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Boris and the BBC

In Home Affairs, The Media on May 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

Boris Johnson, now that he has safely returned to the Mayoralty, launched a devastating attack this morning on the BBC. Read it here. “It’s statist, defeatist, leftist,” splutters Johnson from the top of that red Curly Wurly in London, the ArcelorMittalOrbit (see picture).

Boris was more impressed with a giant red Curly Wurly than the BBC

Boris goes so far to suggest that a free-market loving, Eurosceptic Tory be given the reins. Well, aside from the fact that the BBC is already run by a Tory, Chris Patten, this won’t actually change anything. The BBC has a culture produced by its secure bastion of public funding, its privileged position in the media market and the sort of people that work for it.

You see, the BBC is run from the public purse by way of the license fee. The £145 or so everyone who has a TV pays to watch a TV. The BBC therefore has a guaranteed source of income. It also has editorial independence, so it can be as bold as it likes when it produces programmes. Where Boris sees impracticalities in the BBC Arts Editor’s response that the Curly Wurly ought to be ‘taller’ and ‘free’, the BBC clings to this noble ideal that tall things can really be both tall and free at the same time; that programmes can be state of the art and hard hitting while being ‘free’ for the taxpayer.

But of course, the BBC isn’t free. We all know that. We’ve even said that already. It costs everyone £145 per year to fund the BBC. That funding is ring-fenced. It’s a reassuringly large and certain stream of income, one that other competitors in the media market don’t have. Where everyone else has to rely on advertising revenue, which is awarded in proportion to viewing figures, the BBC can afford to produce niche programmes like See Hear that would never be viable in the big wide world of the market.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s really good that we have a public service broadcaster that produces programmes like See Hear. Programmes which inform and challenge and provide a genuine public service. But much of what the BBC does not provide a public service that the market does not already provide. Whilst I’m sure fans of both series will disagree vehemently, Eastenders and Coronation Street are pretty much the same thing. Sky News does pretty much what BBC News 24 does. Heart and BBC Radio 1 are pretty much indistinguishable.

This creates a problem. The stability of the BBC in the market makes it difficult for non-BBC competitors to break into the market. Take current affairs radio. BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live have pretty much cornered that market. Iain Dale makes a valiant effort on LBC. But that doesn’t serve outside London. The status of programmes like Question Time (BBC 1), the Andrew Marr show (BBC 1) and Newsnight (BBC 2) (not to mention the Daily Politics, This Week &c) mean that anyone with any serious interest in public affairs is glued to various BBC outlets for much of their waking life. Tim Montgomerie has done more research than I can comfortably conceive to show that the BBC enjoys an effective monopoly on Radio, TV and online coverage. Put aside the argument that the BBC exhibits biases for one moment. If this sort of monopoly was held by a private sector news agency, even one that had neutrality written into its memoranda and articles, regulators would be profoundly unhappy with it.

Now, I don’t particularly want to wade into the debate about BBC bias. I think Boris is quite close to the truth when he says that the BBC’s public funding creates a culture which favours left-liberal ideas. Andrew Marr has further noted that, since the BBC hires a disproportionate number of LGBT people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and young people, the ethos of the BBC will be unconsciously skewed towards left-liberal views. Jeff Randall, its former business editor has made similar remarks. As has Antony Jay (£), writer of Yes Minister. As has Rod Liddle, former editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme. As has Peter Sissons, former news anchor. People criticise the BBC for being too right-wing, such as MediaLens, though these voices are much quieter and by far in the minority. But the flow of criticism that the BBC is biased against centre-right views is sustained enough and vocal enough to have undermined trust in the Corporation.

But Boris’ solution is wrong. The solution is not to appoint a Tory. Firstly, because that’s already been attempted several times, and hasn’t got very far, but, more importantly, because it overtly politicises an institution that is, at worst, only subconsciously politicised, and ought to be neutral.

So here are three solutions. The first is to make the BBC subject to media regulators and competition law. The thought behind this is that the effective monopolies the BBC has on radio particularly, but to a lesser extent TV and online, are squeezing out other players in the market. The more players there are in this market, the broader the range of views and sources available; the more people will be able to vary their viewing. In a well-functioning market, competition also acts as a spur for all competitors to do better, improving the overall quality of, in this case, broadcasting.

