In a move which is certain to provoke much debate and comment, Liverpool John Moores University is reported to have threatened proceedings for defamation against the MP Robert Halfon (Conservative; Harlow).
Mr. Halfon has asked a series of questions about the issue of links between Libya and British universities over the past few weeks.
28 February 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): My grandfather was one of thousands of Jews who had to leave Libya because of Gaddafi’s appropriation of Jewish businesses and homes, and he came to this country because of its democracy. He would have been shocked to have seen not only the close relations between the last Government and Gaddafi, but the acceptance by our distinguished universities, particularly the London School of Economics, of more than £1 million from Gaddafi. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that such a scandal never happens again?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks with great power. What I have said about relations with Libya is that, while of course it was right to try to bring that country in from the cold, the question is whether parameters should have been put on the relationship. I think that it is for everyone to ask what agreements they reached. I heard the head of the London School of Economics on the radio this morning trying to justify one such agreement. Let us hope that at least the money that the LSE has can be put to a good use.
Hansard, 28 February 2011
3 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend read my early-day motion 1515?
That this House expresses grave concerns about the extent of funding from Middle Eastern dictatorships for UK universities, including the donations to the London School of Economics (LSE) by the Libyan regime; notes that an estimated 75 million was given to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies by 12 Middle Eastern rulers, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; further notes that 8 million was given to the University of Cambridge by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, to finance a new research centre for Islamic studies in 2008, and that he gave a further 8 million to Edinburgh University for the same purpose; further notes that 9 million was given to the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the LSE by the United Arab Emirates Foundation, and that 5.7 million was given to the LSE by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, to establish the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States in 2007; and therefore calls on the Government to establish much stricter guidelines around donations to UK universities, and to put a stop immediately to donations from oppressive Middle Eastern dictatorships with a terrible record on human rights.
My right hon. Friend may also have seen early-day motion 1486, which I tabled.
The motions condemn the extensive financial links between Colonel Gaddafi and at least two British universities, the London School of Economics and Liverpool John Moores, and the links between the progressive left and Gaddafi. Does he not agree that this scandal is akin to that of the aristocrats who appeased and sympathised with fascism in the 1930s, and will he arrange for an urgent statement on, and an independent inquiry into, the funding of British universities by middle eastern despots?
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I am not sure I would go quite as far as he did in drawing that parallel. Universities, however, are autonomous institutions. As a charity, a university must set its own standards for the acceptance of donations, subject to guidance from the Charity Commission. The LSE has expressed regret at the reputational damage caused by its association with the Gaddafi name, and has announced that the sum received will be used to finance a scholarship fund supporting students from north Africa.
Hansard, 3 March 2011
The following day, the FT reported Halfon’s comments (behind the paywall).
7 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following the scandal of the financial links between Libya and the London School of Economics and other British universities, will the Foreign Secretary examine what the previous Labour Government did to help facilitate those links? Does he not agree that the fish rots from the head down, and will he hold an independent inquiry to examine the previous Government’s insidious links with Libya?
Mr Hague: I am sure that there will be lessons to be learned from that. We are a little preoccupied with what is going on at the moment, but there will be a time to learn all the lessons from past relationships with some of the systems and regimes now being overthrown by their own people.
Hansard, 7 March 2011
The same day, Liverpool John Moores University issued a statement. It began:
In response to recent media reports, the LJMU position on our activities with Libya is that everything that we have done has been delivered transparently, at the invitation or with the encouragement and the support of the FCO (through the British Ambassador) and the British Council.
LJMU statement on activities in Libya
10 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on links between middle eastern dictators and our universities, following my early-day motions 1562 and 1563?
[That this House believes that there should be a real financial incentive for British universities not to accept donations from foreign dictatorships, especially regimes in the Middle East with a poor record on human rights; and therefore calls on the Government to introduce a mechanism whereby for every £1 that a university receives in donations from a totalitarian or despotic regime, such a Libya, £1 shall be withdrawn from that university in public subsidy.]
As well as the London School of Economics case, it has emerged that Durham university has done deals with the Iranian regime and that the Muslim research centre at my former university, Exeter, was funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a university takes blood money it should lose an equivalent amount of public subsidy?
Sir George Young: As I said to my hon. Friend last week, universities are autonomous organisations and accountable for what they do. I will draw his comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at BIS. As he knows, we will have a debate on the middle east at this time next week, when he may want to amplify his remarks.
Hansard, 10 March 2011
The same day, the Jewish Chronicle published an article in which it flagged the threats of legal action which had been made against Mr. Halfon over his comments.
