SubScribe: 2012 Google+

Tuesday 24 July 2012

How bad can it get?

A man down on his luck tries to improve his lot by selling brushes and dusters door to door. He is bused from the Midlands to Essex, where he makes few sales. One evening he's about to pack up and go home, but decides to make one last call. A woman of 50 answers the door, she wants some of his merchandise. They get chatting, but he has a bus to catch and has to rush away; he promises to return.The chance meeting leads to a love affair that lasts 20 years until the woman dies, leaving her devoted partner bereft.
It's a magical story, but not one you'll read in any newspaper. Our salesman has, however, featured in print many times. His daughter is a successful actress. She had a troubled adolescence and her relationship with her 'dad' is a constant theme in the many features that have been written about her in the past decade.

Another father splits with his wife and leaves the family home in Wales to return to his native Australia. Their son becomes a successful sportsman, the father becomes a drunk. There is an attempt at reconciliation. It fails and the father's descent continues until he is eventually found dead in the street with a head wound. The police say he appears to have been assaulted before he died, but they are unable to discover any more. The press in Britain and Australia publish stories about the 'mysterious death' of the sportsman's father.

A respected physicist smashes the glass stratosphere to become America's youngest astronaut. She takes part in two shuttle missions and is preparing for a third when the Challenger disaster brings the programme to a halt. She serves on the presidential inquiry into the catastrophe and remains with  Nasa for a further year before turning to a life in academia and public service. She founds a business dedicated to inspiring young people to develop their scientific and engineering skills. She joins forces with a woman she has known since childhood and they write several books together. When she dies of cancer, her office amends her biography to record her death and the fact that she is survived by her collaborator, who is described as her  'partner of 27 years'. Suddenly the most important feature of this woman's life  is that she was gay.

What is this obsession we have in prying into people's lives, tainting their achievements with snide 'news' stories and features about  relationships that are generally long past, common knowledge, or just plain irrelevant?

Here we are on the day that Lord Leveson packs up his briefcase and a clutch of journalists are  told that they will face criminal charges after the phone-hacking scandal - and still we haven't learnt. Today the Telegraph produces the worst intro I have seen in 40 years of journalism:

In an obituary on her website, Sally Ride publicly outed herself as homosexual for the first time, naming her partner of 27-years as Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Ride's sister and a spokesman for Sally Ride Science, the organisation led by Ride and O'Shaughnessy, later reportedly confirmed that Ride was gay.
I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," Sally Ride's sister, Bear Ride, told the Buzz Feed news website.

The piece is bylined 'From Amy Willis, Los Angeles'. You might wish to remember that name.
Ms Willis, above, is the Telegraph's digital editor in Los Angeles, a post she has held since last November. The job apparently involves 'foreign editing and reporting'.
Before that she spent two years as  a content editor on the website, joining from Baylis Media, where she was the Cookham district reporter for eight months. 
That was her first venture into journalism after a year as a sales account  executive at  Euromoney Institutional Investor, which her LinkedIn profile says involved talking to prospective subscribers at major banks and hedge funds. I think that means she was a telesales girl.
To be as fair as I can to Ms Willis, she was in part hampered by the web convention that the most important elements of the story are covered in the head and subdeck:

Sally Ride: America's first woman in space dies aged 61
America’s first female astronaut to enter space has died after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Ms Willis may be inexperienced, but does she really need to proclaim it - and her own lack of effort - by quoting two websites in the first three pars? And, of course, the biggest sin of all: is there really anyone on the planet (or indeed any alien Ms Ride may have met in space) who thinks the key fact - or, indeed, the 99th key fact - about this pioneering astronaut is that she was a lesbian?
Well, sadly, yes. There are many. If you google Tam O'Shaughessy you'll bring up hundreds of reports of Ms Ride's death, all of which focus on her sexuality.  
The delightful Patriots for America website proclaims 

Faggorty strikes America again: X-astronaut Sally Kristen Ride 1951-2012

Not only obnoxious, but a literal to boot. And then under the ghastly heading it prints the Sally Ride Science biog untainted. Life is full of surprises.

So is it a legitimate news angle? Someone at the Telegraph must surely be overseeing what Ms Willis is posting online and hence approving of the approach? 
Remembering this is a news story and not an obituary, maybe there is an argument for the line. The obits section will deal with her dazzling career in detail. If this is the only new fact;  if she really did keep her relationship with O'Shaughnessy secret for nigh on three decades, maybe there's a case to be made - although certainly not the crass approach of Ms Willis, since there is no question that Ms Ride 'outed herself'. If a heterosexual scientist had been secretly married to her close collaborator for 30 years, declaring it only after death, that would be a decent tale.
But there's a pesky detail that scuppers that argument: the relationship was widely known.Two thirds of the way down his sober profile of O'Shaughnessy, Connor Adams Sheets of the International Business Times writes:

Though Ride was open about her partnership with O'Shaughnessy, it does not appear to have been a controversial topic. 
The two became partners in 1985 - two years after Ride's history-making Nasa flight - but they first met while playing tennis at the age of 12. They were together until the very end, when Ride died ...after inspiring a nation to dream big.

Isn't it nice to see it put in proper context?

