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Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

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.

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

Mr Bean’s revenge

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media on December 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

David Weber

Vince Cable famously said of Gordon Brown “from Stalin to Mr. Bean”. Yet it is Mr. Bean today, long since politically deceased, who must be celebrating (or at least mildly pleased). For Vince Cable has suddenly affected a transition of similar proportions himself, and the worst of it is that he can blame few people other than himself.

True, he can blame the Telegraph, which must be furious for failing to fell a second cabinet minister; and Robert Peston, and the BBC. But such a strategy will do little to comfort him: journalists are ever trying to sniff out facts to undermine politicians, parties and governments. And the manner of his falling seems careless: it is one thing to be secretly recorded having discussions with senior party figures and wealthy businessmen, but it is another for these quotes to slip out during constituency surgeries.

In fairness to Dr. Cable, we should take into account the Liberal Democrat fragility. It is understandable that members are particularly concerned about the impact of coalition on their majorities, given their national showings in the polls, and the sense that they will be punished for being the junior partner in the Coalition. It is also understandable that the people they find most difficult to deal with will not be their colleagues or department connections and interests, but party activists, members and voters. It is those people who will be the most difficult to win over.

Despite this, the effect on the reputation of Dr. Cable will be considerable. Having built a reputation for being a sensible pair of hands, long-sighted and competent, he now is dangerously close to Mr. Bean, and does not convey the same easy amiability. Rivals and ill-wishers will have serious ammunition, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will probably take steps to distance the party from him. He may well no longer be seen as a pivotal figure.

Though superficially it may seem that the Daily Telegraph, and the BBC — who broke the most controversial comments concerning the BSkyB takeover — are the chief beneficiaries, this is not the case. In fact it may be that through being overenthusiastic in lighting the blue touchpaper, they have been somewhat burned. Both parties are opposed to the BSkyB takeover, and this leads to the significant problem that their own interests may be seriously set back in the near future.

The News Corporation takeover bid for BSkyB, the subject of Dr. Cable’s political near death experience, now looks healthier. Had Dr. Cable kept his cards to himself, he may well have been able to block the takeover even if few independent justifications were at hand. However, with his stated intention to “declare war” on Murdoch’s “empire”, and “win”, the government’s decision will be far more explosive. Add into the equation the EU regulator’s recent green light, and the future looks rosy for Murdoch.

The Telegraph, however, was one of the signatories to the letter opposing Murdoch’s bid, sent to the Business secretary, Dr. Cable himself, only recently. And this may be the reason why it was the BBC who released the most controversial part of the story, concerning Murdoch’s “empire”, and not the Telegraph. That certainly appears to be the claim of the original whistleblower, who complained about the way the Telegraph was releasing the information.

Yet it is difficult to see how the Telegraph could have avoided this story emerging, particularly after giving such a high profile to the first part of the story (concerning Dr. Cable’s relationship with the Coalition). Indeed, from the very moment when the investigation was successful, it must have only been a matter of time before the information emerged into the public domain. Perhaps they intended to make certain of Dr. Cable’s resignation, by releasing the quotes at a time which maximised damage. Or perhaps they intended to bury the more dangerous comments about News Corp, to favour their own interests. We will never know.

So who are the winners in this? It is David Cameron who must now be feeling pleased. Dr. Cable owes his position to him, which will make him far less of a problem for the time being, and easier to remove in the future, as his party will be keen to end their reliance on him.Thus the Liberals’ standing in the coalition is reduced, and Cameron’s control over his government increased. Better still, the issue of Conservative party relations with News Corp, a thorny issue, may yet resolve itself in his favour. If regulators continue to sign off the bid, his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, might even be able to approve it with little controversy, and use it to testify to the Coalition’s political diversity of opinion, and the Conservatives’ independence from the Liberal Democrat party. Relations between News Corp and the Conservative party would improve considerably, and the approaching election in 2015 would look that little bit less difficult. Except for the Liberal Democrats…

A Level Playing Field is Essential

In The Media on March 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

David Weber

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.