16 March 2011:
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Given the Lockerbie bomb and Gaddafi’s continuing murder of his own people, does the Prime Minister think it was wrong for British universities to sign deals with Libya, and wrong for the previous Government to help facilitate some of those contracts? Will he take steps to learn the lessons and ensure that that never happens again?
The Prime Minister: I think that there are lessons to be learned. As I have said, I think that it was right to respond to what Libya did in terms of weapons of mass destruction, but I do not think that the way in which that response was handled was right. Too much credulity was shown, particularly over issues such as that of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man who was convicted of the biggest mass murder in British history. Universities will also want to ask themselves, as they are doing, some pretty searching questions about what they did.
Hansard, 16 March 2011
All of the preceding comments fall squarely within the protection of Parliamentary privilege.
Mr. Halfon also made comments in The Times (behind the paywall), and it appears this article may have triggered the legal threat from the University.
[As an aside, I look forward to an application from LJMU to force News International to disclose the precise number of page views that the article received. Given the speculation over The Times' online readership, NI might want to fight that one.]
The Independent published an article today, which reported the results of Mr. Halfon’s freedom of information requests to a number of UK universities.
The Durham donations were uncovered by the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, who has started a one-man campaign to expose the links.
He says no university should accept money from Iran because of its repressive attitude towards homosexuals and its long-standing fatwa issued against the author Salman Rushdie.
Durham University accepted £11,000 donation from Iran
The sums involved are significant – today’s Independent article, for example, reports:
JMU was to earn £1.2m for delivering a degree programme at a Libyan university. It has defended the scheme as aiming to “improve the situation of the Libyan people”.
but there appears to be some question as to whether Liverpool John Moores University actually received the money involved. The University’s own statement suggests that it has only received £14,000, for “One 10 day course in Neonatal Intensive Care was delivered to 2 groups of 25 Doctors in November 2010.”
One might reasonably ask if the University will, once its legal fees are factored in, derive much benefit from the activities which Robert Halfon has challenged.
Threatening libel proceedings in these circumstances is a high risk strategy. Merely by doing so, the University has guaranteed attention for them, and Mr. Halfon is, of course, at liberty to use parliamentary privilege to make further statements about the matter. I’ve written before about what happens when lawyers try to intervene in that.
More to follow, no doubt.
Dammit, I should be too old, too mature, too well brought up to be amused by what is ultimately just a knob joke, once removed.
“Reckitt Benckiser to buy SSL for £2.5Bn” may not seem like comedy gold, but Reckitts make the bizarre cleaning product Cillit Bang, and SSL Durex brand condoms.
“Cillit Bang buys Durex”: that’s natively funny.
The lines almost write themselves – from the considered (“I’m just going to put this one out there: vaginal gel found to reduce HIV; next day Cillit Bang buys Durex”) to the surreal (“I’m Barry Scott. BANG and your virginity is gone!”).
There’s probably a serious point to be made about the dangers of cross talk within brand portfolios, especially when an increasing number of conglomerates (Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser among them) have started to promote their own identity as a unifying brand alongside that of their products, but I much prefer a trivial one (courtesy of a colleague):
Reckitt Benckiser own Lemsip.
Reckitt Benckiser are buying Durex.
You do the math.
Politicians are particularly good at delivering car crash television. Michael Howard threatening to over rule, Gordon Brown trying to smile, Ed Balls. Carnage is often just a camera lens away.
But it’s not normally what you expect from Channel 4 News – unless they’re allowing random student politicos to wander in front of their cameras and set back the cause of higher education by years.
Jade Baker, VP Education of Westminster University there. If you voted for her, you must be very proud.
(In Channel 4 News’ defence, the English NUS has been electing that kind of person President for years, and their general uselessness is one small reason why the next generation of students is facing a possible graduate tax)
So you wouldn’t have expected an interview between Zac Goldsmith – scion of the infamous Sir James – and Jon Snow to be particularly exceptional.
You Wanna Watch It
Goldsmith didn’t cover himself in glory. Actually, ‘came across as an unpleasant twit’ is probably nearer the truth, and his “In which case, you wanna watch it” tagline really deserves to become an internet meme.
But it would take a certain kind of chutzpah to turn up on live television waving printouts of e-mails and lie about their content. Goldsmith specifically claimed to have corresponded with Antony Barnett, the reporter whose piece had started the whole farago, about 90 minutes before Channel 4 News aired the original package. He also flatly denied the – frankly pretty odd – assertion from Jon Snow that Goldsmith had said he would only come on the programme if he could be interviewed by Cathy Newman.
Subsequently, on Twitter and elsewhere, Channel 4 News is pushing the line that they had told Goldsmith about the story the previous week, and he had declined to participate. If, as Goldsmith claimed on live television, he was not told until the day of the original broadcast that the piece would air, this claim loses much of its moral force. Moreover, Goldsmith also claims to have provided Channel 4 News with a statement on the day of broadcast.
