Friday, August 16, 2002


It's a lovely August afternoon. Somewhere in Cambridgeshire two sets of parents are wondering if their children have been murdered. Police are interviewing two people and searching their house.

A mere hour after the couple in question were interviewed watchers of Sky news and BBC 24 knew their names. Within 2 hours the BBC had pictures up of these people on their rolling news channel. Cameras are staked outside their home as policemen search it.

The police are now searching the hall where the press conferences were held. This story has lead the news for 4 straight days. Tomorrow, no matter what happens in the next few hours this story will lead all the newspapers.

While the parents worry and try to hold themselves together, while the Police interview and search, while the journalists report frantically, I worry about what we are doing to ourselves in the way we treat a case like this.

Each year in England there are around 180 child murders. In 30 to 40 cases each year, the police think they knew who was responsible, but cannot prove who commited the fatal blow. For more detail on this, read John Carvel's article here. I can remember perhaps 5 or 6 of these being major news stories.

In this case, as I write, we don't know what has happened to the two girls. One can only hope that they are alive and well.

But we do know that around 180 children are killed each year and 30 to 40 of their murderers escape punishment and somehow, this fact becomes a sideshow to a single tragedy.

I feel somehow that the media reacts appallingly to this. Journalists, cameramen, reporters, technicians, producers all converging on a single point. The narrowest of narrow focuses. A refusal to accept that there can be perspective. We move with equal fervour from Jade and Kate to Holly and Jessica. The shocking and terrifying becomes somehow mundane when translated thrugh a media frenzy. We become used to it, accepting of it.

What happens now? A charge? A trial? A fair trial? After all, Nobody has been charged. Nobody has been arrested. No-one has been convicted, yet all across the country two names are being absorbed.

It's a hot summer day. It's August. Somewhere in Cambridgeshire two sets of parent are trying to deal with a possible tragedy. The media spotlight shines on them. sone the spotlight will move on and they will have to deal with their lives.

Somehow this feels like expoitation by a media machine hungry for news.

<< Home

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Why I hate Journalists

OK, I don't hate journalists, but can you blame me for getting annoyed when they fall for a really obvious trick?

A Think tank issues a report
on a political party, saying, in effect that it is not being ideological enough. To get attention for its report their press office briefs papers about the contents of the report.

The key is to make the headline thought jump out at you. so here it is:- The Conservative party is having "A Vichy response to Blairism".

Back this up with a press release with six or seven quotes and you have a story. The BBC
jump all over it, Telgraph piles in and voila, another crisis for the poor Tories.

First of all, it lazy journalism to bite at the "Vichy" line. What does it mean? That The Tories have been retreating and ceding territory? That they should launch an attack? That they haven't been fighting? That they are in some sense collaborating with the Labour party?

Second, I've not read an article that quotes a single line of this report that isn't from the CPS's own press release. How can anyone reach any conclusions about the validity of the criticism on this basis?

The CPS Press releasesimply makes a series of assertions but does not attempt to prove any of them. For example one of the quotes is

"Arguments that the Conservatives should move to the centre in a mirror image of New Labour, would finally destroy the party's chance of restoring it's credibility. Instead it sould explain to the electorate why tax and spend will fail to deliver. " (CPS highlighting)

If you're going to say something like that, it's pretty important to provide some supporting evidence for the proposition.
You could do this by finding a compelling policy argument which voters are responsive to, you could show that a majority of swing voters don't believe spending more will work, or that when given the choice between Tax cuts and increased spending, people choose lower tax.

Alternatively you could show that the strategy of moving close to New Labour would only increase voter scepticism, that even if the Tories moved to the left of the Labour party on certain issues, swing voters just will not accept the party as credible. All these things would be valid.

What you can't do is just state opinion as fact and not support it with any evidence at all, which is what the press release does.

Perhaps Mr Darwell provides some evidence in his pamphlet. I don't know, because I've not read it. None of the articles written today show any signs that the author has read Mr Darwell's work either. So how can his argument be taken credibly?

Is Mr Darwell right? From what I've read, I seriously doubt it.
I see no future for the Tories on this position because what do they say if the NHS starts improving? It's easy for a political party to play Cassandra, but what happens if you preach doom and the sky doesn't fall in?

<< Home

Slap down those SAP's

Catherine Bennett joins al the rest of us with nothing better to do that giggle at the Saps. However, she really wants to talk about Atlas Shrugged, which is the book from which the young turks borrowed the name of their putative and as yet non-existent leader, John Galt.

Atlas shrugged is a long, turgid book written by libertarian Ayn Rand. If you want to understand it's political message think Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in reverse. The workers are lazy indolent villians and the leaders are intelligent, hard working visionaries. Ayn is something of a heroine amongst american free marketeers and they have a tendency to tak about her books with reverence.

