Posts Tagged: Liars

Phone hacking, journalism, and the media

Saturday 16th July 2011

Watching the phone hacking thing play out recently has been fairly interesting. Obviously, what was done was fairly bad (although I would suggest that phone hacking – or other illegal activity – isn’t necessarily always unethical for journalists), and so it’s probably pretty shrewd of News International to have closed the News of the World. What will also be interesting now is to see what other papers are guilty of this; there are suggestions that it may have occurred elsewhere, at non-NI papers.

I remain baffled at the anti-Murdoch bent to the whole thing. I don’t understand why dodgy activity at the News of the World has derailed the BSkyB bid (if indeed it has for more than the short term), aside from the politics of the situation. Because the issue there was about media plurality, about competition in the sector, and not building up businesses with too high a share of the market (although if we really were concerned about such a thing, a good place to start would be the BBC). The argument has been about News Corp and the Murdochs having too much control over the media; yet the bid has actually been derailed because the Murdochs didn’t have control over the News of the World (I think it’s fairly accepted that the management of News Corp didn’t know about the extent of the hacking until relatively recently). Which is an interesting little contradiction.

What’s I find really interesting though is to compare this with another recent media scandal, this time concerning the scribblings of Johann Hari. He was caught out for plagiarism; he took things that people wrote in books, or in interviews to other journalists, and pretended that they’d said that in interview with him. Hari wrote/writes for The Independent (amongst others), which is generally held in pretty high regard. Whereas I think it’s fair to say that the News of the World was generally not held in the same esteem. Yet it’s the “good” journalist in the “quality” paper who got caught out for plagiarism, whereas the journalists from the trashy NOTW were caught out for basically trying to find out the truth. All other factors aside, surely the former is the greater crime against journalism? Plagiarism has to be worse than going to extreme lengths to investigate a story?

Fundamentally none of this changes my opinion of the papers, or the media generally. I’ve long thought that they’re all as bad as each other; that the Grauniad is as bad as the Mail is as bad as the Telegraph. They all have their biases, and all employ journalists (such as Hari) who are willing to misrepresent facts to make an argument. Which is a massive problem, because it leads to a public which is horrendously misinformed about fundamental issues. Such as this staggering finding that 70% of people think that the government is currently reducing the national debt, or the general ignorance towards technical subjects such as nuclear power or climate change (although there are certain parts of academia that are confused about the latter, so I guess we shouldn’t be too hard on the general public). That is the real scandal of the UK media, and the blame lies at the feet at more than just the Murdochs.

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The iron must have been hot yesterday…

Friday 1st July 2011

…because there was a lot of striking going on. That, or people are massively, horrendously selfish and blinkered.

I wanted to post this yesterday, but I’ve been working away oop north where my only connection to the internet has been flaky 3G reception on my iPhone. Which basically meant that I couldn’t be bothered to write a blog post.

Anyway, read this post from another blog, which gives a taste of what public and private sector pensions are like. An idea of the massive difference between the two.

The crux of the matter is that public sector pensions are massively generous compared to those offered to the private sector. It’s worth remembering that private sector employees contribute more in tax revenue than public sector ones (there’s more of ’em), and that tax subsidises the public sector pensions.

So what the strikers want is for private sector employees (who have worse pensions) to pay more in tax during their working lifetime, so that public sector employees can continue to enjoy more money in retirement than those in the private sector can expect to get. The strikers want other people to pay for them to have a cushy retirement.

It’s not as if the government’s proposals are stingy; as I understand it they’re still way better than what the the majority of people in the private sector receive. So those striking would still get a comparatively brilliant pension, just not as amazingly good as before.  They’re already in a position of privilege, but they still want more.

If anyone wishes to try to justify this, good luck. Personally, I cannot see how there can be any possible justification, because it’s just naked, unadulterated self-interest, with scant regard for equity. I think it’s disgusting and contemptible.

If you need a measure of how unjustified the strikes were, look how eager the Labour leader has been to distance himself from them. He essentially won the position because of the support of the big unions, and here he is condemning their actions. That tells you something (and as a sidenote it’s disappointing that the broken record act overshadowed what he said, because for once he is right. The first glimpse of the opposition doing its job half decently; we should celebrate!)

What amuses me is that most of the people who support this, are also likely to be those who denounce the activities of greedy bankers. But it’s hugely contradictory to support this behaviour from the public sector whilst ragging on bankers. Hell, at least bankers try to make it look like they deserve it, and don’t (usually) force it from other people.

Apologies if this post isn’t as eloquent as it perhaps could be. To be honest this sort of thing makes me properly angry, so it’s all I can do not to fill the screen with a string of expletives.

