Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hit The Reset Switch

The economy is in the crapper. Savings have to be made. There's no money to carry on as we are.

I get it.

At some point however, someone needs to step in front of the efficiency juggernaut and say "enough".

The Metropolitan Police have been tasked with saving around £500m over the next three years from their budget by the London Mayor's office. As part of these cuts, the Met is looking at its estate, and in particular which buildings it might be able to get rid of. All good so far.

Part of the plan includes moving out of New Scotland Yard, an old and inefficient building with a 1960s infrastructure, and moving into smaller new premises in nearby Whitehall. The £11m a year it costs to run the current building would be significantly reduced.

Now we get to the hard bit. Also up for sale are five police stations in various London boroughs. The axe is also hovering over a large number of the 136 front counters the Met provides for Londoners as a first point of contact. The Met's proposed solution to this reduction in places where you can find a police officer when you need one?

Neighbourhood teams to be based in popular locations, such as shopping centres or supermarkets.

Presumably these will have to be shopping centres and supermarkets that are open around the clock, in the same way that current police stations and front counter services are. Or is being a victim of or witness to a crime something that only happens during Waitrose opening hours these days?

To adapt a Victorian music-hall song, if you want to know the time ask a member of Tesco Express staff to point you to the nearest police officer. They will be somewhere in aisle four, eyeing the doughnuts.

On a similar note, Leeds City Council have announced that their children's centres and child welfare teams will be closed between Christmas Eve and January 2nd in order to save money. The anticipated savings - the grand sum of £10,000.

Christmas, and the run up to it, is widely recognised as a stressful time. This is enhanced for the poorest families with children, who struggle to deal with the expectation and subsequent disappointment created by a consumer society and peer pressure. Having a trained professional that you can go talk to or somewhere that your children can go to let off steam represents a significant safety valve.

If the removal of these services contributes to the breakdown of one single family unit and the placing of children into local authority care, the £10,000 "saved" is going to be swallowed up in no time at all.

Again, I appreciate that public bodies have to wise with how they spend their money through economic mismanagement not of their making. However, cuts in the quality of service in vital areas such as policing, health and social care in a mad rush to balance the books are cutting off our collective noses to spite our faces.

How much money, for example, is being spent on elections for Police Commissioners that nobody really wants or needs that could otherwise have been devoted to front-line policing?

It's time to stop, collaborate and listen - as Vanilla Ice would say - and work together to bring about a change in the way our society prioritises the money it spends. The current path of slashing services to the bone is simply unsustainable, and benefits no-one.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beyond The End Of Your Nose

Don't get me wrong, I love watching Champions League football.

Having been brought up in an era when the only football on TV was highlights of the top division on Match Of The Day or The Big Match plus the occasional England game on Sportsnight, I love the fact I can now pick which game I want to watch on any particular match day.

If I'm going to make the effort to watch however, would it kill those getting handsomely paid to commentate or provide analysis on games to put some effort into learning about the teams they're going to be telling me about?

Everyone (some more than most, naming no names Chris Kamara and Paul Merson) occasionally falls over a difficult to pronounce foreign name. It's a high profile job, you're doing a lot of talking and sometimes, your tongue and brain appear to be on different wavelengths.

Repeatedly getting it wrong though, simply because you've not put the effort into finding out how to say it properly in the first place, is just lazy.

That's not what irks me the most however. That particular title is reserved for the assumption (particularly among Sky's commentators and pundits) that any team which does not play in the Premier League or La Liga (coincidentally leagues that feature heavily in Sky's sporting portfolio) is somehow automatically inferior and a plucky underdog.

I watched last night's Ajax-Man City game open mouthed in large parts, primarily at the tone set by Martin Tyler's commentary. I appreciate that City are a team expensively assembled from across the globe. I also appreciate that Ajax play their domestic football in a league with much less money, and are reliant on their legendary youth system to provide them with a stream of players they can sell on at a profit.

Yet for probably 75 minutes of the game, despite Ajax looking the much better and more confident side in possession, the tone of both Tyler and Gary Neville was one of patronising praise for them at least having a go at mixing it with their illustrious opposition. All City needed to do it seemed was put their mind to it, and their perceived superior strength, size and technical ability would overrun the noble efforts of the home side, surely?

