Friday, August 24, 2007

The Value of Reason

While over at A Very British Dude where I discovered the clip in my previous posting I saw that he had come across another interesting clip that I'd seen at Samizdata. I'd meant to post it because it was absolutely fascinating, but couldn't really think how to sum it up. It tackles certain perceptions about the developing world, and takes a hard headed scientific approach to the economics and population trends involved. It's a bit hard to sum it up beyond that, so just take a look:

I can't say I bought into a couple of the propositions put forward, but overall it's a great piece of clear headed thinking that dispenses with some of the more emotive language and moral blackmail that so often surrounds the subject.

An Issue of Trust

Jackart, at A Very British Dude has come across a clip which highlights one of the many things going wrong with the police forceservice today:

I quite liked the exhortation in the original posting to "watch this simian thug and the slack-jawed chavette of a sidekick with her hands in her pockets, and tell me the police are the servants of the people". On further reflection though I'm not sure that monkeyboy and chavette are entirely to blame for their stupid mistake of making up fictitious law as they go along. Sadly there does seem to be a change in the attitudes of the police that goes all the way to the top, and it's not entirely surprising that some less able officers at the coalface take their queues from them.

There have been a succession of demands from the police for sweeping new powers, calls that the current government, with its penchant for control freakery, tend to be sympathetic to. Calls for extended powers of detention without trial have been made in a fairly public way, for example. I feel on these type of issues organisations like the Association of Chief Police officers have crossed the line into politics far too often, but at least the debate has been in the public domain. More insidious have been the subtle changes that were lobbied for, and incorporated at the last minute into Acts such as various Criminal Justice Acts, and legislation such as that for ID cards, once the general Media spotlight had dimmed.

A case in point would be the ability of the police to trawl the National Identity Register for fingerprints. In its original form this power was substantially restricted to only case of the direst need; by the time the act was passed most meaningful control had been removed. It followed a similar path down which the regulation of the collection of DNA samples passed some time ago. You can only take samples from those accused of serious arrestable offences? No problem, just wait a while and make nearly all offences arrestable.

Good policing depends on the trust and faith of those being policed. It's a lesson current senior members of the police service have forgotten, other than in the case of specific minority groups. The increasing crass handling of the concerns of people outside of these groups could come at a very heavy price.

When I was in my late twenties I would generally say that most of my peers generally had a great deal of respect for the police, other than the odd bit of frustration over the occasional motoring offence. A decade later, probably at an age where people in times gone by would have been putting aside any youthful distrust of the police, the same kind of reasonable people seem as a whole to have an ever increasing distrust of the service.

A few weeks ago I met a group of friends who were chatting to an off duty police officer in one of the local pubs. He was of our age, and seemed a decent enough bloke, but the feeling of 'them and us' was palpable, even in a midst of as middle a class, law abiding, middle of the road group as you are likely to find anywhere. After he left, the use of certain epithets for his profession that I've always tried to avoid became the norm.

The police need to start to see themselves as others see them, and it's the people at the top who need to open their eyes first, otherwise they will end up with more generations of the type of officer the video clip showed.

The Beneficial Crisis Returns

Christine Lagarde
Christine Lagarde
The use of the 'Beneficial Crisis' in EU circles is well documented. So quickly do suggestions for further EU integration follow any disaster, be it an act of man or God, that it is hard not to suspect that there must be some unit buried deep in the bowels of the Commission dedicated to scanning the media for opportunities for the EU to extend its powers. Floods? even more centralised control in the name of climate change, which may or may not have been involved. Terrorist incident? Harmonise the criminal justice systems, that will strike fear into the heart of every terrorist. Mrs Miggin's cat gets stuck up a tree? Harmonise pet welfare laws.

The French are the past masters at this technique, and now seem poised to chance their arm at using the same methods at the Autumn meeting of G7 finance ministers.

According to the International Herald Tribune:
France said Wednesday that the recent turmoil in credit markets had strengthened its case for tougher regulation of global financial markets and that it would press ahead with proposals at a fall meeting of Group of 7 finance ministers.

...[Christine Lagarde, French finance minister] said that France and Germany, two countries she described as being "at the heart" of the initiative, were determined to use the current crisis as a catalyst for a stricter global rule book.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Now, I don't think that Gordon Brown has the same pretensions to be a fluent French speaker as his predecessor, however in this case he should only need a limited range of vocabulary; "Non" should suffice.

Much of my work takes me to the fringes of the finance industry, and opinion on recent rounds of regulation, much of it EU inspired, is unanimous. It is costly, bureaucratic and ineffective. As the IHT points out, Economists and investors are skeptical, and the recent market shocks are much more effective in making banks and investors reassess how they manage the risks in their portfolios.

I suspect the Franco-German axis will be thwarted when the meeting come around. For all his many faults, the Prime Minister has been pretty consistent in his opposition to most additional regulation in the financial markets, even when Blair may have been swayed by his obsession with being 'a good European'.

M Lagarde continues with her typical Gallic line:
"There is a growing case for better state involvement on a coordinated basis in various areas, one of which is stock markets and financial markets."

Source: International Herald Tribune

I think we can safely read 'more' for 'better' as that generally tends to be the French approach on most things, because 'better' might imply getting rid of ineffective and pointless existing measures which is something that is very unlikely to happen.

When I started this blog, one of my earliest posting was one about hope for a new dawn in French politics with Sarko. I think even then that I knew from a British perspective, that what we would get would be a bit of a mixed bag. It has certainly proved to be the case. In many ways Sarko has represented a break from the past, and has certainly vastly improved the international image of France.

In other ways it was always going to be a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.

The Pressure Mounts

Ian Davidson MP
Ian Davidson MP
Following on from yesterday's developments as more unions called for a referendum on the upcoming EU treaty, has come news of similar rumblings within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself.