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Taxing my Patience

Saturday 26th February 2011

If you’re lucky, you won’t have heard of UK Uncut. If you haven’t, they’re an activist group who basically want businesses to volunteer to pay more tax than they legally need to, and who also dislike banks (for reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me).

So. In the last week, the Royal Bank of Scotland have announced that they lose £1.13bn in 2010. They’ve also announced that in the same year, they’ve paid £950m in bonuses to their staff.

UK Uncut don’t like this. I can’t for the life of me work out why; they don’t like banks, and this one just lost over a billion pounds. They want businesses to pay lots of tax; this one just paid out £950m in bonuses. Bonuses on which there will be an associated tax bill. So RBS will end up paying more tax than if they didn’t pay their employees. Excellent!

Okay, if I’m being slightly less facetious, bonuses with a loss might not make sense if you only take a superficial look at the headline figures. They lost £150bn, then paid bonuses of £950m; what gives? Well, it’s a large company, made of lots of different components. Some of those made money. The people who made money for the bank are then entitled to their bonus. This is not a tricky concept.

UK Uncut protest by staging sit-ins in banks. This is really, mind-numbingly stupid. I used to work for RBS Retail, so I know that the RBS staff being inconvenienced by UK Uncut are not the greedy bankers that they want to target. They’re people who aren’t paid a great deal in the scheme of things, trying to do what can be a pretty stressful job. On a Saturday. They don’t need a bunch of ignorant halfwits coming in to make their lives more difficult, and it doesn’t actually achieve anything.

I don’t mean to stick up for RBS in particular, or banking in general. The things they did prior to 2008 were fucking stupid, and it’s an absolute failure that they are such crucial businesses that the state was unwilling to let them fail. The real – bloody scary – issue here, that people like UK Uncut fail to address, is that very little has been done so far to stop banks from abusing this position again. Governments are too scared to have tighter regulation, because they don’t want to drive banks away from the country and lose the massive tax revenue they bring. Focussing on pay or taxes is a mere distraction, to focus attention on really trivial things instead of the real systemic issues.

If they don’t like certain banks, fine. Don’t use them. If they want businesses to pay more tax, fine. Campaign outside HMRC to get the tax laws changed. But misconceived, ill thought-out, stupid protests like this are just a waste of time.

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The Politics of Blah Blah Blah

Saturday 11th December 2010

You may have noticed that the tuition fees fracas has provoked a certain amount of ire on these pages. Well here comes some more.

I’ve been angered by a lot of the opposition to the increase in fees. Now, that’s not to say that I think that there are no good arguments against them, or even that I completely agree with what the government is doing. What’s annoyed me are the specific arguments that have been used by most of the opposition, led by the NUS and Labour. The repeated misconceptions, half-truths, and downright lies that have been put forward and then regurgitated by – it seems – the majority of the student population. The irrational, unreasonable, illogical attitude that’s been prevalent is the absolute worst kind of politics, yet is sadly the most common.

What am I talking about? Take the argument that fees will make it impossible for poorer students to go to university. Does this actually hold water? Well, as with the present system, the fees will be partnered with student loans. The loans are available to all undergraduate students, and cover the full costs of fees as well as living costs. Students from poorer backgrounds will receive grants to help them with their studies (and lets not forget that it’s these grants that the NUS proposed should be cut, instead of increasing the fees. Make things better for the middle classes, to the detriment of poorer students. And yet they drone on about fairness). There is absolutely no reason why anyone will be financially incapable of going to university, so when they claim this the NUS are either being massively stupid, or deliberately lying.

A further claim is that graduates won’t be able to afford the crippling debt, but that doesn’t really hold much water either. The loans are designed so that this will never be the case. Graduates repay only when they earn over £21,000 (£6k higher than the threshold the NUS propose, by the way). Above this level, the repayments are set at 9% of earnings – the same as the current rate. Additionally, it gets written off after a certain number of years. I absolutely reject the argument that this is unreasonable, especially when it’s actually more generous than what’s proposed by the NUS!

The NUS and Labour both back a graduate tax (here are the proposals favoured by the NUS). If implemented, a graduate tax would actually work in much the same way as the fee & loan system (from the point of view of graduates, anyway). In fact in many ways the government’s system is better, when things like the higher repayment threshold and the benefit of direct payments to universities – rather than to the Treasury’s coffers – are considered. Now, I’m not arguing that this is the best thing to do. In fact it probably isn’t. But to oppose the government whilst supporting a graduate tax is simply the most bizarre and inconsistent position to hold on this issue.

