Thursday, November 30, 2006

Blair plays with words over English Parliament

In a speech to regional newspaper bosses earlier this week, Prime Minister Tony Blair raised the issue of an English Parliament in terms which some of those present quite understandably interpreted as giving support to the idea. He said that if people in England were asked if they wanted a Parliament like Scotland's they would overwhelmingly agree, adding: "I think to then take it a step further and say, 'Actually we want to bust up the UK'... no, I don't think people want to bust up the UK."

This has since been reported in the Yorkshire Post and followed up by Gareth Young on the CEP newsblog and Iain Dale both of whom justifiably take the PM at his word.

Unfortunately, the transcripts of the daily Downing Street briefings tell a rather different story. Blair's spokesman was specifically asked on the day of the speech whether he supported an English Parliament, and this is what he said:

Asked what the Prime Minister thought of the idea for a devolved parliament for England, the PMOS said that the comments running on the wires from the Newspaper Society event today would cover what the Prime Minister had said including why he values the Union, and he believes that the Union as a whole operates better together as a unit; his argument was that the momentum of history is towards better co-operation and in terms of Regional Assemblies, we have set out our position on that. Asked if the Government believed that there should be an English Parliament, the PMOS said no.

In other words, not for the first time, Mr Blair has been facing both ways at once, allowing an audience of English newspaper editors to think he was receptive to the idea of a Parliament while allowing Tom Kelly to piss all over it once they were safely on the train home.

What he seems to be saying is that the majority of voters in England who say they want their own Parliament are basically wrong - an interesting definition of democracy from our beloved leader.

Other recent interesting bloggage on the English Parliament issue from:

Iain Dale - 68pc want English Parliament but Cameron doesn't
Dizzy Thinks - Is the Union finished?
Little Man in a Toque - One Helluva Beating, and
Skipper - Labour's devolution strategy in danger of unravelling.

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Press Gazette: Yep, something's up.

Two days on from my mischievous post about the future of journalism trade mag Press Gazette comes confirmation from its website that fresh talks are indeed now under way to save the business.

My assertion that PG staff were still hard at work despite having been made redundant last week was initially met by the retort that they had just gone in on Tuesday to clear their desks and collect their p45s. But it seems to be taking them a while to do it, as the phones continue to be manned this morning.

An anonymous poster - they do have their uses occasionally - points out that the story posted last Friday night saying that the editorial team had been all made redundant has been taken down, and speculates that MD Simon Read and sales director Paul Beard may be involved in a new set-up.

The printed mag, which had a circulation of under 5,000, is clearly dead, but there is mounting speculation within the industry is that PG will indeed be relaunched as a web-only product.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Victim impact statements: credit where credit's due

Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to know that I think New Labour has done some good things in its nine and a half years in power - the minimum wage, devolution to Scotland and Wales, the restoration of London-wide governance, for instance. The problem is that most of the good things were done in the first couple of years and since then the Government's radicalism has been in short supply.

An exception, though, has to be made for the introduction of Victim Impact Statements, allowing those affected by crime to address judges prior to convicted offenders being sentenced.

I defy anyone not to be moved by the statement from Adele Eastman, fiancee of 31-year-old lawyer Tom ap Rhys Price, who was stabbed to death outside his home in North London. The scum who killed him were duly caged for life with minimum sentences of 17 and 21 years respectively.

Well done Tony. For once, you have managed to make good your oft-made pledge to "put the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system."

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An occasional series dedicated to bringing choice quotes from the blogosphere to a slightly wider audience.
No 3.

"A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn't. A man marries a woman expecting that she won't change, but she does."

From "How Men and Women Differ," on The Bailey Blog.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Press Gazette to ride again?

The journalists' trade mag Press Gazette closed last Friday to general lamentation within the industry, but my sources tell me that despite officially having been made redundant, its dedicated team of scribes are still at their desks and hard at work. Whatever can it mean?

Update: Martin Stabe has the answer in the comments. Meanwhile, I can't beat this analysis of why the mag folded. It was basically cannibalised by its own website, which highlights a dilemma currently facing dead-tree publishers everywhere.

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The trashing of Michael Grade

Okay, so no-one thinks the BBC is going to be doing cartwheels over the news that its chairman, Michael Grade, has defected to ITV, but the corporation's treatment of the story this morning has been a disgrace. Sheila Fogarty's two-way with Jeff Randall on Five Live - "I suppose the question to Michael Grade today is why he has accepted this million-pound job offer from ITV" - was fairly typical of the tone of the coverage.