In the same group yesterday, Borussia Dortmund beat Real Madrid. This was described in Sky's summary post-game as being the "shock of the night", presumably on the basis that those who work for Sky get to see a lot of Madrid through their La Liga coverage, and next to sod all of BVB given the Bundesliga is on rival broadcaster ESPN.

Dortmund, it may surprise them to learn, have won the Bundesliga for the last two seasons. Last season, they complete the league and DFB-Pokal double. In a traditionally strong footballing nation such as Germany, this is no small beer. In doing so, they broke the Bundesliga record for the most points in a season. Their team is littered with internationals.

That they beat Real Madrid, at home, by the odd goal out of three, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. At least not to anyone with even the most vague knowledge of European football.

Still, to give the top sides in German, Dutch or other European leagues their due might just threaten Sky's frequently insecure boasts that the Premier League is "the best league in the world", and we can't be having that now, can we?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A little bit of politics

Yes, I know it's a diversion from my normal output, but variety is the spice of life and all that.

Back in 2001, Jo Moore - special adviser and press officer to Stephen Byers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and The Regions - found herself in hot water for suggesting that 11 September was a "good day to bury bad news". Earlier in that day the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon had ensured that any domestic news was going to be well down the media's list of priorities.

When her e-mail was leaked, Moore found herself in an untenable position and was eventually shown the door. She won't have been the first special adviser to make such a suggestion, nor will she have been the last. Just the one who unfortunately got caught out taking advantage of a tragic situation.

Events of the last couple of months have created a news climate that any budding Jo Moores in Conservative Central Office must have seen as manna from heaven.

On 1 October, five year old April Jones went missing from her mid Wales home. The following day, Ed Milliband stood up and gave a well structured, inspirational speech at the Labour Party Conference. Guess which was the lead item on most news outlets? Rightly so, a missing child takes priority every time, but the Conservatives couldn't have scripted it better if they had tried.

The same week, ITV screened its documentary allegations that Sir Jimmy Saville had been a prolific paedophile and abuser of children during his years working for the BBC. In the three weeks since, the BBC has attempted to devour itself from the inside with the rest of media circled around egging it on.

In the meantime, all sorts of muddled thinking has been emerging from the government and sliding into mainstream media obscurity.
  • Energy Minister Ed Davey has contradicted the Prime Minister on energy tariffs.
  • Developers have been given the green light to renege on deals for affordable homes
  • The "shares for employment rights" announcement, enabling firms to offer potentially worthless shares in themselves in exchange for protection against employment law
  • At best misleading, at worst downright false statements about the availability of clinical trial data for drugs the NHS is spending millions of pounds on
  • Plans to put core elements of the Probation Service out to private tender
It has been left to the bloggersphere and social media to pick up and run with these stories, while the mainstream media contents itself with lascivious muck-raking and speculation on who might have known what about whom thirty plus years ago.

Just an additional thought on the last one of those bullet points. One of those considered most likely to tender for Probation Service work is G4S. You remember them, right? They used to be called Group 4 Security, before their name became synonymous with losing prisoners in transport or at court.

In recent months they have managed to muck up recruiting for security personnel at the Olympics to the extent the armed forces had to bail them out. They sent a private security contractor to a war zone, who subsequently shot and killed two colleagues despite warnings about his mental state and past behaviour. Their staff physically tipped a heavily pregnant woman out of a wheelchair in an immigration centre, putting her and her unborn child at serious risk of injury according to an independent report.

I wouldn't trust them to look after my pets while I am on holiday, yet they could very soon be responsible for ensuring that re-offending rates in your neighbourhood come down. Hands up everyone who has confidence in their ability to deliver?

Still, who cares about efficiency and delivery in public services when can dissect them and flog their vital organs to your private sector donors and partners eh?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Take a deep breath...

Up until last night, I was wondering what I might possibly have to talk about.

Thanks to the actions of a significant minority of fans at Hillsborough, and one idiot in particular, there wasn't really much doubt when I woke up this morning.