The exact number of of Labour MPs discontent with the party line on not holding a referendum is estimated by various sources as being between 40 and 100, certainly, even at the lower end, enough to bring significant discomfort to the Prime Minister. Names are thin on the ground, however Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow South West has bravely stuck his head over the parapet, according to the Telegraph:
And Mr Davidson urged the new Prime Minister to abandon Tony Blair's later refusal to hold a vote on the new EU treaty just as he tore up his predecessor's plans for a giant super-casino.

Mr Brown should appeal to other EU leaders to realise that he was now under "domestic pressure" and needed to give way on the referendum, the MP said.

"He could honestly say: a bad boy (Mr Blair) did this and ran away," Mr Davidson told The Daily Telegraph.

Source: The Daily Telegraph

The Telegraph also notes that Gwyneth Dunwoody, never one to let the needs of the party get in the way of doing what is right, has also voiced support for a referendum. The original article is worth a look for the picture of how much Angela Merkel enjoyed the Dour One's company at Wembely alone.

This is excellent news and carries none of the risks that concerned me in my posting on union support for a referendum. Of those who have spoken up, there seems to be a clear matter of principle in play. While most of the known names hail from the left of the Labour party and would doubtlessly very much like to see the rights charter have full legal force, the way they are positioning themselves has left no room for them to be bought off by any such tinkering with the final treaty. For them to drop their support in return for inclusion of even more of the original constitution would be completely untenable.

I suspect as more names become known they will generally be people with whom I would agree on very little, but I applaud them fully for their principled stand.

Dashed Hopes

Big Brother
Only a temporary reprieve
How my spirits soared when I saw the headline "Celebrity Big Brother Axed" on the SkyNews website. Sadly the title soon changed to "Celebrity Big Brother 2008 Axed" and it transpired that the nightmare is scheduled to return after a year's hiatus; I suppose it would only have been a single drop gone from the ocean of mindless reality TV programming, but I guess every little helps.

Sadly I'm sure the public's addiction to such mind-numbing crap will continue unabated for some time to come, as will the broadcaster's willingness to fill the gaps in the schedules that the ever increasing bandwidth available to them creates. Every year brings it's own fresh crop of 'Celebrity X, Y and Z' and each year X, Y and Z become either more bizarre or more anodyne.

What I really struggle to think of is any case of a broadcaster whose increasing range of channels has brought with it any real increase in total quality output, other than those that have opted basically to have a re-runs channel. I've even had to go and check that ITV4 is actually available on Freeview because of upcoming Rugby World Cup coverage, so disinterested have I become in its ilk.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Dilemma for Gordon?

False Friends
Part of the fight or false friends?
The pressure on the Prime Minister over the call for a referendum on the resurrected European Constitution continues (and yes I have decided to trust the views of the leaders of the other 26 member states, rather than my own in calling it what it really is).

Union after union is now calling for a demand to be made for a referendum on the treaty at the TUC conference. Initially I was heartened by the news.

As I've highlighted in several other posts I believe that regardless of your views on further European integration it is high time for a public consultation. If you are generally pro EU you should be concerned about the prevailing feeling that the EU is something 'done to' the UK and welcome a chance to make your 'Positive Case for Europe' and seek a vote of confidence. If you are against further integration a chance for your voice to be heard is clearly welcome. The arrival of a new Prime Minister, to whom the public, rightly or wrongly, seem to have awarded a clean slate should be enough to assuage concerns that the people would vote based on factors other than the proposition in front of them.

Unfortunately hearing some of the union leaders interviewed on radio my hopes, I must admit, have turned to fears. They appeared to have little interest in the need of the people as a whole to be consulted on major constitutional issues such as this, and even less in the fundamental iniquity of a government reneging on a clear manifesto commitment that was designed to nullify a potentially damaging issue at the polls. No, they just want the full weight of the social elements of the proposed arrangements to help them strangle British business.

It was abundantly clear that were the Prime Minister to drop his opt out on the charter of fundamental 'rights', with its provisions on rights to strike, support for a referendum would evaporate like Scotch mist. From the little the Prime Minster lets know of his basic instincts I wouldn't put it past him to accept this when weighed against the risks of a referendum. His excuses are already so wafer thin, that I suspect he would judge that he has absorbed almost all the political damage he is likely to take. I suspect that for the four opt outs, that he foolish believes convince the British people that the treaty taking shape is different from the proposed constitution, to become three may be reckoned to be less damaging to him than a full on confrontation with the unions.

There is a very real danger, in my opinion, that the intervention by the unions could be very far from helpful, and could indeed produce an even worse outcome than the Gordon's current plan to raise one finger of the great clunking fist to the British people.

As an aside, I have been wondering about some of the speculation about a snap election in October. Many reasons that it may be a bad idea from the Prime Minister's perspective have been advanced, most notably the state of Labour party finances. I can't help feeling that an important one has been overlooked.

Last time I heard a schedule, the IGC was scheduled to have produced the final shape of the new treaty sometime in October. This would naturally push the issue of the EU and a referendum way up the news agenda.

Would a party really want to be launching a manifesto, when one of the most deceitful manifesto promises of recent times in their last offering to the people was about to come under the spotlight in such a prominent way?

Congratulations and Concerns

GCSE Results
Another bumper crop of A's and A*
according to the Ministry
First of all, congratulations to anyone who has got the GCSE results they were hoping for today, or perhaps more likely to the parents of any such student. I'm convinced that as a species we are getting brighter and that other than a few problems sectors pupils today are working harder than they ever have done, aware of the tough competition out there in the real world.

I mean it but, even if I didn't, it's something you have to say anyway, lest you be accused of disrespecting the efforts of those sitting the exams. It's the 20-somethingth year of rising numbers of A and A* grades, and also the 20-somethingth year in which the same tired old line has been trotted out to attack anyone who has the temerity to ask whether the exams are as challenging as they used to be.

Yet these questions have to be asked. Just like a currency, the strength of an examination system is underpinned by the general confidence in its integrity.