Second, offer programmes which are a public service, but too niche to survive in the market, such as perhaps ‘See Hear’ or ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ to the wider market. If the BBC can make a programme for deaf people, so can Sky or C4. They might even be better at it. Contracts could be tendered for a year and sold to the broadcaster with the best proposals for using a designated funding grant from government. The government should also ensure that they go out on terrestrial channels (or when the digital switchover is complete, Freeview channels), since the public service element shouldn’t require additional payment above and beyond existing taxes.

Which leads me on to my third, most radical idea. Abolish the license fee and find the money by a rise in income tax. Why should we do this? Firstly, it is an effective tax cut of £145 for anyone who doesn’t earn enough to pay income tax; the very poorest in our society. Secondly, it removes the injustice of what is essentially a poll tax, paid with no regard to people’s income. Thirdly, some people make perfectly valid complaints about how they’re paying the license fee to watch ITV or C4 and never watch the BBC, yet still have to pay to fund the BBC. Why should access to ITV and C4 be contingent on paying for the BBC? Access to the BBC is certainly not contingent on paying for ITV. Either the license fee should be distributed around all the terrestrial channels, or there should be no license fee.

One other advantage of moving the BBC from the license fee to general taxation is that it will appear on the government’s wonderful new tax returns, which show where the tax is going and in what proportion. The BBC had a budget of £3bn last year. It’s trivial compared to welfare at just shy of £200bn. But allowing people to see how much the BBC costs them relative to say, healthcare or education might make them question if they really value it. It might make the people who want to see the BBC fully privatised decide that it’s really not that much money to pay for no adverts on TV, Radio and Online, with generally good content. It might even make the BBC staff realise that big and brilliant things can’t really be had for free.

So there’s the manifesto for the BBC. Competition and regulation, individual public service broadcast contracts and the abolition of the license fee. The BBC still has its funding and the independence to make brilliant programmes (above and beyond the programmes the government directly commissions). But this way, it’s fairer, clearer, and allows for much greater media plurality. Even Boris can’t be against that.

A Collection of Thoughts

In Economy, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media, Uncategorized on December 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

By polarii for the Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

So here’s time for a big apology to any regular readers – between us all at the Daily Soapbox, we haven’t had any time to put down some ideas for a blog post. That’s not for want of things to say (and how much we have wanted to say!), but for lack of time. So it’s our fault for not finding time. Sorry.

If you want the blog to be fuller, and you enjoy what you read, and maybe even reckon you could do better, why not join us? Email: dingdongalistic@gmail.com and we’ll set you up as the latest Soapbox contributor.

So to kick us back off, here’s a couple of thoughts from my ice cave in the Arctic… or Germany, as everyone outside the BBC calls it.

Euroscepticism

Why has everyone forgotten Cameron is a bona fide Eurosceptic in his own right? Sure, he doesn’t foam at the mouth with quite the aplomb of Daniel Hannan, but this is a good thing. In the Conservative leadership election (in the heady days of 2005), he was elected on and later delivered a promise to take the Conservative party out of the EPP and form a soft-eurosceptic bloc, which was further than David Davis (who is more ‘right-wing’) was prepared to go. While ConHome and others have been whingeing about the lack of a referendum, Cameron has managed to a) move the European issue to a more central stage while b) uniting his historically divided party behind a moderate Eurosceptic stance and c) not banging on about it. Clever or what?

A further thought: Labour wouldn’t have signed up to these agreements either, but that’s not half the fun of it. These agreements will enforce a statutory deficit-limit stricter than the ones in the Maastricht Treaties. The Maastricht Limit is 3% of GDP, so presumably the Merkozy limit will be 2% or 2.5%. But Labour’s ‘Darling Plan’, even on their own (overly optimistic) reckoning, will only halve the deficit over four years. Our deficit is currently about 10% of GDP. In the event that Britain was bound by the Maastricht or Merkozy Treaties, Labour would have no plan to bring the deficit within the legal limits. Brussels would throw Labour’s budget back in their faces, impose hefty fines, and tell them to follow Osborne’s plan. Now who thinks Merkozy’s scheme is in our national interest?