This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented in Parliament: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round far closer than election results would have us believe.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel; by accident or design this is the percentage of the electorate which does not vote in general elections at the moment. Occasionally minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the main parties’ representation can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round together.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel, the percentage of the electorate which does not vote, but sometimes minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the former can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

In Home Affairs, The Media on September 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm

“The only perpetual guarantor of independence is profit”,

claimed James Murdoch magnificently, as if stating something profound and enlightening for British debate, unaware perhaps that to most in Britain he would instead sound like the lunatic fringe of the right-wing of the 80s, let alone the 21st century. But his contributions to the debate, ill-timed and unconvincing though they mostly were (a friend judged it succinctly as “a rant”), did bring to light and interesting quandry the media is now in.

The private media is in an uncomfortable position in general (the BBC too, though for rather different reasons, having been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending series of scandals recently), of having a model of business bringing in insufficient cash to satisfy the demands of a market where content is expected by the consumer to be free at the point of access. This is partly as a result of the recession, but partly because of more fundamental problems. One of the interesting factors in the way that technology has been changing the marketplace is that a commonly understood and agreed set of rules has not yet been developed, and is difficult to when it is changing so rapidly. To cease prattling like a politician for a moment, the media is thus faced with a problem: trying to reconcile what might be unrealistic assumptions on the part of the consumer with the bare necessary demands for a private business.

We see this already in the shape of the piracy debate. I do not for a minute sympathise with the desires of those whispering in the ear of Lord Mandelson (well, as the press would have us believe), which would in this blogger’s humble opinion merely be an attempt to overbalance the market in the favour of the business rather than the consumer, and not work in any case. But contrary to what seems like a fashionable line among net bloggers at the moment, I do not believe concerns over piracy are unwarranted — not so much from the perspective of big business, but small providers. As a student of music, I do believe I have an interest in this matter, as the only alternative to a model of intellectual property is an equally unpalatable one, State sponsorship of all creative arts. And as with the debate Murdoch was commenting upon, there is clearly a need not just for compromise, but for drawing together the disunited parts of the equation, convincing consumer and provider of a common ground.

This is not easy. The media, partly because of the recession, and partly because neither the “freemium” or advertising models have so far worked as well as expected, is facing a problem of funding for free internet-hosted news. The Sunday Times editorial said that the media has breathed a “collective sigh of relief” at Murdoch’s decision to start charging for internet-hosted content, and  that others will quickly move to the same position, but I suspect that the sigh has one notable exception: News International itself. The first to make such a decision will most likely be the first to be punished for it, and worst. Private providers to not normally act collectively, not surprising given the level of competition. I would be surprised if they chose to here.

It is therefore understandable that News International chooses to gnash its teeth at the BBC, for it is difficult to tell how well a charging service of internet content will work in competition with a free at the point of access model that the BBC offers. It would require private providers to convince the consumer that what they are offering represents a special alternative to the State media, worth true value for the extra money invested. And unlike something like Healthcare or Education, this might prove more tricky: firstly, internet hosted content would be far harder to secure from “piracy”; secondly, as many have pointed out, it appears far harder to convince people of the extra value that comes with splashing out on the net, than with more measurable products sold outside. It is far easier to see the advantages of going private to purchase extra drugs, for example, than paying a subscription to read the Times when you can glean your news from the BBC and the host of independent free alternative sources such as blogs.

There are doubtless many ways of structuring a fee-charging online content model, from “adverts/no adverts” (cf. Spotify) to a subscription with a minimum amount of free access to content, such as the Financial Times uses. But ultimately, though Murdoch was wrong in most respects, I see his point in one: the size of State provision does matter. Make the BBC too big, and too generous, and ultimately it can not just compete but defeat: and the private sector in journalism will need a bailout of its own. As there is already talk  in government of “top-slicing” of the licence fee, it is clear that this is not merely a hypothetical danger; in a time of recession, it is one that needs careful evaluation. The BBC needs to be about provision, and increasing choice, not squeezing the private sector. It may turn out to be better to slim down the BBC a little than make the mainstream media reliant upon the taxpayer as well.

To claim the only guarantor of independence to be profit is madness. But neither is public provision an acceptable guarantor of independence on its own. Not only the public but also the private sector in journalism in Britain need cherishing; if, in the case of the latter, grudgingly, reluctantly and distastefully so.