Well, excuse me, but why is it considered such a crime in big media circles for someone to defect to a rival for a much higher salary? Especially, in this case, when you take into account Grade's historical and family connections with ITV.

The truth of the matter is that Michael Grade has earned himself a permanent place in the history of the BBC on account of two actions he took when he was the corporation's Director of Television in the mid-1980s.

The first of these was to start a weekly soap-opera, something that had never been done on the BBC before. It was called EastEnders and, whether you love it or loathe it, without it the BBC would probably now be reduced to the status of America's tiny National Broadcasting Service.

The second of Grade's great achievements was arguably even more far-reaching. In July 1985, he took the unprecedented decision to clear 17 hours of programming time for a pop-concert, realising before anyone else at the BBC that Live Aid was something that was going to be bigger than all of them.

His reward for that was to be overlooked for the Director-Generalship in 1987 and then sacked by John Birt. He owes nothing to the BBC, and has every right to fill his boots in what will certainly be his last TV job without carping from his former employers.

Mind you, the BBC is not alone in this. A year or so back, Heston Blumenthal decided he'd had enough of being the Guardian's Saturday food writer - fairly understandable when you consider that his restaurant has been awarded three Michelin stars and other media opportunities were opening up for him.

Last week, the Graun responded with this unbelievably bitchy review of Blumenthal's book "In Search of Perfection," followed a day later by this equally vitriolic piece on the TV programme of the same name. Get over it, Mr Rusbridger.

Update: The Guardian displayed its open-mindedness by featuring this post in its Best of the Web listing on Comment is Free earlier today, although it's been taken down now. Meanwhile journalism blogger Static Squid voices his agreement.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Can the Tories become the caring party?

Following David Cameron's attempts last week to persuade people that it is the Tories who really care about the poor, I return to the Political Cross Dressing theme in my latest Podcast which is now live. A text version is also available on the companion blog HERE.

"If the Tories take their argument about relative poverty through to its logical conclusion, they will be able to ask some pretty hard questions of Labour come the next election....I have posed the question before in this column whether Mr Cameron’s Tories might end up to the left of Labour, and the week’s events have again highlighted that possibility."

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More developments on Political Opinions

The excellent new political blog aggregator Political Opinions continues to add new features. As well as allowing users to create their own homepages featuring their favourite blogs, this is now also available in RSS feed form.

It means I can now introduce a "Best of the Blogosphere" feature onto this blog which will list the five most recent posts from what I currently consider to be the Top 10 political blogs in the UK, namely:

Conservative Home, The Daily, Dizzy Thinks, Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale's Diary, Labour Watch, Liberal England, Political Betting, Skipper, and The UK Daily Pundit.

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Andy Robinson

It seems that Andy Robinson is now seeing out his last hours as England Rugby Coach following the team's dreadful performances in the autumn internationals.

I have nothing really to add on this subject to what I wrote on March 13 this year after England lost 31-6 to France in the Six Nations. Quite why it has taken the RFU so long to act is beyond me.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Cameron campaign "the product of a coke crazed ad-exec"

I always had a sneaking admiration for Paul Keating, the former Australian PM given to using somewhat colourful language about his opponents. On one occasion he referred to opposition MPs as "scumbags," on another to the then opposition leader Andrew Peacock as a "gutless spiv." An exhaustive list of Keating's insults can be found HERE.

Of course, such things would never be allowed in our own House of Commons, although the Warley MP John Spellar did once use the word cunts in the Chamber.

But should we be so hung up about so-called "unparliamentary language?" Or should it be fair dinkum for British political parties to go around using words like Inner Tosser?

Norman Tebbit thinks not. He said today: "There is no foul language nor physical or moral degradation which is not now embraced by the current orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the orthodoxy has reached the Conservative Party. It is not a word I would even use about Polly Toynbee."

For my part, I tend towards Guido's verdict on the Tories' new anti-debt campaign - that it was an idea best left in the men's room. "It has all the hallmarks of being the product of a coke-crazed ad exec's inspired idea thought up after lunch in Soho," he says.

A coke-crazed ad-man? In the Tory Party? Whoever can he mean?

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Time for a Blog Cull?

"There are now 57 million blogs worldwide and mainstream media have jumped on the bandwagon, often with no more thought about why they were doing it.