There are clear concerns which do need to be addressed, otherwise, regardless of the merits of the case, the system will become tainted. Simply using moral blackmail to try to close down the debate does everyone a disservice.

Of the concerns raised there are three that I feel deserving of fuller consideration than a Minister and a representative of the examination boards simply saying 'there is no problem'; neither have the objective neutrality for their assurances to carry much weight.

Firstly there are the simple numbers. If the persistent growth in top level grades year on year is indeed entirely down to improvements in the educational system, educators the world over would be beating a path to our door to emulate our success. As it happens they do come, but they tend to opt for the old style O-level examinations which are still offered outside the UK.

The consistent inflation in success on all measures would be enough to make any scientist suspicious, especially in the absence of causative factors to explain them; a massive school building programme is unlikely to explain a growth in success before the plans have reached the drawing boards, but this won't stop a government claiming success. It all seems a little bit too much like someone points being plotted on a graph where the line showing the desired results has already been drawn.

Secondly there is the testimony of those who next encounter the successful examinees, and have done so over a longer period than any government hold power; the employers or in the case of A levels, the universities. The opinion of neither of these key stakeholders accords with the opinion the government.

Finally there is operation of the marked. Even as a committed free-marketer I can see problems in a system where any head of department who wished success for his school and his pupils would inevitably seek to opt for an examination from a board where his pupils are most likely to achieve success, and where, I suspect, the financial success of the examination boards must in some way be tied to the number of pupils sitting its exams.

There is of course a degree of regulation to prevent the worst excesses such a dysfunctional market could produce, but what I see is a regulatory function that sits far too close to the government, which has its own interest in seeing ever growing pass rates. What I don't see is hard research - when was the last time today's pupils were asked to sit, for example, the 1995 JMB Maths O level paper I sat, as a research exercise so that results across generations could be properly normalised, and who knows…perhaps the annual accusations could be put to bed once and for all.

I don't know if there is a problem. Unfortunately because of the way successive governments have handled the issue I certainly don't know that there isn't, and such a situation breeds a distrust which is unfair to kids who have probably worked as hard as I did, and probably more so.

Tough Choices

Scales of Justice
We may may not like its outcome,
but justice has been done
The reaction of significant parts of the UK political blogosphere to the recent ruling that Learco Chindamo, murderer of headmaster Philip Lawrence in 1995, shows the increasing maturity of this form of media, in many cases exceeding that of the dead tree press.

There is no doubt of the horror of Chindamo's crime, and the waves of sympathy to Mr Lawrence's widow is more than justified, so it was hardly surprising that there were a few initial postings hostile to the court's ruling that he should not be deported. The fact that it carried the increasingly suspect tag that this was in the name of his 'Human Rights' only fanned the flames, as did the revolting performance by his lawyer on TV and radio, promoting Mr Chindamo's 'victimhood' and a contrition for his crimes that more neutral sources call very seriously into doubt.

Despite this, it has taken very little time for many more thoughtful reflections on the case to appear, such as those at A Very British Dude and EURSOC, neither exactly hotbeds of support for the Human Rights Act, or its EU genesis. The fact is, whether we like it or not, the court, and these commentators are right. To understand why, all one has to do is consider the newspaper stories that would greet a hypothetical reversed situation:
"An Italian court has ordered the deportation of notorious murderer, XXXXX, to the United Kingdom at the end of his sentence. Mr XXXXX, 27, who left London with his parents for Rome as an infant, killed a policeman at the age of 15."

The hypothetical killer would have been a product of Italian society, as much as, regrettably Chindamo is one of our own.

It's unfortunate that the legal mechanism to assert this obvious fact, is to put it forward as a matter Mr Chindamo's human rights. As far as I'm concerned the like of Chindamo should have very limited human rights, even after release, and to an extent he will find them constrained by a life licence. It is more a matter though of a mature society, or perhaps two society's if you consider the Italian position on the matter, deciding on the best way to deal with a thoroughly unpleasant human being. On this test it is obvious that best of a series of bad options is for him to remain in this country in a closely supervised situation, rather than to send him back to Italy, where he is rootless and all the more likely to disappear in to the woodwork, all the more likely to reoffend, possibly after an return to this country, unknown to the authorities.

The failings here are not of the court, nor of the Human Rights Act per se. There are many reasons to review the operation of the increasingly discredited Human Rights Act, but this case should not be the casus belli for this review. The real culprits here seem to be government, who seem to have made promises they cannot keep to Mr Lawrence's widow, and now seem hell bent on pursuing an appeal, that common sense would dictate is doomed to fail, for purely political reasons. To be even handed, some of the same criticism can be directed to the official opposition too in their response to the case.

Nanny on the March

Cigarettes and Alcohol
Cigarettes gone, health nazis move on
I often comment about things I hear on Radio 4; it's simply what I've got used to waking up to in the mornings, and on occasion I catch the early evening news there too. I've generally avoided the lunchtime coverage, mainly due to the fact that I tend to be out at lunch, but also because of dire warnings about the nature of a particular programme entitled 'You and Yours'.

Feeling under the weather on Tuesday I was, for a while under the impression I may have been mistaken. The show in question in fact appeared to be a well written parody, taking the form of an apparently innocuous current affairs programme which had been hijacked to become a vehicle for mindless government propaganda. To add a topical element there was even a clearly rigged phone-in element to add that bit of authenticity.

The topic of Tuesday's episode was the alleged problem of alcohol abuse in the UK. Featured guests included a 'Dr Foster' (presumably created by one of the less creative thinking members of the script writing team who couldn't get past the nursery rhyme), who was meant to be Principal Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Sciences at, what I presume to be a fictional, Middlesex University. The part was brilliantly played, as the actor exhorted the nation to face its demons and accept its problems. He and the phone-in guests fell over each other to accept a clichéd litany of New Labour solutions to everything they are not keen on: tax it, restrict advertising of it, make it the employers' responsibility, and if all else fails ban it.

