Nov 272014

Here we have the BBC defending its licence fee.  It argues – effectively – that its ability to hit extremely high levels of value-for-money marks it out from its competition:

BBC revenues comparison with competitors

I’m not posting today because I take issue with this argument.  It’s true, of course – and you can’t argue with the truth: whilst I hate the BBC‘s news and current affairs output, its drama, comedy and less newsy documentaries continue to be imaginative and often surprising.

What I do disagree with and dislike is the assumption that the BBC‘s natural competition should include Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Sky et al.  When I last looked, none of them except Sky was mainly dedicated to broadcasting; and none of them including Sky could be fairly considered a public-service broadcaster.

But then as Alex Salmond recently argued – perhaps in a fit of pique, perhaps with greater accuracy than one might have expected:

[…] “There is a difference between being a public service broadcaster and a state broadcaster, and I don’t think the people at the top of the BBC understand the difference. That is a tragedy,” he said.


Indeed it is.  Especially when the institution itself decides and declaims – as a virtue to be sustained, with the objective of reclaiming its idiosyncratic homegrown system of licence fees – that its natural competition and business blueprints to follow are transnational technology companies which aggressively stride taxation frontiers, and show little respect for the decaying infrastructures of the communities they earn their incomes from.

Remembering how easy it is to become like your competition of choice, so it is the BBC declares it’s given up on public-service broadcasting.

Jul 162013

MPs are getting quite a bit of a battering of late.  Not least from yours truly here.

Today, however, from a person of my acquaintance who’d prefer to remain unnamed, I’ve been made aware of a possible – even if only partial – solution to the current pig-trough state of Parliament.  Given the awful difficulty of extracting that nexus which ties public representatives to business associates through the effervescent mechanism of revolving doors, it seems that alternative approaches are needed.  Whilst big money plays fast and loose with the very essence of representative democracy, it doesn’t half seem like a humongous adding of insult to injury that we should be obliged to pay such MPs – or, indeed, peers – anything at all from the public purse.

The bright and bushy-tailed suggestion, then, that my nameless ideas-merchant has had?  How about we means-tested public representatives’ salaries and expenses?  As the reach of revolving doors corrupts even parts of the civil service, such a system would have to be implemented not only for elected Members of Parliament and their unelected compatriots in the Lords but also the top echelons of government’s support services.  But the moral circumscribing of our political system’s cost to the taxpayer in an easy-to-understand procedure like means-testing would have two potentially positive results:

  1. Government and party politics would cost less for the taxpayers.
  2. Some MPs and other representatives might be encouraged to advertise their total disconnect from the pig trough.

We could even have a means-testing list, where one’s score percentage-wise of full salary/expenses received or otherwise would help define one’s level of dependence on the lobbyists.

Instead of simply declaring an interest on arcane documents only Hansard-wonks comprehend, our MPs and other representatives would have an easily comparable figure tied to their names and positions – figures which could be simply understood, bandied about, posted on websites and widely exchanged on social networks.

Imagine the conversations: “My MP’s a 94 percenter.”  “Bloody hell!  Mine’s only a 2 percenter.”

How easy would it become with such a system to compare and contrast the relative merits of our leaders, and their attachments to pork-barrel behaviours.

So what do you think, dear voters?

Anyone fancy the idea?

Anyone feel an epetition coming on?

Mar 032013

This post is about two tweets which came my way yesterday.  Both speak of the importance of personal responsibility.  The first describes its reach in private industry (in this case, I believe in relation to a recent story on the freemium app industry):

Companies are made of people, and people have a responsibility for their actions, inc. developing (potentially) exploitative freemium games

The second, which came my way hot on the heels of the first, said much the same thing – only, this time, in the context of the NHS (the Mid-Staffordshire scandal comes immediately to mind):

The best managers help clinical staff treat according to need and make patients healthier, not enforce NHS policy whatever the consequences

Meanwhile, in an oxymoron-like diatribe of the weakest kind against everything and anything New Labour ever did, David Cameron has this to say in today’s Sunday Telegraph:

That is what everything this Government does comes back to: the future. We are looking at the horizon, not tomorrow’s headlines; doing what’s right for the long-term. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that we should be “in the business of planting trees, for our children and grandchildren, or we have no business to be in politics at all”.

I couldn’t agree more. In 30 years’ time, I want people to be able to look back at this government and see that we paid down our debts, helped create millions of jobs, sorted out welfare, made our schools world-beating and built homes for a generation.

Doing this kind of work might not earn you popularity points in by-elections, but it’s what I’m in politics for: making the country we love as great as it can be.