Euro

The charge levelled against Cameron is that he has left Britain without allies. This is, of course, untrue, because most every country outside the EU is taking a position very similar to Britain’s, especially the United States.

But even within Europe, he isn’t as isolated as some claim. Mads Persson correctly notes that the Irish, French, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles all have not insignificant problems with the agreement as posed (see also this surprisingly excellent Indy graphic). But then, let’s look at some other countries, particularly Italy and Greece. There have been close votes in both parliaments on European issues, and it is not an unreasonable parliamentarian who, having been subjected to EU budget targets for the next ten years, objects to handing over control of their country’s budgets over to the EU for the rest of history. Rebellious parliaments can rebel again, and it’s hard not to imagine Eurosceptic parties like LAOS (Greece) and Lega Nord (Italy) doing quite well in upcoming elections. Of course, I could be completely wrong. But I wouldn’t write anything off either.

BBC

In case you missed the gratuitous sideswipe at the BBC in the preamble, it’s coming again. If you didn’t miss it in the preamble, I am actually going to make a point. The BBC is getting into the habit of presenting things out of context. I’m normally annoyed that the BBC displays institutional (but not conscious) bias against Conservatives and Christians, but others complain about biases in other directions, which I assume means the BBC is doing a decent job (since it’s clearly not doing an atrocious one).

However, there were two glaring errors in this week’s programming. The first was coverage of Cameron’s veto. The one report suggested that the EU was suggesting the UK was separate and even inferior because Cameron was the last to sign Croatia’s accession agreement. The context: all countries sign in alphabetical order. The United Kingdom, being the last country alphabetically in the EU, signed it last. Snub? Hardly.

The other error caused me less apoplexy, but the public more. David Attenborough juxtaposed an Arctic female polar bear making an ice-den (in which polar bears give birth to their cubs) with some polar bear cubs in a den in a zoo in Germany. The seamless transition implied to many people that the BBC was actually filming wild polar bear births. Which is stupid because the cameraman would certainly have his head bitten off if that were the case. Nonetheless, in both cases, the BBC failed to properly explain the context of what was going on, and in each case, their coverage suffered because of it. The BBC is slowly metamorphosing into an institution that doesn’t care about the truth, rather sensationalism.

Leveson

Did you know who Neville Thurlbeck was before the Leveson inquiry? If you did, you read the News of the World regularly. Shame on you (unless you were his colleague or his relative).

On a serious note though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public doesn’t care. This was evident because, although Ed Miliband made hay with it during the summer, the polls didn’t budge. And neither BBC Parliament nor Sky News is broadcasting Leveson live. It’s a Westminster Village thing.

Miliband

Ed Miliband is a completely unsuitable leader of the Labour party. Everyone who wasn’t in the Labour party knew this as soon as he was elected, yet only now have the socialists collectivised their brain cells enough to realise it. Read around, with people like Dan Hodges getting incredibly close to calling for him to go, if you still think Milibland is cutting the mustard.

However, who is going to run against him? If Ed Balls runs, everyone will laugh. If Yvette Cooper (aka Mrs Balls) runs, she cannot dispose of Labour’s least helpful asset, her husband. If David Miliband runs, Cameron can drag out the feuding brother story indefinitely – a back-to-backstab if you like. The only plausible candidate is Jim Murphy. “Who?” I hear you cry. “Precisely”, say I. Labour don’t have the talent or the policies to win the next election.

Osborne

So now let’s do the same for the Tories. Boris will win London 2012 (somehow), and will step down in 2016. He will win a by-election by 2017, which will give him time enough to be well positioned enough when Cameron goes sometime between 2019-2022. After a term and a half of Boris (for all I admire him, I don’t think he has a sufficiently grand vision to drive the country), the natural choice is Jeremy Hunt, a man of such impeccable composure that it is truly inconceivable he should never be leader of the Conservative Party. For all they seem worlds apart, both BoJo and Hunt are suitably amicably placed with George Osborne and William Hague to mean that they can come in without wholesale change of the top table. Osborne’s best bet is not to run himself, but pick the winner, keep the political strategy as a sideline, and go down in history as the kingmaker and the chancellor who fixed Gordon Brown’s mess.

