Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who will be first to be locked up by the Leveson Laws?

 Form an orderly queue there, please. Editors are jostling to be the first in the clink if the government moves to introduce press regulation. Already, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has said he will not comply with any such statutory body, and is prepared to suffer the consequences – which could mean spending a few months at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Other hacks are promising to desert print for the internet where it is thought the Leveson Laws will not apply.

They're all assuming that Lord Justice Leveson will today end Britain's tradition of press freedom, which dates from 1695 when state licensing of newspapers was abolished. And they are almost certainly right. Lord Leveson is not bonkers. His report, published today, will be cogent and reasonable and will almost certainly call for a new independent system of press regulation, backed up by new laws, which the Prime Minister will find very difficult to reject.

During his lengthy inquiry, the Law Lord made it clear that the present system of self-regulation through the industry body, the Press Complaints Commission, is broken and that public confidence can only be restored by independent regulation of the press. All of the press. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support for regulation. This time it really is closing time in the last chance saloon – and PC plod is about come and chuck out the barflies.

Now as working hack, I find talk of statutory controls deeply troubling. Not least because it seems to be Labour and Liberal spokespeople who are mustard-keen on press regulation, while it is the Tory ministers like Michael Gove and press barons like Rupert Murdoch who are standing for the principle of a free press. With friends like these... It is disturbing to see the Guardian newspaper, which broke the Milly Dowling story, and the National Union of Journalists arguing for a form of state regulation of newspapers.

Regulation can only mean, surely, that a new body - admittedly at arms length - will be empowered, effectively, to license publications, and possibly even license journalists. Certainly the new regulatory body would be in a position to levy fines and enforce the right of reply, and it will be a court of final appeal for people who feel they have been hard done by in the press. Perhaps, indeed, the regulator will have to be consulted when a newspaper proposes to break the law, or bend the law, in the public interest. I'm thinking about use of covert recordings or phone hacking to expose fraud, wrong doing and illegality. To catch a thief you set a thief.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nadine Dorries: A Nightmare in Westminster.

 Daytime nightmares are the worst kind because you can't wake up from them. All week, I've been haunted by an image that lodged in my brain on the day the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, was evicted from I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here. It is of a parliament entirely composed of neurotic self-publicists.

Nadine Dorries would lead the front bench of course, where she thinks she ought to be. The Leader of the Opposition would be George Galloway, the member for Big Brother. Louise Mensch, the Corby Tory, whose sudden departure to America plunged her party to by-election defeat, would be foreign secretary. Lembit Opik – of Cheeky Girls – would be there for the Libdems, and Sally Bercow, the Speaker's wife, would of course sit on the cross benches as the member for Twitter and Libel.

Scotland would be represented by Mssrs Pot and Kettle: the education secretary Mike Russell and his accuser, the Labour MSP Michael McMahon, who was suspended from Holyrood last week for telling the Presiding Officer that she was “out of order”. They'd be having a square go on the backbenches, over lies, lies, lies. Meanwhile, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks would be guffawing from the press gallery while paying private detectives to gather news by hacking into members' phones.

Don't laugh. The way things are going, this could be what parliament will look like in future, once Twitter takes over from the stuffy “old” media and our parliamentary coverage comes to us by virtue of YouTube. Politicians are able to justify almost any bad behaviour on the grounds that it gets them noticed. As she emerged from the jungle, Mad Nad was not only unrepentant, but bitching about the Prime Minister for suggesting that MPs ought to be doing their job in parliament rather than peddling their dismal egos and baring their boobs on reality TV. “But I was doing it for ordinary people - to connect with them”, insisted Dorries on breakfast TV after being evicted from the show so fast she hardly had time to digest her ostrich anus.

The Conservative MP claimed that becoming a celebrity “known to millions” would make it easier for her to promote her cherished causes, like reducing the time limit for abortions. What a sad delusion. Doesn't she realise that she can only damage any cause stupid enough to let her represent it -  though I suppose it couldn't happen to a better cause. Dorries has earned the contempt of her leader and her party, but far worse she has treated her voters with contempt. She is a ludicrous figure and the sooner she is out of politics the better.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Norway, Scotland, and why I was wrong about the arc of insolvency

   I have often regretted coining the phrase “the arc of insolvency” in this column in 2008 to describe the financial crisis as it afflicted Iceland and Ireland. It was only ever one side of the story. While some neoliberal small nations exploded because of their irresponsible banks, the rest of the Nordic arc - Denmark, Sweden, Finland - passed through the eye of the storm largely unscathed. Certainly, in Norway, where I have been hanging out this week, there is no sign of any financial hangover from the great crash.

