Monday, November 19, 2012

The Big Society...and other Fairy Tales

You remember the "Big Society", right?

It was one of those soundbites the current government liked to throw around way back when, up there with "we're all in this together".

As time has passed and policies have been unveiled however, it's become apparent that what "Big Society" actually means is "don't blame us, it's your own fault". It's the ultimate smokescreen, with "choice" being used to deflect blame away from local and central government.

Don't like the way your child's school is being run? Don't blame your local authority, talk to the philanthropist who paid for it turning into an Academy and can now set the curriculum to suit their own political or religious agenda.

Not getting a good enough service from your local NHS? Don't blame the government, talk to your GP who has suddenly found themselves in charge of a multi-million pound commissioning budget that they have no clue how to manage.

Miffed that your local police force doesn't have the resources it needs to fight crime effectively? Not the Home Secretary's fault, blame your local Police and Crime Commissioner. After all, you voted for them (or more likely, didn't).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that every aspect of our lives needs to be micromanaged by politicians. "Choice" and "small government" should not be dirty words.

At every policy trick and turn lately, the connect between local and national politicians, the services they provide and the users of those services is getting weaker and weaker. Firewalls are being put in place so that when services fail, the politicians can simply wash their hands of the whole mess and point the finger back at us, the public who voted for them in the first place.

There is some good news on the horizon however. In a couple of years, you'll get your democratic opportunity to give your opinion on the way the country is being run. Don't miss the opportunity to show the coalition just how a Big Society can really work together to sort out its problems.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It Wasn't Me...

So sayeth Bart Simpson and Shaggy, anyway. The reggae singer, not the Scooby Doo character.

Yesterday, the BBC Director General George Entwistle decided that even though the whole Saville/McAlpine/child abuse mess started before he was even in the job and he has no direct editorial control over Newsnight, he should take the bullet for the BBC's collective mistakes.

It was the act of an honourable man, throwing himself in the way of the criticism his staff and his organisation have received of late in the hope that by doing so it would free them to carry on doing their jobs out of the spotlight.

He could easily have sought out those directly responsible for the editorial errors that led to this mess and make an example of them. Nobody works to their potential when they are looking over their shoulders in fear however, so Entwistle decided that if anyone was going to go, it should be him.

Contrast if you will with those who are running newspapers in the UK. The phone hacking scandal centred around News International publications. Ultimately, the newspapers were under the control of Rupert Murdoch and his son James.

Both have consistently denied responsibility for the actions of those below them in the managerial chain, many of whom have subsequently either fallen on their swords or been dismissed. The Murdochs justified their stance on the basis that as heads of such a massive organisation they couldn't possibly have day to day control or knowledge of how their businesses operated.

Back in December 2010 when Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates went missing, the UK newspapers were almost unanimous in pointing the finger at her landlord Christopher Jefferies, on no more scientific a basis than "he looked a bit of a wrong 'un".

Jefferies brought successful libel actions against several newspapers for the allegations aimed at him. Both The Sun (a News International publication) and The Daily Mirror were also found guilty of contempt of court for publishing information that could have prejudiced a fair trial.

All in all, a not particularly glorious period in the history of the British press.The number of editors, directors and CEOs of newspapers who resigned as a result of the potentially prejudicial errors in their reporting of the Yeates case? Zero. Not one.

And yet, some of those same editors and CEOs have been driving the agenda of blame aimed at the BBC over recent weeks. Hypocrisy doesn't even begin to describe it.

Clearly some of them could have benefited from taking lessons in corporate responsibility from George Entwistle. It is arguably they who should have been spending their weekend considering their position, rather than him.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Close The Dorries On Your Way Out

Politics hates you.

It does. Really. No matter how much you try to engage with it, politics would much rather you just pissed off and left it alone to run your life for you.

Once upon a time, in order to get involved with Parliamentary politics you needed to be landed gentry, or a decorated general, or a wealthy industrialist. The agenda you pursued when you got there was most likely to be one of preserving your own position and feathering your own financial nest.

Over time, things changed. Politics became no longer something that only rich people had the time and money to get involved in. The middle classes, trade unionists, even athletes and television news reporters could get into Parliament. A good thing, making the Lower House more representative of the population as a whole.

Agendas changed too. Politics became no longer about feathering your own nest, and more about feathering the nests of those who were most likely to vote for you so they would do it again.

Events of recent weeks however, would suggest that we have gone full circle.

First we had Denis MacShane, not only getting caught with his nose in the trough but having the balls to then try and blame it on a "co-ordinated BNP vendetta" based on his work campaigning against far-right groups in the UK and Europe.