The whole things is a bit of a mess, and it behoves Channel 4 News to do the obvious and put its case beyond argument.
What makes matters worse is the weakness of the original piece. There is no smoking gun, just a series of innuendos about way in which Goldsmith’s campaign apportioned costs. The story relies, for most of its force, on the ignorance of most viewers as to the simultaneous complexity and non-specificity of electoral funding rules. In particular, it relies upon the ignorance of most as to the existence of the regulated period immediately prior the election, the period during which expenses are most tightly controlled.
Channel 4′s principal claims are that Goldsmith improperly failed to allocate costs to that period, and also allocated some of his costs to local council campaigns. This last is a can of worms of epic proportions. If the Electoral Commission were to take the line Channel 4 News is pushing, and take action against Goldsmith on that basis, we would be faced with dozens, if not hundreds of further inquiries into sitting MPs.
On the plus side, it’s a quick way of reducing the size of the Commons by that 10% Dave is so keen on.
It’s worth comparing and contrasting the reporting of Dave Mundell (Scotland’s only Tory MP) reporting himself to the Electoral Commission because a £700 bill was omitted from his return, particularly as the initial suggestion from Mundell’s team is that the omission actually reflects phasing – the bill was counted at an earlier stage in the campaign.
And of course,
the main enemy our Liberal Democrat allies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. They’re still smarting from the fact that Goldsmith unseated Susan Kramer. Personally, I think they should be grateful someone has the ample free time to challenge Lembit for the mayoral nomination. The LibDems obviously have short memories – perhaps they’ve forgotten the way innuendos against Sarah Teather led to a Parliamentary Standards inquiry – which was never properly concluded, after it turned out the original complaint had been “faked”.
That aside, did anyone else, watching fils Goldsmith, get nostalgic for Sir Jimmy’s 1990s performances in front of the TV cameras?
Never fear: there’s an Adam Curtis documentary which can fill that tycoon sized hole:
Are people in politics allowed to change? Are their views allowed to develop and progress?
No, says Labour’s LGBT campaign, citing the fact that eight years ago David Cameron vote against the omission of “married” from a list of criteria to be used when deciding adoption applications.
No, says the Daily Telegraph, citing the fact that two years ago, an 18 year old Ellie Gellard vented her feelings about Gordon Brown’s conduct during the 2008 Glasgow East by-election in a blog post.
Politics is supposed to be about debate, about making arguments and testing beliefs. We accept – indeed, pin our beliefs about elections – on the idea that people will change how they vote. So why do we expect our politicians to be different?
I think LP Hartley was right – the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Look at your own beliefs, political or otherwise. Are they static or unchanging?
Mine certainly aren’t. I wasn’t yet old enough to vote in 1997, but my immature impulse was to favour the programme Tony Blair offered the country. If I was anything, I guess I was a social democrat, but early contact with committed Labourites at University stopped that, and somewhere between then and now, I became an anarchist. Do I now have to stand on the beliefs of my teenaged self?
There must be scope to learn and develop – and to continue to do so. Will I look back in ten years time at a younger self who thought abolishing government was desirable, and smile wryly? I hope not, but I don’t discount the possibility.
It’s perfectly reasonable for David Cameron and Ellie Gellard to be challenged to explain how they came by their change in views, but expecting them to stand or fall, today, on what they believed and said then is wrong – and moreover is poisonous to our politics.
But this is not the same as absolving them of responsibility for those beliefs and statements, not the same as arguing that they must not take responsibility for them.
Stuart McLennan, Labour’s ex-PPC for Moray, wouldn’t have walked down the street insulting his prospective constituents – but he was happy to announce his views to the world. Personally, I could care less that he used obscenities about other Labour politicians: it’s his behaviour towards the people he claimed to want to represent that was the problem.
If McLennan wants to, he should have the opportunity to explain to a subsequent electorate why he’s changed, why he should be given another chance. And it’ll be for them to decide.
Just as its for Cameron to explain his change of position on LGBT rights, or Gellard to explain how she came to view Brown as she does.
Personally, I’d rather hear from someone who’s views have developed and been tested.
Underneath this all, I think there’s a problem with our approach to information. McLennan’s tweets weren’t secret, anymore than Gellard’s blog or Cameron’s vote. But our society has previously relied on aggregators – or as they prefer to be called, journalists – to conveniently package information and present it to us.
The likes of Daily Telegraph, splashing Gellard across the front page, still want to believe that if they cover it, it’s news – even if what they’re covering is two years old. The Sun, reprinting McLennan’s tweets, are just as bad.