I can't talk about the book in detail, as it swiftly joined Robert Musil's "man without Qualities" on my bookshelf in the exclusive 'too dull to read' section.

Anyway, my point is that this is just another sign of the increasingly americanised approach to british politics. I don't mean this as a negative, just a statement of fact. the young Tories and Labour stafers and candidates I know are obsessed with American politics. Labour people discuss Lyndon Johnson and RFK more knowlegeably than they do Wilson and George Brown. Tories revere Reagan and listen and learn from luminaries such as Lee Atwater and protege Karl Rove.

OUr political class might resent america, but they know it. I can't think of a single European leader who even bgins to fill British politico's mental landscape in the way even a minor figure like a Goldwater or a Humphrey does. Most Brit's seem almost contemptuous of Euro pol's, who don't seem to understand the either the benefits of Thatcherism or the Third way.

To me this portends bad news for European Policy. We just don't know enough about the pressures driving our European Colleagues, the value systems that lead to their positions and their political strategies. Whether we want to be closer or further away to our neighbours, ignorance isn't going to help.

So, Here's a proposal for the bright young Tories in SAP. Change your purported name to the Conservative Social Union (CSU), and get to knw Aznar and Stoiber's advisors real well. That is, if we really want to be in Eurpe but not run over by Europe.

<< Home

Labour faces cutbacks?

There's been a steady drip, drip, drip of stories over Labour's finances over the past few months. In each case the party admits it is in financial difficulties and says it will sort out it's finances.

This story by Tom Baldwin seems to have the skinny. However, it's clearly been leaked to Tribune first and given to him to drive interest in the piece. (Does this have something to do with the fact that Tribune's Editor is a member of Labour's National Executive?).

So, is the story accurate? I think it makes sense on one level. Labour has to consider cutbacks if unions don't supply needed cash and the package described is a reasonable set of management cuts.

So I believe that this set of options were put forward on July 29th. However, as any manager knows, negotiations are full of layers of meaning. If you want to get more money from an investor, make the stakes as high as possible. "If you don't give us X then awful thing Y would happen". In return, the investor might choose to try and get more control for their finacial contribution.

So then someone in the unions leaks the story in order to put pressure on the party to agree to their conditions chipping in (more control over party finance, a bigger say on management of the party etc etc). Party managers are relustant to do this for managerial and political reasons (every financial story leaks now when shared with unions, so you can imagine the party attitude to giving more sensitive numbers).

I think the Unions are acting against their own best interests here. Labour leaders are terrified about being seen as pro-union, making concessions and being puppets of the unions. So portraying the party as indebted to their "union paymasters" would actually reduce union ability to deliver the substantive policy agenda they want. If anyone thinks that anyone in Downing street wants to see a "Unions agree to buy out Labour- But the taxpayer and business will pay the bill" story in the Daily Mail needs their head examined.

Finally, Labour insiders tell me that the whole sorry state was the fault of previous General Secretary Margaret McDonagh. She's the Labour organiser and arch loyalist who was famed for her attention to detail, long work hours and intensely hands on management style. Sources tell me that this autocratic style led to managerial paralysis in the party and that the current leadership are doing their best to sort it all out. Ms McDonagh is currently doing an MBA in America after a stint working as general manager at the Daily Express.

<< Home

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Tim Hames gets it right

Tim Hames poours ample cold water on the Tory split story, but we all knew it was a silly story.

More importntly he identifies what I regard as the central element of the current Tory malaise. They just don't know how to deal with the post Thatcher era.

"All that went wrong for the Conservatives after 1990, therefore, was not that new problems demanded fresh solutions, but that feeble leadership, personal exhaustion, and the distraction of Europe, prevented the project being implemented to acclaim in every aspect of British society.

Reality, I suspect, is somewhat more complicated and less comforting. Thatcherism was a brilliant response to a series of crises that emerged at home and abroad in the late 1970s and which have largely disappeared since then. It was not the Ten Commandments."

The trouble is the Tories have no idea how to deal with post Thatcherism. One might suggest a kinder, gentler, conservatism, but that was John Major's dream that died. One could think of a more vogoursly nationallist position, but William Hague put a stake in the heart of that. One of Tony blair's brilliant political idea's is to occupy the space that accepts the successes of the Tory years but acts on issues where the Tory government patently fails.

Tim Hames takes a pessimistic line for the tories, pointing out that "unusually important Prime Ministers" (paradigm shifting ones that is) often lead to an an era after themselves where their oponents find it easier to adapt to the political contours they have created.

This is little compfort for the Tories. Hames names Lloyd George as one of his examples, but his Liberals never again scaled the heights of government. The Tories are in a a worse position than the 1950's Labour party. I don't know about Robert Peel.