Unemployment

Once again, I find myself in a statistical quandary. ONS says unemployment went up 128.000 people in November. Yet it says only 3,000 people signed on to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Which gap have those 125,000 people fallen into? They are either a) retiring early, b) decided not to work for the next few years and make home instead, c) in receipt of a sufficiently generous redundancy package to make claiming JSA unnecessary, or d) moving their labour into the ‘black market’ – taking cash payment and not declaring it to the Exchequer. Now, most people won’t be doing a) given how poorly pensions pots are performing. The general move of our culture has been away from b) for some time; there can’t be too many people who worked for long enough at a high enough wage to be in position c), so thousands of people are in position d). Really? Or are the unemployment figures inflated by people who otherwise wouldn’t be reckoned as part of the workforce (e.g. students) taking part-time jobs and then losing them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the more important figure is the JSA claimant count, which is about 1.60 million. So hardly as bad as the 2.64 million Labour like to moan about. Incidentally, in 1992, pretty much everyone who was unemployed according to the statistics was also a JSA/Unemployment benefit claimant. By 2001, the gap between unemployed and claimants was 0.5 million, and now it is now over 1 million. I’ve had no brainwaves about why this gap is increasing so quickly. Any ideas?

Soapbox Debates: The future of British media

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Soapbox Debates, The Media on August 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

James Bartholomeusz, polarii, Stephen Wan, Elliot Ashley

In light of the phone hacking scandal, how would you change the UK media; its composition, its accountability, and its relationship with government?

James Bartholomeusz

The phone hacking scandal which has engorged our news output over the last few weeks is best understood as the third in a series of shake-ups over the last five years. The first, the financial crisis beginning in late 2007, dealt a grievous blow to our economy and the market fundamentalist ideology of the last thirty years. The second, the MPs expenses row dating from 2009, decimated the remaining faith of the British public in modern politics and our constitutional settlement. In all three scandals, what had previously seemed like insurmountable pillars of the British establishment were exposed as hollow oligarchies. In all three, men and women who had posed as respectable custodians of the state of the nation were revealed as incompetent and corrupt. And in relation to all three we might still ask the question ‘has anything really changed?’

This is because we have allowed bankers to reform banks and politicians to reform parliament: we cannot allow journalists, least of all Murdoch’s News International, to reform the media. Though the media never had the reputation of the City of London or the House of Commons, the public outrage to the phone hacking allegations shows that no one knew of the depths Andy Coulson and his ilk have descended to.

The prospect of the imminent collapse of Murdoch’s press brigade is to be welcomed (and even celebrated) – and forcing the closure of the newspaper which hacked the phones of 7/7 victims can be seen as a victory in itself. But these events should not fool us into thinking that Murdoch will not strive his utmost to retain his position as arbitrator of British politics. It’s hardly a secret that, since media laws were blasted open by Thatcher, News International has had exploited its influence to ensure the election of a compliant government. It has become a common sight for an aspirational leader to make a pilgrimage to prostrate himself before Murdoch’s throne. This is not the place to explore the fundamentally undemocratic essence of Murdoch’s power; suffice it to say, any opportunity to curb it should be seized.

I propose three reforms which should begin to ease Murdoch’s stranglehold on our media. Firstly, the Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a much more vigilant regulatory body, allowing members of the public to set up citizens’ tribunals (advised by independent experts) to take on the corporate media when necessary. This would help make our media accountable to the British people and reassert the idea that we are not just consumers of news but active participants in current affairs. Secondly, our monopoly laws need to be much stricter: the fact that Murdoch taking a majority stake in BSkyB was even considered shows how lax our regulation has been made by the continuous barrage of corporate influence on government. Thirdly, we should consider ways in which to resurrect and protect local/regional media. A major problem in our current media settlement is the narrow middle class London background from which journalists are drawn, particularly noticeable, for example, in the patronising coverage of council estate tenants. Competition from national media has driven smaller outlets into oblivion – the return of a strong, independent local media would allow for greater representation of diverse voices outside of the elite which still controls our economy, politics and press.

