Conflict of interest? Pull the other one Auntie

I was astonished to read this week in the Daily Mail that the BBC has ordered the news presenter George Alagiah to step down as patron of the Fairtrade Organisation, in case there is a conflict of interest.

Bizarrely, the Beeb seem to have only just noticed this risk as the presenter has been patron of the charity, which helps farmers in the developing world, for several years.

In a letter to Fairtrade explaining his resignation, Alagiah said that senior colleagues at the corporation “believe that Fairtrade represents a potential conflict of interest which could undermine my impartiality. In the many years that I have been your patron there has not been a single complaint (that I am aware of) to the BBC, so you can imagine how taken aback I was by the decision.”

We should not be surprised however. The BBC has also chosen to ignore the warnings of its own governing body, the BBC Trust, that Alan Sugar’s appointment as a government enterprise tsar risks a “greater than normal risk to the impartiality, integrity and independence of the BBC” because of his role in The Apprentice.

Photo by zawtowers (Flickr)

Photo by zawtowers (Flickr)

Lord Sugar may not be involved in making government policy, but he will be attending Cabinet meetings to advise on enterprise matters and will inevitably be involved in media appearances relating to The Apprentice in the run up to the general election, which is expected next June as a member of the incumbent administration.

Perhaps the difference is that George Alagiah is a mere news presenter, and one of many, whereas the former Surallan has become a national phenomenon because of his (admittedly enjoyable) antics in The Apprentice boardroom. But it is clear to me which of these three figures presents the clearer risk of a conflict of interest.

Chavez tightens grip on media

The Independent this week ran a feature about the Venezuelan “dictator” Hugo Chavez.

At least I assumed he was a dictator until I read that he has been elected and re-elected in polls that international observers, including the European Union, say have been free and fair.

He is a popular president, having pumped billions of dollars into social programmes aimed at the poorest in Venezuela. There is free dental care, free health, access to education and vocational training and social housing.

(Sounds a bit like our own wee statelet in fact. But does Venezuela have grammar schools? That’s the key question…)

So what’s the big deal? Well, it seems that he has tired of criticism in the non-state run media and has closed down dozens of radio stations across the country and announced a law that could see journalists in jail for up to four years if they divulged information against “the stability of the institutions of the state”.

I am sure our own leaders will sympathise with Chavez. Remember when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness accused the Belfast Telegraph of “demonstrating relentless negativity”?

It is a pain when not every journalist has something positive to say, isn’t it?

“Hello, you’re through to the Lisbon Line…”

This could be the answer at the other end of the telephone in a few short weeks as the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty approaches.

In yesterday’s Irish Times Frank Clarke, the chairman of the Referendum Commission in the republic, reassured voters that the commission will be working to make the treaty as understandable to the electorate as possible.

The Lisbon Treaty is not a page-turner, he admits. But the commission, which is an independent and impartial body, will soon be publishing leaflets and a handbook explaining what the treaty actually means for Ireland.

Crucially, he underlines the fact that the treaty has not changed a jot since last year’s ‘No’ vote. 

“However, the European Council has made decisions giving assurances on certain issues that were of concern to Irish voters in last year’s campaign, and it has said it will include these statements as protocols to a future EU treaty, thus giving them the status of EU law,” he writes. 

And very helpfully, Clarke has summarised in broad terms the main implications the treaty would have on Ireland, and de facto on the United Kingdom:

Some decisions which currently must be taken unanimously would be taken by a qualified majority vote. These areas include energy, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation and sport.

The European Parliament would be given more decision-making powers.

There would be a new post, that of president of the European Council.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights would be given the same legal value as the main treaties.

If the Lisbon Treaty is not a roadmap to a European federal superstate, then I will eat my national form of headdress.

But, back to the Referendum Commission’s plans. As well as leaflets and a handbook there will be a “dedicated telephone helpline” to assist weary Irish voters in accessing information and getting answers to any questions they have.

Blimey. If I felt sorry for the unfortunate people manning the NHS swine flu helpine (on the meagre wage of £5.80 per hour, according to the job ads last week), I feel even more sorry for the poor souls who will be manning this Lisbon helpline.

“Hello, Lisbon Line, how can I help?”

“Oh, hello. If I vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum and the treaty is passed, would it undermine Ireland’s influence in Europe, open the door to interference in taxation and enshrine EU law above Irish law?”

“Erm…Hold on, I’ll ask a supervisor!” 