Another highlight was their comparison with drinking cultures in other countries. In a brave piece of self parody, two alleged reporters purported to have been dispatched to the US and Spain respectively. Naturally all aspects of the other cultures were superior to Britain's own, even the Spanish teenagers' custom of hanging around in the street swilling a Coca-Cola and red wine mixture in residential streets to save money on bar prices. Back in the studio presenters and guests agreed that both Spain's younger minimum age for drinking, and the US's much later one were both superior to our own.

Sadly the piece tailed off a little towards the end as a parade of unconvincing voice actors told unconvincing evangelical tales on the superiority of everything non-British. I suspect the idea was that they were meant to be the 'men from the ministry' calling in incognito, but it didn't quite work. The rubbishing of the views of a character claiming to be a landlady who countered the prevailing view of the panel and someone who simply wanted to be left alone to get on with his own life was done too crudely in what was otherwise a well constructed pastiche of this type of radio show.

Of course thought it was not a parody at all, nor a bad dream. The show, which you'll be able to 'listen again' to here for another week or so, was yet another example of the march of the nanny state and an exemplification of the prevailing attitude that because a few limited parts of society are having a problem that the whole of society must wear the hair shirt. Socialism's one great virtue, as Winston Churchill was alleged to have said was in the equal sharing of misery; in its modern incarnation, if that misery is in the form of taxation to mask the incompetence of the spending of existing revenues, then so much the better.

The smoking ban's greatest evil was the encouragement it gave to the control freaks. For the time being their progress seems almost unstoppable given the green light this government has given to their controlling instincts. It is now abundantly clear that the health community's next move is to attach the same stigma to alcohol consumption as they managed to achieve with smoking. Once that is achieved they will push for the same prohibitive measures to be taken against it.

I guess in part the problem I have with some of these idiot's views is their mindless assumption that the maximisation of one's lifespan should be the prime factor in guiding how we live our lives. Anything that interferes with this 'prime directive' must be discouraged, by persuasion at first, and if that fails by legislation and then prohibition.

I suspect that despite having no particular problem I can identify, my alcohol consumption will shorten my lifespan. It's a choice I'm happy to make and will not change it. Better ten good years now than ten bad ones tagged on the end. Frankly they can take their 'cost' argument and shove it where the sun doesn't shine. Barring some many miracle the exchequer will have taken far more from me than I shall ever take from it.

My personal nirvana is not one where people eat their five a day, drink in extreme moderation, eat a bland diet and do not smoke, drink, ski, box or play rugby, but in return live to be 150. It is one where people are free to make their own choices about their own bodies and accept the responsibility of their decisions.

It is also one where puritanical bigots like Dr Foster who want to assert their life choices on others through the mechanisms of the state are the ones who are shunned by society. I may not live as long as him and his ilk, but I shall most certainly have lived more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Truth Will Out

Cocktail Sausages
Offensive Weapons?
At last the real reason that the CPS decided not to prosecute anybody in the cash-for-honours scandal may have emerged. It appears that they may have had bigger fish to fry.

Today in Manchester, a judge has strongly condemned the decision of the CPS to bring a case of assault to court in which a 12 year old with learning difficulties is accused of throwing a cocktail sausage (under 1 inch long, no sharp pointy stick involved either) at an elderly neighbour. He has told them to go away and reconsider their decision to prosecute, and I suspect given the tone of the judge's comments the case will be quietly dropped.

Will there ever be an end to the parade of stories of such ridiculous decisions from the realms of officialdom. Have the levels of common sense in some of our public services really fallen as low as they would seem to have done? I suspect in many cases they have. To understand why you only need to consider the fate of the official who made this decision. I suspect they will point to some vacuous policy paper and claim that they were just following procedures and at that point no further action will be taken either against the person who made the decision, or the the one who drafted the policy.

If I had made a decision in any of my jobs in the private sector that had caused such public embarrassment to my employer, my fate would have been very different. In the case in hand, the employer doesn't really give a toss; they are exist by statute and face no competition. It is this difference that I believe contributes to the many indicators that while management in the private sector gradually improves from year to year, that in the public sector stagnates at best.

As for the 12 year old at the heart of the case, his case will probably soon be closed. The costs that will have surrounded it would be fascinating to know, but then again it's only taxpayer's money, so I don't think any of the state employed actors involved in the case would really be that concerned about the total bill.

Apparently the kid involved did have a bit of a track record, but he's still only 12. At least now the case is almost over the fingerprints and DNA samples that were taken from him at the time of his arrest will soon be destroyed. Oh, no, of course they won't now, will they? Not in NuLab's police state; they'll just be added to the ever growing national database of DNA taken from unconvicted juveniles that the state is so keen to gather.

Rugby Returns II - Seasonal Chaos

Ben Cohen
Cohen in full flight at the 2003 World Cup
Today's rugby news feeds brought brought the news that Ben Cohen, one of the England's 2003 World Cup winners looks to have parted company, though perhaps not in the strict legal sense, with the club with whom he has spent his entire professional career, last year's relegation victims, Northampton Saints.

It's another blow to the Saints following on from last year's relegation and other events such as the loss of former England hooker, Steve Thompson to a neck injury which made playing on to dangerous option to consider.

It appears to be over a bit of a tiff about the Saint's captaincy, which is a bit of a shame as Cohen looked set to be one of the many over the years who have had a career long relationship with the club. At his best, even beyond what he did in an England shirt, he was once of the players you really liked seeing play, even in an opposition shirt, much as another Northampton great, Tim Rodber, was for me in an earlier generation.

Cohen was also the subject of one of my favourite Rugby stories. It may be apocryphal but it was told to me by a lifelong Saints fan, so it may also have a little more truth to it.

Allegedly one season his agent suggested a promotional calendar be published for Cohen's fans. This was duly produced featuring Cohen in all manner of action shots, breaking tackles and taking glory dives over the try line. Sales were actually rather disappointing, so on the advice of his agent he tried a different tack and went for the female market, appearing largely shirtless and oiled, much like the promotional pictures of the French team at the last world cup. Sales shot up the following season much to everyone's delight. The only down side was that he had to take a lot of ribbing from team mates when it was revealed that the proportion purchasers who were male had actually increased, and a surprisingly large proportion seemed to have little known affiliation with the Northampton or the club.