And yet, this does seem to be the position of a lot of people. I’m not entirely surprised at Labour; their lack of principle and their unreasonableness are well documented. But I’m so angry with the NUS, the body which is meant to stick up for students, for absolutely failing to represent their best interests.

I mean, the education system in the UK – not just universities – is broken. For instance, there was an article in the Guardian the other day about the low number of black students accepted to Oxbridge. Now, the paper implied it’s racism. It isn’t, but it does highlight an issue which is arguably even worse. That is, that kids from poorer backgrounds tend to have access to poorer schools. The education they receive is not up to scratch, so they have little chance to earn a place at a prestigious university. Unlike many, I don’t have a problem with inequality of wealth; but I do have a massive problem with inequality of opportunity. I don’t care if there are some people in society who are vastly richer than others, as long as everyone has the opportunity to try to do that.

For all their efforts during their 13 years, Labour utterly failed to improve this situation; in fact by many measures, their actions made things worse. So frankly I have no time for them or their supporters when they unthinkingly oppose all that the coalition does, and I will not abide them pretending that they are the party of “fairness”. It simply isn’t the case. As for the NUS, their opposition to fees seems to be more to do with concern for “the squeezed middle classes” than any real concern for improving access to universities. If they genuinely cared about that, they would’ve been running campaigns to change the perception amongst the worse off that student debt is bad, and they wouldn’t have opposed the grants available for those people.

There’s more to all of this though, when you consider what this debacle tells us about the state of politics in the UK. And yes, this is where I become hugely biased, but hopefully not wrong…

Next year there will be a referendum on the alternative vote, but I would wager that many of those who were present at the protests against the fees would actually support full proportional representation. Which would have the effect of making coalition governments ever more likely.

The thing about coalition governments is that they involve compromise. That means that the parties involved may not always be able to do everything they said they would in their manifesto, and in fact may have to support stuff they oppose in order to get stuff they like. Over the last few months the Liberal Democrats have seen this happen quite often, to the extent that it seems that Nick Clegg has been elevated to the level of a sort of hate figure. The Lib Dems are lambasted for selling out, for backing things they didn’t support in their manifesto, and mostly for propping up Those Bastard Tories (and by the way, the persistent insistence by many that the Conservative party are evil toffs who take great delight in fucking over the poor and who only care for themselves… It’s stupid. Mind-numbingly ignorant, and hugely tedious. It’s so childish to pretend that those you disagree with are in fact out to do bad. Ever thought that they want to make things better too, just that they disagree with how to do it?)

Well guess what? That’s the price of coalition. The Lib Dems are compromising, yes. But so are the Tories. There really is a lot of good stuff being done by the government (and bad stuff that’s not been done!), that’s been influenced by the Liberal Democrat ministers. That’s meant Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reneging on some manifesto commitments.

As it is, people have chosen not to recognise this. Coalition government – especially in an economic climate such as this one – is nuanced. It requires people to look at the detail, to be pragmatic as well as idealistic. It’d be great if we could make university free, charge no taxes to anyone, and give everyone a mansion set in acres of gardens. But sadly we have to live in the real world, to balance conflicting needs to come up with a solution with the best compromise. Unfortunately our political discussion seems to have dissolved into extremes; into black and white, us and them. The forces of good against the forces of evil. This inability or unwillingness to accept compromise is pathetic, divisive, and ultimately damaging. And looking at the student protests, that’s what’s pissed me off so much.

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Riot Shields, Voodoo Economics

Friday 30th April 2010

I think that the upcoming election has the potential to be a really significant moment for our political history. For a whole host of reasons, we look set for a hung parliament. If that happens, then there’s a real chance that we could finally get electoral reform, which would significantly change the political landscape in Britain.

If you ask me (and you’re reading my blog, so I’ll assume you are), this can only be a good thing. I think that a lot of people are fed up with the way things are. Numerous scandals have shaped the perception not just of the governing party, but of the entire system. In the past, I think that people fed up of Labour would’ve voted for the Conservatives. But now people seem to look at the opposition party and see more of the same, despite the “change” narrative that the Tories have been trying to desperately to create. People want change, but they seem to have woken up to the fact that the Conservatives can’t deliver it.