polarii

Contrary to the rhetoric, there are very few serious problems with the UK media. There is a diverse plurality, with newspaper readers being able to choose between newspapers owned sustainably by six different groups (News International, Trinity Mirror, Guardian Group, Lebedev Group, Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers), with television viewers being able to choose their news from BBC, ITV, C4, Sky, and other channels available on Freeview stations. The internet is a hive of uncensored opinions, and streams foreign news providers, such as CNN. The only medium that presents an effective monopoly on news is radio, where the impartial BBC holds sway. Even if we look at providers across media – the largest the BBC and then News Corporation – we can see that these fall well short of a monopoly across all media taken together. More competition is always welcome; this can be achieved by reducing the number of services on the BBC, and a News Corporation monopoly will be prevented by its outlets suffering reputational damage from phone hacking.

The media is accountable to itself. The Telegraph, Independent and Guardian (not to mention Private Eye) united to expose phone hacking at News International titles. The diversity that exists enables fierce competition, which ensures accountability. It is a risk for government to establish an independent regulator – newspapers should stand or fall on their own stories and sources, as the News of the World has. The Press Complaints Commission needs bulking up; but this should be done by the industry, not the government. Perhaps the industry should agree that it can issue unlimited fines. Wrongdoing by the News of the World was exposed by competition, and other titles, even outside News International, will follow. But a free press, to paraphrase Churchill, means a press that has the option of sometimes being foolish. For areas where the media has broken the law, the courts are blissfully independent.

A change of relationship does need to occur between media and government. When government values style over substance, when it judges its policy by focus group and not by results, it is always going to pander to opinion leaders. Murdoch, the most politically flexible of the news proprietors, sold a cunning lie – that he and his papers controlled the balance of opinion within the country. Yet the Sun never won it: not in 1992, nor 1997, nor 2005, nor 2010. It is the fault of politicians, not the press, that they bought it. It was Murdoch’s contacts in the government and police that prevented full and thorough investigation in the first instance; again, in an area where style dominated substance, detectives and ministers were more concerned with the good words of the Sun than any morality or legality. The police and politicians have to recognise this imbalance of priority, and not fall into the trap again. Other media moguls in the history of this country have taken fixed positions, and still failed. The media-centric method of politics and policing – pioneered by the Blairs Ian and Tony – needs to go.

Newspaper moguls have risen and fallen throughout the entire history of media in this country. Murdoch is the latest in the pattern: Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Maxwell. In the 1990s, there was no legislation about phone-hacking – it was not illegal to listen in. Phone-hacking is a legacy of that culture. Time, scandal, and the law will expunge these practises. The media will retain its self-regulation, and the British public is wise enough to ensure market plurality. The future of British media may well be online as opposed to on paper or on TV, but the framework doesn’t need much change.

Stephen Wan

The UK media cannot continue to operate as it has been doing – with impunity, arrogance and without consideration of the social damage it creates. Whilst recent focus has been on the phone hacking scandal, far more crimes have been committed – trials by media, such as during the Joanna Yeates murder case, risk perverting the course of justice, and routine scaremongering fuels ignorance and paranoia. The phone hacking scandal marks a turning point in public opinion of the UK media, and this is a good thing.

It would be easy to say the problem is with us: “We buy the newspapers – the UK media is reliant on our willingness to buy its coverage of the news. They merely pander to our tastes, supplying our insatiable demand. If we want to change the practises of our newspapers, then let us do so by using the power of the purse, altering the media we consume – in an age of information technology, accessing alternative sources of information has never been easier. Boycott the worst media corporations, and they will either reform or collapse. One could say that the News of the World was closed down due to public outcry and pressure placed on News Corporation. Ultimately, the UK media is accountable to us.”

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The relationship between the public and the media is better characterised as a symbiotic relationship, where media outlets rely on the public to consume their content, and the public relies on the media to distil information and set the news agenda. Because of this, we are as influenced by the media as they are influenced by us. Negative feedback loops occur, and as the news agenda degenerates to trivialities, the media resorts to ever more extreme methods to obtain the latest gossip. Phone hacking was not the result of a few journalists gone rogue – it was institutionalised, widespread, and a direct consequence of how the media market is structured.