It's just so inconvenient when readers have longer memories than the reporters and editors putting papers and websites together - especially when it interferes with our national sport of Build 'em up; knock 'em down. 
While most of Britain and France was rejoicing as Bradley Wiggins was making history in the Tour de France, Annie Barrowlough was busy digging the dirt on his disreputable dad in Australia. The results of her efforts appeared in Saturday's Times under the heading

Drink, drugs, decline and fall: how Britain's cycling hero lost his father

Barrowclough describes how an Australia Day party ended up with Wiggins's father, Gary, being found dying in the road, having been 'beaten to a pulp'. There are various quotes from neighbours who described hearing shouting and seeing men brawling. Someone even saw Wiggins Snr staggering up the street, but assumed he was drunk.
Gary was also a cycling champion, but he had left the family home long before Bradley showed that he had inherited those genes. The Times piece runs through the estrangement, the father's descent into drugs and drink, and how he tried to capitalise on Bradley's success by inviting him to a competition in Australia before the Sydney Olympics. Bradley came second in his race, the father was furious and that was the end of that relationship.
I'm sure this is just what Wiggins wanted to be reminded of on the final day of the Tour. But you have to admit it's all pretty interesting; interesting enough for most other newspapers - and websites all over the world - to go quarrying in the same mine.
But none of it is new.
Gary Wiggins died on January 31, 2008. By that time Bradley had taken part in two Olympics, had come home from Athens in 1984 with a full set of gold, silver and bronze medals and was in training for Beijing. He was sufficiently well-known for his father's death to be newsworthy. 
The Mail  ran a story headlined

British Olympic cyclist's father found dead in Australia in 'suspicious circumstances'

The Express, Guardian, Times and BBC also covered the story at the time.
The tale of how the final attempt at reconciliation ended in recrimination is documented in Wiggins's autobiography, In Pursuit of Glory, which was published four years ago. Barrowclough acknowledges as much in her Times story, in which she quotes our hero's description of his father:

Most of his days would consist of buying a couple of crates of VBs and steadily drinking himself into a stupor...

And of the competition that was supposed to raise Gary's local standing:

By the end of my race he was surrounded by a pile of tinnies, hammered and telling me what I had done wrong and how he would have won.

Is it news to re-report something that happened four years ago and quote from a book of the same vintage? OK, maybe some people didn't know,  but by that token we could retell every story on a four-year cycle. 
And what of the universal determination to find the grimmest secrets behind the happiest moments? We're in miserable times, yet we seem incapable of taking joy where it is to be had; we have to look for the worst in everything.
The saddest thing to my mind is that 'serious' papers - The Times and the Telegraph - have joined in the game.

It used to be just the tabloids. Take the case of the actress and the brush salesman. There were plenty of dark secrets in that family home: illicit affairs, unwanted pregnancies, delinquency. The parents split up, the mother remarried and the teenage daughter's life continued to be troubled. She grew up referring to her stepfather as Dad. 
When she got her first breaks and good reviews, newspapers started interviewing her and always homed in on her difficult childhood. Once one had published details of her history of abuse, it was there in the cuts for every following interviewer to drag out. And so the story was perpetuated with every new television show, every film, every gala. And every time, the knife went into the heart of the estranged father, who ended up changing his name in an effort to escape.

Famous actress: how my dad abused me

ran the billboard outside the local newsagent one Sunday. Our salesman, who had turned his life round, found a proper job and a stable, happy relationship, was distraught. He was the actress's Dad, and he had his faults, but he wasn't an abuser. The stepfather was.
Indeed, the real father had been reunited with his daughter and they are still in touch.

At least Annie Barrowclough appears to have done some real reporting for her Wiggins piece. But when you're looking for dirt, and you do your research in the cuts file or on the internet rather than actually talking to the people involved, the chances are you'll get it wrong. 
I don't know if they teach that at Baylis media.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Welcome to the Great British Olympic summer

The flags are out, the bunting's up.  Olympic rings dangle from Tower Bridge and the torch is weaving its way across the country. In southwest London the world's greatest tennis tournament is reaching the nail-biting stage, while across the Channel Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are busy showing the French the art of cycling. And we're smashing the Aussies at cricket. Doesn't it make you proud to be British?
This is the Great British Summer of Sport. The jubilee summer we've been dreaming of since that magical day in 2005 when we snatched the right to stage the Olympics from under Paris's nose.

It hasn't been a smooth ride from then to now. Within 24 hours, terrorists had blown up chunks of London, killing themselves and 52 people who had been trying to go about their daily business. It's a fair bet that had they struck a couple of days earlier, the Games would not be coming to town this  month.
By the time the Chinese played host in 2008, the world's banking system was in freefall and economies everywhere were wobbling. As David Beckham and Leona Lewis (remember her?) made their entrance on a red Routemaster to see Boris Johnson take possession of the Olympic flag, everyone was at pains to make clear that London would not be emulating Beijing's lavish approach. It would instead -  as on its rescue mission in 1948 -  be the home of the austerity Games.

But we always expected it to be fun, that we would have a joyous summer, what with the Queen celebrating 60 years on the throne and all. The Olympic building programme seems to have gone extraordinarily well, on (revised) budget and on time. The sport may yet be wonderful.
But so many clouds have gathered that some of us might prefer to hide in the back room rather than throw open our doors to world scrutiny. The showcase doesn't have quite as many gems in it as we should like. Indeed, there is so much rusty metal and paste, it's hard to find the sparkle.
We like to believe that Britain is universally recognised for its sense of fair play, honest dealing, ethical business and sportsmanship. Oh, and the best free Press in the world. 
Of course it is. 

That's why our MPs thought it was fine to send us the bill for their bathplugs, duck houses and second homes.
That's why journalists thought it was fine to hack into anyone's voicemail in the hope of some tawdry titbit and why politicians now think it's fine to shackle the entire newspaper industry (but not broadcasting or the web).
That's why bankers thought it was fine to lie and to cheat anyone who wasn't one of them, to pocket millions for themselves while refusing to carry out their job of lending money to keep businesses alive. 
That's why the super-rich and multinational corporations thought it was fine to avoid paying their taxes, after all why should they fund hospitals, schools and handouts for the poor?
That's why GlaxoSmithKline thought it was fine to tell doctors to give their adult antidepressant to minors, even though they knew it might make them suicidal.
That's why Stuart Pearce thought it was fine to deny David Beckham a place in his Olympic football team, even though he is possibly the world's most famous living Englishman and a prime reason for visiting this summer.
Good, eh? Really makes you want to come here, doesn't it?