I haven’t heard that “planting trees” metaphor for really quite a while.  I suppose we’ll have Michael Gove telling us next that we should all write a novel before we die.

I’m also just a little puzzled – maybe out of technical ignorance – as to why he says “paid down our debts” instead of “paid off“.  Unless, of course, he means that it’s going to be the little people at the bottom of the pile who’ll always end up saving the Tories from their economic selves.

But perhaps this is all just a little too nitpicking on my part.

In truth, it’s always going to be the people who make a difference to any society.  Politicians of the kind who tend to rule us prefer to ignore this.  If they didn’t, they’d have to engage us in their processes – they’d have to get us involved and actively participating.  Far easier to blame an anonymous public-sector bureaucracy – and shift the responsibility stealthily onto equally anonymous private-sector equivalents – than to admit that the root of all our problems lies not in our systems but their application.

It’s not so much a new education system we need – it’s more a system teachers and students know how to work with.

It’s not so much a new legal system we need – it’s more a system whose costs victims and other participants don’t have to fear.

It’s not so much a new health system we need – it’s more a system which provides support as and when a person becomes a patient in need.

The Welfare State is the way to make our society less inhumane.  It’s in our grasp – but it is a choice.  We can spend considerable resource on allowing the fortunate to further concentrate their good fortune – or we can deliberately decide to give the less fortunate the consideration, charity and kindness most belief systems have tended to argue should be made forthcoming.

But what we have to accept is that, either way, it’s a choice.  If we choose to fashion a world where we must walk on the other side of the road from that homeless man who dies at the doorstep of a bungalow, we can.  We will do so, I am sure, in order that ambitious alpha men and women can – amongst the disasters they also commit – achieve what they undoubtedly do.  And this is clearly an act of socioeconomic decision-making at the highest level, committed by coherent men and women.  It is a freely-taken decision. It is an unforced decision to let some people live better at the expense of others.  It is a statistical calculation of risks that approves of achievement at the very top, even as it judges society will not rise up in arms and disintegrate as a result of the anonymous homeless dying distastefully in the streets.

If, on the other hand, we opt to help such homeless people – if our goal is to create a socioeconomic environment where this kind of action is prioritised over other, more aggressively innovative, behaviours – we may create, again entirely consciously and deliberately, a society where survival is ameliorated for a far greater number of our souls here on earth, even as achievement measured objectively loses its bleeding edges.

And either way, to come back to the original set of choices, and whether politicians like it or not, if anything turns out right, it’ll come down not to systems they proudly and powerfully announce but, rather, to their humane application – or otherwise – by people who look and act and feel like you and me.

That personal responsibility.

That core humanity.

That attachment to caring at an individual level for each and every relationship.

That love, even.

That kindness, generously imparted.

Far more important for a classroom than this textbook or that is the mind that plans the lesson around a book and the hands that clutch its spine.

For the funny thing about Cameron’s oxymoron of a weak diatribe is that there was very little in it I found myself fiercely disagreeing with.  Oh, yes.  Those silly sentences on immigration.  The daftness around welfare.  But in reality, the poor man knows exactly what we need to do.  Like when he says, almost pleadingly (the bold is mine):

These are not claims or promises: they are facts. We are turning the tide on years of decline — and building a Britain for those who work hard and want to get on. And we need to go further. We need to get more houses built. We need to build new roads and railways and energy connections. Some reading this may not like that; but as I have made clear, this is not a popularity contest but a battle for Britain’s future.

The problem isn’t the words, David.  The problem is the people.

In fact, the problem – more widely expressed – is your, and your professional class’s, attitude to people in general.  The fact is that systems, for high-flying politicians, are like electromagnets of recent generation: when you have the opportunity to choose between getting people voluntarily onside or creating a foolproof system designed to cage them into a certain set of behaviours, you can guarantee any minister worth their caviar will be pulled inexorably in the direction of implementing a brand-new system over convincing ordinary people to work better with an existing one.

I really do sometimes get the feeling that Cameron and some of his cohort are locked painfully into the wrong party of UKIP-incubating MPs and hangers-on.  If only he, and perhaps they, had chosen Labour, we could right now be facing another decade of government.

Maybe I should now spoil this post for you (or, alternatively, not) by saying how very much that idea makes me shudder.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.


They say familiarity may breed contempt.

I’m inclined, however, to believe that being a politician (of empire-building instincts, at least) makes one contemptuous of the familiar.

In this, both One Nation Labour and the more traditional Conservative impulses, which Cameron has appealed to in his text today, have aimed to reassure potential voters in a time of utter uncertainty that being British, in itself, is quite enough to be getting on with.

But in the end, they are all just words – both Cameron’s and Miliband’s, I’m afraid.