It will be a shame not to have the Saints in the Premiership this season. Franklin's Gardens has always been one of my favourite away venues to visit, even before the investment that gave them a modern purpose built rugby stadium. It's likely only to be a very temporary stint in National 1 though, with the bookies offering odds 1-4 on a return to the Premiership next season, versus 13-2 for nearest rivals Exeter Chiefs.

If this comes to pass then it will be yet an extension of a pattern seen in every season bar one since 2000 where the relegated team bounces straight back. Since the introduction of the current 12 team format only one other team has joined Rotherham in being unable to secure a premiership return.

This perpetual swapping of the same teams between the bottom of the premiership and the top of National 1 is incredibly wasteful. There are parachute payments for the relegated club, which will go some way to compensate for the financial damage of what will be, in all probability, just a single season out of the premiership, but in the end it all seems pretty pointless.

I don't agree with ring-fencing the Premiership, and ending promotion and relegation but I'm sure there must be a more efficient way to manage things. Unaware of, and therefore ignoring some of the political issues my proposal would be as follows.

Firstly, expand the Premiership back to its original professional size of 14 teams. There are clearly a core set of 13 teams which are capable of playing some sort of a relatively permanent part of the Premiership setup as things currently stand.

So why 14? Well I could see two scenarios emerging. Ideally I would love to see a team from the far South West, one of rugby union's strongholds, but still without Premiership representation, join the the current 13 Premiership regulars. Exeter are getting pretty consistent, but they are not quite there yet, but if they or another team from the region did make it and took the place for a season or so I'm sure the lift in support would make them able keep them up to the standard of the Premiership, and rugby union's geographical coverage would be much improved. If this did not happen, the worst that would happen is that a series of teams would probably vie for the chance for a glory season in the Premiership; a far more positive way of seeing it than the reverse perspective of the temporarily relegated Premiership team.

I could also envisage the type of 'Bottom of Premiership v Top of National 1' two-legged play-off to see if promotion and relegation takes place, that existed during certain seasons, reintroduced, to stabilise the Premiership without the complete barrier of ring fencing.

This proposal would add four games per season to each teams schedule, which is not ideal, in view of the accepted wisdom that players are playing too many games, but I also suggest a compensating element to the plan.

Basically, I would scrap the Anglo-Welsh cup. I've never met anyone, English or Welsh, who really cares about it, it's got a bizarre format, and in all honestly I can't even remember who won it last year. Anglo-welsh competition would still exist in the two European cups, just as it does between English and Scottish clubs, and English and Irish clubs. I know the revenue is important, especially to the Welsh Rugby Union, and I think, considering the financial power of the English game and the long term interests of the game, it is sensible for such financial support to continue. I would just prefer it was in the form of generous deals on European Cup or Six Nations TV money.

Scrapping the Anglo-Welsh cup would mean a loss of at least three fixtures for each English club almost making up for the additional Premiership fixtures, as well as offering the chance to simply the structure of the season into clear domestic, European and international phases.

Naturally though the chance of any such simple solution which would offer the clubs a chance to grow in security, with a simplified season of no significantly greater length, has a cat in hell's chance of getting anywhere in the politicised world of today's Rugby Union.

Not in My Name

Lethal Injection
Texas approaching its 400th Execution
Fist of all let me say I am opposed to capital punishment. It's harder actually to say why I am; it's not especially an issue of morality - I do believe there may me crimes so terrible that it may be an appropriate price to play, nor is it concerns over miscarriages as I believe that there are cases where the evidence is sufficiently incontrovertible. It guess just comes down to some ephemeral statement about the kind of society I want to live in, one where we hold back from the ultimate sanction and show a degree clemency even in the face of the most vile of provocation. In a sense I wish the law had remained as it stood for a period in many countries prior to abolition, where, while the sentence remained on the statute books commutation to life imprisonment was automatic. It would be to some extent a legal fiction, but in another way it would be a powerful statement by society on its values, and on the true horror of certain crimes.

It's no longer a particularly political issue per se in the United Kingdom, with the matter always having been a matter for a free vote in Parliament, and a degree of polling evidence showing support, though not overwhelming support, for the position our Parliamentarians have taken over the last forty years.

I do not however, in any way, welcome the call by the EU for the Governor of Texas to get rid of the death penalty there yesterday, as it prepared for its 400th execution since the restoration of the penalty. According to the BBC, the Portuguese presidency:
"The European Union strongly urges Governor Rick Perry to exercise all powers vested in his office to halt all upcoming executions and to consider the introduction of a moratorium in the state of Texas."

Source: BBC News

It is true that not having capital punishment is a precondition of EU membership. To campaign for abolition in a state of another non-member sovereign nation however is an act of foreign policy, a foreign policy that the EU is not as yet authorised to pursue, and will only be permitted to do so under a constitutional settlement that at least in this country will be entirely morally illegitimate. The policy of the UK Government, while not explicitly stated is easily derived by its actions. While it makes strong representations on behalf of British citizens under the threat of capital punishment it appears reluctant to explicitly criticise the judgements of other nations, where the rule of law prevails, as they come to their own moral judgements on difficult issues such as this.

This was not an issue in which the Portuguese presidency of the EU should have attempted to overlay a pan-EU position on the respective foreign policies of the member states. It should not be recognised as being an EU position outside the corridors of power in Brussels because of the lack of authority from the people of the EU to represent them on such matters. It's also noticeable that once again the spotlight falls on the US with greater prominence than the 1000 plus executions carried out in China last year alone a similar number to the number of executions carried out in the whole US in the last twenty years since the reintroduction of capital punishment.