The news today is sobering, And I don't just mean the resignation of Bob Diamond - the man who told us in January that the time for remorse and apology was over. There are so many people expressing opinions, analysing, making feeble puns from his name, that this blog can add little, other than to say it's nice to see the person at the top accepting responsibility for wrongdoing on their watch - Rebekah Brooks take note. Sadly, we can't take comfort from that as an example of British honour, since Diamond is American. Let's just hope that Barclays has the sense not to appoint its head of corporate and investment banking, above, as his successor. One extravagant name is enough. We can't cope with Rich Ricci.

With TV, radio, news websites and Twitter all agog with Diamond and how many zillions he'll get as a payoff, you may have missed today's other examples of why - beyond our greedy incorruptible banking industry - we should be proud to be British, 
Like our greedy, incorruptible pharmaceuticals industry.
GlaxoSmithKline has today agreed to pay $3bn in fines for what has been described as the biggest health fraud in American history. A billion of that was for criminal charges relating to three of its best-selling drugs; the other two billion went on civil fines over half a dozen other medicines, including a widely used asthma treatment.
That's an awful lot of money, but we know that Americans deal in huge figures and sometimes they aren't too fond of the Brits (GSK is based in Brentford). Perhaps they're being melodramatic. What did the company do that was so wrong? 
Nothing much really.
They told doctors they could prescribe the antidepressant Paxil for under-18s, when it is intended for adults. What they didn't tell the doctors was that research had shown that teenagers taking the drug were more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
They marketed the antidepressant Wellbutrin as a drug that would spice up your sex life,  help you to lose weight and make it easier to stop smoking. In fact, these were just possible side effects. 
They neglected to tell doctors that diabetics who took their Avandia pills might have a heart attack or stroke, even though they knew that research pointed to an increased risk.

But surely the doctors should have been more diligent in checking out these drugs? Didn't they read the scientific papers, the medical journals? Well, they probably didn't have time. They were almost certainly too busy going on holiday to Hawaii, relaxing in a swanky spa or watching a Madonna gig - all courtesy of the GSK kickback machine.
A machine that has proved its worth: the company has paid $3bn to settle cases relating to these three drugs over the past ten years. In the same period, its income from Wellbutrin was $5.9bn, from Avandria $10.4bn and from Paxil $11.6bn. Great British business, eh?
Just for the record, there is now a new boss at GSK, and he says it's time to move on.

But that's the private sector. We know how to look after people who can't help themselves, don't we? We have a history of providing safety nets, protecting the weak, upholding the rule of law. What's that phrase we keep trotting out? Oh yes, the NHS is the envy of the world.
Quite right. What's not to envy about a health service whose clinical negligence bill for last year was a record £1.2bn, a service that lets a hospital patient die of thirst? 
I know, we think we've heard all that before:  the neglect of elderly patients, demented old souls who have forgotten how to drink. Terribly sad and all that, but what can you do? 
Well, when it comes to dementia we have a terrible record - and not only the repeated cases of dehydration in hospital. A parliamentary report today points to 'shocking delays' in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia, with half of sufferers having to wait a year for a formal diagnosis.
But the chap who died of thirst at St George's hospital, Tooting, was neither old nor confused. Kane Gorny was 22 and perfectly lucid. So lucid that when nurses forgot to give him his medicine, he reminded them. And kept reminding them. And when they took no notice, he dialled 999 and begged the police to bring him a drink. But when the police arrived, they were turned away with the assurance that Mr Gorny was all right. Eventually a doctor appeared on the scene and realised that, far from being all right, Mr Gorny was in a bad way. So bad that he died within the hour.

Thankfully we have mechanisms to look into cases where patients or their families have cause for complaint about their treatment by nurses or midwives. A regulatory body was set up for that specific purpose. But the patients must be patient, it may take a while for their case to be heard. The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence reports today that people are being 'let down' by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, whose prime duty is to protect patients. It has a backlog of 4,500 cases, some going back five years, and in the meantime it is allowing nurses accused - or even found guilty -  of assault, theft and drunkenness to carry on working. 
So that's all right then.

And just look at the way we let youngsters learn to stand on their own feet and go out to earn a bit of pin money, rather than keep them under lock and key in care homes. They can see a bit of the country, too.  
Andrew Norfolk of The Times has shown a great interest in this phenomenon, reporting on it with hideous clarity, and today the Deputy Children's Commissioner has joined in to point to the "shocking evidence of abuse inside the child care system". This is the splash story in The Times today and Norfolk writes on the inside pages about one girl's experience. 
Our girl was taken into care in Essex when she was 12. By the time she was 13 she was on the move, and over the next couple of years she was housed in homes in Northamptonshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. Staff noted that she had a tendency to go missing and that she was sexually forward. Eventually  she ended up in a Rochdale home, which charged Essex £252,000 a year to look after her. That doesn't appear to have been enough money to keep tabs on her and make sure she was safe. She would disappear for a day, a week, a fortnight, selling her body for vodka, drugs and pizza. 
This is Norfolk's harrowing account of how she ended up:

One evening 25 men arrived in cars outside a derelict property where the 15-year-old was lying in an upstairs bedroom. They queued patiently on the stairs and outside the room, each waiting to have sex with a girl who was so drunk that she soon lost count of the number of men she was abused by. 
She finally brought an end to the abuse cycle when she wrote a note and handed it to carers. It read: "Asians pick me up. They get me drunk, they give me drugs, they have sex with me and tell me not to tell anyone. I want to move."

But our other public services are OK, aren't they? Our Olympic visitors will see the great British bobby, the Changing of the Guard?
Up to a point. Remember this is austerity Britain, so there are cuts everywhere. The Metropolitan Police says today that it is confident that all will be fine for the Olympics - but when everyone's gone home and nobody's looking, the police budget will shrink by 13% in an effort to save £2.4bn by 2015. That means hundreds of police stations will close, and you can bet your life there will be fewer bobbies on the beat.
The Army, too, is getting smaller. The Changing of the Guard is safe, since the Household Cavalry appears to have escaped the cuts. So have the Paras, the SAS and Marine commandos, but we learn today details of which other great regiments  are to be merged or disbanded. The aim is to get rid of 20,000 soldiers and reduce the Army to a fifth of its strength. Just what the boys in Afghanistan want to hear over their breakfast.