I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the behaviour of those involved - the pitch invaders, the vandals, those who think it's funny to sing songs about child abuse allegations or murders. Not much left to say on those things, we've heard and seen them all before.

What worries me equally is the insistence of the media on sticking a microphone under the nose of both managers within minutes of such highly charged incidents, desperately seeking a reaction they can splash all over their pages or radio shows.

Dave Jones was falsely accused 12 years ago of child abuse. Up there with rape and murder as possibly the most hideous thing you can accuse another human being of doing. Since being cleared, he's been in the firing line most weekends for what passes these days as terrace "humour". Not surprisingly, after the game last night he was upset, angry and ready to let rip. His side have thrown away a lead, his keeper has been assaulted and he has been loudly and persistently abused from the stands.

So what happens? Does he get to go away, take an hour or two to gather his thoughts and think about what he wants to say? No, because the game was on live TV he immediately gets shoved in front of a wall of sponsors hoardings and asked for his opinion on events not just on the pitch but off it too.

Not surprisingly, he said some things that have attracted a lot of attention. He described a section of the visiting support as "vile animals" and suggested that Leeds shouldn't be allowed to take fans to away games if that's how they behave. He was angry at Neil Warnock's insistence that his players go over and applaud the travelling support at the end of the game, perceiving that as praise and justification of their behaviour.

Warnock for his part condemned the actions of the fan who ran onto the pitch, but also said he "didn't mind the atmosphere". He also insinuated that Kirkland had been faking, accusing him of "going down like a tonne of bricks". Leeds United have issued a statement condemning the assault, but saying nothing about the tasteless chanting of a large section of their support towards Jones.

As I understand it, if Jones had declined to give a TV interview or attend the post-match press conference he could have faced action under the Football League's disciplinary procedures.

While I appreciate the need for the media to get reactions from those involved in games, and that nobody at an evening kick-off wants to be still sat there at midnight waiting for someone to have calmed down enough to give a statement, is it really appropriate to ask a clearly angry man exactly what he's thinking and then be shocked at the responses he gives?

It is time the LMA took action to protect their members and negotiated a cooling-off period for interviews after games, rather than letting the multi-headed media beast that funds professional football call the shots. Say half an hour after the final whistle, time to give managers (and players) the opportunity to think about what they want to say and how they want to get their point across.

What we have at the moment, particularly after the events during the 90 minutes at Hillsborough, is something akin to a bear pit where we poke someone for our amusement until they snap. Time football got a bit more Newsnight and a bit less Jeremy Kyle.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Great Expectations

We expect a lot out of our sporting heroes.

We expect them to be at the top of their game every time they step onto the field of play.

We expect them to be paragons of virtue and role models in their personal lives.

Most of all, we expect them to be bulletproof. To be able to absorb whatever life throws at them and come out swinging.

When it comes down to it however, they are only human. The same as the rest of us. They have the same feelings, the same emotions, the same sensitivities.

A professional sports changing room isn't always the place you imagine a bunch of people sitting around, talking about their feelings. So things get bottled up, get taken home into their private lives until they explode, usually in a splattering of tabloid headlines.

For the likes of Tony Adams, solace came in the form of drink. Others turn to drugs, or gambling, or affairs as routes of dealing with the mental strain their work puts upon them.

In some cases, these coping mechanisms aren't enough and sportspeople take their own lives. Former German international goalkeeper Robert Enke stepped in front of a train at the age of 32 after struggling with depression since the death of his daughter.

On 26 September 2010, former Great Britain rugby league international Terry Newton took his own life. Nobody who came into contact with him in a professional environment would ever have considered him to be mentally "weak" or "soft". He was very much the tough guy on the field, sometimes crossing the line of legality.

At the time of his death, Newton was suspended from the game he loved as a result of a doping offence. The work life that kept him focused had been taken away. His post-mortem found traces of cocaine, amphetamine and prescription anti-depressants.

Help that wasn't available to Newton is now at hand however, through the State Of Mind campaign (http://www.stateofmindrugby.com). The programme was established in 2011 with the aim of improving the mental health, well being and working life of rugby league professionals and communities.