"Editors are to blame. First for not recognising that blogging requires specific skills and providing training for those journalists they want to blog. Second, for not working out what is the purpose of these blogs. Third for not reading their publication's blogs and culling those that are serving little purpose."

I am not a protectionist by nature, but Grant Campbell-Adamson, writing in Press Gazette's Discuss Journalism slot, is talking a great deal of sense here.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Nick Clarke 1948-2006

Lots of tributes across both the blogosphere and of course the BBC tonight for Nick Clarke who has lost his battle against cancer, aged 58.

Apart from listening to his mellifluous tones picking apart the big political story of the day on The World at One for nine years - the programme was pretty well required listening for lobby hacks - my most lasting memory of Nick will be of the time he actually interviewed me, in the course of my "15 minutes of fame" back in October 1998.

For those unaware of the story, the previous day I had attended a regional lobby lunch with the then Bank of England Governor Eddie George as the main guest. In the course of it I secured from him the devastating admission that he regarded lost North-East jobs as an "acceptable" price to pay for beating inflation in the overheating South.

It caused a major political furore at the time and Clarke was one of a number of broadcasters who followed-up the story for their programmes. I got the impression he was a bit sceptical about whether George really had said it, but he was unfailingly courteous nevertheless.

As I have said before on this blog, I am not a huge fan of the John Humphreys style of interrupting interviewing, but Nick Clarke was the very antithesis of that.

I rated him alongside PM's Eddie Mair as the best BBC radio journalist of his generation and there is no doubt he will be sorely missed.

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The English Anthem

This bewhiskered old cove is Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, composer of perhaps the greatest of all sacred choral anthems, I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me. I sang it many times as a choirboy, most memorably to HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother when she came to rededicate our church following a refurbishment in 1979.

Sir Hubert Parry, as he was known, is perhaps better known for having composed the tune to William Blake's Jerusalem, which I have long advocated should be the English, as opposed to the British, national anthem.

So I'm glad to see that indefatigable campaigner Little Man in a Toque making use of No 10's much-vaunted new e-petitions functionality to argue for England to get an anthem of its own at long last.

Should you feel so inclined, you can sign it HERE.

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And another one....

The blog memes are coming thick and fast this morning. Hard on the heels of Mr Dale's top 10 challenge comes the Birthday Meme, this time from Mars Hill's Paul Burgin.

The challenge is as follows:

1) Go to Wikipedia
2) In the search box, type your birth month and day but not the year.
3) List three events that happened on your birthday.
4) List two important birthdays and one death.
5) One holiday or observance.

Here are mine, with comments in red italics:

Three things that happened on my birthday

1851 - Herman Melville's Moby Dick is first published as The Whale. Never read it though...

1922 - The British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) is founded to establish a national broadcasting service. Long may it continue...

1968 - Bob Beamon (pictured) sets a world record of 8.90m in the long jump at the Mexico Olympics. This becomes the longest unbroken track and field record in history, standing for 23 years. I genuinely believe this to be the sporting achievement of the 20th century. He broke the record by the best part of a metre.

Two important birthdays

1919 - Pierre Elliott Trudeau, fifteenth Prime Minister of Canada (d. 2000) Probably the most well-known politician on the list although I could also have had the former Greek Culture Minister, Melina Mercouri.

1956 - Martina Navrátilová. The greatest.

One death

1978 - Ramón Mercader, Assassin of Leon Trotsky (b. 1914) In the immortal words of The Stranglers: "He got an ice-pick that made his ears burn."

One holiday or observance

Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist. My birthday often coincides with a late warm spell and is known colloquially as St Luke's Summer in parts of rural England.

I'm not going to tag anyone else to do this in case I get another one sent to me, and I need to get on with some work! But anyone who wants to try this out can leave their answers in the comments below.

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The Dale challenge: 10 things I would never do

The great blog chieftain himself Iain Dale has issued a challenge to me among other bloggers to name the top ten things I would never do - other than standing as a Tory candidate or posing in front of a Henry Moore statue, of course.

Anyway here goes:

10. Use the cane in order to discipline my son.
9. Take part in Big Brother, the X-Factor, or any show called "I'm an ex-Lobby hack, get me out of here."
8. Get a tattoo.
7. Declare my allegiance to any Head of State other than my Queen and her successors.
6. Support Man Utd or Chelsea.
5. Get divorced, although I guess it might not be solely my choice.
4. Climb Broad Stand, the crag that separates Scafell Pike from Scafell.
3. Take smack.
2. Convert to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Atheism or any other anti-Christian belief.
1. Top myself.