[On a side note: I wholeheartedly agree with Juliet Samuels (aka
The Laughing Hyena Emily Nomates), who argued that the Telegraph and the Mail behaved the way they did at least in part for sexist reasons.]
But political parties are as bad. How could Labour select McLennan as a PPC without bothering to check his past public statements? Gellard’s blog was on a Labour party system, for pity’s sake. Did they think nobody would use Google?
One change the growth in the internet has wrought is a persistence of what would previously have been transient, and a dissemination of what would previously have been private. A young woman holding forth across a pub table about Gordon Brown is unlikely to be held to account for her views two years later, any more than a young man texting a friend about the person seated opposite him.
There’s a choice here: either we censor ourselves, withhold our views, and accept the blandness that follows, or we accept that people change their beliefs, develop their views, and sometimes say things they shouldn’t.
The Digital Economy Bill went through last night. All I’d say about the Conservative decision to support it is that Jeremy Hunt better live up to expectations.
If you want a recap of why this Bill is an affront to civil liberties – never mind democratic procedure, the rule of law, and truth in law making – you should read Mo McRobert’s open letter to Siôn Simon, Pete Wishart, David Lammy, Peter Luff, John Robertson, and Stephen Timms (which I’m also a signatory to).
On a less serious level, David Schneider joked:
Government denies rushed legislation as bill passed to punish illegal downloaders by cutting off their mephedrone
Bring back the Friday Night Armistice!
In an earlier post, I highlighted the horribly illiberal voting records of some of Scouseland’s sitting Labour MPs. Here’s how they voted last night:
|Constituency||MP||Authoritarian %||DE Bill|
|Garston and Halewood||Maria Eagle||100%||In favour|
|Liverpool Riverside||Louise Ellman||90%||In favour|
|Liverpool Walton||Peter Kilfoyle||56%||Against|
|Liverpool Wavertree||Jane Kennedy||83%||Absent|
|Liverpool West Derby||Bob Wareing||13%||Absent|
Do you want to know just how authoritarian Eagle and Ellman are? Ian Paisley voted against.
Yes, that’s right: The Rev. Dr. Ian “Save Ulster From Sodomy” Paisley.
Personally, I’d prefer my MP to be a little more liberal that the good Doctor, but maybe that’s just me.
If you get these people on your doorstep, you know what to do. Once every five years, we live in a democracy: let’s act like it.
Dizzy has done a quick post on the security issues with Cash-Gordon.com, and the *ahem* interesting redirects it was providing.
I was going to blog about Nestle today, and their amusing attempt to develop a presence on Facebook. That’s a substantive story, which offers real world lessons about brand protection and the need for professionalism in public relations even on social media platforms. However, I’ve other things to do, and I’m off to see Salvage at the cinema this afternoon.
The #CashGordon story, on the other hand…
On Saturday, the Conservative Party launched a new front in their attacks on Labour’s
owner trade union backer, UNITE the union. Cash-Gordon.com combined political campaigning and Facebook Connect to create something that should appeal to the people who play Farmville.
Basically, you could accumulate points for completing various tasks, ranging from reading Michael Gove’s speech about “Charlie Whelan’s new militant tendency” (25 points) to donating £5 to the campaign against Jack Dromey’s candidacy for Parliament (50 points). As I say, it should appeal to the kind of people who play Farmville. I’m not one of those, but I am aware their name is Legion, for they are many.
Labour’s fightback took a little while to assemble, but it came this morning, courtesy of Political Scrapbook. Relying on information in the public domain (You will marvel at our journalism!), they exclusively revealed…that the platform Cash-Gordon.com uses is an off the shelf one. In a stunning additional revelation, we were told…it has also been used by US conservatives campaigning against healthcare reform.
Be still my beating heart.
In other news, Labour uses Facebook. This is also used by the BNP.
Possibly my highlight of the morning was this tweet:
It’s not a good situation if you have to all but beg your opponent to engage with your story.
When I commented on the Political Scrapbook story, I referred to Labour’s favourite digital agency, Tangent Labs, who have been responsible for monstrosities such as this (which is vastly improved from its state at launch) and this. If such sites were free, that would be one thing – but Labour paid handsomely for them. ToryBear took a different line on TL, pointing out that Tangent Labs’ owner isn’t just a Conservative donor, he’s a donor to David Cameron personally. That’s an angle Will Straw chose to duck when he rode to Political Scrapbook’s defence, instead repeating Political Scrapbook’s own weak response.
Dizzy then proceeded to hit the debate out of the park, pointing out that Political Scrapbook shares hosting with some pretty odd bedfellows.