MacShane claimed £20,000 per year for the costs of running an office, which was actually based in his garage at home. He invented a fake general manager to sign off on purchases, and submitted 19 false invoices designed to mislead the Parliamentary authorities.

This was just the latest of a range of expenses claims by MPs which have come to light indicating just how far some are prepared to "play" the expenses system. A system which takes public money and distributes it so MPs no longer have to rely on their own personal wealth to fund their own constituency activities.

No sooner was that off the front pages, than Conservative MP Nadine Dorries decided that her political causes and career would be much better served appearing on an ITV "reality" show than working in Parliament or in her constituency.

Dorries will be paid up to £40,000 by ITV for taking part in the show, filmed in Australia. Her rationale for abandoning her day job and the interests of those who voted for her, is that the show will enable her to reach a much wider audience than her views would get in the UK.

I can only imagine she hasn't seen the show, however. A whole day can be edited down into 10-15 minutes of "highlights". If Nadine's pronouncements on economic policy or the abortion limit make those highlights, the producers have clearly done an awful job of picking their cast.

She's not the first serving MP to do such a thing. George Galloway was MP for Bethnal and Bow when he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2006 and made an enormous tit of himself in the process. Certainly nobody remembers anything about his politics from his appearance on the show.

Dorries did not seek approval from her party to appear on the show. Neither did she even go to the bother of informing her own constituency office, who found out about it in the same way the rest of us did.

She just decided to take four weeks off work, expecting of course to be paid throughout, to pursue her own interests. Treating your employers and customers like that in any other walk of life would probably lead to you appearing on the dole queue shortly after.

Denis MacShane and Nadine Dorries are just the two latest examples of the contempt with which the modern professional politician and politics in general treats the public.

When those in Westminster start bemoaning how disengaged people are from the political system, they would do well to hold up a mirror to themselves. They may well see the answer right there.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Sound Of Silence

Much has been said elsewhere about what Mark Clattenburg might or might not have said to upset the Chelsea club and its players last weekend. The allegations that he used language of a racial nature will go through their due process, so I'll stay away from offering comment until they have done so.

Had Clattenburg been in charge of a high profile, televised game in either code of rugby however, this incident would already have been put to bed.

Both rugby union and rugby league allow their referees to be miked up and for their comments and instructions to players to be broadcast. It's a useful tool for those who may be relatively new to the game, as by listening to the referee they can understand why he may have given a particular decision which might otherwise have not been apparent.

Occasionally the odd bit of foul language might end up being broadcast when a player forgets that the microphone is there, but it can usually be dealt with through a swift reminder from the referee that their expletives are being broadcast and an apology from the commentators.

Football also has its referees wired for sound. The referee, his assistants and the fourth official can all hear each other and communicate during the game. Yet in football, this is very much a closed circuit. These communications are not recorded, nor are they monitored by anyone other than the four officials involved. They are certainly not broadcast live to the viewing public.

So why not? Football has no problem putting effects microphones on the side of the pitch so it can pick up all manner of inappropriate noises coming out of the stands. It has no issues with shoving microphones under the noses of its players and coaches immediately after games.

So what is this dirty little secret that football is trying to hide from its adoring public?

It is simply, this.

Football is out of control. 

Neither FIFA, nor the national associations, nor the referees at the elite level have any control over the way players behave on the field of play. Sure, they might give the occasional high-profile target a ban for something or other just to make it look like they've got a tight grip of the reins, but the reality is that the players and coaches are a multi-billion pound juggernaut with nobody at the wheel.

For a sport so reliant on the commercial goodwill of sponsors and broadcasters, that's one evil twin that needs to remain firmly locked in the attic. Exposing companies that pump billions into the game to what it is they are actually endorsing could be an unpleasant wake-up call to many.

Football, argues its governors, is a high pressure, physical sport where "industrial" language is often used in the heat of the moment. Anyone who believes that this should somehow set it apart when it comes to broadcasting the sounds of the game might want to consider how it is the oval ball games manage. They are certainly no less intense and definitely no less physical than football, yet their players and coaches behave in a respectful manner towards the officials and opponents.

Were I in the shoes of Mike Riley, head of the Professional Game Match Officials - effectively, the referees union - I would be pushing for one game to be recorded and then aired unedited with the referees microphone turned on. Put it on after the watershed so you don't have to bleep anything, and let the general public see exactly what his members have to put up with on a weekly basis.

It is time that someone opened the door to the attic and exposed football's dirty little secret to the world. Only then will its attitude change.