describe the exhibit as Horrid. Horrible. It has been made to look very creepy”. Exactly so. On with her head!
The Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Gove, applauds the fact that the assimilation of Latin in Comprehensive Schools is at its highest level ever. Bring back the Grammars, Michael, and you will re-build Rome.
Trebles all round. The BBC received 179 Centre Court and Court One tickets, worth about £14K, for Wimbledon. These were distributed to 119 BBC senior employees and their guests in order that the head honchos might participate in working visits to understand further how BBC Sport`s multi-platform production operates”. It might be illuminating to ask each one of them to pen one side of foolscap on the subject.
Notice following a mischievous announcement thought to have originated in a part of Downing Street: Mr Speaker has not received an invitation to go to Afghanistan and has no plans to visit Afghanistan”. Order!
After far too many years the reputations of the two Chinook pilots who, with their seventeen senior officer passengers, crashed to their deaths in 1994, have been restored. They were not responsible for the loss of their aircraft. Justice delayed is justice denied but very much better than no justice at all. Now for a reinvestigation of the loss of the Sea King helicopters that were lost at the very start of the Iraq war.