Gosh, crikey – Hugh Grant breaks Leveson’s ethics proposals

Posted on March 14, 2013

As the self-appointed arbiter of media standards in the UK, Hugh Grant has a lot of opinions about what is and isn’t ethical journalism. Apparently the Guardian is perfectly ethical, while papers which report on, I don’t know, sex scandals involving English celebrity romcom actors are beyond the pale. Who knows how he settled on that view?

However he came by his moral code carved in stone doesn’t matter, he’s marched down the mountain and has spent several months using the tablets to lay about any who stand in his way.

Except perhaps he should read what they say before using them to clobber others. Take today’s tweet from the Media Moses:

That’s quite a big claim – that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered the Times Editor to order the Prime Minister to follow a specific policy and set of actions, which the PM immediately obeyed. What starts as a “rumour” has become, by the end of the tweet, supposedly solid fact that “Murdoch rules.”

Surely an ethical reporter would have given some evidence, quoted a source or even given any reason at all to believe it?

In fact, I seem to recall that the Leveson report had something to say about exactly that:

“45. A new regulatory body should consider encouraging the press to be as transparent as possible in relation to the sources used for stories, including providing any information that would help readers to assess the reliability of information from a source”

In short, Hugh Grant is promoting adopting the Leveson proposals by, err, going dead against Leveson’s proposals on evidence and sourcing. His “rumour” could have come from Tom Watson. It could have come from one of Murdoch’s own competitors. For that matter, Hugh Grant could just have made it up – but he has merrily injected it into the public debate, with no evidence or source in sight.

It’s hardly “ethical reporting”, is it, Hugh?

How high taxes killed our belief in helping others

Posted on January 08, 2013

When all factual and economic arguments have failed, Britain’s proponents of high taxes fall back upon philosophical justifications for their position. “Tax is the thing that makes us civilised”, they declare, “It brings us together as a society”.

Such arguments are dragged out to perform again and again, like those 1960s pop acts who were fleeced of their retirement pots by unscrupulous managers. Of course, there’s no actual evidence for them – that’s the point, they are declarations of conveniently unmeasurable truths.

But even such intangible claims are starting to look shaky. As the debate about cutting benefits for the better off intensifies, it is increasingly clear that high taxation has killed our national sense of helping others, of the well to do making sacrifices to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Just look at the row over Child Benefit. There was a time when people recognised that if they earned a good salary, they didn’t really need welfare to top up their income – whereas others who were barely getting by did.

Now, the letters pages and radio phone ins communicate a very different world view. Those who have been squeezed over and over again by successive Chancellors grabbing at their earnings, their savings, their pensions, their petrol bills and their pasties want something back in return. The idea that just because they might be earning £50,000 a year then they shouldn’t get Child Benefit enrages large numbers of people – the payment is one of the few things they get back from the large amounts they have to pay to the Exchequer.

That is a remarkable shift from the widespread sense of “middle class oblige” that once existed to the far less attractive sight of well-heeled parents defending their right to be welfare recipients.

But people who want to hang onto their payments cannot be blamed for feeling that way. It’s a natural reaction to want to get at least a bit back when you are shelling out a small fortune every year through constant, multiple taxation. It is our politicians, and particularly the high tax lobby, who are responsible for the near-total erosion of that sense of sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course it is an absurdity to pay welfare benefits to the well-off. It is a perverse interpretation of a welfare state that was intended as a safety net – particularly at a time when there are plenty of families who can only dream of earning £50,000 a year. Worse, it means cycling cash through a wasteful tax collection and benefits payment system, only to return some of it to the pocket where it originated.

The welfare bill must be brought down, and the just way to do that is to withdraw benefits from those who need them least. High taxation has driven out the sense of responsibility which would once have made that the obvious and natural thing to do for most Britons. Far from making us “civilised” or “bringing us together”, overfeeding the tax man has made us selfish. Taking more and more money from workers has made them grip what they have left all the tighter.

The moral case against high taxes must be made or – counter-intuitive as it may seem – the moral case for helping others will continue to fall on deaf ears.

A table, a chair – and liberty in the space between

Posted on December 18, 2012

Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.

So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.

There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.

First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.

The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.

It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.

She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.

You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.

The Tory voting for an EU budget increase

Posted on October 31, 2012

Today the Government faces at least two votes on the future of the EU budget. It is an encouraging sign of the times that the debate is now between whether to freeze or cut the amount swallowed by Brussels.