It follows then that institutional change to the UK media is required. The current system in place is self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. This has not worked – their website reads almost as satire, extolling the ‘commitment of the newspaper industry to tough and effective self regulation‘. A solution, as advocated by our leaders, would be for the government to establish an independent watchdog. A further idea may be to establish an information source database – when a journalist writes a newspaper article, they must cite in a separate report all the means by which that information was obtained, to be entered into the database after approval by the editor. Access to the database is available to the independent watchdog only. This will ensure full disclosure of the means by which stories are obtained, ensure good research practise, and prevent editors claiming to be unaware of dubious practises in their own newsroom.

How would I change the UK media? Enforce good media practices. The rest can follow.

Elliot Ashley

When looking at the deepening crisis facing the print media industry it is hard to see how it can recover. It is unlikely that newspapers can, or indeed will bounce back fully from the phone hacking scandal. Readership has been steadily dropping over the last two decades, as broadcast and online outlets for the news are becoming easier to access around the clock.

One could enter this argument: that the fault lies in a self-regulated industry that clearly needs to be more strongly controlled, with the likes of fines such as those issued by Offcom or Offgen. However it is the public that have initiated the collapse of News International and, as time can only tell at this point, possibly other large news companies also.

If the public had not continued to pressurise journalists, editors and media barons to produce in their publications ever increasing drivel on the latest celebrity affair, or a diet that two days previously was good for you and now carries a high risk cause of cancer (all this being in the public interest); then it is possible that papers such as News Of the World (NOTW) and others may have avoided stooping to the level of hacking into the voice mails of everyone from members of the Royal Family to Z-list celebrities.

This simple, yet under the counter method of collecting stories, or starting blocks for them, is inevitably widespread and probably largely unknown to the wider world. It would have continued had it not emerged, in a rival newspaper, that the NOTW and News International had gone a step too far in their quest to provide the public with its quota of gossip and scandal, by hacking into the voicemail of murdered school girl Millie Dowler.

The outrage and distrust that was caused by this has begun to unravel the rapidly disappearing mystery and power held by the fourth estate. Even if readership does start to increase in a few years, it is likely that the financial pressures placed upon publishers and editors of UK newspapers (and indeed the greater print media), by legal cases and investigations, will probably see the daily papers disappear from shop shelves. Perhaps just a select number will remain to provide news of every interest, from sport to motoring and holidays to gardening, on either a Saturday or Sunday.

Print media within the UK does has a future, but right now it is bleak and far, far different to what experts from the industry were envisaging a year ago.

__________

If you are interested in participating in a future debate, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

What became of the Likely Lads?

In Home Affairs, The Media on July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

In politics, three is indeed the magic number: major parties, modern ideologies, even decades of economic consensus. The growing debate about the welfare state and the poor is no exception to this rule – three examples depict the different dimensions of the debate. Firstly, the tabloid stories which surface with alarming yet predictable regularity, hacks having searched for the most egregious examples of benefit fraud and mapping them onto the entire welfare state, as if every recipient were a calculating schemer intent on wringing the taxpayer of all their hard-earned funds. Secondly, the Tory-led government’s welfare reforms spearheaded by Iain Duncan Smith, which look to simplify welfare provision into a single universal credit whilst cutting the amount available to claim. Thirdly, and perhaps least surprisingly, Ed Miliband’s salutary broadside into the debate in the form of his 13th June speech on responsibility, professing the intent to make jobseekers work for their benefits. As a play to the ‘squeezed middle’ it is likely to push the right (and Right) buttons, but it understandably attracted criticism from Left-leaning commentators such as Medhi Hasan, who questioned the morality and mathematics of equating the damage done by welfare recipients with that of City bankers. Read the rest of this entry »

Cameron Should Have Been in the Commons Today

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on July 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Most days, the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up to the House of Commons. Most days, he doesn’t have to. Most government policy-making and implementing occurs outside the House. Not today, however. The business today was Education Questions, the Public Service Reform White Paper, Jeremy Hunt’s Statement on Phone Hacking and the last stages of the Europe Bill – as well as a debate on crime victims in the EU and an adjournment debate, both scheduled so late (crime started at 21:00) to make any movement supremely unlikely. Cameron had reason to attend all the important business of the day.