So here we are. Our public services in disarray, the economy in recession,  high streets struggling to survive in a never-ending Sale season, half the country's workforce desperate to find a job or taking tranquillisers to help them deal with the stress of the one they have. We all need a lift. 
The Olympics, according to a Lloyds bank report today, will give us just that. 
Well we know we can trust the banks, so what does Lloyds have to say? That the Games will create 62,000 jobs and boost the economy by £16.5bn with extra tourism and higher consumer spending.
Excellent. The only trouble is, that benefit will be accrued by 2017 and half of it will come from projects that have already been started - such as building the Olympic Park. And it seems a little less wonderful when set against the cost of staging the competition (anything from £11bn to £24bn, depending on which  set of rules you use) and a national debt of more than £1trn.
Hmmm. Was it such a great idea after all?  If not, someone will have to pay the price -  but who?

Oh yes, of course, it's obvious. Beckham brought the Games here. He must pay, rather than take, the penalties.
Stuart Pearce explained today why Beckham had been left out of the Great Britain squad, or rather why he hadn't been invited in. 
No one told Pearce who to pick. He was focused on winning, he had to think only of the football, there was no room for sentiment. Nor was there room for Beckham on the coaching side - all seven places had been taken.
Pearce was, however, told who not to pick, starting with those who'd played in the Euros. So no Carroll, Wellbeck, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain (the only under-23s). Then there were those who would rather be on holiday or whose managers thought they needed a rest.
Olympic football, it seems, is too important to leave to the likes of Beckham, who arranged his entire life to be available and fit for this competition and the chance to play one last time for his country. Much better to turn to a player who not so long ago had far more pressing things to do than to represent his country.
Olympic football is so important and popular that it is the one sport for which you can get tickets virtually every day, including the Great Britain matches. You can even get into the final for 65 quid. It's not hard to see why: the standard of play is never going to be anywhere near  that which we can see in our own homes most nights of the week. 
Of course, Beckham wouldn't have been a box office draw. Nobody in the world would have wanted to see him. 
Good to know that at least one person in charge of something in this country can't be swayed by money. Pity he made the wrong decision.

We can berate the corrupt and the sleazy, we can beat ourselves - and others - up for a thousand failings, but some things you cannot control.
We all hoped for a glorious summer. Instead we have had grey skies and rain. We have tried to grin and battle on regardless, turning out to cheer the Queen at her sodden Jubilee pageant and the torch runners as they jog through the gloom. We have put up gazebos and umbrellas to protect us and our soggy sandwiches at street parties. We have been more neighbourly. We have shown that we are still the masters and mistresses of stoicism, of making the best of a bad job.
Maybe the sun will come out later this month. Maybe Murray will win Wimbledon. Maybe we'll beat the South Africans in the cricket. Maybe we'll get a clutch of golds at the greatest Olympics ever seen and restore our national pride with our performances on track, field and in the stands. 
Maybe, just maybe, we'll be welcoming to our Olympic guests, help them when they get lost, rather than try to rip them off; cheer their athletes' achievements as well as our own; try to be patient rather than angry in the traffic jams; remember that jingoism isn't patriotism.
It's a tall order, but maybe we can do it.
Or maybe, with the 'biblical' rain of the past few weeks, God is telling us something about our country and ourselves.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Leveson: an expensive hiding to nothing

The Joneses are thousands of pounds in debt. The children need new school uniforms, there isn't enough cash to pay the woman who comes to look after their ageing grandmother, and the car has failed its MoT. Most of the neighbours are in the same boat. Times are tough.
In the living room there is a television set. It's not brilliant - the picture and sound quality are a bit iffy - but it's just about done the job for the past few years. Even with all the other pressing demands on their bank accounts, the family is thinking about replacing it, so Mrs Jones decides to commission a personal shopper to find a new one.
She wants an independent opinion, so she doesn't approach anyone with any background in making or selling televisions. Having chosen the  man for the job, the family asks him to look into DVDs and home cinemas while he's at it. He should conduct his research as widely and thoroughly as possible - but even when he reaches his conclusions, the Joneses may ignore his advice. Everyone thinks it's a great idea.

Well it's obviously utterly bonkers. Money down the drain.
But here we have a Government up to its ears in debt, austerity all round, limited funds for education, health or transport and the swirling crisis in Europe threatening to make things worse.
Yet we're happy to spend anything up to £50m - enough to rebuild five delapidated secondary schools - on trying to put a leash around the country's most important watchdog: the Press. And incidentally allow everyone to join in the fun of the official hounding of Rupert Murdoch.

The News of the World should not have hacked into anybody's phone.
But when people found out that it had done so, no one really cared. There wasn't even much outrage when it turned out that it was Prince William's phone that had been tapped.
When the Guardian suggested that many more people had had their calls intercepted, the claims were treated with disbelief and brushed aside. But the newspaper was dogged in its pursuit of the story and eventually the wider truth emerged.  The former head of the Professional Footballers' Association  was paid a huge sum in compensation after he threatened to sue for intrusion - a sum that was assumed to have included 'hush money', or to put it more formally, a confidentiality clause; common practice in cases settled out of court.
A procession of celebrities came forward to say that they, too, had suffered invasions of their privacy - but  there were still few people beyond the Guardian offices who cared much. Millions of readers continued to buy the redtops without questioning where all the showbiz gossip came from.  Until the parents of Milly Dowler said that her voicemails had been erased, giving them false hope that she was still alive when in fact she was long dead.
Suddenly everyone was overcome with righteousness. The police belatedly swung into action, and promptly went into overdrive. The News of the World was closed down. People started asking questions about the Prime Minister's judgment in appointing a former editor of the paper as his communications chief. Resignations and arrests followed.
When you have a furore such as this, it doesn't take long for someone (usually Her Majesty's loyal Opposition)  to cry 'There must be a full public inquiry.' And so it came to pass that Lord Justice Leveson was charged with examining the culture and ethics of the Press, the relationship between the Press and the police, and the relationship of the Press and politicians.  He has further been asked to come up with a new regulatory system to replace the Press Complaints Commission.

