Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leveson's hypocrite's charter

Press freedom is under threat. Politicians, business leaders and a whole host of celebrities are desperate for more laws to bring the beast to heel.
This powerful coalition claims newspapers have run wild for too long.
But, with a few notable exceptions, show me a critic of the press and I will show you a hypocrite with something to hide.
It’s true that what is in the public interest is not necessarily what interests the public. We all like a bit of gossip but that’s not a good defence of press freedom.
Yet there is a fine line between tittle-tattle and holding our governing elite to account.
They may class some of their activities as private – but at what point is it reasonable for a public figure to close the door on “press intrusion”?
Many public figures spend years courting the press, opening up to journalists about the most intimate aspects of their lives, in the hope of selling more CDs, books and films, winning votes or gaining power.
The rich and powerful are always in danger of being carried away by their own publicity and assuming the public interest and their own interests are identical.
When their failings are exposed, they turn on the people they courted for so long.
They blame the press when their marriages break down, they get arrested for breaking the law, they lose an election or they bankrupt one of the biggest banks in the world.
True, newspapers occasionally cross the line between what we have a right to know and what we might like to know.
But sometimes it’s only then that newspapers reveal the deeper truths about those who would command our support, our respect, our attention and our money.
The long list of phone-hacking “victims” who queued up to condemn the press at the Leveson inquiry is a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and famous.
The truth is, though, that phone hacking, like bribing police officers, is illegal. It does not require new legislation to stop it.
All that’s needed is for law enforcers to do their job. Sadly, rather like the watchdogs which failed to regulate the British banking system, they have been caught napping.
There is no reason to destroy the press simply because some people – and it remains to be seen who they might be – have broken the law.
As a nation, we are lucky to enjoy a free press – and by “press” I do mean newspapers.
TV and radio are different. Don’t look to them to expose the next MPs’ expenses fiasco, for instance. And don’t expect them to break news about scandals at your local council or your local hospital.
The press is not free, of course. It is hedged in with laws governing what can and cannot be said, and when.
That’s one reason why you can believe what you read in the papers. We have to tread carefully to make sure we get our facts right.
We have to ensure we are not libelling someone, we’re not in contempt of court or maybe breaking a secret superinjunction.
And there is more to freedom of the press than the ability to delve into the lives of people who would lord it over us.
A free press is the cornerstone of a free society. Once Governments or their placemen decide what you may or may not read, democracy itself is on the slide.
We in Britain take our freedom for granted. We don’t worry about it. We don’t fight for it. Often, we don’t even use it – most of us didn’t vote in the elections for police commissioners, for instance.
Yet it’s no coincidence that this is one of only two countries in Europe which enjoyed uninterrupted democracy for the whole of the 20th century (the other was Sweden).
Press freedom ensured demagogues and dictators never flourished in Britain. Press freedom exposes crimes and scams. Press freedom keeps bureaucracies honest.
Newspapers hold our rulers to account, dissect their statements and their actions, expose their failings and encourage us to consider the alternatives.
Of course newspapers sometimes go too far. Sometimes they make mistakes. That is not a good enough reason for muzzling them.
Critics complain “they’re only trying to sell papers” as if that’s some sort of crime. Actually it is vital to ensuring a free press survives and prospers.
The press is not beholden to the State. Unlike the BBC or Channel 4, newspapers don’t depend on the taxpayer for their survival. The press is a commercial and highly-competitive animal.
This commercial freedom allows the press to stand up to bullying Governments, out-of-control multi-national corporations and self-serving bureaucracies.
The day Government stooges get the power to censor the press, is the day we all become creatures of the State not free men and women.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leveson and the machine gun of lies

How can anyone seriously think of imposing new regulations on the press when the broadcasting media are out of control and the internet is anarchy?

MPs are queuing up to back a legal body to oversee the press – a form of censorship more common in France or some totalitarian state like China or Nazi Germany.

This they see as their chance for revenge against newspapers which exposed the all-party Parliamentary expenses scandal.

They are rubbing their hands in anticipation that Lord Justice Leveson will call for legal restraints on the alleged freedom of the press.

David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry to investigate a non-crime – the supposed hacking of murdered 13-year-old Millie Dowler’s phone by a “News of the World” reporter.

It’s now accepted the offence probably never took place. Yet the inquiry pressed on regardless. Talk about "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story".

In 12 months it cost taxpayers almost £4 million, mostly in lawyers’ fees.

The final bill will much more and will include fees for “participant victims” including Sienna Miller, Max Clifford, Ulrika Jonsson, Abi Titmuss, JK Rowling and Charlotte Church.