So what to do? Speaking cynically, my answer would be stick to Labour like glue on most issues. Agree, nod and smile with Blair and Brown. Pick 3 or 4 small scale wedge issues on public services and law and order on which to offer harsh critiques of failure in a context of general support. Become a more effective, cheaper, New Labour.

This approach seems to be working for Oliver Letwin. After all, every outnumbered, harried, undersupplied band of guerillas know one thing. If you can't win the big battles, try and win some small ones.

<< Home

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Reagan advisor- Just say no to war with Iraq.

Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Reagan, is given space in the National Review Online to argue the unheard realpolitik case against war with Iraq.

As a regular reader of US conservative websites, it is a relief to find a piece which is not bellicose and jingoistic (Literally. They haven't fought yet, but by jingo when they do, they've got the men, they've got the ships...).

But what of the merits of the argument? He takes apart each of the main cases made for going to war pretty much as follows.

Brutality? Then why not fight Iran, North Korea or Turkey?

Totalitarian? Take a look at Saudi Arabia. USA isn't going round there creating democracies.

Aggressor? Kuwait is irrelevant. Iraq's been in the Box for a decade and can't get out.

WMD? Iraq can't use them- US and Israel would incinerate the country. Can't pass them to terrorists. US and Israel would incinerate.

Against this he sets the risks. Involvement in a ground war, Difficulty of Nation building, Role of Iran in Iraq, general destabilisation.

It's a strong case, but not total. WMD is indeed the strongest argument for action. However, there's a line in the sand question here. After Kuwait the west said. "No Weapons or we inspect and bomb". Then over 10 years, this was allowed to slip backwards. No-one wanted another war with Iraq and lobbiing cruise missiles and bombers into the desert never really seemed that effective. In addition a misguided "peace lobby" and isolationist Conservatives made military action uncomfortable in Europe and America respectively.

Now we're saying this far and no further. If we pull back now, who knows whether the next step back would take us over the precipice? Personally, I wish the US government had taken early, frequent, targetted action over the last year instead of ramping up the rhetoric. Saddam Husein would likely have let back in the inspectors already and we would not be about to invade Iraq (or not).

Discaimer: I have no idea how influential Doug Bandow was in the Reagan administration. A brief search on google throws up the following biog, so you can make up your own mind. He appears to be a libertarian. I doubt that this creates a doctrinal issue.

<< Home

A bunch of SAPs? It's August at the Telegraph

So Young ambitious tories are debating leaving the Conservative party. At least they are according to the Telegraph.

Benedict Brogan has been handed a sheaf of e-mail containing the names of around 50 Tories. These renegades have been meeting in darkened rooms and dining clubs hatching a plot to abandon the Tory party for the originally titled Start Again Party (SAP). Even more nefariously they have had illicit conversations with actual MP's. oooohhh.

Any cynic who assumes this is a selected release designed to get a bit of attention for the reformist wing of the Conservative party is completely out of touch.

On the other hand, It's August. Fancy giving your party an anonymous kicking? Be my guest, just make sure that the journo gets what really matters to you in there somewhere.

"Organisers of the breakaway will study the party conference in October and the next wave of candidate selections for evidence that he is delivering the change they claim the party needs." (my bold)

Or alternatively... "Give us safe seats or we'll bugger off."

<< Home

Monday, August 12, 2002

First Post

The general view is that British politics is about as dull as a cloudy day in a northern industrial town. Me, I think it's terrifyingly exciting.

I'm not talking about the issues. Sure, the future of the NHS is important to millions, the state of economy is interesting to anyone with a house or a job, we might be going to war and there's still the question of the Euro to excite earnest young men and women.

I'm not talking about that stuff. Leave that to the think tankers and the correspondents. Let Newsnight worry over the bones of pension reform and interest rates. We want to know what's really happening.

Politics is a zero sum game. If A's up, B's down. So B's going to be mad as hell and and sure isn't going to take it any more.

Newton's Third law applies to politics. When there's an action, somebody is ging to be shafted by the equal and opposite reaction.

Don't get the author wrong. I believe that politicians are an honourable, decent, compassionate bunch (as long as they agree with me). I believe politics and politicians are vital to the betterment of society. I downright admire someone prepared to give up privacy, money, respect and a quiet life in order to be part of building a better world.

Politics is compulsive because of that commitment. It's also compulsive because politicians are people. They have ambitions, resentment, envy and pride. Political decisions are made from a shifting admixture of personal interest, ideological commitment, expectations about reactions and occassionally sheer insane brilliance.

It's this humanity which makes politics exciting. It's what we want to talk about. It's what really matters about our leaders. If not for this political paprika, we may as well be ruled by computers and policy professors. Anyone who's written a public policy paper on a PC knows what an awful prospect that would be.

<< Home