Britain needs a Bord Snip

The details of the report by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, better known by the rather witty moniker of An Bord Snip, are being absorbed by politicians and ordinary folk in Ireland. The figures are startling.

Snip_SnipThe group recommends 17,000 job cuts across the public sector, cuts in social welfare payments, the merger of state quangos and county councils, and the abolition of a whole government department. There can be no doubt that Ireland has had a tough time in the economic downturn with the collapse in the over-inflated housing market and the crunch in the financial sector.

The closure of schools and Garda stations will not be popular in rural areas and social welfare cuts are never going to be a vote winner. But despite these bitter pills and disagreements over exactly where the axe will fall, there is broad understanding for a re-engineering of public services in the republic.

The Irish seem to have stolen a lead on the British. Why can’t we have a Bord Snip?

Get together some leading economists, maybe one or two experienced senior civil servants (but just one or two) and let them have a look at the state of Britain’s finances. 

In fact, why not appoint the excellent Jeff Randall to our British Bord Snip? He has done most of the work already. The Daily Telegraph columnist came up with some ideas following Alastair Darling’s utterly forgettable Budget in April.

Stop welfare payments to wealthy families, scale back Labour’s misguided 50% university attendance targets, cull wasteful government consultants in the NHS, dimantle the complex tax credits system set up by Gordon Brown which is fraught with mistakes and fraudulent payments, and freeze public sector pay. These are some of his eminently sensible suggestions for how we can re-engineer our economy.

New JCAnd why not look to Canada? During the premiership of Jean Chrétien (pictured) a $42 billion deficit was eliminated, five consecutive budget surpluses were recorded, $36 billion in debt was paid down, and taxes were cut by $100 billion (cumulatively) over five years. A budget surplus! When was the last time we had one of those?

That example is going to be hard to beat, but we could at least give it a try. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be popular. But if the Canadians can do it, why can’t we?

A prime minister, a wafer, and a question of faith

They are calling it ‘Wafergate’, the allegation that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pocketed a communion wafer at the funeral mass of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc last week.

In video footage of the service the prime minister is shown approaching the priest, accepting the wafer and disappearing out of shot with it in his hand, prompting the accusation that he did not consume the wafer and has caused grave offence to Catholics, who believe that during mass the wafer is transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

StephenHarperchurch“He accepted it and consumed it,” said Harper’s spokesman at the G8 summit in Italy last week, and he was backed up by Noël Kinsella, the Speaker of the Senate and himself a Catholic.

“Sitting only a few seats behind him I had a full view of the proceedings,” Kinsella assured concerned Catholics, among them Monsignor Brian Henneberry of Saint John, New Brunswick. “It’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

This story is interesting from a local perspective in that the scandal is not that Harper, who is an evangelical Protestant, attended a Catholic mass, but that he merely slipped up on a matter of etiquette.

To his credit Harper (pictured) has kept his religious beliefs to himself, and it is not difficult to see why. Harper’s church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, does not ordain women, strongly opposes abortion and divorce, condemns homosexuality as the most base of sins and believes those who aren’t born-again are “lost”.

Bruce Foster, head of policy studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Harper’s home town, said: “If Harper came out and said those who don’t know the Lord are ‘lost,’ are doomed, he’d be held up to ridicule.” 

Held up to ridicule in the same way perhaps as cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who was lampooned by journalists in the 2000 election for his creationist views.

“In a multicultural, diverse, relativistic country like Canada, that’s toxic stuff for most voters,” said Foster.

What a pity the same cannot be said of Northern Ireland.

Stormont is ignoring the economic actualité

As the debate over the economic crisis continues, public sector cuts are sharply in focus. The Conservatives have had the public sector in their sights for a while, but oddly David Cameron has decided to pick on one quango in particular, Ofcom, declaring that it will “cease to exist” as we know it under a Tory government.

In the Evening Standard Roy Greenslade argues that the Conservative leader has mistaken an overgrown and overreaching regulator for an absence of political leadership in media policy, while The Guardian’s Maggie Brown sympathises with Cameron and feels that the regulator has no business investigating (and criticising) pay-TV services such as Sky.