Education questions [WATCH] were the least important to attend, but the Conservatives have by far the most comprehensive policy on education. Michael Gove has made some strong announcements on school discipline of late, and Cameron would only benefit from being associated with those. Michael Gove is also an amusing performer, and it would have done Cameron no harm to laugh at some of the more witty jokes.

Cameron pre-empted the public service bill [READ] at a press conference in Wapping, of all places (where, famously, News International is based). Oliver Letwin then got up in the House [WATCH] and did it better. While Cameron should not have led on the paper (after all, he didn’t write it), it is an important plank of the Big Society agenda. Since this is the least understood part of the Tory position, Cameron should have attended the presentation of the paper that builds on his signature themes: people power, choice, decentralisation. While his press conference brought the move some initial publicity, it was buried in the live feed of Hunt’s statement.

And he should really have been present for that one. Ed Miliband was planning to turn up, as was half the house. To be seen during Hunt’s statement [WATCH – SHORT] [WATCH – LONG] – or even giving a statement additional to Hunt’s – would have made him appear strong. He would have been vulnerable on points about Andy Coulson, and may even have had to say that Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, did not communicate concerns about him, or else face total embarrassment. But, as it was, Alan Johnson was able to make a wise crack about the monkey being present and not the organ grinder, and Hunt was unable to provide answers on points about the Prime Minister’s staff. Hunt, for his part, performed well, despite the rather pathetic set of cards he had to play, and even made some purchase against Ed Miliband’s rather shrill attack by saying that the matter transcended party politics. This tactic would have played even better if the Tory backbench had got the hint and not taken to asking partisan questions. Cameron’s additional gravitas would have helped the backbench get the message, and would have enabled him to at least put a brave face on the matter and face down Labour’s criticisms, even if he only provided a politician’s answer.

The Europe Bill (Lords Amendments) [READ] is a more extended piece, and Cameron need only have stayed for the first few speeches. Europe is an issue on which the Coalition may fracture, and is an important issue for those on the right of the party that he has, as yet, been unable to carry with him. His presence would have given the impression that he remained concerned about Europe, like many backbenchers and party members.

Cameron missed a trick by not making a statement directly following Hunt’s. He will take questions from the Commons on Wednesday, and unless Greece or Italy defaults on their debts or Birmingham falls into a black hole, Coulson will dominate. If he had answered questions today, he would have fulfilled his duty to the House to answer questions, and be able to present Labour, as Hunt tried to do today, as excessively partisan. Labour MPs brought half a dozen points of order saying that Cameron should come to the House for a statement – while the Speaker does not have the power to compel the Prime Minister to come to the House, it is bemusing that journos now regularly get in ahead of MPs, and on different days, doubling the amount of negative headlines for Cameron.

In short, Cameron today gave Labour an open goal, and missed several opportunities to bolster his brand, and, while he was at it, the House of Commons and the political class. Jeremy Hunt appeared weak and isolated, with senior cabinet members, such as Osborne and Hague, also conspicuously absent. This undermined Hunt and the government. It would have been worse risking embarrassment, even if he had turned round, said that he got that one completely wrong, and would not make that mistake again. Honesty is, usually, the best policy. Hiding behind other news stories just delays the inevitable bollocking.

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

A cynical take on referendum campaigns

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, The Media on February 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

By Sean Wyer

Cross-posted from They Say it so Seriously…

Britain’s first referendum in a while is fast approaching. As you probably know, the one option is AV (alternative vote) as opposed to our current ‘first-past-the-post’ system. In the spirit of being a good citizen, I thought I would make sure I was making the right choice, so I didn’t ruin the country by accident.

I was aware that the referendum isn’t an issue contested by people, but by ideas, so maybe their websites would make me think.

The people campaigning against the alternative vote didn’t really have any ideas. They just talked about loads of irrelevant public-services-related items that people need, such as bullet proof vests and maternity units, which don’t have anything to do with voting systems, but some ‘PR expert’ in an office seems to think we’ll believe them if they say ‘vote yes in the referendum and loads of people will die’ (paraphrased). Which is probably a lie. They also said (also paraphrased) ‘it’s too complicated for normal people to understand’. Which isn’t actually an argument, and succeeds in condescendingly insulting the public’s intelligence.