We are obsessed with public inquiries, royal commissions and judicial reviews and we never learn: they rarely reveal much that we didn't know already and even less frequently bring about effective change.
In 1981 Lord Scarman conducted an inquiry into the causes of the Brixton riots and concluded that relations between the police and the community - particularly the black community - had broken down and needed a fundamental rethink. As a result of his report, the independent Police Complaints Authority was set up.
Eighteen years later Sir William Macpherson was asked to examine the way the police had investigated the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The inquiry cost £4m and Sir William concluded that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist and that relations with the community had broken down. So much for Scarman.

In 1973 the Daily Mirror published an unprecedented 'shock issue' on the life and death of Maria Colwell. I can visualise it to this day. Maria was given up to foster parents as a baby and lived with them until she was five. Then her mother decided she wanted her back. The child was abused and starved until one day her mother's boyfriend came home and found Maria watching television. Her punishment was to be battered and kicked to death. She was six years old.  William Kepple was jailed for eight years for manslaughter, a sentence reduced to four on appeal.
The case appalled the nation and Sir Thomas Field-Fisher led a public inquiry that brought some changes in the law.  The inquiry revealed a pattern of events that is now all too familiar: care professionals incapable of joined-up thinking, social workers being fobbed off by parents who could get a degree in lying, doctors and nurses not being alert  to suspicious bruising and broken bones.
We know what happens not just from the fate of Maria Colwell, but from the inquiries into the deaths of Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry, Victoria Climbie, Baby P. But have these investigations taught us how to save such children? Sadly not. What we have learnt is to blame overstretched social services officials when the real villains are the bastards who kill the children. And we gasp in astonishment when one dares to fight back, as Sharon Shoesmith did after being publicly tried and convicted by Ed Balls before a word had been given in evidence.

Some inquiries do produce radical change - there was a huge overhaul of Underground safety as a result of Desmond Fennell's inquiry into the Kings Cross fire that killed 31 people in 1987. The Taylor report on the Hillsborough disaster brought an end to standing on terraces at football grounds, but many thought his conclusions flawed and other recommendations went unheeded.
Other hearings have seemed pointless. The Saville inquiry spent 12 years and £195m going into minute detail of the Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry in 1973. At the beginning we knew that the Paras had opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing 26. At the end we knew that Paras had fired on unarmed protesters, killing 26 - and that Martin McGuinness had, as suspected, been one of the "bad guys" of the Troubles.. Nearly £8m per victim is a lot to pay for 'closure'. 
The Franks inquiry into the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands told us that the Foreign Office had taken its eyes off the ball. Peter Carrington had drawn that conclusion in the opening days of the conflict and resigned as Foreign Secretary, taking responsibility for others' failings on his watch - something that rarely happens these days.  But I guess if the country has to go to war because someone ballsed up, perhaps we should look into it. As we did with Chilcot and Hutton: £7.5m worth of investigations into the Blair Government's approach to the Iraq escapade and we're still arguing about it a decade later. Can anyone remember what their lordships decided?
Whatever an inquiry chairman concludes, there will always be people queueing up to denounce the verdict, and if the Government doesn't like it or the public purse can't stretch to the recommended reforms, nothing much will change. In too many cases, inquiries produce only the public vilification of someone who made a catastrophic mistake while doing their job and who will have to deal with the guilt, remorse and 'if onlys' for the rest of their lives, long after everyone else has forgotten their name.

And so to phone hacking. Rupert Murdoch has been a pantomime villain since he first  stepped foot in Fleet Street (ok, technically it was Bouverie Street) in the Sixties with his purchase of the News of the World. We  booed as he bought and reinvented the Sun, complete with page 3 girls. We yelled 'oh no you won't' when he wanted to buy Times Newspapers, but oh yes, he did. We hissed about cross-media ownership when he set up Sky. We cried 'foul' as he took over the Today newspaper when no one else wanted it. And, most of all, we shouted and stamped our feet when he sacked 5,000 print workers and started producing papers the way he wanted to in Wapping. 
Many have suffered at his hands, but rivals who denounce him have had few qualms about following where he led. How many national newspapers are today produced using hot metal, old fashioned printers and typesetters? How many millions watch complete football matches on TV, rather than 45 minutes of edited highlights of one game on a Saturday night? 
Well we have now reached the scene where the villain is tied up against the stake for his show trial with everyone relishing his discomfort. 
We're also rubbing our hands with glee to see his red-haired sidekick in manacles. We never liked her much - she was too smart and glamorous by half - and she didn't do herself any favours when she cast hundreds of her crew adrift while trying to cling to her personal lifeboat. We lap up the stories of Rebekah's police horse, Rebekah and Dave's country suppers. 
But is this a legitimate way to spend public money? Especially as the chances are that the next scene will begin 'with one bound he was free'. 

Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay QC are a fantastic double act; their show one of the most entertaining things on television. And my goodness, they've had some great guest stars: every national newspaper editor, every proprietor, government ministers PLUS three former prime ministers, the leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister and today the Prime Minister himself. Wowee! What a show! How we love to see the posh boys squirm.
The only trouble is, Leveson has an impossible task: to create a new regime to regulate the Press, ie newspapers. 
But what is a newspaper? Something that runs a little paragraph on the front or back paqe saying  'printed and published by...registered as a newspaper at the Post Office'? What if you don't register? What if you don't appear in print? The Guardian has stated that it sees its future in digital only. Would it be subject to any new regulation? The UK Press Gazette now appears as a weekly magazine online; is it part of "the Press"? Is this blog? What about review sites?  Leveson has conceded that the Internet is the 'elephant in the room'. He can't control the web, but if that's the only platform on which you publish your journalism, are you bound by the rules that govern your newsprint rivals? 