Oslo is, as usual, a building site. There can be few cities outside South East Asia that are so obviously booming. Unemployment here is very low, salaries are very high, beer is ruinously expensive at eight pounds a pint – though that doesn't seem to stop people going to the pub. Even the banks are doing well in Norway, largely because they didn't get caught up in the property madness that exploded Iceland and Ireland.

Deficit? Non existent – Norway has the largest budget surplus of any AAA rated nation in the world. Growth is “only'”3.7% ; inflation is 1.4% ; unemployment at 3.3% is the lowest in Europe and poverty is almost too low to measure. This is a country which regularly tops the global quality-of-life indexes. So what is the secret? Why have economies like Norway been largely immune to economic crisis that left countries like Britain as debt zombies, kept going only by zero interest rates and money printing?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Price fixing energy monopolies are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

  Whistle-blower says energy companies fix the price of gas.  And the Pope is Catholic.  Did anyone seriously think that the price of gas, electricituy or petrol is determined by a free market?   As the AA  has pointed out that petrol prices "go up like a rocket and down like a feather". Since he beginning of October, wholesale prices have fallen by ten pence, but pump prices by 4p. SSE has just announced a 9% increase in domestic energy tariffs this winter - three times the rate of inflation - and surprise surprise, the rest of the industry is following suit.

   There is no longer any recognisable market in energy.  It is an industry run by a cartel of mostly foreign-owned companies who treat the domestic consumer with contempt.  It is a deeply corrupt system in which the government connives with price fixing.  But though they don't realise it yet, the energy companies are planting the seeds of their own destruction. Once the public finally realise that they are being conned, there will be demands to take these private monopolies back into effective public ownership through regulation and taxation as is happening to the UK railways.   The present situation is unsustainable.

Europe's trades unionists have won the argument even if they haven't won the streets

 Last week' pan-european strike was the biggest show of trade union solidarity since the creation of the European Union. 40 trades unions in 23 countries took to the streets in protest at the austerity policies being pursued by European countries under the direction of the IMF and the European Central Bank. The organisers should be very pleased with the response, even though it largely passed Britain by.

The turnout demonstrates that, even though the vast majority of workers in countries like in Spain are not members of trades unions, it is possible to mount an effective protest against austerity across southern Europe at least. However, protest is all it was. This was not a general strike or anything like it, and we shouldn't exaggerate its impact. The EU bureaucrats are not exactly shaken to the core. Nor is Angela Merkel likely to open the coffers of the Bundesbank because of a few clashes with police. The demonstrations will make very little difference to the fate that awaits a generation of young people as Europe languishes in economic depression.

This is despite the fact that in many ways the unions have won the argument. The intellectual case for continuing with the austerity measures in the eurozone has been seriously undermined by the deepest economic contraction in  since the Second World War. Greece's economy has shrunk by 25% since 2009, and the contraction is accelerating: Greece shrank by 7.2% in the Third Quarter of 2012, which is unprecedented in any European country in peacetime. Countries like Spain, where unemployment is now running at 25%, are caught in a ruinous fiscal trap: cuts lead to economic contraction, which leads to more unemployment, which leads to collapse of tax revenues, which leads to more debt and more cuts. It is a vicious spiral the significance of which the northern eurozone countries seem unable to grasp - even though Germany is now beginning to feel the consequences as its exports to the rest of Europe dwindle.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

We know who you are, says Lord McAlpine. But do they? The BNP bloggers who duped the BBC.

Lord McAlpine appears to have come to a deal with BBC over the false child abuse allegations made against him by Newsnight.  His lawyer has warned those who outed him on the internet to come forward on the grounds that they "we know who you are".  But do they.  I don't think anyone has investigated the full ramifications of the paedo Twitter storm.