Despite my position on capital punishment, it was hard not to have more sympathy for the robust defence of Texas's position by governor's spokesman Robert Black:
"Two hundred and thirty years ago, our forefathers fought a war to throw off the yoke of a European monarch and gain the freedom of self-determination.

"Texans long ago decided the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens.

"While we respect our friends in Europe ... Texans are doing just fine governing Texas."

Source: BBC News

Frankly, in this regard, Britons, even in the form of Gordon Brown, are also doing just fine governing Britain without the EU's assistance.

Rugby's Return I - Guscott

Rugby Premiership
Facebook Premiership - A Shameless Plug
With the Rugby World Cup not too far away, and the Guinness Premiership and Celtic Leagues also about to start their new seasons I thought it was time to make a first foray into my thoughts about the only sport that I will move me further than the local pub to watch. This of course is not in any way, shape or form a plug for my new Facebook application.

Premiership Rugby Predictor focuses on the upcoming Guinness Premiership season. It's basically based on match predictions (result and margin) for each round of the season, with points for predictions on the shape of the end of season league table too. You can see how your forecasts stack up against your friends, people who support the same club as you, and the whole user base, both on a weekly and season to date basis. If you are interested in English rugby beyond the national team give it a go, whether you have any club affiliation or not! The world cup and Celtic league versions will follow at the weekend. But as I said, I'm not here to plug my application by putting links to it all over the place.

There's quite a lot to look at as ever when a new season starts, especially in a world cup year. It's a bit early to be naming any heroes but an early zero has emerged in the form of Jeremy Guscott. ITV's coverage of the last world cup had its defects, but for all that I'm glad that we will be largely spared the opinions of Guscott as ITV holds the rights once again.

Guscott was one of the great centres of his era. He had speed, he had vision and he could finish. In terms of his performance relative to game as it was when he played it, he certainly deserves to be ranked amongst England's greats. That said, he had his flaws; he was never the most solid of players in defence, and at time could be accused of being selfish in possession. More significantly though, the game has moved on even in the relatively short time since he retired. Most great players acknowledge this fully; I have heard true international greats such as Colin Meads and Gareth Edwards openly wonder, with no false modesty, how they would fare in the physical game of today.

This is a concept that seems to go entirely over Guscott's head when he appears all too frequently as a pundit on BBC rugby coverage, and in the dead tree press his former England midfield partner Carling seems to fare little better. In both cases it is typified by their vilification of Andy Farrell, with Guscott in particular crossing that line between fair criticism and knee jerk contempt all too often.

It is typified by Guscott's comments on Faz's inclusion in the England world cup squad, on the BBC during halftime in the recent Scotland v Ireland warm up game:
"Well everyone knows what I think about him" (sneering tone pretty obvious)

First of all, the tone of his comment showed immense disrespect to a fellow sportsman whose record, albeit in a different version of the sport, is of the very highest order. Almost a permanent fixture in the GB rugby league side since the 1993 he became its youngest ever captain at just 21, while winning a cabinet full of silverware with his club side Wigan. Only three years ago he achieved a rare feat of winning both the Golden Boot, awarded to world’s leading player, and the Man of Steel, which goes to the best player in the Super League.

Has his entry to Ruby Union fallen short of some expectations? Certainly it has, with injury playing a significant part. That said, I'm glad to see him in the squad to be honest. World cup rugby is attritional fare, keep the ball, stop them playing it when they have it, kick your penalties.

I suspect Faz will start in a lot of the big games with this in mind. Not to make the great line breaks RL style and I think he knows that it won't happen with 15 defenders on the park. He's there to tackle, bring a bit a maturity to the back line and give the odd offload to stir things up a little bit. First and foremost we can't have people charging through the fringes of the breakdown and Faz's workrate and organisation is good. I expect him to play no more than 50-60 mins in the big games while the big boys in the opposition get frustrated.

I can kind of see the strategy we're going with, with limited resources and it might not be exciting, but it is the right one. Stuff this crap about blooding youngsters, being on the receiving end of a thrashing teaches you very little and can be damaging to them. Remember 2003? bring on centres with stand-off skills and it changes the shape of the game, and takes the pressure of Wilkinson. It all reminds me of the 'why are they taking Catt?' questions in 2003 before the France game cropped up. The same goes for Robinson 2003, the same talking faces like Carling and Guscott had similar contempt for a relatively inexperienced rugby league convert before the tournament began.

Its interesting to compare Guscott and bum-face's knee-jerk anti-Farell lines with the more constructive comments of the likes of Will Greenwood, who played centre closer to the modern era, and it perhaps a bit less blinded by the money issues.

If I was to be critical of Faz, he does need to hit lower in the tackle. Just because you've smothered the other in the tackle and stopped his progress is not job done in RU, you need the man on the floor otherwise you'll just end up trapped in a maul - though his attept to push that French backrower's head a foot below the turf on Saturday shows that I think he knows this.

Bath v Wigan, 1996
Farrell leads out Wigan v Bath, 1996
I think it should be noted in view of the regular criticisms by Guscott of rugby league converts, that he mysteriously absented himself from the Bath squad when they played in Wigan in the first ever cross-code fixtures. This included a final at Twickenham, against a Wigan side led by one, erm, Andy Farrell. Nor should it be forgotten that in 1991, an England side featuring Guscott and Carling had an incredibly good chance to pick up their first World Cup victory. A dull but effective game plan saw them safely through to a Twickenham final against the Wallabies, whereupon an inexplicable switch to the time of more expansive rugby that Guscott always seems to be advocating under all conditions led to a 12-6 defeat, with most pundits to this day still being of the opinion that if they had stuck to their original style that England would probably have won.

Scanning the BBC message boards it appears that there is really only criticism of two or three of the thirty choices in the England squad, which is pretty good going in my opinion. It's going to be a tough tournament.

It's time for us all to get behind which ever team we support and to stop some of the whining tone. It's time for Guscott to shut up.