Self-righteous “martyrs and victims” like the hilarious Steve Coogan and the clean-living Max Mosley were joined by the versatile Hugh Grant and the peace-loving John Prescott.

They were all given red carpet treatment not just by Lord Justice Leveson but also by the BBC, which revelled in its coverage of how awful the newspapers – especially Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – really were.

Things took an embarrassing turn when Mr Cameron became personally embroiled through his close friendship with ex-News International boss Rebecca Brooks.

However, recent events have made it abundantly clear how irrelevant Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry really is.
The BBC has not been the same since Alastair Campbell and Lord Hutton crushed it over the Blair Government’s sexed-up dossier used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Corporation’s editorial independence was bullied and beaten into submission, replaced by a pointless desire to win the ratings war.

Hence the supine abandonment of “Newsnight’s” investigation into Jimmy Savile and the perverse attempt to make up for it by wrongly identifying Lord McAlpine as a paedophile.

You can’t get much more messed-up than the BBC these days – unless, of course, you are ITV’s Phillip Schofield confronting the Prime Minister with a list of alleged paedophiles gleaned from three minutes on the internet.

This desperate stunt on “This Morning” meant some of the names could be read by viewers – talk about “trial by television”.

The point is, though, that both “Newsnight” and Schofield relied on the rumour, gossip, innuendo and nonsense of the internet to do their dirty work for them.

That’s because, on the world wide web, anything goes. Many people who witter and twitter have no idea they are subject to the same laws and limits as newspapers.

They don’t realise they can be sued for libel or fined for naming rape victims – as nine twits discovered the hard way when they were each fined £624.

If a newspaper editor named a rape victim, he would be fined far more and might well get sacked.

Yet we seem to think Twittering about it is less unacceptable.

It shouldn’t be. On the internet, as Phillip Schofield’s little list showed, anything goes.

If you suggest there should be some limits placed on what you can say via the internet, you get accused of supporting censorship.

There is no doubt the web has given us all more opportunity to express opinions, discuss issues and learn from others.

And there’s no need for new regulations affecting the web any more than there is for newspapers.
Existing laws are available to deal with all the abuses found on the internet. They just aren’t enforced.

Passing off rumour and gossip as fact, or drawing other people’s attention to innuendos and suggestions, are not tolerated in print; why are they acceptable on the internet?

Contrary to popular myth, you can believe what you read in the papers. This is because they have gone to great lengths to get their facts right.

If newspapers get it wrong, they’ll be tens of thousands out of pocket, journalists will be out on the streets and their reputation will be trashed.

You cannot possibly trust much of what you find on the internet. Even sites like Wikipedia are distorted, biased, censored or otherwise “cleaned up”, often by celebrities or their PR teams.

Can you trust broadcasters? The BBC used to be the great bastion of truth; it will take years to recover that reputation.

Newspapers are not paragons of virtue. They do get it wrong sometimes. They have been known to over-step the mark, target innocent people, harass politicians and so on.

But their worst excesses pale into insignificance beside the everyday law-breaking on the internet.

Trying to close a few stable doors after the phone-hacking horse has bolted is irrelevant compared with the urgent need to tackle the abuse spreading like a virus across the internet.

Lord Justice Leveson and his band of bitter backers are busily trying to blunt the newspapers’ sword of truth while ignoring the lethal spray from the internet’s machine-gun of lies.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bellowing for Bellowhead

Went to see The Killers last week at the NEC and they were good. Went to see Bellowhead at the Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms last night and they were great. 

They’re just fantastic fun – an 11-piece folk band with all manner of instruments and invention not to mention energy and enthusiasm. 

The venue is good – standing room only, everyone near enough the stage to see what’s going on (and there’s always lots going on), sound good but not deafening. 

All in all, I would go again tonight if they were on and tomorrow. It’s like listening to a riotous circus in full swing. I don’t care what kind of music you like or how old you are, I defy you not to enjoy an evening of Bellowhead. 

What I think Bellowhead must concentrate on now is a Christmas album. All those traditional festive tunes are perfect for that Bellowhead magic.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The trouble is that the disappearance of old-fashioned sub-editors from newspapers and websites - yes I do mean you, Daily Mail - means you get a serious of extremely basic journalistic errors more or less every day. This is getting series.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Parking mad

If you pick the right day for your Christmas shopping, you might be lucky enough to get to park your car for free.

Across the Black Country and further afield, councils are scurrying around trying to come up with special free parking deals to boost their town centres for the festive spending spree.

So if you plan to go late-night shopping in Stourbridge or Walsall, shop around and you might save yourself £2.50 in parking costs.