Doctors who can kill us are allowed to police themselves, but the Press can't be trusted. Nor, it seems, can the upholders of the law. Everything untoward that the News of the World folk are accused of doing is covered by existing legislation, as Ian Hislop kept telling the inquiry during his joyous morning of evidence. His point is proved by the fact that two people went to jail over Prince William's voicemail. We now have 150 coppers scurrying round investigating what went on in Wapping, arresting journalists all over the place and running up a bill which UKPG reported today is likely to end up at £30m-plus.
As a matter of interest, the Milly Dowler investigation, 'Operation Ruby', involved 100 officers and cost £6m - and still failed to nail the killer. Levi Bellfield was linked to the case only after he was arrested on another matter. Compare the spending and consider which is more important, finding a child killer or finding out who listened into Sadie Frost's phone calls?

And what about the rest of Fleet Street? Nobody's looking at them, we're all so engrossed in Murdoch. It would be naive to think that these practices were confined to News International and fingers have been pointed at the Mirror and the Mail groups, but there has been no real scrutiny.
Only today the CPS announced that it would not be prosecuting David Leigh, the Guardian's investigations executive editor, for hacking the phone of an arms company executive. Leigh not only admitted in print that he had listened to the businessman's voicemail but said that doing so had given him a 'voyeuristic thrill'. A prosecution would not be in the public interest, the CPS said. 
The Telegraph may be whiter than white - or maybe it has immunity because of the MPs' expenses. That was, of course, a case of dealing in stolen goods. The Times rejected the tapes for that very reason, a decision that displeased Murdoch, as we heard during his two days of evidence to Leveson. Stolen goods or not, it quickly became clear that the Telegraph was right to take the chance, the disclosures were without a doubt in the public interest. What, then, if you hack into a phone and find that a government minister is selling secrets to China? Is it suddenly OK? Oh, the benefits of hindsight.

Leveson knows he's on a hiding to nothing on the ethics/regulation front: he outlined his vague thinking to Tony Blair and pretty well begged him to turn it into something workable.He seems to be leaning towards statutory control. Wrong decision. The Tories won't buy it and his report will end up on the bottom shelf. Better just to reform the existing self-regulation system and give the PCC or its successor the power to fine newspapers or suspend journalists whose behaviour is dodgy but still just about legal. The existing laws can do the rest.

So how about relations with the police? It is already an offence to pay a public official; do we need further laws? Bribery legislation that came into effect last year is causing enough problems for businesses that don't know whether a bottle of scotch at Christmas or a ticket to the Olympics opening ceremony are allowable any more. The police need the Press's help with appeals to find criminals; reporters need police contacts to get the inside story. Are they allowed to buy each other a drink? How do you set the parameters? Two glasses good, four glasses bad? Read Orwell and you'll see that things do not always pan out quite as you had hoped.

Then there are the politicians. Just like the police, they need the Press. They also need the support of business, unions, ordinary people. Where do you draw the line? A woman goes to her  MP's surgery to complain about the rubbish collections or to seek help with an official letter. He obliges by raising the issue in Parliament or untangling the red tape. Fine?
A film director goes to a reception at No 10 and chats about the prospects for tax breaks to help the British film industry. Is that all right? 
Diageo tells the Chancellor that increases in alcohol duty are leading to a surge in booze cruises and making Britain uncompetitive. Is that above board?
The CBI lobbies the Tories for reductions in corporation tax; the unions tell Labour to change employment law. We take that for granted.
Why then, is it so terrible for newspapers - and not just the Murdoch Press - to put their agendas to ministers who may seek their endorsement come election time?
Rebekah and Dave may have been too cosy; Tony and Rupert may have been too close. But the door to No 10 wasn't closed to every other newspaper proprietor and editor. There was a time that Paul Dacre seemed to be running the country.
This inquiry is supposed to be about the whole of the Press, but the focus is squarely on Murdoch. Vince Cable was rightly stripped of his powers to decide on whether the BSkyB deal should be nodded through or examined more closely. Declaring war on Murdoch didn't exactly build confidence in his ability to deliver an impartial decision. We now know that his replacement, Jeremy Hunt, was too friendly with the Murdoch team and didn't even understand what was meant by quasi-judicial. Whatever either of them ended up deciding wouldn't have made a jot of difference to what was broadcast since News Corp already controlled the network.  

The Leveson inquiry has so far cost £2m, and it has a way yet to run. Is it worth it? 
Not if you listen to two people who should know. Two years ago Lord Bichard said in a debate at Gresham College, Oxford, that public inquiries were a waste of money because they had so little impact. Lord Bichard was put in charge of an inquiry into child protection issues after the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham. It ended up costing about £10m, but he said that he had to nag politicians to take any notice of his recommendations. "I regret that there seems to be a remarkable reluctance to adapt to the changes identified by these inquiries in so many professions," he said.
Lady Justice Smith, who ran the £21m inquiry into the Harold Shipman murders, felt much the same. "Positive proposals can be very slow to emerge and even if they eventually do, they are often diluted," she said. "It's a source of great regret to me."

The phone hacking scandal and belated police investigation have clipped Murdoch's wings and forced him into changes - as well as costing his company more than $100m. His son has lost all hope of inheriting his mantle; a newspaper with a long history and unique reputation has been killed off; trusted lieutenants have had to resign and some could even face jail.
All of that happened or was in train before Leveson started. It seems to me that this is ample evidence that mechanisms exist to deal with wrongdoing within the industry. It was exposed by industry - the Guardian - and dealt with by the existing forces of the law and commercial imperatives.As Hislop says, we just need to use the powers we already have a bit more efficiently.
The inquiry may have started as a 'get Rupert' witch-hunt, but it is David Cameron, with his lapses of judgment on Coulson, Brooks and Hunt, who may rue the day he set it up.