Restoring the Balance

The Jackal
Day of the Jackal
Having been a bit critical of the BBC recently, it's only fair to mention I did get a bit of pleasure out of the corporation last night even if it has caused me not to be feeling especially sharp this morning. I was already pretty tired when I got home last night, but flicking on the box I saw the opening of the original Day of the Jackal film adaptation on the BBC. I'm afraid it's one of those films I just can't switch off.

I'm not a particular fan of classic films, but this is one of those where the only ways in which it has dated actually add a little extra to the film. The locations, general style of the the time, and even the cars inspire a kind of nostalgia for a time that was largely before my birth and certainly beyond my memories. The political situation that underpinned the plot has also drifted out of public consciousness, but in this it acts at least as a reminder, if not necessarily a history lesson. The shadowy OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète) did indeed exist and plotted over 30 serious attempts to assassinate General De Gaulle, before French intelligence proved its case against a number of its leaders, who were executed.

There was a great multinational cast and production team, which certainly adds to the films atmosphere, especially in the style of the cinematography, which was very much in the French style. The plot shows British and French police and secret services operating in very different ways, but in both cases very effectively and co-operating fully to a common purpose.

It's odd that the original author is now so commonly vilified as a swivel eyed little-Englander xenophobe by supporters of the EU, for his simple crime of not believing that the EU provides the only model for cooperation in Europe. But of course Fredrick Forsyth is not a little Englander or xenophobe, no more than the late Sir James Goldsmith was; the terms are just a mindless smears from those on the other side of a debate whose reluctance to engage properly in that debate is the real scandal. It's a tactic we have see again in the last few days in the increasingly desperate attempts of the left to attach the label of racist to Boris Johnson, seeing it as Ken's best chance of a third term. Fortunately their attempts seem to be backfiring somewhat, as the puerile Compass group report seems to be being treated with the contempt it deserves.

Another interesting link to more current affairs appeared when I was looking a web page on the film, who linked to an old article on the BBC website, where Mr Forsyth suggested a simple, low-cost approach to making the type of identity theft featured in his novel very much more difficult. Very presciently though Mr Forsyth observes in the article:
"Of course, bureaucrats would think of some expensive way of solving the problem."

Source: BBC News

He was of course, we now know, entirely correct, though I'm not sure even he could have anticipated the full extent of the expense, or the liberty crushing nature of the ID Card and National Identity Register scheme.

As a final observation, writing this post has made me recall a time when daytime TV, which my work schedule sometime makes me end up watching, I seem to remember often featured some classic films in the morning slots, like the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

As I said up front, I'm not really a fan of many of these classic films, but that said they are head and shoulders above the diet of 'crap in the attic', 'crap at car boot sales', and 'watch me buy or redecorate my house' shows we face these days. I suspect there's some mindless 'original content' target in play somewhere down the line; if so it is not money well spent. Licence fee payers money shouldn't go on this kind of rubbish that is available in any quantity on commercial channels.

If that means filling up the gaps in the schedule with material from the archives - so be it; it is, in effect, tax payers money, and as such should only be spent as and when it is really necessary to fund the type of programming that the market would not otherwise offer.

Hmm, I wonder if there's a prize for tying the most disparate topics to a single apparently unrelated headline post.

Silly Season Reaches Peak

Health and Safety
on the case?
There has been much talk on some other blogs about the arrival of 'Silly Season' where the summers absence of the usual more serious fare for the media to get their teeth into, especially in the field of politics, promotes second rate stories to unwarranted prominence, or forces them to make a feast from the few scraps their more regular sources still offer up. This year silly season seems to have been somewhat abridged by the floods and the reemergence of Foot and Mouth disease, but with these having left the front page silly season seems to have got underway with a vengeance. I therefore offer up my favourite couple of stories from the mainstream media yesterday, both of which would have appeared anyway, but seemed to have a bit more prominence on the respective websites than would have otherwise been the case.

First up, Sky News. Sky is not above a succumbing to the odd bit of tabloid appeal in its coverage at the best of times, but once it has made it to the Internet it tends to be tidily filed away in a section called 'Strange News' as any newsfeed addict will know. This however made the main headline news section yesterday:
"A dwarf performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was rushed to hospital after he glued his privates to a vacuum cleaner.

Daniel Blackner performs in the Circus of Horrors as Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf"

Source: Sky News

It transpires that an 'special' attachment on Mr Blackner's vacuum cleaner had come loose and a hasty attempt to repair it with superglue went wrong. Readers will be relieved to know that after a valiant effort by nurses at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Mr Blackner and his appliance (the hoover) were finally parted.

Everyone who has been to the Edinburgh Fringe knows that genitalia based physical theatre has become a bit of a recurring theme in recent years. While I always passed on these shows when I was there, I do still value free expression and I've got a sneaking fear that some half witted Health and Safety officer's eyes will have lit up on seeing the story.

The last word must go to Mr Blackner:
"It was the most embarrassing moment of my life when I got wheeled into a packed A&E with a vacuum attached to me.

"I wished the ground could swallow me up."

Source: Sky News

I think Mr Blackner is fortunate, he knows now that he almost certainly has faced the most embarrassing moment of his life, given how hard to top it will be; for the rest of us it could still be just around the corner.

The Guardian, much as I might dislike its editorial line, is a usually a more serious voice than Sky, and its contribution to silly season is indeed on a much more serious subject, that of an 'armed' robbery:
A robber who held up a bookmakers with his girlfriend's vibrator was jailed today.

Nicki Jex concealed the Rampant Rabbit sex toy in a carrier bag and pretended it was a gun during the raid on the Ladbrokes shop in Leicester on December 27 last year.

Source: The Guardian

This is not to take anything away from the serious nature of any armed robbery, even with simulated arms. It is still a traumatic experience for the victims, and it appears that a customer, Mr Wayne Vakani behaved very courageously, following Jex to a local pub which led to the police collecting enough evidence to link Jex to the crime.