Whatever happens, it seems extremely unlikely that Labour can win this. Which I also think is a magnificently good thing, because I think that the last decade has shown that a Labour government is a very bad thing indeed. To understand why I say this, you have to look beyond their rhetoric (“A Future Fair For All”. Isn’t a future that is fair, by definition fair for all? Because if it isn’t fair for all, then it isn’t fair) and focus on their record. I don’t really believe that you can focus too much on their policies, because experience has shown us that they don’t always stick to their policies…

One of the main reasons I dislike Labour is for the damaging restrictions they have placed on civil liberties. For instance the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act. As a result of this law, the government has the right to snoop on, well, anything really. And they have the right to demand that you unencrypt any encrypted information, or even to simply pass over the keys. Or, there’s anti-terrorism legislation, which allows them to indefinitely detain foreign nationals in the UK – without trial – if they are suspected of being a threat to national security. But it’s much better for British citizens, because we can only be  locked up for 28 days (although Labour wanted it to be much longer than that initially). Other gems include the DNA database which contains data of completely innocent people who have never been accused of crimes (I think this was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, but of course the data hasn’t been taken off the database yet), the proposal of ID cards, and of course the Digital Economy Act, which I shall revisit later.

I hope I don’t need to explain why any of these are Bad Things. To be perfectly honest, I am quite at a loss as to how anyone can support a party who has eroded civil liberties in this way. In my opinion, even if I agreed 100% with everything else that a party proposed, if they also supported this sort of attack on the liberty of individuals then I could never support them; I fully agree with Benjamin Franklin that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety“.

Another reason why I think it would be undesirable for Labour to win the election is because of their poor economic record. Now I don’t deny that we have had good years – low unemployment, relatively high levels of income etc. But in the first half of the 2000s we were living in a global boom. Britain has a fairly strong underlying economy (i.e. good access to resources, and a relatively skilled population), so I think it would’ve taken a complete moron to make things worse during the good years! But looking at it like that masks a few problems. Because in the last few years the global economy has obviously had some difficulties, and the British economy has suffered as a part of that. Now, just as I would argue that Labour can’t take all the credit for the good years, they certainly can’t take all the blame for the downturn of the last few years – it’s a global market and our economy is vulnerable to problems in others, and no government can really stop that. But Labour can take some of the blame for making it worse.

In the years prior to the downturn, Brown was chancellor. During his time in that job he continually spent more money than the treasury took in tax; he took on a lot of debt and built up a large deficit (as an aside, much of the reason for this spend was pure politics; it makes the Labour government look good if they can announce lots of spending on hospitals and schools and things like that). Now, running up some debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course it’s a bit of a con, because for absolutely anyone the result of borrowing money means that you have less money to spend in future (governments can raise taxes, but taxes are generally a thing to be avoided where possible), but I accept that this sometimes can be desirable.

The problem is when the deficit is too large. And by spending too much in the boom years, Brown set the stage for a very large deficit indeed. Because when the downturn did come along, the right thing for the government to do was to spend some money to help the economy – “some ol’ fashioned Keynesianism” as Andy put it on a comment on one of his recent blogs. In a downturn there is a good argument for runing up a deficit in the public finances because by spending money the government can help the economy to recover more quickly and with fewer adverse consequences (i.e. lower unemployment) by replacing at least some of the demand which has disappeared due to the recession. It’s better to have a recovering economy and a certain level of public debt, instead of flatlining economy with no debt.

But our problem is that we already had a lot of public debt. We already had a large deficit. Which means that now, we’re a bit screwed. Because whatever happens, public expenditure has got to be lowered, or taxes raised (and I think the idea is that it’s better for public expenditure to drop, rather than to raise taxes). I think that every party acknowledges this even if they are rather quiet about how they would achieve it, so it’s rather unfair to criticise any of them for saying it. The key thing to me isn’t that the parties say that cuts need to be made. The key point is that the reason these cuts need to be so drastic is because of the irresponsible spending of the Labour government over the last decade or so.

Gordon Brown as chancellor said in 2004 that “I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers”. He boasted of his “light-touch” when it came to regulating the banks. Well, the banking crisis in 2007 which precipitated the whole downturn was caused (in part) by banks engaging in risky deals, as well as by under-regulation of the banks. The two things that Brown encouraged during his chancellorship! Do we really want someone with such economic acumen to continue to be Prime Minister of the country? Especially at a time when it would be desirable to re-shape our banking system to make it more robust, less prone to catastrophes like this, and to lessen the vulnerability of ordinary consumers and businesses to the effects of bank failures?