Developed with mental health professionals, it offers sessions and advice on practical ways to look after your mental health, irrespective of what you do for a living. Ambassadors for the programme include Adrian Morley, Andrew Johns, Paul Merson and James Wade. Word is clearly spreading across sports and across communities that thinking about and looking after your mental health is not a sign of weakness.

Just knowing that there is someone you can talk to, or techniques that you can use yourself to help improve your mental health will save lives. Those behind State Of Mind deserve a massive vote of praise for the work that they do.

By encouraging the sporting heroes and role models of young people to talk about mental health, they will hopefully help improve attitudes around it for future generations. Take the first step yourself, and think about your attitude next time you read about well-paid professional sportspeople who seem to have it all talking about stress and depression. After all, they are only human.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Game Is Better Than Yours...


Rubbish, isn't it? Full of overpaid nancies who fall over as soon as look at each other, racists who constantly abuse each other and watched by baying mobs of knuckle-draggers.

Rugby League.

Now there's a proper game. Working class. Salt of the earth. Fans mingling together before, during and after games. Real tough guys knocking seven shades out of each other then shaking hands and going for a beer afterwards.

Last weekend, the actions of a couple of individuals brought the perceived gap between the two sports into sharper focus.

Luis Suarez was, quite rightly, roundly criticised for this feeble attempt to con his way to a penalty against Stoke City. Not the first time Suarez has been in trouble for what the football authorities call "simulation", or what you and I would call cheating.

Meanwhile, Paul Wood of Warrington Wolves was left to count the consequences of this particularly nasty knock to his "gentleman's area". Wood has found his story spreading from New York to Sydney as media outlets pick up on his bravery.

The two incidents have been held up beside each other as an example of how footballers are indulged poor behaviour that would not be stood for in other sports. As it was during the Olympics, footballers are taking a media kicking that even Ron "Chopper" Harris never dished out to the trickiest winger.

Not exactly the full picture though. Dig a little deeper, and you find that football doesn't have an exclusivity contract when it comes to badly behaved sportsmen or clubs.

Stuck away on the inside pages of the local press was the story of a couple of Castleford Tigers players accused of being part of a group which assaulted three men in Santa fancy dress in the early hours of Christmas morning. One of their number, a first team player of some promise, is back in court next month facing charges of affray and GBH. If found guilty, he faces a custodial sentence.

In April 2010, Melbourne Storm were found to have breached the NRL salary cap. No scandal there you might think, these things happen - accounting oversights and all that. Except that Melbourne got around the cap by maintaining a completely separate set of false accounting records. These got shown to the salary cap auditors, while the real ones remained hidden. In other words, they cheated.

There's a saying about people in glass houses. Some rugby league fans quick to throw stones in football's direction may be wise to consider just how big their windows are before they do.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Who's The £&@! In The Middle?

Referees. Umpires. Match officials.

Call them what you want, there's no game without them.

Sometimes though, you do wonder what would make someone want to take it up as a career, or even a hobby for that matter.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Halsey had the temerity to send off Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey in his side's highly-charged local derby against Manchester United. Halsey has only recently returned to top flight refereeing after recovering from cancer, while his wife Michelle continues to undergo treatment for the disease.

Without minutes social networking sites were buzzing. Nothing unusual there, a key decision in a high profile game between two well supported teams is always going to cause a lot of comment and controversy.

What was more unusual - and worrying in this case - is the content of some of the messages seen on Twitter, including ones wishing that both Halsey and his wife would have died of cancer. Irrespective of the passions inspired by the game, there can be no excuse for that level of vile personal abuse.

Yet who amongst us, as a sports fan, hasn't sat or stood in a stadium and said or sung something derogatory about a match official? I know I have, and I'm not proud of it.

It's not just at the elite level either. No matter how much campaigns like Respect might try to improve the lot of grass roots match officials there are still plenty of cases of abuse and violence against them both by players and spectators. So why do people do it?

Simply, their love of the game overrides any negative experiences they may have. It keeps them coming back for more, either at grass roots level or as they move up the officiating pyramid towards the elite level.

Without them, we would have no professional sport to support. We owe them a debt of gratitude, not abuse.