Northern Ireland also has too many quangos, but our First Minister cannot abolish them even if he wished to because our special status as a post-conflict zone requires us to have commissions galore to administer our collective recovery. The public sector in general is cause for great concern because for decades the policy seems to have been that the public sector should act as a job creation scheme, in the absence of growth in private business. This comfortable safety blanket is something that we still cling to, even after a decade of alleged peace and prosperity. There is the handy argument that the province will be shielded from the worst of the recession because so many in the population (32%) are employed in the public sector, but this misses the point.

Economies are about wealth creation, and public sector jobs do not create wealth. In fact, they do the opposite, in creating an ever-larger burden on the public purse for years to come because of sheltered salaries and pension agreements.

At least in Britain politicians are talking openly of cuts in public spending. This is something that has yet to be addressed at Stormont, but we should not be surprised. Our politicians seem to be genetically unable to digest the reality that cuts need to be considered and implemented, the sooner the better. A few weeks ago the reasonably diligent Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, announced proposals to defer water charges for a further three years, a truly head-in-the-sand proposal if ever there was one. 

Nobody wants to pay water charges, the same way as we would all rather not pay taxes. But somebody has to pay for it, and right now only two things are certain: Westminster can no longer afford it, or rather no longer feels it should have pay for it; and Stormont cannot afford it, at least under existing budget limits. The shyness for the economic actualité which exists in our political class should be cause alone for a public outcry. 

Newton Emerson captured our little big problem perfectly in The Sunday Times at the weekend:

“As Britain and Ireland brace themselves for the first real spending cuts in a generation, Northern Ireland is still living in a fiscal fantasy world…The prospect of having to implement cuts fills Stormont’s provincial politicians with horror…The near-guarantee of permanent office should have emboldened those parties to take difficult steps. Instead, it has turned the normal political contest for power into an endless exercise in dodging blame, claiming credit or just cynically undermining supposedly collective decisions.”

This approach to our budget problems is attributable to our ongoing experiment in consociational government, stuck with an administration severely limited in its financial powers, with no effective or official opposition, where all parties are in it together, afeard to speak out (and that’s assuming anyone would want to) in case the whole thing topples over. Again.

The problem is that, like Scotland, we have become too used to a limitless flow of money from the Treasury that coming off this thirty-year high will be extremely difficult and extremely messy. But at least Holyrood has a bit more fiscal authority than we do, and can continue to fund free healthcare for the elderly and all the rest while dreaming of one day liberating their North Sea oil revenues from the Sassenachs.

Speaking of Scotland, remember Ewan McGregor coming off heroin in Trainspotting, screaming in his bed as that demonic baby crawled towards him across the ceiling?

Now imagine Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in bed (sorry Iris, just bear with me for a moment), screaming at each other in agony as Baby Osborne crawls closer and closer, waving his abacus furiously. Not a pretty thought, but that is just what it might come down to unless our elected representatives can kick the habit of a lifetime.

Come out, come out, wherever you are…

This was the message from Sir Ian McKellen (pictured) writing in The Times recently marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which also lent their name to the British gay rights group set up in response to Section 28, a law preventing the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. 

ian-mckellen-20061227-191072Section 28 was a reaction to the spread of Aids in the 1980s, which was blamed almost exclusively on gay people, compounded by widespread homophobia in the press. But even within the party which introduced the law, there were concerns that it was unjust. McKellen writes that Tristan Garel-Jones, then a Conservative MP, told him that Section 28 was “a piece of red meat thrown to right-wing voters”.

Since then it has proved the bedrock of opposition by large numbers of gay people to the Tories ever since. Some believe that the Conservatives can never be trusted by gay people, regardless of the policies the party has in place regarding health, education or the economy. Hostility to the Conservatives as an “anti-gay” party continues, despite the fact that there are two gay MPs in the Shadow Cabinet, and a gay woman, Margot James, standing in one of the party’s key target seats at the next election.

In fact, such is the degree of hostility, or rather paranoia, that some conversations I have had have been of the “well, they might do it again” variety. I hope that David Cameron’s apology for Section 28 goes some way to reassuring gay people that this will not happen, and that the party is much more concerned about the economy than with throwing more red meat at right-wing voters.

But back to Ian McKellen’s message. He writes:

“For me, coming out made me unburdened and more self-confident. It made me a better actor. It opened me up emotionally. It’s amazing that it’s an experience that people who you’ll never meet, in places in the world you’ll never go to, can relate to. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

In this I wholeheartedly agree with him. Apart from the acting bit.

And this may be a harder task in some places than in others thanks to the efforts of certain public representatives, but it’s a message I pass on to every closeted gay person I meet.