Ultimately, this was a non-story, the Twitter echo chamber getting excised about a process issue that nobody outside cares about. Guido Fawkes rather summed up the situation with this:
One political side says that Cash-Gordon.com was a success, the other a disaster. What you believe, probably reflects your preferences.
And then it all went a bit odd: ‘cos it turned out that the Cash-Gordon.com site hadn’t been properly secured. And it promptly fell victim to one or two attacks. At time of writing (1415) the site is down, and I’m not sure it’s coming back.
Maybe after all, #CashGordon and Nestle have more in common that might have been thought!
Having run Robert Booth’s dodgy journalism on the front page of its Saturday edition, the Guardian today waived the opportunity to rely on blaming second string weekend staff.
It didn’t make the print edition (tomorrow?) but Booth has decided to reheat his story about the Young Britons’ Foundation, and its founder, Donal Blaney. Since even the Guardian draws the line at just reprinting the same story, the leftovers are spiced up with news of the resignation of James Cutts.
If your response to that name is “Who?”, you’re in good company. As Keep Right Online pointed out today, Mr. Cutts was hardly a major player, and for a supposed press officer he seems to be in need of the very training YBF offer.
Personally, I find it interesting that Cutts was supposedly unaware of Donal Blaney’s views until now. He’s not exactly new to politics – he was commenting to the BBC as Chairman of a CF branch back in 2001 – so he must be startlingly poorly informed. You might excuse Robert Booth on the grounds that he’s not a political hack (not much call for an architecture reporter to be familiar with conservative politics) but it’s more difficult to credit the idea of a CF-er of that long standing being unfamiliar with Donal Blaney and his blog.
The latest installment of this story has another point of interest, a comment from Gill Marshall-Andrews, Chairwoman of the Gun Control Network:
We are deeply disturbed that elements of the Conservative party are allying themselves with the organisation Young Britons’ Foundation, whose aims include liberalisation of gun laws, and that senior Conservative figures are espousing the views of this disturbing group
But hang on a second – since when was liberalisation of gun laws one of the aims of the YBF? I’d love to see Marshall-Andrews provide a source for that. You’re certainly not going to find anything on that topic on the YBF’s website. She goes on to say
Ordinary people in the UK are fearful of guns and do not want to see a return to the pre-Dunblane situation where pistol shooting was the ‘fastest growing sport’. Then we were clearly heading along the American road, a road we fervently hope that the Conservatives will not take us down again.
Now I’m even more confused. Had anyone – even the more strident Labourite – ever heard the Conservative leadership propose reversing the handgun ban? I mean, I have to assume that Gill Marshall-Andrews has, because otherwise she’s just scaremongering, and doing so with a specific political target (not that it’d be the first time the Gun Control Network has been accused of scaremongering).
Isn’t it a little odd that the Gun Control Network should be commenting on this story, given the lack of a direct link? Let’s just pause to note that Gill Marshall-Andrews just happens to be the wife of Bob Marshall-Andrews, Labour MP for Medway.
On a side note: Medway, as the political geeks among you will be aware, is a significant marginal. Bob Marshall-Andrews has a majority of less than 250 – reduced from over 5,000 in 1997 – and he’s standing down this year. His replacement, Teresa Murray, is expected to lose to the renamed Rochester and Strood constituency to the Conservative PPC, Mark Reckless, who, in a pleasing coincidence, is a close friend of Daniel Hannan MEP…a member of the YBF’s Parliamentary Council.
It’s a small world.
Anyway, perhaps to “Chairwoman of Gun Control Network” we should append “and wife of Labour MP”.
Not that you should assume that a wife necessarily has the same political beliefs as her husband (cf. the Bercows, Cherie Booth on human rights, Samantha Cameron – if you believe the rumours), but it does help to know the background.
All the background.
If you’re wondering why the Guardian would be reheating and reserving this kind of dodgy journalism, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Way back in 2006, George Osborne vowed to move all public sector job ads from newspapers to a new official website. The biggest loser would be the Guardian, which earns millions of pounds every year from public sector recruitment adverts placed in its Society section.
This small conflict of interest – if the Tories get into power, the Guardian could go bust – has been noted before, but with the General Election coming up it is taken on a new importance. Marc Glendenning’s recent article for Conservative Home brought it back into the foreground.
The Guardian are clearly hoping that others will pick up this story, but so far they’ve been disappointed. It made the Telegraph website yesterday, but only as a comment piece from Martin Salter MP – a Vice Chair of the Labour Party. I’d talk about it, but James Dellingpole has already delivered a excellent response on the Telegraph today.
And the only other place which picked up the story? Cairo based IslamOnline.net, an English language Islamic news site.