Only a few years ago the battle was about whether to give up our rebate or simply to agree to a slightly lower rise. (Needless to say, Tony Blair went for the more costly option and sacrificed part of the hard-won rebate). Nowadays there is hardly anyone to be found in the political world who will argue, publicly at least, for more cash to go to the EU.

But there is one exception.

No-one really noticed at the time, but last week the European Parliament voted on the proposed EU budget, which proposes a 6.8% increase in the amount wasted spent by the European institutions.

This was the point at which David Cameron rightly stated his opposition to the plans, telling his MPs that

We’ve not put in place tough settlements in Britain in order to go to Brussels and sign up to big increases in European spending

The vast majority of his backbenches, his party members and the electorate at large unquestionably agree with him or want to go further.

At this point, let me introduce Malcolm Harbour, Conservative MEP for the West Midlands. Faced with an opportunity to vote to save taxpayers’ money, be loyal to his party leader and win the appreciation of his constituents all at the same time, Malcolm did the oppositehe voted for the EU budget to increase above inflation.

The latest press release on his website is titled “Danger for an iconic brand”. It refers to the future of the London Black Cab, whose manufacturer is in trouble, but may as well be talking about Harbour’s own impact on the reputation of the Conservative Party.

These are the last convulsions of the now almost extinct Conservatus Pro-Brusselsaurus. Malcolm Harbour is a disgrace, but looking at the composition of the Commons today we have good reason to hope he may be one of the last of his plodding, bizarre species.

–UPDATE–

Malcolm Harbour’s office have been in touch to report that he has since corrected his vote to register against the Budget – they assure me that it was a “genuine slip of the finger” in the Parliament’s electronic voting system. Maybe the pro-EU Conservatives are in fact already completely extinct?

A baby, a rifle and a car – but no vote

Posted on October 11, 2012

An unexpected outcome of the negotiations around the Scottish Independence Referendum is that votes for 16 year olds has suddenly popped up again. A round of huffing and puffing has commenced, with varying degrees of legitimacy.

There is justified concern that this is not really the way to go about revolutionising our constitution – who is allowed to vote should be a matter for Parliament, not something to be agreed in a bout of policy Border Reiving by Westminster and Holyrood.

The mechanism by which it is being introduced is unattractive, but the idea of votes at 16 is a good one in itself.

Deciding when an individual goes from legal childhood into fully responsible adulthood is always tricky. Any rule will inevitably be arbitrary. No matter how much Great Aunts may ask “how does it feel to be older?”, the answer is of course that someone is no more competent at voting on the day of their 18th birthday than they were the day before.

But given that arbitrary lines must be drawn for when the State recognises us as adults, we should at least try to ensure they are drawn in a consistent manner.

At the moment the qualifying ages for various kinds of legal and social rights and responsibilities are a dreadful muddle. You can leave school and go into the workplace, paying full rates of tax, at 16 – as long as you continue some kind of training. You can join the army at 16, though you can’t be sent to fight until 18. Of course, you can also legally have sex and have children from 16.

These are all signs that we think of those over 16 as adults, so why do we remain in denial when it comes to the right to vote? It is absurd that a 17-year-old serving soldier, working and paying tax, driving a car, and bringing up a child is currently told that he or she is not deemed mature or responsible enough to vote.

Opponents of lowering the voting age argue that 16- or 17-year-olds wouldn’t make informed decisions about who to vote for. In some instances, that may be the case – but it is certainly the case that there are plenty of 46- and 47-year-olds who may well not read the manifestos before voting, either. Arbitrary systems are like that, and if we removed the vote from every age group which has some wildly irresponsible members then we’d swiftly take the vote away from everyone.

Instead, let’s look to the plentiful evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds are very much capable of rational, responsible behaviour. Our society has weighed that evidence in deciding to allow them to work, pay tax, have babies and so on, but has been unaccountably stubborn on democratic rights. It is high time to equalise the voting age and iron out this anomaly.

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

Posted on September 27, 2012

Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:

With the immortal words:

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?

Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.

And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?

If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads

“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”

But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.

Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.

Stop Funding Argentina

Posted on June 11, 2012

The new campaign from my former colleagues at the TaxPayers’ Alliance looks good:

As someone once said, there’s no money left – so personally I struggle to see why we are lending billions to a serial-defaulting country that seems intent on undermining our sovereign territory and trade?

I’ve signed the TPA’s Argentina petition, and I hope you will do the same here.