I can't help feeling though that the the nature of the simulated weapon did manage to creep in to the story more often that it normally would, and it certainly pushed the story way up the running order yesterday. I'm at all not convinced that the sentencing phase of a trial over charges on a robbery in December last year would have headlined quite so highly if say, Mr Jex had used a realistic replica weapon, doubtlessly a more frightening experience for the victims.

It just amusing to see that some of the more serious voices in the mainstream media can succumb to the same basic instincts as the the rest of us!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Off the Reservation?

Cameron and Redwood
Same crime, same MO, same culprit?
I've been having a bit of a groundhog day sensation over the last couple of days, so I feel compelled to post about something I wasn't going to bother commenting on as others had done so much more effectively. It's just that an interesting pattern does seem to be emerging.

Last week we finally saw the publication of John Redwood's competitiveness commission report, in all its 160 plus glorious pages. It was probably been a frustrating day for many Labour MPs who would normally be queuing up to condemn it, but were beaten to the gun by several of their own ministers and colleagues who chose to condemn its contents a couple of days beforehand, even before they were even known.

The most tawdry performance though was, as is so often the case these days, not by the Labour party itself, but by the BBC. Just a matter of days after the organisation disgraced itself over the early reports of the expected contents of the report, as highlighted by Iain Dale, with sufficient impact that Helen Boaden, the BBC's Director of News was forced to address the subject on the BBC's Editors' Blog, they repeated the offence on the day of the actual publication of the report.

Iain Dale's commments concerned mainly 5 live, but the same thing seemed prevelant on Radio 5. Listening to Radio 4, a venerable channel that, rightly or wrongly, most see as being the station of record when it comes to current affairs, on the day of the reports publication I was astounded to hear the same blatant disregard for impartiality once again as the 9AM news slot covered the item (OK yes, it had been a belter of a night so I slept through all the relevant parts of the increasingly anodyne Today programme). The figures hear are an approximation from a bleary eye staring at the clock radio, but won't be that far off:

  • 0-20 seconds: Presenter states that the report has been published, with a brief synopsis of its comments, concentrating on the more controversial proposals (which is fine by me!)

  • 20-40 seconds: Presenter states that reaction from the government has been very negative (surprise, surprise, but fair enough)
  • 40-god knows how many seconds: Long diatribe by government minister against the proposals, well over a minute (nothing from Mr Redwood, not even the most basic attempt at balance)

I was on the phone during the 10AM slot but I could just about hear it, and it seemed pretty much the same fare.

And then I had to go to work…and when I returned all had changed. The couple of hourly news slots I caught had nothing but the fact that the report was out, the synopsis of its contents, and at least one extended comment from Mr Redwood himself.

I wasn't going to comment on it on this blog, as so many others have done so already and more effectively, but then this week has seen pretty much a repeat of the same behaviour in the coverage of David Cameron's offensive on hospital closures. Once again the Today programme would be hard to lodge an effective complaint against as only the tone of the reporting betrayed the well known political sympathy of the programme's presenters, while a paper transcript would at least show a fair attempt at balance. The news bulletins which followed though were once again manifestly biased towards the government's refutation of the claims made by the Conservative team, mentioning them only as preamble and context to the minister's bile. Yet again, by lunchtime the item had been replaced by a more balanced offering, though only once it had ceased to be the lead item.

For what it's worth I do genuinely believe the BBC News editorial team are sincere in their desire to be impartial. I do doubt though that they fully appreciate the scale of the internal cultural problems they will have to surmount to achieve impartiality. Nor do I believe that the fulcrum around which they seek to achieve balance lies at a point that would be consistent with the weighted average of views of people in this country.

The lack of the impartiality of some of the coverage of some of the morning radio news coverage has surprised me, even from my slightly cynical standpoint, especially considering the renewed spotlight on these matters at the BBC, and the early signs that the organisation is at least recognising that it has a problem.

So stark has been the contrast with some of the later bulletins, which in some cases could have been accused of lack of balance in the opposite direction, that it leads me, from my position of complete ignorance on the matter, to speculate on the management structures that may be in play. I assume that while the heads of the editorial function are on call 24/7 that they must delegate a great deal of authority at certain times to duty editoral staff. I would probably expect that hinterland between drive-time and lunchtime not to be one of more heavily supervised time spots, compared to the key early morning, lunchtime and evening coverage, and would expect day to day operations to be delegated to someone lower down the food chain.

All of this leads me to wonder if there is just a bad apple there somewhere in the radio 4 set up, someone who has gone completely off the reservation. If so it's essential that they are dealt with firmly and decisively as they are clearly harmful to the corporation's image. I have had juniors working for me who've headed down the same route, and to be honest it's the devil's own job to ever trust them fully again, even in the unlikely event that you can shake them from their belief in their own righteousness.

I wish no real malice on anyone, but I would have to say that with the issue of BBC impartiality in the spotlight, and numerous seminars and training courses supposedly having been undertaken to address perceived shortcomings in this area I think there's little much more that could be done with such a rogue element. I would have to say that in my opinion that the very need for the training and seminars should in of itself have constituted fair warning, leaving summary dismissal as the only viable option.

It's a shame really. I have little opinion on healthcare never having needed more than a quick visit to A&E post-rugby in the last twenty years, but I found the Redwood commissions proposals interesting. Largely to my taste, and certainly controversial, but the debate has to happen sometime because right now we are heading down blind alleys on so many fronts as a nation. Unfortunately I've got a sneaking suspicion that the chances of individual components being implemented is pretty much inversely proportional to their probable benefit to the country, due to their political risks.

The attack on the health on safety culture is a case in point. In the world of business it is a pendulum that has swung to far, and it has wrought a terrible price in so many other walks of life, as the almost pathological aversion to risk by pointless non-job officials blights more and more of the harmless attempts by well meaning people attempting to add something to society.

The problem is that even to suggest it sounds like a call for the return of 19th century factory conditions, and offers an easy target for facile knee-jerk comments from even the most half-witted of NuLab MPs.