Which makes me think that Robert Booth and the Guardian be back to try again on this story, and that we’ll see more thin innuendos gracing the front page.
Watch this space.
AMENDED 201003091349: Correcting a typo. Misspelled the word wife h-u-s-b-a-n-d… D’oh!
Depending on who you believe, I spent last Wednesday undergoing indoctrination at the hands of a group of right wing political extremists bent on subverting the Conservative party.
Which is news to me. I thought I’d spent the afternoon in Committee Room 10 of the Palace of Westminster, listening to a selection of Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators talking about policy and campaigning.
How had I missed the truth? Was there simultaneous translation, available via invisible headsets, which translated Liam Fox’s comments on defence policy into a programme for dismantling the NHS? Were they all secretly receiving messages via chips implanted in their heads, which turned Douglas Carswell’s plans for parliamentary reform into a call for a jihad against the infidels who believe in anthropic global warming?
What’s happened is that Robert Booth, a Guardian reporter (and bizarrely, former editor of trade magazine “Building Design”) has been taking a few lessons from his colleagues Jill Treanor and Julian Glover and their interesting approach to “truth” and “reporting”.
Booth, who’s a jobbing news reporter, rather than a specialist politics hack, made the “discovery” that:
Tory parliamentary candidates have undergone training by a rightwing group whose leadership has described the NHS as “the biggest waste of money in the UK”, claimed global warming is “a scam” and suggested that the waterboarding of prisoners can be justified.
The organisation is the Young Britons’ Foundation, and the training – along with the Parliamentary Rally held on Wednesday – is openly advertised on its website.
To put the scale of Robert Booth’s journalistic idiocy into perspective, imagine that I wrote an article for the Telegraph in which I announced to a shocked world that Labour parliamentary candidates had undergone training by a leftwing group whose leadership has lent public support to a despotic regime which imprisons dissidents, including addressing an official state gathering in that country.
The leftwing group would of course be the Trade Unions Congress; the despotic regime that of Fidel and Raul Castro; and the official state gathering the 2009 International Solidarity Conference held by the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba.
I would rightly be criticised for the alarmist tone and attitude which I had taken, and for suggesting that the TUC’s training of Labour parliamentary candidates is therefore suspect.
Robert Booth has done something similar. He has decided to make noise about the fact that one of the YBF’s organisers has political views that Booth does not like or share, and to imply that those views colour the training provided by YBF.
Why is this story news at all? Donal Blaney holds no elected office, nor is he an official of the Conservative Party. He has views that are (unfortunately, in my view) shared by many people in the United Kingdom. He expressed these views on a public website. There, therefore, no “news” in telling me his views.
If this article was somewhere buried in the paper, I would chalk it up to the substandard journalism of an excitable but somewhat uninformed journalist. But the Guardian chose to put this story on the front page of its print edition, and had it as the top story for much of the day online.
It is difficult, therefore, to draw any conclusion except that the newspaper, at a high level, decided to try and make news, to try and drive a political agenda, by inflating, aggrandising, and spinning a story which had little substance.
I expect such behaviour from the Daily Mirror. I expect it, to a more limited extent, from the Daily Mail. I do not, although perhaps I should, expect it from the Guardian.
Interestingly, the editing was as sloppy as the journalism: the online article contained one apparent lie. The sub-headline states
Candidates trained by rightwing group that rubbishes NHS, dismisses global warming and backs waterboarding
yet Robert Booth himself was careful not to suggest this – probably because it doesn’t seem to be true.
I’ve read the Guardian for over twenty years, and have long believed that if you ignored certain unfortunate black spots (I’m looking at you, Toynbee) it was the best UK daily newspaper. Lately, the black spots are multiplying, and the journalism is getting worse – and worse yet, lazier.
I’m not sure how many more times I can read the Guardian with a sense of weary incredulity, before I finally give up.
In a move than surprised nobody, the BBC Director General Mark Thompson rowed back from the mealy mouthed non-denials issued over the weekend.
I’m one of the just under 700,000 people who listen to 6Music, and frankly I’d like to axe Thompson. His proposal makes neither practical nor financial sense, and it speaks to a BBC management that are failing their duty to the licence fee payer.
Let’s start with some numbers.
In 2008/09 – the last year for which figures have been released – 6Music had a budget of £9m. Last quarter, it had an audience of 695,000, and each of those listeners took an average of 5.5 hours of content per week.
Compare and contrast one of the radio stations Mark Thompson doesn’t want to close: 1Xtra. In 2008/9 it had a budget of £9.6m (£600,000 more than 6Music) but last quarter it had an audience of just 531,000, each taking 5.6 hours of content per week.