 The better known journalists and celebs who defamed Lord McAlpine have already come forward and made abject apologies, like the Guardian journalist, George Monbiot and the loudmouth wife of the Speaker,  Sally Bercow.  But this is only the beginning.  Numerous websites like and Men Will Pause, a blog written by a woman called Caroline Wilde, had not only published Lord McAlpine's name, but a raft of  names of prominent Tories from the past and present.  It is difficult to track this without appearing to contribute to the libel, but if anyone wants to find out just how how lurid the paranoia about paedos in power had become on the web, they should look up a blog published by a former British National Party councillor from Wales,  Kevin Edwards.

Now, some might be puzzled by my use of the word “published” in connection with Twitter. Most people don't think of the micro-blogging site as a publication with any editorial responsibility for what is posted there. I keep hearing references to “rumours on the internet” as if these were private conversations between individuals. Many appear to believe that, as Lord Leveson put it, Twitter is “just like people talking in a pub”. If so, it is a very big pub which is visited by hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis – far more than read any newspaper.  The truth is that Twitter, like this blog, is a medium of publication just like any newspaper. They are all in the public domain; they are mediums for the dissemination of information and views to the general public.  And the law should not treat them differently.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The worst case of irresponsible and defamatory journalism in broadcasting history. From ITV, not the BBC.

    “Paedo Tories Outed on Live TV” was how the Daily Star newspaper reported the ambush of David Cameron by Phillip Schofield on ITV's This Morning programme last Thursday. The presenter thrust into the Prime Minister's lap a list of the names of alleged paedophiles which had been plucked from the internet before going on air.  

     With all the attention focussed on the BBC's self-flagellation over the defaming of Lord McAlpine, who is of course totally innocent of all accusations, the rest of the media seems to be getting a free pass.  Exposing a list of names of alleged Tory paedophiles on live television is about as defamatory as it gets. The fact that it was thrust under the nose of the Prime Minister makes it, arguably, one of the worst cases of irresponsible journalism in the history of broadcasting. 

    Yet, no heads appear to be rolling in ITV. No inquiries have been set up to investigate how this could have happened.  Schofield and co are not being hauled before the media and culture select committee.   The press is having a great time attacking the BBC, but has allowed an equally serious breach of journalistic standards to go largely unremarked. 

   It was a disgraceful stunt and Cameron handled it rather well by not losing his temper and by warning that there was a risk of a witch-hunt of gay politicians.   It says a lot about Cameron as a politician that he didn't explode.  But because of his moderate response, this appalling incident got lost in the furore over Newsnight's implosion

     But the damage had already done, as made clear by the Daily Star headline. A raft of prominent public figures who are probably innocent are now ineluctably connected with child abuse because their names are all over the internet.  Anyone with a search engine can find them. 

  This story is far from over.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Newsnight is toast.

And so farewell then, George Entwhistle. The Head of Vision who didn't see his own programmes, Twitter or, apparently, the Guardian newspaper, which on Friday revealed that Newsnight had falsely alleged that a senior Conservative politician from the Thatcher era had been a paedophile. Mr Entwhistle had only been Director General of the BBC for 54 days, but the corporation will never be the same again.

 The BBC's journalism may be discredited, but it remains a past master at publicising its own misfortune. Friday's Newsnight, when the BBC's flagship current affairs programme lashed itself to exhaustion over a programme on child sex abuse that should never have been broadcast, was one of the most compelling television events since – well - since the Panorama two weeks ago that lambasted Newsnight for its failure to transmit a programme on child sex abuse that should have been broadcast. I don't think the programme can survive this – after 32 years it is time to lay Newsnight to rest. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Are the Liberal Democrats more nationalist than Alex Salmond? Discuss.

   First there was one option, now there is a whole raft of them. No sooner had Alex Salmond and David Cameron struck the Edinburgh Agreement, and opened the way for a single question referendum on independence for Scotland, when along come the Liberal Democrats with plans for a full-scale federal restructuring of Britain. The Scottish Labour Party has also finally convened its Devolution Commission. And of course David Cameron has suggested that Scotland can expect enhanced devolution if they are good boys and girls and reject independence.  Suddenly you can't move for devolution commissions. What will Scots make of it all?

Well, the Liberal Democrats first. Their Home Rule Commission under the former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell which reported this week, has essentially restated their long-standing policy of federalism. The LibDems want a formal separation of powers between a federal UK level of government and subordinate state governments in the component parts of the UK. Much like the United States of America - though littler. The Scottish parliament would gain full powers over income tax and domestic policy, while leaving defence, foreign affairs and overall currency to  a new level of government. It's a system that works very well in countries like Australia and Germany where federal systems were introduced by British colonial and wartime administration

Obama goes to war. It's only a matter of time.