AN APPALLING BLACKMAIL TECHNIQUE

I thought the other side might be less terrible at convincing me. If you look really hard, you can actually find some information on their site, but it’s obvious they’re pretty much the same as the other guys, just funded by people who will benefit in the future if their side wins, which means they’re basically an advertising campaign. Their website pulls the age old trick of having a war vet talking about democracy, which seems like a desperate move, using ‘selling stunts’ instead of actual politics.

AN EQUALLY CRUDE ADVERTISING CHOICE

Both sides essentially admit that they don’t have a convincing enough political argument. They make it obvious that the people funding their campaign will enjoy plenty of success (or maintain it) if they win, because both sites have an air of desperation and power-hungry marketing techniques about them.

Don’t know if either side deserves/will get my deciding vote.

Confused.

David Cameron Welcomes New Liberal Democat to No. 10

In Home Affairs, The Media on February 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

By polarii
Occasional satirist, TheDailySoapbox.org.uk
________________________________

The story broke earlier today, after a Downing Street source ratted the information to the Times.

Said a Conservative Party spokesman: ‘We’re delighted to add a new member to the Downing Street family. The Prime Minister has lots of experience looking after cats; Nick Clegg is David Cameron’s pussy.’

Ed Miliband was unavailable for comment, leading to allegations from Sky News that the Labour leader had gone to the dogs.

Justice Minister Ken Clarke quipped, ‘the cat’s got my tongue on this one. I never knew Dave could be so feline.’

Simon Hughes, Chairman of the Liberal Democats, said that they ‘had made great progress in making Britain more fur. It is only right,’ he continued, ‘that the Liberal Democats should get another cabinet seat, if only because Michael Gove thinks we’re too cute to move off the chair and into a basket.’ It is unknown how many basket-cases there are at Lib Dem HQ.

In a related story, several Labour peers were seen taking cat-naps in the House of Lords, though the effect of pointless news was disputed by the Guild of Journalists.

‘Miaow’ was the only comment from Ed Fur Balls, Shadow Chancellor.

Pundits suggest the rat problem at No. 10 is an encouraging sign for the government. “Rats tend to leave a sinking ship,” explained a spokeswoman for the RSPCA.

It is unclear what sort of rat problems the Prime Minister is facing. Britain’s most common is the Torat, which frequents all areas of government. However, a rare Liberal Demorat was seen scurrying across from No. 10 to No. 11. Liberal Demorats were previously thought to  inhabit only the Isle of Lundy and the Inner Hebrides. They are listed as ‘under threat’ by the electorate.

Fears were expressed for No. 11’s ‘ginger rodent’, Danny Alexander. And whether what we see in Downing Street is actually a Liberal Demorat has been seriously queried by several academics of note. “Liberal Demorats tend to live in disorganised collectives,” said Professor Phil Space, of the University of Former-Polytechnic, “whereas these rats in Downing Street tend to behave for individual ends, and drink lots of port. And unlike most Liberal Demorats, they have made their offspring pay for their own education.” The average Liberal Demorat has an IQ of 16.

Baroness Neville-Jones, the government’s counter-terrorism advisor, said the measure was necessary to deter cat-burglars. Balls of string and bags of cat food were seen being brought into the back entrance of No. 10 for the bankers’ new pet, George Osborne.

However, the problem was felt worthy of further consideration by Dr Schroedinger, of the University of Schleswig-Baden. He said “So long as the cat is in No. 10, we cannot observe it, and so it must be both a Liberal Democat and a Conservatabby.”

Aleksandr Orlov, the Russian internet tycoon, remarked, “It mere cat. Why make such fuss about it?”

An Ipsos/Mori poll for the Sun today suggests that 8 out of 10 cats prefer the Conservatives. The Conservatabby was unavailable for comment.

IN OTHER NEWS: Mark Thompson defends BBC News budgets – denies relevance of news is decreasing

UNLIKELY NEWS STORIES: Democracy in the Middle East

Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.