Political Scrapbook want to have their pasty scandal and eat it

Posted on May 30, 2012

I’m a fan of Political Scrapbook – acerbic and witty, they embrace a tone of blogging that many of their fellow travellers remain snooty towards. Today, though, they’ve struck a bum note.

 

Revealing eagerly that:

“Throughout the controversy over George Osborne’s “pasty tax”, huge donations were made to the Conservative Party by the owner of pasty firm Ginsters – sparking a row over whether the donation may have been in support of the tax on hot pasties (Ginsters are known for cold snacks) or to protect their emerging line of heated snacks.

Mark Samworth, who heads Samworth Brothers which owns the Ginsters brand, gave £100,000 to the Tories, between the announcement of the VAT change in the budget and the government’s volte face on Monday.”

they conclude “could this be an emerging “cash for pasties” scandal?

As John Rentoul might say, this is very much a Question To Which The Answer Is No.

The awkward thing about the Scrapbook story is rooted in the fact that they are not the first to allege these donations were dubious and related to the pasty tax.

They suggest today that Mark Samworth was giving money to the Conservatives to buy a u-turn over the pasty tax, on the flawed assumption (presumably from people who’ve never eaten a Ginsters) that his pasties are all sold hot. In fact, Ginster’s products are mostly sold cold.

Amusingly, that fact was the reason given by the Labour Party as recently as Saturday – crucially, before the u-turn took place – when they alleged that he was, err, donating to the Tories in support of the pasty tax, on the basis that his business is based on selling cold pasties.

Which is it? Was he a fan of the tax, donating to say thanks, or an opponent of it, donating to get it overturned? At the moment, Political Scrapbook and the party they support have managed to allege both.

In fact, Ginsters mostly sell cold pasties – a business model that benefits from the pasty tax – but had recently expanded into hot food, a move that would suffer from the tax. Cutting the tax may hit their core business, but raising it apparently hits their expansion plans, so there’s no clear motive either way.

Those who seem obsessed with hammering Samworth whatever happens need to make their minds up – he can’t be alleged to be buying influence on both sides of the same debate. Apparently, they’ve decided he is a target and will shift their conspiracy theories 180 degrees to fit the latest set of events, regardless of what they’ve previously said.

It seems that when it comes to seeking out wrongdoing, Political Scrapbook on this occasion want to have their pasty scandal and eat it.

 

++UPDATE++

Interestingly, since I first made this point in a comment on Political Scrapbook this morning – a comment which they still haven’t published – they’ve changed their text (without posting it as an update) to add in the following:

– sparking a row over whether the donation may have been in support of the tax on hot pasties (Ginsters are known for cold snacks) or to protect their emerging line of heated snacks.

That wasn’t present in the original post, suggesting that to at least some degree they’ve realised the illogical and unfair allegations they were making, but don’t seem willing to apologise to Mr Samworth or confess the error to their readers.

Votes for Prisoners: Two can play at Strasbourg’s game

Posted on May 24, 2012

So the European Court of Human Rights has once more trampled over our sovereign right to set our own laws – this time ruling to outlaw the extremely popular ban on convicts being able to vote.

Technically, the ECHR has not said that we must allow all criminals to vote, though there are certainly some who think that they should. What the Court ruled is that a blanket ban is supposedly illegal.

Plenty of people would be delighted if the British Government simply ignored the ruling, and refused to pay any fines it might levy as a result. However, if the Government is really keen to ensure we obey the rule of law – even absurd Strasbourg law – then there is another solution.

Why not do as the ECHR asks, and abolish our blanket ban by allowing some prisoners to vote – but only those convicted of one very specific and very obscure crime which is unlikely to be committed and even more unlikely to be prosecuted?

A good example would be the offence of “Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner” – a historic crime for which no-one is currently in jail. We would technically be ticking the box for Strasbourg, while in reality thumbing our nose at them.

If they can act ridiculously to thwart our intentions, then surely we can do the same in return.

Horses, cats, badgers and burgers: The Top 10 Weird Political Scandal Props

Posted on March 02, 2012

There is a particular type of news story which British politics alone produces. Maybe it’s to do with our politicians, our media or our national sense of humour, but it’s undeniable that Westminster has an amazing capacity to produce scandals which give a prominent part to odd (and otherwise insignificant) items.

The case of Rebekah Brooks’ horse, which it has emerged was ridden by David Cameron once despite No 10’s previous denials, is a classic example. The story is interesting due to its part in the ongoing discussion of relationships between politicians, the media and the police, but in itself it’s not that interesting. On paper, it doesn’t deserve front page billing – and yet it is almost certain to be on the front page of several of tomorrow’s papers.