In other words, the BBC’s considered view is that it should close the station with the lower budget and the higher audience. I’m sure John Birt would be proud.
Of course, you might not pick up on the marked difference in listernership from the BBC Trust’s document, because they chose to take a snapshot back in April 2009. Here’s their chart:
The current picture is somewhat different: Year on year, 1Xtra shed listeners (0.38%) while 6Music grew by over 12%. Quarter on quarter, the numbers are even worse: 1Xtra shed almost 3% of its audience, while 6Music grew by more than 11%. Frankly, the chart which the Trust reproduce is bordering on deceitful. Run those lines forward to the present day, and you’d see 1Xtra start to drop off, while 6Music climbs out ahead of it. What makes matters worse is the fact that these listener figures are publicly available from RAJAR.
And there’s no attempt to justify retaining 1Xtra, beyond saying it makes a “…unique and significant contribution to the purposes of the BBC which provide a very strong case for their levels of investment”, a tag which the Trust, with no sense of irony shares between 1Xtra and Radio 4.
Here’s what the BBC Trust says about 6Music:
Radio 6 Music presents a different challenge. Although small in audience, reaching around 700,000 listeners a week, it plays a wide range of music that listeners do not hear elsewhere and it introduces many listeners to music that is new to them. The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is
distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.
BBC Strategy Review March 2010
I’m having real difficulty with the management double-think that went into that paragraph.
On the one hand, we’re told that 6Music plays music people don’t hear elsewhere, and introduces them to new music. On the other, we’re told it is competing for a “…commercially valuable audience”. How can it be competing if nobody else is putting up any competition?
We’re also told that 6Music has relatively few unique listeners (i.e. most people listen to other BBC services). Funnily enough, that’s about the only place the BBC promotes it – unlike 1Xtra.
As for suggesting that they’re going to spend the money saved on Radio 1, I suggest they try listening to it. For years Radio 1 resembled nothing so much as a cesspit into which someone had dropped a few gold coins. Recently, the gold seems to have been eaten away by the toxic sludge in which it is immersed. If I wanted to listen to the kind of programming Radio1 does, I’d listen to it done properly by a myriad of commercial radio stations – and yet it’s the tension with commercial radio which is supposedly driving the close of 6Music.
Improving Radio 2 would be welcome, but then Radio 2 is already pretty good – provided you don’t tune in before 5pm. Between noon and 5pm, there’s this strange talk radio station using the frequency. It does play some records, but it’s all a bit…odd. They have this weird phone-in show with someone called Jeremy Vine, who if he improves a bit will probably be in the running to replace Roger Philips on Radio Merseyside.
Before noon it used to be better, with Ken Bruce, and before him Terry Wogan. But now…let’s just say that I gave Chris Evans a chance, against my better judgement, before I stopped listening to Radio 2 first thing in the morning.
But after 5pm…after 5pm normal service is resumed. From 5 till 7, Radio 2 has stolen Simon Mayo – and can I just say how nice it is to have lost the inane sports reporting updates, and replaced it with music? 7 till 8pm we get proper genre music shows, with people like Paul Jones and Bob Harris, then Radcliffe and Marconie arrive at 8pm.
If there’s a problem with that line up, it’s only that you have to choose between it and listening to Marc Riley and Gideon Coe on 6Music.
Say I believed that the gems which 6Music produces would be carefully extracted from their setting, and re-set in the Radio 2 schedule: I wouldn’t care about the end of the station. Stations and channels, after all, are losing their importance. But this is the BBC we’re talking about; trusting them to schedule sensitively and preserve quality programmes is like employing an alcoholic to deliver liquor door to door.
I’d wax lyrical about the programmes I love, and how there’s no substitute, but the BBC seems to have acknowledged that – even as they claim they are competing with the commercial sector. I can understand the need to save money, but shutting down services with loyal and growing audiences is not the way forward. Given the lack of any reasoning or explanation, questions need to be asked as to the BBC’s decision to preserve 1Xtra, but axe 6Music.
With careful co-ordination, this weekend brought two major press interviews from Gordon Brown, in the Guardian and Evening Standard, and details of his appearance on Piers Morgan’s “Life Stories”.
The latter two have both focused on Brown the man, not the politician, but it is the last which has attracted most comment – it emerged that Brown had wept when discussing the death of his daughter Jennifer, who died in 2002, a few weeks after her premature birth.
Some reactions were predictable. Harry Cole of Tory Bear wrote:
…an overwhelming show of emotion is one of the last cards a desperate politician has to play. TB has no doubt Brown’s raw emotion displayed was genuine. The pain of losing someone is there everyday, but his timing must be drawn into question.