I'm supposed to tag 10 other bloggers to take part in the challenge, so because I know most of them visit here fairly regularly, I'm nominating: Inamicus, Skipper, Paul Burgin, Adele Reynolds, Stalin's Gran, Femme de Resistance, Little Man in a Toque, James Higham, Lactose and My Own Voice.

November 27 Update: So far, Paul, Skipper and James have compiled their lists on their blogs, while Gran has left his in the comments. Meanwhile Praguetory has provided this amazing analysis of the meme's progress through the blogosphere!

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Are elections always won from the centre ground?

Lord Saatchi says not, saying that Margaret Thatcher disproved the "dinner party myth." Iain Dale disagrees, arguing that the 1979 manifesto on which Thatcher won was much more centrist than is generally supposed.

So who's right? Well, I'm going to sit on the fence for the time being and say I have some sympathy with both points of view.

In his pamphlet published yesterday, In Praise of Ideology, Lord Saatchi said people were losing faith in politics because there was so little difference between the parties. In the light of the declining turnout at recent elections, it is very hard to argue against this standpoint.

"The pragmatism of the centre ground turns politics into a commodity market - because pragmatism leads to opportunism, which leads to cynicism. People can spot a left/right 'positioning exercise' a mile off. The motive for these moves is too transparent. Voters always suspected that politicians would 'say anything to get elected'. Now they know it's true."

On the other hand, I do agree with Dale when he says that David Cameron needs to continue his move towards the centre ground, because of the particular electoral circustamces in which his party now finds itself.

"You cannot win purely with the support of your own core voters. Instead you have to appeal to a wider body. This is the lesson of the last 10 years in which the Conservatives have languished in opposition. Continually banging on about the same old message in the same old way is not going to appeal to those who find themselves disillusioned with politics and politicians."

Historically speaking, of course, the truth about elections is much more complex. While it is true to say that elections are not won from extreme positions, as Labour found in 1983 and the Tories in 2001, that is not the same as saying that the party with the most "centrist" position invariably wins.

If it was, I suspect the Liberals and their successor parties might have had a bit more success than they have had over the past 100 years!

My own view is that a political leader needs both the Saatchi approach and the Dale approach if you like, a clear ideology tempered by a willingness to compromise when necessary.

The lack of an ideological compass won't necessarily prevent David Cameron from becoming Prime Minister, as Tony Blair discovered. But it will prevent him from becoming a good one.

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The Mars Hill Interview

Paul Burgin's Mars Hill is one of the most thoughtful Labour blogs around and one that I visit most days. So I am delighted to have become the latest blogger to take part in his long-running "Twenty Questions to a Fellow Blogger" series - I think I'm No 21!

Alongside questions about favourite blogs, Bond movies, books, songs and characters from history, Paul also quizzes me on my political views and what I think I learned from my time in the Lobby. You can read the full interview HERE.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My Ashes Prediction

As even a visitor from the Planet Xandon would know by now, The Ashes get under way tomorrow, with Australia seeking to wrest back the urn so dramatically won by England two summers ago.

I don't want to be accused of being negative, but I don't have a particularly good feeling about it if the truth be told. When we won in 2005, we had the benefit of Michael Vaughan's brilliant captaincy, Marcus Trescothick's 430 runs, and Simon Jones's lethal reverse swing. Yet all will be absent when the contest gets under way tomorrow.

At the same time, the Aussies, having had a few poor sessions at key moments in the last series, appear to have regrouped and their ageing yet wonderfully talented team now seems fired up for what will surely be its last hurrah.

So on balance, I think it's Australia to win, probably by 3-1, with one Test drawn. But that said, my cricketing predictions should probably be given even less credence than my political ones!

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An occasional series dedicated to bringing the best comments from the blogosphere to a slightly wider audience.
No 2.

"The enemy is not to be found among the Christians, however outlandish their beliefs may appear to the world. The enemy is among those who seek to deny those liberties for which some of us died. Open your eyes."

Cranmer, commenting on a current post on Guido Fawkes.

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Time to let the Big Clunking Fist do its work

The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley speculated at the weekend that the image of a "Big Clunking Fist" would not necessarily be helpful to Gordon Brown and Labour. I had thought about doing this line too, but having thought about it I decided I disagreed with it.