He wasn't as good as he should have been; he won't be as good as he could be; but I still can't help feeling a sense of mild relief that Barack Obama is back in the Oval Office. When he takes that three a.m call, a man whose rhyming nickname is “no drama” seems our best bet not to do something stupid in an emergency. Like invade a Muslim country in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Mind you, I don't think this confidence in Obama's pacific tendencies is entirely rational. Mitt Romney was not a neanderthal Republican – he even said that America “can't kill its way out of the middle east”. And, historically, it tends to be political leaders of the left who get caught in unwinnable wars - Kennedy, Johnson, Tony Blair . Republicans don't feel quite the same need to prove their military machismo. Ronald Reagan shocked his Republican Party in 1986 when he agreed with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjaviik to eliminate nuclear weapons within ten years. It didn't happen, but that's another story.

Why talk of war? Because Obama is almost certainly going to be involved in one, whether he likes it or not. The Syrian civil war is unlikely to be contained; Iran is being targeted by Israel; Japan and China are rattling sabres over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Nor has al Qaeda departed the historical stage following the assassination of its nominal leader, Osama bin Laden. His revenge-seeking followers only need to get lucky once against the Great Satan and we would be back to 9/11.   And of course there are all the unknown unknowns – the unexpected conflicts that could arise almost anywhere as the world economy continues to falter. We cannot rule out trouble on the fringes of Europe - in Turkey, perhaps, or between one of the former communist regimes of eastern Europe and an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Salmond gets the numbers wrong. But it's all Mike Russell's fault.

  “Facts are chiels that winna ding” is one of Alex Salmond's favourite Burns quotes, so it was with particular relish that Labour's education spokesman, Hugh Henry, flung the words in the FMs face on Thursday when it became clear that Salmond had got his facts wrong on college funding. At First Minister's Questions Salmond had said repeatedly that further education spending had increased when it had actually fallen. A humbled First Minister returned to the debating chamber later that afternoon to apologise for misleading parliament. “Ding, dong!” said Henry.Now, the education secretary, Mike Russell, has agreed to come to parliament today to set the record straight. 

It seems the Scottish government's omnibourach moment is not over. This is the third time in a month that leading figures in the government have found it necessary to make an emergency statement before the close of play in parliament. In October Alex Salmond was forced to answer accusations from opposition leaders that he'd been “lying” over claimed legal advice on European Union membership. He apologised last week for inadvertently misleading parliament on college spending.  This could be habit forming.

   What with "Plan McB" wilting under the impact of recession, unemployment rising and support for independence waning,  things seem to have stopped going Salmond's way recently. Following the climb-down on the second referendum question, and the unexpected resignation of senior nationalists after the conference debate on Nato, Labour sense that Salmond may finally be outstaying his welcome, both in the SNP and in the country. Mind you, they've said that often enough before and the FM's popularity has remained stubbornly high.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Bastards Are Back. How the Tories are all eurosceptic now.

It was just like old times. Wednesday's Tory back-bench rebellion over Britain's contribution to the European budget took me back twenty years to Maastricht, John Major and the eurosceptic tormentors that the former Tory PM called “the b****rds”. One of them, Teresa Gorman, the Conservative MP for Billericay, even wrote a book entitled “Bastards” about her contribution to the great Maastricht war. But it seems the b****rds are back.

Last week, as Tory MPs inflicted a humiliating defeat over their own prime minister, there was that same sense of excitement in the airless corridors of the Palace of Westminster. Tory MPs with glistening foreheads rushing around collecting names for mischievous motions, intoxicated by rebellion. There's nothing like it. Backbench MPs live pretty dull lives: being told how to vote by the whips; keeping their thoughts to themselves in case they damage their careers; filing obediently through the lobbies. When a rebellion happens it is as if they wake up – they remember why they came to politics in the first place. To change things; to call spades spades;to make passionate declarations.

Mind you, to outsiders these declarations may seem to come from another planet expressed in an alien tongue. Tories fulminate about obscure issues like the “Lisbon passerelle” which sounds like an opening gambit in grandmaster chess, but is actually a clause in the EU treaties that allows the European Council of Ministers to decide when to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting. Tory MPs call it the “gangplank clause” because it means the other states could force Britain to walk.