What propels into media stardom is the very fact that the whole thing centres around a horse – and it is this kind of peculiar political prop that British journalists and audiences absolutely revel in.

In order to further the study of this phenomenon, here are CrashBangWallace.com’s Top 10 Weird Political Scandal Props:

1) Ron Davies’ “badger”

The former Secretary of State for Wales was forced to quit politics after being photographed by The Sun apaprently cruising for sex in the woods. So far, so run-of-the-mill sex scandal. It was, however, his claim that he had been “watching badgers” that made the story famous, notorious and memorable. The badger is distinguished particularly by being a Political Scandal Prop which did not actually exist. (As an aside, almost as memorable a prop provided by Davies was the word “sorry” which he wrote on his hand before TV interviews to remind himself to say it…)

2) Michael Foot’s Donkey Jacket

Michael Foot was a disastrous Labour leader for many reasons (not least the “longest suicide note in history”), but he is still remembered for wearing what appeared to be a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day in 1981. As it turned out, it wasn’t a donkey jacket after all, and the Queen Mother reportedly liked it, but the impression that he was treating the ceremony with disrespect stuck both on his reputation and in the memories of the public.

3) The Duck House

In modern times, the £1,645 Duck House claimed on MPs’ expenses by Sir Peter Viggers is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Weird Political Scandal Props genre. The fact that no-one knew what a duck house was before Sir Peter gave the UK’s duck house industry a publicity boost helped the story to come to be emblematic of the entire MPs’ expenses scandal. Ask someone in the street what they remember about MPs’ expenses and they are certain to mention the accommodation facilities provided to Viggers’ mallards.

4) John Gummer’s burger

In 1990, at the height of the BSE/CJD panic, Agriculture Minister John Gummer attempted to calm the public by feeding a beef burger to his daughter. As if the deployment of a young child, or the attempt to feed her allegedly dangerous meat, wasn’t bad enough, young Miss Gummer refused to eat it, so her father tucked in for the cameras instead.

5) David Mellor’s Chelsea Kit

In the firestorm of scandals engulfing John Major’s Government, David Mellor’s affair with Antonia de Sancha still stands out – purely due to her claims that he asked her to wear a Chelsea shirt while they had sex. In the 90s, sleaze was all too common, but sleaze with such an odd prop proved legendary.

6) William Hague’s baseball cap

The newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, in opposition for the first time in 18 years and battered from the grim decline of the Major years, went on an immediate drive to appear young and in touch. For some reason, this involved wearing a baseball cap on a log flume at a theme park - a move which was roundly mocked from the left and the right. (A close runner up for William Hague was the 14 pints that he claimed to regularly drink in a day when younger.)

7) Humphrey the Downing Street Cat

Shortly after the Blairs moved into Downing Street in 1997, Humphrey the cat, who had been in residence since 1989, was unceremoniously forced to move out. Medical reasons were cited for his retirement (“spending more time with his family” presumably being inapplicable), but rumours abounded that Cherie Blair had taken a dislike  to him – or even had him murdered, according to Alan Clark.

8 ) The egg that hit John Prescott

In 2001, countryside protester and mullet-wearer Craig Evans threw an egg at John Prescott. The one thing he probably didn’t expect was for Prezza to wallop him in return. There were calls for a resignation, general sympathy for wanting to punch someone who pelts you with food and the famous Blair response “John is John” – all started by a simple egg.

9) Michael Mates’ engraved watch

One of the odder parts of the Polly Peck scandal in the early 90s (which is only now coming to court, with Asil Nadir’s return to Britain) was when Michael Mates, then Northern Ireland Minister, sent Nadir a watch engraved with the words “Don’t let the buggers get you down”. Somewhat embarassingly for Mates, who had been defending Nadir in public as well as sending such tokens in private, the businessman skipped bail and fled to Cyprus. Mates resigned.

10) John Hemming’s girlfriend’s cat

Before the scandal over Rebekah Brooks’ horse, Lib Dem MP John Hemming had provided the most recent animal-themed controversy. Hemming, a repeat adulterer who has been a little too open about his sex life for some reason, apparently annoyed even his hyper-tolerant wife so much so that she stole his mistress’s pet cat. The cat was reported to have been found, but there have since been allegations that the cat that was handed over is not the real cat after all. The mystery deepens…

There are plenty more Weird Political Scandal Props out there – which are your favourites?