Category Archives: Media

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.

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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.

At last, Mr Speaker does the right thing

Michael-Martin-26020_17579tSo the Speaker has gone, forced from office by the expenses scandal that has engulfed Westminster.

Traditionally a job for life, the Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest offices in the  land, ranking only below the prime minister, the lord chancellor and two archbishops. But there was nothing traditional about Michael Martin’s time as speaker.

The first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation, proudly working class (he and his wife dined on macaroni and lemonade during their first evening in the palatial Speaker’s House) and determined to do away with the knee breeches and wig associated with the role since time immemorial, Martin looked like he could have been a reformer.

However, reform there came none. During the very years in which the executive became so dominant and reduced the authority of the House of Commons, Michael Martin did nothing to defend the sovereignty of this august body. As sofa government took hold under Tony Blair, more and more MPs lined up to argue Parliament’s case: Lords reform was needed, stronger select committees were needed and, it now emerges, reform of salaries and expenses was needed.

In his unique and powerful position over the Commons, the Speaker could have initiated changes and reforms, or at least have authoritatively pointed MPs in that direction. Instead it has taken a newspaper campaign, the release every day for almost two weeks of MPs’ expense claims and allegations of outrageous misuse of public funds, to bring these issues to prominence.

Combined with his bungling over the search without a warrant by police of Conservative MP Damian Green’s office, and his shocking attack on the harmless Kate Hoey, the writing should have been on the wall.

But such is the exalted position of the Speaker that hardly anybody thought he would resign. He may be inarticulate and he may have a poor grasp of the procedures of the House of Commons, but Speakers do not quit and they are not sacked, it just does not happen.  And there was the argument that with a general election only a year away, Martin should preside over whatever reforms are recommended by Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and let a new parliament under new rules elect a new speaker.

But as the Daily Telegraph churned out further damaging revelations the scandal turned into crisis, the biggest since Suez according to one commentator. And as the sense of crisis grew the murmurings for Martin’s resignation, for that is all they were, turned into a clarion call. Suddenly it was no longer enough that individual MPs would be punished, nor that a Cabinet reshuffle is likely to see Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, booted out, nor that other MPs, such as Douglas Hogg, will not be standing at the next election.

Only one person can take responsibility for the system itself and that person is the Speaker, and that is why Michael Martin had to go. 

It was a stunning departure, the first resignation of a speaker in over two centuries, and it has shaken the House of Commons to its core. His friends will continue to carp that he was ousted unfairly, because of his class, his accent or even his religion, but they do him a disservice. He may not have been a good Speaker, but he has done the right thing.

Up close and personal with an oligarch

Russia Party Over?Not that Alexander Lebedev would appreciate being described as such, as he tells Jonathan Dimbleby in an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk.

As mentioned in a post below, Lebedev bought the Evening Standard back in January for the sum of £1 from Daily Mail & General Trust, owners of the Daily Mail and its associated titles.

There was an outcry when it was announced that Lebedev, a former KGB agent and billionaire businessman, was buying the paper, which is the last surviving daily paper for London. Nothing much was known about what he did in England during his time with the KGB and there is a wider attitude of suspicion and, in some cases, derision when it comes to brash Russian billionaires who like to flash their cash.

There is also understandable concern about the political interests of the oligarchs in their native Russia, specifically their relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former owner of the Russian petroleum giant Yukos, was arrested on charges of fraud in 2003 and is currently languishing in prison, seen by many as a victim of Putin’s campaign to flush out potential political opponents.

The case of Boris Berezovsky is also well-known. Granted political asylum in the UK soon after Putin became Russian president, he is a more overt opponent and once declared himself on a mission to bring Putin down “by force”. He associated himself with a group of Russian exiles in London including Alexander Litvinenko, who was the victim of a shocking poison plot in 2006. The following year a Russian court found Berezovsky guilty, in his absence, of embezzlement and issued a warrant for his arrest. The authorities have also accused him of involvement in the murder of Litvinenko.

In this fascinating interview, Lebedev deals with these and other issues, including that of press freedom in Russia. He reveals that he writes under a pseudonym for Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper he owns with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Lebedev refers to as “my friend”.

But he is coy about his own attitude to Putin. Dimbleby, managing to be dogged but unaggressive, quotes him describing himself as “loyal ” to Putin and contrasts that with critical statements he has made about the former president.

Lebedev protests that the phrase loyalty has been taken “out of context” but states: “I do think we need to reform our political system,” and he goes further by saying that “there’s no way you can deny that the person who has been leading the country…is not responsible for, for example, reforming the electoral system in the wrong way, or not doing a lot to make the judiciary independent, that is quite clear.” 

But while being critical of Putin’s actions, Lebedev stops short of directly accusing Putin of deliberately skewing mechanisms of the state in his favour.

Wisely perhaps, considering the fates of Litvinenko and of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who wrote for Novaya Gazeta and was murdered in 2006.

Indy up for grabs

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After months of speculation the Daily Telegraph yesterday confirmed that Independent News & Media (INM) is looking to sell The Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

The loss-making titles have been in trouble for some time and are losing £1 million a month between them, a situation only worsened with the slump in advertising revenues. Sales have also been in terminal decline for some time, and it has long been speculated that INM’s highly-profitable local title, the Belfast Telegraph, has been helping to prop up the Indy and the Sindy.

The question now is whether there will be a buyer for the paper. The timing could not be worse for Gavin O’Reilly, the incoming chief executive who will take over from his father Sir Tony O’Reilly next month. The media industry is amongst the hardest hit since the economic crisis began and there are not many pockets deep enough to purchase and sustain the papers.

Roy Greenslade over at MediaGuardian argues that there will be little interest from private equity as there is no sign of profit from the titles even in the medium term. Will another Russian billionaire will come to rescue perhaps? Alexander Lebedev came to the Evening Standard’s rescue in January when he bought the paper from the Rothermere family, but only at the price of £1. Which happens to be the Indy’s current cover price.