Iain Dale argued that this (and an Observer interview) may foreshadow a snap election, saying
When I blogged earlier on this week about the Piers Morgan interview I nearly wrote something about Gordon Brown going one better than Katie Price and bawling his eyes out on prime time TV. But I thought it might be considered to be bad taste. That’ll teach me. Next time I will go with my instincts.
Parallels will rightly be drawn between Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan, and David Cameron’s references to his son Ivan, both before and after the latter’s death in February 2009. Cameron has spoke frankly about the way that his experience of raising and caring for a disabled child had influenced his political views (at the time of Ivan Cameron’s death, In the Brown offered a helpful summary of previous references to him by his father).
At the same time, Gordon Brown has been open about his response to his daughter’s death in previous interviews – such that one interviewer last year spoke of having “…no desire to get him to talk about the tragedy again”, and the only true difference with the Piers Morgan interview is the highly public manner in which Brown’s emotions have been displayed.
But Brown has opened himself to criticism in this area. He has previously been seen to criticise Cameron for drawing on his family, for example telling Radio 4:
I am as open and honest as possible. I don’t parade my family around the place. I came from a pretty ordinary background in Scotland
shortly after his wife Sarah had made an impassioned – and highly personal – speech of introduction for him at the Labour party conference.
In my view, the clear difference between the two men’s discussion of their respective children is the clear narrative that Cameron has advanced. His son’s life, and death, rightly plays a significant role in his political philosphy, particularly his approach to health policy and the NHS. It remains to be seen whether Gordon Brown’s public display of emotion over his daughter’s death plays a similarly substantive role in his discussion with Piers Morgan, or whether it is simply emotional colour.
There is, rightly, a perception that Gordon Brown needs to “humanised”, to counter the unfavourable personal impression that the public has of him. It was this that prompted Sarah Brown’s conference introduction – which the Guardian described it as an attempt to “…soften the more peculiar elements of his persona…”, while the Telegraph said she “…urged people to see beyond Mr Brown’s dour exterior…” – and no doubt motivated the Evening Standard and Piers Morgan interview. Whether they succeed will probably only be clear once the public at large have seen the latter on television.
Meanwhile, the PR effort must go on. In an posting on Coffee House, the Spectator blog, James Forsyth argued that
…the emotional moments in Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan have lost much of their potency through being pre-briefed to today’s papers.
While I agree with him on this, any analysis of the PR tradecraft has to consider the objective. By leaking details of Brown’s emotion (and the admission of the Granita pact) this weekend, the story is guaranteed two newscycles – one this weekend and tomorrow, and another when the programme airs – as well as giving Brown’s press minders the opportunity to judge reaction to his performance ahead of the broadcast. This is an aspect Forsyth seems to sense, without seeing (acknowledging?) the value of the preview:
The write-up of the interview in the papers also left me wondering how the electorate will react to Brown saying there was a deal between him and Blair to hand the premiership over to him after Blair had served his stint. Given the current anti-politics mood, I doubt that people will take kindly to two politicians making such a deal behind closed doors and not telling the public about it.
But discussion of tradecraft can sometimes spill over into conspiracy theory. Sky’s Jon Craig, noting that Alistair Campbell also became emotional when interviewed by Andrew Marr, said
I have heard several theories about why Alastair Campbell froze, freaked, wobbled or “lost it” when asked by Andrew Marr on TV about the Iraq inquiry and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
One is that he cracked under the strain of being asked for the millionth time about the dodgy dossier on Iraq, the “45-minute” claim and his old boss Tony Blair’s motives for an unpopular war that cost so many lives.
The second is that he was angry and decided to take a few deep breaths to calm down so he didn’t have an explosion of rage live on the BBC when people at home were tucking into their Sunday morning breakfast.
And the third, a real conspiracy theory, is that he was “road-testing” a strategy of “doing emotional” on TV ahead of Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan, to be broadcast on ITV next weekend.
Personally, if I wanted to road test a new media strategy, I would try it out on a focus group – not a national politics programme – and I would do my road test before allowing my principal to adopt the same approach in a major interview – not wait until he’d recorded it!
All this aside it’s interesting to see how different news outlets reported the same information. The Mirror reduces the entire Morgan interview to nothing more than Brown’s tears (but then – altogether – the Mirror is a rag! Blogs passim). The Daily Mail isn’t normally friendly to Brown, but their piece, focusing on Brown’s emotional reaction, is largely positive. The admission of the Granita pact merits only two minor mentions, but the Times leads with that admission, relegating the discussion of Jennifer Brown’s death to the foot of the article.
It’s obvious which of the two matters historically, but in the shorter term – certainly until May! – the Labour Party communications team will no doubt be hoping Brown’s public display of a father’s emotion will make a difference.