During the last debate, I found it telling the way that Brown continually referred to tax cuts as “taking money out of the economy”. Now, just stop and think about this. If you earn money, then you pay a certain amount in tax. And what do you do with the rest of it? Well, you either spend it for things you want or need, or you put it in the bank and save it (and the bank then gives it to other people in the form of loans). To put it simply, this is the economy. The economy is you and me going to the shops and buying things. If lots of people buy things, we have a strong economy and we get richer. If people don’t buy as much, we have a less strong economy and we can get poorer (a recession, in other words). When Gordon Brown says that the Conservatives want to “take money out of the economy”, he actually means that they want to take money out of government. They still want to reduce the deficit, but they believe that it is better for individuals and businesses – you and me, in other words – to have money rather than for the government to have it. Whether this is a good or bad thing is an argument for a different post. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, the implicit idea in Brown’s statist viewpoint that “government knows best” is extremely undesirable. I accept that there is a need for taxes (as there is a need for government), but I think it’s better for everyone if that government is less paternalistic and therefore less expensive, and I believe that individuals – as well as the economy – are better off if taxes are lower.

As an aside, Labour’s tax policy has hardly been “fair for all”. Over the last 13 years, the outcome of policies like the removal of the 10p tax band and the refusal to increase the personal allowance in line with inflation is that the poorer members of society pay proportionately more tax than the richer ones. Fair?

Anyway, I’ve stated my opinion on the Labour party’s statist attitudes, but do they actually work? Well, over the years that schools and the NHS have been centrally-managed by government, the results haven’t exactly painted a rosy picture. The NHS has apparently got better, but given the massive amount of investment that it’s seen during the last decade or so (and that’s obviously to be applauded, to a point), it would be bizarre if it didn’t improve. And it’s questionable whether the improvements have been in proportion to the spend. Certainly, there seems to be a layer of bureaucracy in the NHS which must be incredibly costly, as well as impede the ability of the service to function effectively.

In my opinion, the picture is more clear-cut when educaton is considered. Despite a heavy amount of government involvement (6 education acts in 13 years!), standards seem to have fallen. I heard a teacher being interviewed not long ago and she was asked what government could do to make things better. Her response was for them to “stop changing things”. She said that schools would take a year or so to get used to the new systems and whatnot implemented by the government, only for them to be completely changed again after a relatively short period of time. With this level of instability in the system, it’s perhaps not surprising that things haven’t got better. Additionally, the system seems to be more unequal now than it was before Labour came to power; children from better-off families do better compared to children from poorer families, than they did before. I would argue that this is a by-product of the inherent inflexibility of the Labour “system”. So it certainly seems quite clear to me that Labour’s brand of statism just doesn’t work, despite their best intentions.

Don’t just take my word for this. Lucy is much more informed about education matters than I am, and she made the point much more elegantly than me on a recent post on her blog: “Teachers up and down the country have been wringing their hands over the past thirteen years of heightened pressure, targets, and interference from a government that essentially hasn’t trusted them to do their job properly”. If only the “light touch” used with the banks that Brown was so boastful of was used here – they got it all the wrong way round!

I mentioned the Digital Economy Act earlier and said I’d come back to it. For me, it’s emblematic of everything that is wrong with Labour (and to an extent the Conservatives, to be fair). I was disgusted at the fact that this was passed. Not just because it’s a bad law (which it definitely is), but for the way it passed. For starters, the bill was influenced by certain record labels. It is in their interest to get a law like the Digital Economy Act passed because it helps them cling to an outdated business model which makes them shedloads of money. To spell it out, it’s not in the interest of consumers, or even artists. It’s purely to benefit a bunch of very rich people who want to retain the business model which made them so very rich. Their money bought them power, and I can’t support a government that let itself be swayed by the smell of money.

In addition, there is the way the bill was forced through parliament. There was something like 2 hours allocated to go through and debate the bill line-by-line. Purely because Labour wanted it pushed through parliament before it was dissolved, they allocated 2 hours to debate a lengthy and contraversial piece of legislation. In my opinion, that shows the level of contempt in which the public are held by Westminster. Not just by Labour – the Tories were in on it too. The fact that the interests of the wealthy “elite” quite clearly came before those of everyone else is just disgraceful.

Anyway. Those are some (!) of the reasons why I couldn’t support Labour, and why I think you’d have to be a bit mental to do so (granted, some people may have more faith in the state than I do, but emphasis on the word “faith” there – that mindset seems to require one to ignore what we’ve learned from the past 13 years…). I’m not going to write a similar post for the Conservatives because the people who are likely to vote for them are unlikely to be swayed by anything I could say, and besides I don’t think they’d be as damaging as a Labour government would be. I’ve already cast my vote (postal vote) for the Liberal Democrats, and rather than explain why I direct you again to Lucy’s blog, because she’s summed it up rather well (and probably rather more concisely than I would manage).

All that remains to be said is that whether you agree with me or not, as long as you’ve registered in time, have a read through the various manifestoes (and also read a few news sites for some analysis of them – some of the blogs on the BBC site are particularly good) and make sure you go and vote next Thursday!

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