In a sense, I get the feeling that our politicians are likely to be as lost here as the rest of us.  And in this realisation (as Poirot might suggest!), I find the future most terrifying.

Where ordinary people would be the real solution, our leaders are now only able to work with systems.

The systems have taken over to such an extent that these ordinary people I mention truly have no impact whatsoever on the results – even as they end up shouldering all the blood-spattered blame.

The personal responsibility which I started this post with is impossible to properly engineer or encourage.  We spend our time terrified of the juggernaut-like mechanisms that threaten to bury our professional futures in a careering disgrace.  We hide, like frightened rabbits, from the oncoming lights which should illuminate – but which, in the end, serve only to make the shadows evermore powerful.

Yes.  It’s the people, stupid.

And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.

Dec 282011

Wikipedia describes PFI and its effects thus:

The private finance initiative (PFI) is a way of creating “public–private partnerships” (PPPs) by funding public infrastructure projects with private capital. Developed initially by the Australian and United Kingdom governments, PFI and its variants have now been adopted in many countries as part of the wider neo-liberal programme of privatisation and financialisation driven by an increased need for accountability and efficiency for public spending, national governments, and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. PFI has been controversial in the UK; the National Audit Office felt that it provided good value for money overall.[1] however more recently the Parliamentary Treasury Select Committee found that “Higher borrowing costs since the credit crisis mean that PFI is now an ‘extremely inefficient’ method of financing projects“.[2]

Extremely inefficient, perhaps.  But it does, of course, depend on how you measure efficiency.  As I said yesterday, the current Coalition government appears to have lost all its moral compass as it destroys all sense of interdependence between rich and poor; owners and owned; possessing and dispossessed.

If we care, however, to measure efficiency in terms of how moral and caring society is able to manifest itself in its dealings with the divide between rich and poor, then I propose we might see PFI – a child of the crossover politics of Blairite triangulation – in a completely different light: instead of a tool to fill the deep pockets of the already rich and powerful, PFI was actually a strategy to ensure the private-sector interests of profit and loss were intrinsically wrapped up in the public dynamics of social benefit and exchange.

We saw and interpreted that companies which grew up and rewarded shareholders on the backs of state concerns were leeching the state of valuable resources.  But how about – in the light of the last year and a half of Coalition greed – we gave Blairites their due?  How about we admitted they were far cleverer and more astute in their long-term defence of the NHS, and indeed a wider state, in the face of forces which – to all intents and purposes – should have won the battle to take over our society a long long time ago?

Maybe instead of slapping Blairites around the face we should now revise our opinion of where their loyalties really lay.

Maybe Blair wasn’t out to defend neoliberalism but – instead – fool the neoliberal forces into giving him, and therefore the rest of us, a breathing space to construct a decade of relative social justice which perhaps any other approach would have been unable to gain.

It’s just a thought, of course – and I’m no expert in these matters.  But a thought is a thought is a thought is a thought.

And following – in such a way – such a train of thoughts to their ultimate conclusion might just make it easier for the wider Labour Party to reconcile itself once and for all.

Perhaps, after all, Blair wasn’t an ideologue but, rather, the ultimate pragmatist.  He gained us valuable time we should treasure and – finally – find it in ourselves to thank him for.

And he provided, in his all-encompassing vision of the forces that really operate in Western civilisation, a once-in-a-generation solution to the circles we needed to square.

Something we might care – pretty sharpish – to copy and learn from as we see what unbridled neoliberalism is really prepared to go ahead with.

Aug 192011

At first I thought the figure of £220 million might be the cost of importing this kind of riot-control support and law-and-order leadership from the good ol’ US of A:

In the week that newspaper hacking exploded back onto the front pages, it has emerged that the company run by David Cameron’s American crime tsar, Bill Bratton, is mired in a British court case accused of illegal bugging and hacking.

Incidentally, I do wonder about this fascination with using the word “tsar”, when we give someone a responsibility of massive societal importance.  Does it mean they then have the right to dictatorially impose?  Or do they want us to read between the lines that something even more unpleasant is bound to happen to one or other of the parties involved?

It makes you think, doesn’t it?


Anyhow, to get back to the original point of this post, it seems that £220 million is a nice round figure one of my Twitter friends has come up with (though I haven’t as yet been able to identify the source or doublecheck its veracity) for the total cost of a TV reality programme called Celebrity Big Brother:

#CBB11 cost £220m?… How? Why. You could elect an American President for that…

Which is probably all too terribly true.  For in amidst these moments of real financial crisis, it seems quite amazing how resilient and imaginative private industry can be – where, indeed, it can still find the dosh to continue doing the things it does.