Labour has been pussy-footing around with the Boy Cameron for nearly a year now - and a Big Clunking Fist is exactly what is needed. Here's what I ending up saying in my Saturday column and Podcast.

"Mr Blair’s attempts to demonstrate that there is life in New Labour yet have again been overshadowed by further developments in the cash-for-peerages affair. Thursday’s confirmation that “significant and valuable material” had been uncovered makes it all-but-certain that the matter will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, meaning it cannot now possibly be resolved before Mr Blair leaves office.

"In the light of that, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would be in the Labour Party’s best interests if the change of leadership was to happen sooner rather than later. It’s time to let that big clunking fist – whoever it belongs to – get stuck in."

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Friday, November 17, 2006

New Labour, New Media

Some fairly heavy shit on Guido's blog at the moment about the impact of new media on the relationship between politicians and the public, following some rather unwise comments by departing No 10 policy wonk Matthew Taylor.

Blaming the internet for fuelling the "crisis" between politicians and voters, Taylor said: "The big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years [is] basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, and mendacious politicians are."

As usual, New Labour is trying to have it both ways. After all, as my old lobby colleague Nick Assinder has noted, the Government is currently playing about with new media like an excited child who has just discovered computer games.

Environment Sec David Miliband has his famous taxpayer-funded blog, the Downing Street website has its new e-petitions functionality and Mr Blair this week staged an online interview, mediated by the politically-balanced pairing of old leftie Will Hutton and youngish Tory Anne McElvoy.

I don't blame Downing St for trying to harness the power of Teh Interwebs, but surely they should not complain when the public, and specifically political bloggers, do the same.

Mind you, up against twisted genii like Tim Ireland who are prepared to do this sort of thing, you can maybe see why they are so afraid.

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Time to bury Milton Keynes?

Given the intellectual and political triumph of free market economics in the 1980s, I was always rather surprised that the Thatcher Government allowed the last of the new towns to be called Milton Keynes as opposed to Milton Friedman. Maybe now that the great economist has died, someone will suggest renaming it in his honour.

It wouldn't be the first time. Until the 1970s Milton Keynes did not actually exist as a place, being then three separate villages called Wolverton, Stony Stratford and Great Linford. There's an old family picture somewhere of my uncle standing beside the village signpost before it was swallowed up by the sprawl.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Justice for Mirza

Regular readers will know my views on the death penalty, so I was mightily relieved to learn that the death sentence imposed on British-born Mirza Tahir Hussain by an Islamic court in Pakistan has been commuted to life imprisonment.

This is almost certainly down to the recent intervention of the Prince of Wales, demonstrating that he has his uses in spite of the predictable sniping about him from those who seem to think now would be a good time to start dispensing with British traditions.

But a special mention should also go to Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads for this piece, entitled Bloody Darkies, highlighting the initial failure of the British press to report Mirza's plight.

It is probably the best piece of online journalism I have read on any blog over the past 12 months.

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An occasional series dedicated to bringing the choicest comments from the blogosphere to a slightly wider audience.
No 1.

"The primary advantage of Labourhome over ConservativeHome is that LH is not dedicated to lining up the entire British working class and buggering them one by one."

Alex Hilton, owner of Labour Home and Recess Monkey, interviewed on the Mars Hill blog.

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But whose Big Clunking Fist?

The next election contest, said Tony Blair yesterday, will be "a flyweight versus a heavyweight." He said of David Cameron: "However much he dances around the ring beforehand he will come in reach of a big clunking fist and, you know what, he'll be out on his feet, carried out of the ring."

He's right about Cameron, of course. The public will find him out before long and the Tories will discover that they have massively overestimated the impact that Blair's departure will have on their electoral prospects.

But did Blair's comments constitute the long-awaited endorsement of Gordon Brown, as seems to be the consensus this morning, or could it be, as The Sun suggests, that John Reid could still be the one to send the Boy David crashing to the canvas?

After all, as the commentator Peter Dobbie wrote a few years' back, the Home Secretary does have something of a reputation as a pugilist in Westminster circles.

What does seem to be clear is that Blair has endorsed Brown or Reid, as opposed to any other candidate - which is exactly how it should be. The two of them are head and shoulders above any other candidates when it comes to experience, gravitas, and the ability to command an audience, and if there is to be a contest, then those should be the two names on the ballot paper.

In other words, it's surely now time for Hutton, Milburn, Johnson and all the other John Major-alikes to crawl back under their stones and let the real men fight it out.

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