And so, as we close another week of celebrity evidence, here are a couple of final observations:

1: About 200 News of the World journalists lost their jobs when the paper closed. Many were re-employed at the Sun. In the fallout more than a hundred Times and Sunday Times workers also lost their jobs. One explanation was that the company had taken on premises at Thomas More Square in the expectation that four newspapers would share the costs; when there were only three, it was time for belt-tightening all round.
Murdoch told Leveson that he should have closed the NoW years ago and replaced it with a Sunday edition of the Sun. So even as he stands lashed to the stake, he still comes out with one result he always wanted.

2: One of the prime anti-NI cheerleaders is Tom Watson, a Labour MP and member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. He regards the behaviour of Murdoch and his staff as beyond the pale. He may well be right, but what of his own behaviour?
When details of MPs' expenses were published in full after the Telegraph blew the issue wide open with tales of duck houses and 30p plugs charged to the taxpayer, it emerged that Mr Watson and fellow MP Iain Wright had spent £100,000 of our money on the purchase and furnishing of a Westminster flat. Unfortunately, they were unable to claim the cost of their dining room suite because it went over the allowance. But Mr Watson did charge the full £4,800 a year for feeding himself - and the pair also used our money to buy the freehold of the flat. That will have made it more valuable, but Mr Watson and Mr Wright will be perfectly entitled to keep any profit they make on a future sale. 
Very ethical. Perhaps there should be a public inquiry.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Sold down the river

Updated June 7

"Our output has been impressive not only in its scale, but in its ambition, quality and outstanding journalism. The audience response has been overwhelming with a peak audience of almost 12 million people tuning in for the pageant, 17 million for the concert and 7.4 million for yesterday's carriage procession. Overall across the jubilee weekend, 68.5% of the nation watched some of our Diamond Jubilee programming, a stunning figure."
Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General, in an email to staff today

It's never much fun having to work when the rest of the country is on holiday. But when you're a journalist it's part of the package. We all moan when we are rostered for what seem like too many Sundays, but there are upsides. You get days off in the week when everyone else is slaving, so the town centres are empty or you can get on with the chores in peace. If you're a middle-ranking exec you might be allowed to play with the train set with limited long-distance interference from above. If something big happens, you feel a real part of it because there are so few of you at work - but if something really big happens, you know the boss class will descend on the office and take over.
On rare occasions we know in advance that something big is going to happen, and so staffing is adjusted accordingly. I dare say that every sports editor in the country will be on duty constantly between July 27 and August 12.
This weekend was just such an occasion. If you're the Independent or the Socialist Worker you may not have felt it necessary to staff up for the jubilee to quite the same extent as the Telegraph or the Mail - it's all a question of knowing your audience. And this is where the BBC  got it so catastrophically wrong.
At The Times, for example, the deputy editor - rather than one of the team of lowlier Sunday editors - was running the show this Sunday night;  the chief night editor was on duty all over the weekend. The paper knew that the river pageant was the central event of the celebrations and that it had to be covered properly. The top team was on hand to make sure it was: the best writers, the best photographers, the best executives. The strategy paid off with a 20% lift in sales - more than 100,000 extra copies sold - a far bigger boost than was achieved by any of its rivals. The Telegraph, which went jubilee bonkers and even put Union Flag bunting on the masthead (disliked by many, but I thought it was fun)  saw sales rise by about 8%.

So what gives with the BBC? It clearly knew that the pageant was important to its viewers: it  devoted four and a half hours of unbroken coverage to it. The website described it as one of the biggest events of the year, the first time in 350 years that such a flotilla had been seen on the Thames. Everyone knows we are a maritime nation. The event, as we were told several times, had been three years in the planning. How did the Beeb manage to make such a mess of it?
First, who commissioned Kate Shiers, Claire Megahey and Zoe Timmers  - a trio whose experience appears to be dominated by Crufts, the One Show and Three Men in a Boat - as the producers?
Who approved the list of presenters and participants?  Presumably Megahey's links with the One Show explain Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth, and the Three Men in a Boat link may tell us why Griff Rhys Jones was imposed on us.
But, for goodness' sake: Tess Daly,  Anneka Rice, Sian Williams, Fearne Cotton, Sandi Toksvig, Maureen Lipman, Richard E. Grant? Did nobody look at this list and think 'Hey, blokes like boats, should we get some chaps who know what they're talking about?'
No,  rather the view appears to have been 'Oh the men won't watch, it's the girlies who like all this royal fluff, but they won't care about the boats, we need to lighten it up.'

The first big mistake was not to recognise - in spite of its own hype reinforcing the fact - that this was a big state occasion. The Beeb was scared by criticisms of David Dimbleby's commentaries for the golden jubilee a decade ago and had, in the words of former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer made a clear decision to make the coverage "warm and inclusive".
But you can be warm and inclusive without being idiotic.
The great voices of the past, the Tom Flemings and the Max Robertsons, have been silenced by mortality, so if you accept that the BBC didn't want to wheel out a Dimbleby, who could have stepped in?  If the channel has dumbed down to such an extent that it has no presenter with more gravitas than Bruce Forsyth, Dermot O'Leary or Graham Norton, then it should have gone knocking on the door of Radio 4, where it would have found a wealth of talent to borrow: James Naughtie for a start, Sean Lay, Ed Stourton, Jennie Murray...anyone, indeed, who could recognise that a little homework would stand them in good stead. And what about Andrew Marr? Or even Jeremy Paxman or Fiona Bruce?
But no, Paul Dickenson was given the job; a man who literally didn't know one end of a boat from the other - going from talking about the gilding on the stern to the same gilding on the prow in the course of one sentence. 