I mean, of course, such as the above-mentioned activities.

And so to a final disparate thought – though not entirely unconnected.

Bear with me, if you will …

At the top of this post is a photo of a carton of UHT milk.  This is actually a Spanish one – but it references a conclusion I made a few months back in England, at the tail end, if I remember rightly, of my employment in a British bank.  Up to that point, the milk we’d bought for my daughter involved a similar carton with a different system of opening.  This system allowed for practically all of the milk to be used up.  A new type of carton was then brought in – simultaneously I might add – by two of the largest supermarket chains, with a similar system of opening to the one you can see in the photo.  Its avowed intention was to make life easier for people who found it difficult to open such cartons – which, indeed, it did.  A parallel virtue, however, for the private industry behind it (from the manufacturers of the cartons to the supermarkets themselves) was that it impeded an easy emptying of all of the milk from the carton.  Quite a bit of milk too.  I’d say half a small glass.

Just think about it.  The resilience, imagination and even ingenuity of private industry thus manages to solve two problems at one fell swoop.  How to first gain widespread customer acceptance for a new design of container which manages to increase sales immediately by probably a tenth through deliberately wasting its content.

Private industry has a real problem of image here – even more so when it is asked to get into bed with the public sector and government departments.  If in times of economic crisis, it’s bad enough to see how much money can be spent on relatively irrelevant cultural products, just think of the impact which the first story I link to today might have on how the public perceives private-sector integrity.

I’m a firm supporter of a public-private interface.  But when each party to the interface seems as interested as the other in squeezing out the public right to honest and sincere behaviours and attitudes, something very destructive is taking place – something very destructive which is leading us to a place surely no one, long-term, can be happy with.

Update to this post: the figure of £220 million can be found in this story from the BBC today.  Thanks to John Pollock for confirming this.

May 232011

The Telegraph reports today on a new identity card system which the Coalition government is working on introducing.  This is one response to such a plan:

What is wrong with the Conservatives?

WHY are they being so unfeasibly stupid?

THIS is NOT what I voted for. STOP IT.

Another commenter suggests (presumably of Cameron):

After pooh poohing the idea of ID cards the boy can hardly say it was a good one so he has to reinvent  it under a different guise to make it his own…unless there is public outcry when he will do a double U turn and drop it again.

It is like watching a blindfolded kid playing pin the tail on the donkey.

Now I have to say I lived quite happily with a cheap (around €10) ID card system for sixteen years of my life.  The card was very useful when opening bank accounts and proving identity in a whole host of different circumstances.  These days, it can be used electronically to prove identities online – just as the Coalition government suggests it would like to do in the Telegraph report.

However, the facile argument which posits that we should be concerned more about the public-private axis of who controls the data and less about the practicalities of the beast in question is worrying.  Whilst the state often appears to get things wrong – we know only too well the many recent British examples of this (more here) – the ingrained instincts of private industry to prevent reputational damage, which lead to the covering up of both wrongdoing and plain incompetence (more from the private sector here), surely demonstrate that what we ought to be discussing is which systems are best to use and how best to maintain them – not (for what seem like spuriously political and ideological reasons) in whose hands they are somehow “naturally” and “inevitably” going to be safest.

Another example here (in Spanish): for almost a year, the Spanish police were unaware of a typographical error in their leaflets which would have led Spanish citizens looking for further information on how to unblock their electronic identity cards to completely the wrong website – instead of What’s more, when a hapless Spaniard tried to tell his authorities about the problem, they ignored him completely – as a result of which he decided to register the domain under his own name to ensure no one else might do the same.  By so doing, he also ensured that no one else might try and attack the security of the Spanish identity card system and its misdirected users.  The story ended just a little unjustly when the Spanish state finally took note of the issue and took control of the site in question – without, however, even expressing their gratitude to the man who’d gone to so much trouble to save the state from itself.

So really, what am I trying to say here?  Whilst bureaucracies often act crassly, they do not only exist in the public sector.  The instinct to ignore, cover up, hide or simply fail to prioritise issues which do not enter the chain of command at the right level for them to be effectively noticed is common to both private industry and the state.

The issue then is not this public-private axis I mention above but, rather, how better we can reap the clear advantages of concentrating certain private data in identity card systems of some kind or another, in order that we may then improve our ability, especially online, to usefully identify ourselves – whilst, at the same time, not exposing the integrity of our identities to greater risks than is already the case.

That, I would gently suggest, should be our focus right now.

Unfortunately, right now, I simply don’t see it.  And meanwhile, our political classes continue to chatter uselessly about the public and private – as if there were, in practice, a real difference between the two.