The same applies for most of the Saturdays in December.

Councils seem to think that cutting the cost of parking on the busiest shopping days of the whole year will somehow keep their ailing town centres in business for another 12 months.

Their attitude is that they are doing us a tremendous favour by suspending charges for a few days.

Councillor Judy Foster, who is responsible for transport in Dudley, pretty much said as much.

"The suspension of car park charges is seen as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the council and an added incentive for shoppers to visit the borough on the run up to Christmas," she declared magnanimously.

A goodwill gesture? "Goodwill towards whom?" you may well ask.

Is this free parking supposed to be a Christmas present to hard-pressed shoppers from their generous local authorities?

Can it really be the case that local authorities still don't realise they are systematically killing off their town centres?

If they had any good sense, never mind goodwill, they would realise their policy of trying to stop us from using our cars was a major factor in the long, slow, painful decline of Britain's High Streets.

Maybe not as short-sighted as giving permission for out-of-town retail parks and superstores but every little helps.

It is no exaggeration to say many town centres are caught in an agonising death spiral. And parking charges are one of the reasons why.

Out-of-town centres with plentiful free parking are obviously a big factor.

So is the internet. Why bother to go to one of the last remaining CD or book shops when you can download the same thing from the comfort of your own home?

Why traipse round clothes shops when you can order what you want on line and send it back if it doesn't fit?

To make matters worse, many shop landlords bought their properties at the height of the boom.

Now they are stuck with half-empty rows of buildings which are declining in value. So they increase the rents.

That, in turn, prices some retailers out of the market altogether. Small shopkeepers and national chains are both caught by declining sales and rising rents.

This madness leads to more and more charity shops, which don’t pay business rates, and boarded-up buildings.

Things have got so bad Britain's shopkeepers have now set up the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce.

The British Council of Shopping Centres, the British Retail Consortium and the Property Bankers’ Forum plan to spend six months trying to find a way out of this crisis.

Councils should be involved as well. For decades they have seen their biggest shopping centres as lucrative, pain-free sources of revenue.

Business rates and car-parking charges have helped fund many a spendthrift local authority.

Yet with so many shopping centres are in terminal decline, the best they can manage is an occasional "goodwill gesture" for a day or two before Christmas.

The true attitude of local councils is summed up in a recent report for Wolverhampton Council.

It says: "The Council also has a responsibility to promote economic development and regeneration in the City Centre and it recognises that the provision of accessible, high quality car parking is an important factor in the economic success of the City."

So far, so good. But then it says: "At the same time, the Council needs to promote the effectiveness and use of public transport to reduce the reliance on cars and to limit the creation of more car parking spaces."

This attitude would be fine if shopping centres were booming. But they are not. Half the time, they're virtually deserted.

Don't be fooled by the pre-Christmas crush. It's not usually like this. Councils should be haunted by the fear that some of their centres are becoming ghost towns.

The "goodwill gesture" of suspending parking charges in the run-up to Christmas clearly shows councils believe these taxes play a part in deciding where people do their shopping.

It proves they think free parking is a key to boosting their town centres and, therefore, that they are aware their charges deter shoppers. Actually, their policies set out deliberately to alienate motorists.

The conclusion is obvious. If they want to save their town centres, councils should invest in plentiful, accessible, free car parking.

On its own this won't reverse the decline but it would help. And it would give councils a chance to cling on to the taxes and jobs lost every time another shop closes. The cost of lost parking revenue is nothing compared with the high price of longer-term decline.

Councils should realise free parking is for life, not just for Christmas.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Vielen Dank

It’s taken a long time but Gisela Stuart has at last come round to the view that we’d be better off out of the EU. For a German-born Labour MP who was a member of the committee which drew up Europe’s constitution, that’s quite a turnaround. Let’s hope some of her colleagues listen to her words of wisdom and experience.

Roads for the rich

Road tolls rear their ugly heads again under a new plan to force motorists to pay more for using motorways. Amazing how one Government’s least popular plans come to be the next Government’s bright idea. Petrol tax – though it’s too high – is already the best way of raising money from motorists because the bigger your car and the further you travel, the more you pay.

What election and why?

Usually I’d support anything which enlarged democracy – but not in the case of the elections for police chiefs. I’ve had two emails from the Home Secretary urging me to vote but not one word through the letterbox about who the candidates actually are. Why is anybody going to bother to vote? Who are the candidates? What are the differences between them? What real power will they have? What good will they do? Who knows? Yes they have manifestos, some represent parties and they all have lots to say. But this is an election nobody wants and nobody cares about. And I don’t blame them.