The howlers have been widely listed: HRH the Queen; a hat being made by the milliner who produced Nelson's hat for Waterloo; the tonnage of HMS Belfast, the Duke of Edinburgh's age; muddling upriver and downriver; talk about going downstairs from the royal barge's first floor.
Tom Cunliffe, the only maritime expert on duty, knew a thing or two but was barely allowed to air his knowledge because it was far more important for the viewers to see Tess Daly "knighted" by a drag queen in Battersea Park or drool over some average WI cakes in a tent. And even Cunliffe was unable to translate the semaphore message being relayed from the National Theatre. Didn't these men have telephones? Weren't there any people on hand as back-up to tell them what it meant? Well the Belfast Telegraph could have done. It reported last Thursday that rooftop dancers would spell out the message "Happy diamond jubilee Queen Elizabeth We heart you."
Last Wednesday I was in the village hall and a local man came in to photocopy some downloads from the pageant's official website. He took home pages and pages of details of all the boats taking part so that he could follow their progress closely. The information was - and still is - there, freely available to everyone. Did nobody at the BBC think to read it?
If they thought waiting for a succession of ordinary boats to come through was too boring, could they not have focused one by one on those in the Avenue of Sail? Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth IV, the Dixie Queen paddle steamer, the Endeavour cockle boat that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation? 
Ah, sorry. They did pick up on one: HMS Belfast. Fearne Cotton was sent there to talk to a couple of war veterans. Did she ask them for their memories? Did she treat them with the respect one expects at their great age? Did she heck. She addressed them by the first names, Jim and John. Not difficult names, but she still managed to call John 'Jim' and then feed them the (inaccurate)  words she wanted to hear, leaving them with little  to say but 'yes'.

OK, so the BBC was determined to get across the party atmosphere (it could hardly be blamed for the rain), so it was legitimate to have some folk out with the crowds. But any fool could see that what was required was a mix. Newspapers have grasped this all along. There have been fun pictures, jolly colour copy, a bit of history, and some serious commentary along with the razzmatazz. How could nobody at the Beeb realise that the same applied here, after all there were 270 minutes to fill, there was plenty of time to blend the serious with the fluffy bits.

What was vital was that viewers should have been told the history and the personal stories behind as many of the boats as possible. With all the participants listed on the website, researchers should have gone out and spoken to the owners about their craft in advance.The interviews could have been spliced into the live coverage. There should have been a helicopter crew showing shots of the entire flotilla, instead of restricting us to the rowing boats and the royal barge. We needed at least to be told the story of the little boats' role at Dunkirk; we didn't need people cooking or cracking jokes or swooning over the handle that lifts Tower Bridge.
And how about reacting to newsworthy events as they happen? When the London Philharmonic Orchestra's boat arrived at Tower Bridge we saw 12 young people out on deck, soaking wet, singing their hearts out. Why weren't we told who they were? Or even the name of the choir? (They were members of the Royal School of Music Chamber Choir.)
There was so much wrong with the coverage that it's cruel to continue. So let's move on.

The jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace had a line-up that looked as naff and as cheesy as you could get. There was a shadow over the event because of the Duke of Edinburgh's absence. But apart from  Paul McCartney's odd choice of songs and Elton John's faltering voice, all went swimmingly -  particularly Stevie Wonder's reworking of his lyrics and the  light show on the Palace facade that accompanied Madness's Our House.
The only trouble was that, as is often the case with such events, the show overran a bit. The Beeb should be used to that by now - so many football finals run to extra time and penalties.  Generally  the rest of the schedule is just pushed back a bit. But not last night. Oh no. The concert ended with a four-minute firework display. Just as it reached its climax, Huw Edwards started to sign off...and then the fireworks were hidden under the scrolling credits. They couldn't wait just one minute - one minute - to let the viewers see the display come to its natural conclusion. Can you imagine them cutting off the final penalty in one of those cup finals? Of course not.
And with time so tight, you'd expect to go straight into the next programme which was, as the continuity announcer told us, five minutes late. No. The fireworks were cut off to make way for a pair of trailers for the Euros and the rest of the jubilee coverage. 
The next day, the channel broadcast the concert again. Presumably there would be people in an editing suite somewhere who could put right the faux pas of the previous night? There must surely have been some straight film of the display and some technical means of showing it all? But no, what was shown was exactly the same as the night before - put the tape in the machine and bugger off home - complete with the intrusive final credits.

This is what rankles about the BBC's attitude. It was bad enough that it got things wrong on the pageant, but there was a loud enough reaction for it to make sure that coverage of the concert was pitch perfect. Then when it made another mistake, which was also swiftly and widely denounced, it took no action to rectify it for the second showing of the concert the next day. This again smacks of having the B or C team on duty because it was a holiday weekend instead of realising that this wasn't just any other quiet bank holiday. Where were the people who are supposed to be in charge?  Just as an editor has to carry the can when his paper gets it wrong, so the controller should be called to account for this. Where was Danny Cohen all weekend? 

And then when the serious inquests began, how did the BBC respond? Did it put up someone accountable to answer the criticisms on the Today programme or the Media Show? No. It was left to Mark Damazer, who does not even work for the corporation any more, to face Evan Davis yesterday morning. He came up with the "warm and inclusive" line and then declared: "The BBC tried too hard."
Tried too hard? Excuse me. This isn't an 11-year-old who has been told to do her best in a school test; this is our national publicly-financed world-renowned broadcasting giant. Tried too hard?  The whole crux of the problem was that the people on screen and behind the mikes didn't try at all. They did no homework, they didn't have a clue what they were talking about and thought it was all too dull for anybody to care.

The decision to take a lighter approach - as Alan Yentob put it to the Media Show 'to reflect popular participation' - was apparently a direct result of the complaints about Dimbleby ten years ago. Then there were 700, this time there were nearly 2,500. Those who had a pop at Dimbleby said he talked too much and was disrespectful at times. That doesn't tell me that the whole nation wanted the Beeb to dumb down; the "disrespectful" suggests the reverse. 
And if the dismay of 700 people is enough to bring a change of tack - however misguided - shouldn't there be some acknowledgement that when three times as many ring or write to have a moan, they may have a point? No one has said "We got it wrong" or even "We could have done better."
Instead the  corporation has rushed out audience figures showing that 12 million tuned in for the pageant, as though that proves everyone loved it. But ITV wasn't offering live coverage, so the figures aren't that meaningful.
Mark Thompson retires soon as director-general. Two of the internal candidates to replace him were involved in planning the jubilee coverage. Let's hope they, and their rivals, have learnt from this.

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)