SubScribe: Forget Gove, floods and benefits, give us Philip Seymour Hoffman Google+

Monday 3 February 2014

Forget Gove, floods and benefits, give us Philip Seymour Hoffman

Like most bosses, newspaper editors enjoy perks that are not available to their staff. One of these is the right to Sundays off.

Funnily enough, this tends not to cause resentment because it affords people lower down the pecking order - including those who have little to do with the news operation in their 'day job' - to play with the train set.

Monday newspapers therefore often have a different tone from the rest of the week. Much of the content will have been planned ahead, there will be new series or campaigns and there will be follow-ups from the weekend papers and current affairs programmes. Andrew Marr has a big part to play here. It doesn't leave much room for a Sunday editor to make his or her mark. They will be judged on headline, presentation and, most of all, how they react to that rare thing - a breaking story.

We can see all this at play today. Michael Gove has been everywhere over the weekend, so the row over Sally Morgan's dismissal was the easy splash option. Only the Guardian took that route, however. The Independent also went with Gove, but focused on cost cutting that has apparently left sixth form colleges unable to afford to run maths A level courses. (Really? I don't dispute that they may be short of cash, but there must be something less important that they could drop?)

The Mirror and the i have unearthed prison 'scandals' from Freedom of Information requests and statistical analysis.

The i is concerned about dangerous sex offenders who are being released without having had any treatment to curb their behaviour.

 Economies mean that places on treatment programmes are becoming more scarce - 54 at Maidstone, where there are 500 sex offenders - and that the waiting list is so long that many prisoners are reaching the end of their sentences before they reach the top of the queue.

How shocking is this? Clearly it's not a good thing, but is it putting the public at serious risk?

Prison governors think it is, according to the writer Emily Dugan:

Prisons across England and Wales are routinely releasing dangerous sex offenders without putting them through treatment programmes because budget cuts have left places critically scarce.The situation is so serious that prison governors say it could create more victims, as sexual predators are sent into the community before their behaviour is addressed.

But there is nothing to back up the key assertions in either paragraph - that dangerous offenders are routinely released without treatment or that prison governors are worried about there being more victims.

No governor is quoted in the story; the line about creating more victims comes from an official of a charity that works to prevent child abuse.

Nor do the inspection reports or the December National Audit Office report on which the story is based make any mention of dangerous prisoners. Indeed, the Prison Service says that medium and high-risk prisoners have priority for training programmes.

Dugan has done well in digging around to get her story - but it has been over-egged to the extent that its value is diminished.

The Mirror is concerned about prisoners being paid child and housing benefits, sick pay and even job seekers' allowance while they have been locked away from society. This 'blundering at Iain Duncan Smith's Department for Work and Pensions'  led to £41m being paid out in error over six years, of which only £19.7m has been recovered.

The Labour MP Grahame Morris and the TaxPayers' Alliance are obligingly outraged, with Morris suggesting that the money could have been used to recruit 2,500 more nurses.

Once again, congratulations to Mirror chief reporter Andy Lines for unearthing the story. But not for balance.

IDS has made some crass mistakes and is an easy target. And it is accurate to say that the errors were perpetrated by officials at the department he now heads.

But the payments Lines is writing about were made between 2007 and 2012. According to the figures, £25.2m was paid between 2007 and 2010 - when Labour's James Purnell and Yvette Cooper were in charge - and £16m has been paid since IDS took over. The Mirror does not mention the Labour ministers, nor does it give credit to whoever was responsible for recovering the £19.7m.

It does, however, say that payments last year were £2m, which suggests the problem is being addressed, and that some prisoners are entitled to housing and child benefit.

This Government is getting enough wrong for it to be spared the blame for other people's errors.

Surprisingly, the true blue Mail is also being a little unfair with its splash today on how food giants 'woo' ministers.

 The crux of this story is that health lobbyists can't get through the door to discuss the 'obesity epidemic', whereas the likes of McDonalds, Tesco, Nando's and Pepsi can waltz in whenever they want to.

The paper says that details of the number of meetings held with such companies and the Food and Drink Federation lobby group has led health experts to complain that the Government is keener on listening to the food industry than those with the nation's health at heart.

Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum says 'the industry has a charmed route to the corridors of power that is denied to everyone else.'

The Government has rejected calls for laws to restrict sugar content in food or taxes on fizzy drinks, and the Mail points out that the World Health Organisation has today highlighted the correlation between countries with few regulations on food and high consumption of fast foods.

Fair enough.

The new lobby group Action on Sugar has its first meeting with Jeremy Hunt tonight, but its chairman Graham MacGregor  isn't optimistic of a breakthrough.

"We rarely get access to ministers - they don't want to see us. My impression is that if the food industry want to see them, they get in. The food industry is riding all over us. It's a scandal."

Setting aside the thought that such a comment is unlikely to endear Professor MacGregor to someone he hopes to win over, let's consider this question of the food companies' access.

Early in the story, the Mail writes that Mars, Tesco et al have been 'invited' to see ministers. The federation has seen ministers 16 times and had 99 meetings with officials since 2010, it says. On page 6, a factbox details 14 meetings. Asda features twice, but the other companies listed have just one bite each.

 Action on Sugar was founded last month. It is meeting not a junior minister but the Secretary of State today. That seems like pretty swift access.

Now here's a thought. Could it possibly be that health ministers are opening their doors to food manufacturers and their representatives not to have their ears bent, but to try to persuade them to do something about the sugar, salt and saturates in their products?

Oh yes, that is exactly what the Government has told the Mail.

"We are not giving business, big or small, power over public health policy, but food companies have a big part to play in helping people to lead a healthier life." 

Well, yes, they would say that, wouldn't they?

So perhaps we should take the comment with a pinch of the forbidden white stuff. But what troubles me is that there is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the story to back up the line that the food lobby is pressing its special interests - and that should be easy enough to obtain, because it almost certainly is - or even that it requested any of those meetings.

Elsewhere, the floods still preoccupy the minds of news and picture editors.

The Telegraph creates its splash (sorry) from an oped piece by Chris Smith about difficult choices on which areas should be protected from the water and there is some cute picture cropping to merge photographs of town and country to create a bold and coherent head-picture-story package.


A news story broke yesterday afternoon; one that was of greater interest to more people than anything about the Davis Cup, romcoms or HS2.

Yet the Telegraph had no space on its front for a single word about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps the news came too late?

No. The actor made a perfunctory page 5 lead with a run-of-the-mill picture sitting awkwardly over a dominant 25x4 ad.

So in the Telegraph's eyes, he was also less important/interesting than a photograph of an orchestra of Stradivari instruments or the risk to British pageantry of cuts to the armed forces that appeared on page 3.

This was a big fail.

The Guardian had three cutouts of him over the masthead pointing to its coverage on the 10-11 spread, where the advert again managed to murder the editorial.

Newspapers are desperate for money and have to bow to increasingly outrageous demands of advertisers (both Times and Telegraph sold their sport supplement covers to Peugeot on Saturday), but these Halifax monstrosities really should be outlawed.

The Guardian's front-page picture of surfers on the Severn was terrific and the paper did justice to Hoffman in the puff. But how much water do we need to see (the Sun's premium-line story excepted)? After the rainiest January in history, we're quite used to it now. 

So hurrah for the Independent's Sunday editor for being the only one to realise what readers would want to see this morning. What a shame there are only 43,000 of them.

The SubScribe website is progressing slowly and should be up and running before too long. A few pages are now available for a sneak preview, including this post in its new format. Please do take a look here... 

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