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Friday, 31 December 2010

Another Year Over ...

So. 2010 is almost over. What have we learned from the year?

Politics: not even the most slavish of media support could get Young Dave over the majority line in the UK General Election, but he has since demonstrated that he, unlike many in his party, understands this new art of the possible. Labour surprised many by not being wiped out by the supposed “Tory Tsunami”, then electing Mil The Younger as leader. The drop in support for the Lib Dems should have surprised nobody – same with their discomfort with some Coalition policies.

Press And Media: the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) finally showed that it is utterly toothless and unfit for purpose. The Maily Telegraph demonstrated why it has earned its new nickname, the Desmond press descended further into bigotry and inaccuracy, and very few noticed the supposedly upmarket Times vanish behind a paywall. Also, Paul Dacre did not retire, and swore a lot.

USA: the Tea Party movement started to hobble the Republican Party. After many began to write him off, Barack Obama ended the year in good shape. Larry King bowed out as his network, CNN, fell to third place in the cable news ratings. The wisdom of the UK’s impartiality rule for TV was demonstrated superbly by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). And the most trusted news presenter in the USA was a host on Comedy Central.

Climate: Christopher Booker and his pet gofer James Delingpole continued to rage to their echo chamber of like minded conspiracy theorist believers, with Booker unable to count to three, or read a graph title, reliably (Delingpole compensated for this by sneering more aggressively). Supposedly once in a generation weather events occurred rather more frequently. This last was lost on the denial lobby.

Blogosphere: despite claims to the contrary, it still needed the MSM to help break stories to the extent that they made a difference. Some long established blogs scaled down their involvement or left the scene, but the genre carried on.

Astroturf: the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) continued to churn out “reports” full of dodgy figures, misleading assumptions, and occasionally – as in their urging of a lowering of the poverty line – sheer nastiness. The group has still not published full and up to date accounts or a list of donors.

And finally: we were still no nearer to even having a debate about currently illegal drugs. Sad but true.

Have a good and productive New Year.

Comfort Of The Tea Party

I have a confession to make: unlike some observers of politics Stateside, I’m comfortable with the Tea Party movement. That’s because it demonstrates – unlike the assertions of some of its supporters – that fundamental freedoms still underpin the USA: if you want to start, support or work for a political movement, then you are free to do so.

Moreover, citizens of the Republic are also free to voice whatever opinions they hold, protected by the First Amendment. So anyone who believes ACORN stole the 2008 Presidential Election, that Barack Obama is not a natural born US citizen (and/or a practising Christian), or that any factual analysis ever comes out of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) is entitled to their view.

Of course, I don’t hold to any of those views, and that is where the Tea Partiers don’t get it: in a country of 300 million inhabitants, it’s not difficult for those of a conservative persuasion to find other like minded individuals. Thus the blogosphere and Twittersphere are alive with such people, but what they too often forget is that those places are also alive with those of a more liberal slant.

The results from some of the Mid-Terms should have brought this home to the Tea Partiers: had the GOP won the Senate races in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware, this would have given them 50 seats against 48 Democrats and two Independents. Most likely Mitch McConnell would now be Majority leader, and the Republicans would be in control of both Houses of Congress.

But those three races were lost by Tea Party backed candidates – Ken Buck, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell – who proved unacceptable to the wider electorate. To have them win the Primaries in those states may have given those favouring Ideological Purity a warm feeling, but politics is, as ever, the art of the possible: there are always compromises to be conceded, pragmatic choices to be made.

And that’s another reason why I’m comfortable with the Tea Party movement: the more control they exert over the GOP, the less electable it will be come 2012. If the movement gets to pick the Republican Presidential challenger, it will more than likely choose Sarah Palin, and that will deliver Barack Obama a slam-dunk second term.

In a system where there are just two electable parties, any candidate that repels a significant part of the electorate should not be standing – not if their party is serious about winning. There is little point in being ideologically purer than the next man, if doing so keeps you away from the levers of power.

[UPDATE: this post has also featured on Liberal Conspiracy. My thanks, as ever, to Sunny Hundal]

Telegraph Hires Corporal Jones

Once upon a time, the Telegraph was a right leaning newspaper, but with reporting that could be trusted, even by those who did not buy into its politics. But it was also a little staid and dull. Now, though the dullness has been banished, the reportage can no longer be trusted, and even those of a conservative persuasion are uneasy about the title that has earned the nickname of the Maily Telegraph.

The morphing of the Telegraph into a broadsheet Daily Mail was underscored recently when its hacks posed as constituents of Liberal Democrat MPs, while recording discussions from the unfortunate Members’ surgeries. Mail journalists have since said that not even the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre would have allowed such acts.

Now, in a move that once more follows the Daily Mail, the Telegraph is going in for Muslim scare stories, this being epitomised by a ridiculously titled comment pieceDavid Cameron must face the challenge of Islamisation”. Why is “Islamisation” a challenge? What in the UK is being “Islamised”? The piece – to which no hack has seen fit to append his or her name – talks of pork being taken off school menus, but in France.

Then we are told of “enormous numbers” of Muslim immigrants, which sounds dramatic until you realise that this group still accounts for less than five per cent of the UK’s population. And, of that whole, many are not devoutly religious, or even religious at all (this last being inconvenient to those who routinely portray such groups as monolithic adversaries).

Moreover, the writer notes that “Britain is beginning to experience French-style anxiety about Islamisation” without a hint of irony: the French political party quoted is the extreme right Front National, and the anxiety is fuelled not only by this repository of bigotry, but also by hacks who generate hyperbolic scare stories. To emphasise this, the writer tells that “around 40 per cent of the Muslim community support the establishment of Sharia” while not managing to cite one source for the figure.

And, to put the lid on it, we get “Government attempts to ease tension by empowering to [sic] unelected ‘community leaders’ have caused huge resentment”. No prizes for guessing that no example of this is given. But that there needs to be a “dismantling” of “Islamisation” is once more stressed. The problem with this argument, though, is that there is not even one proven example of “Islamisation” in the article.

So there is nothing to “dismantle”. The impression is given that this is little more than a modern day Corporal Jones jumping up and down while shouting “we’re being overrun by Muslims – don’t panic”.

For a supposedly quality paper, that’s not good enough.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Super Soaraway Migrant Scare Story

The cheaper end of the Fourth Estate knows how to frighten its readership, and for much of that demographic, nothing frightens like immigration. Migrants, we are routinely told by lame and overmonied hacks like Fat Dick Littlejohn, go to the top of housing lists, get free cars, obtain benefits that “hard working Brits” are somehow denied, and of course are Foreign.

Feeding into this fear today are Rupe’s downmarket troops at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, who have invented a mass migration of Hungarians under the less than subtle headlineEU flood may wreck migrant limit plan” (it’s a “flood” because you have to be scared, and chucking “EU” into the mix makes it doubly scary).

The Sun has decided that Hungary’s Government, which may grant citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living outside that country, is about to unleash a wave of immigration into the UK, though its assertion, “A Sun investigation has found that 300,000 living in Serbia and 160,000 in the Ukraine are among those who could seek to come here on Hungarian passports”, carries suitable caveats.

So what is the reality? Will there be a mass movement of Hungarians to the UK? Sadly for Rupe’s downmarket troops, the figures don’t back them up: there are around 80,000 Hungarians in the UK, while Germany – where the economy is doing rather better than ours – has half as many again. Austria has 40,000, it’s the country next door to Hungary, and has historic ties to it.

And for those who want to migrate further than Germany or Austria, the Hungarian communities of the USA and Canada number more than 1.8 million. The Hungarian Diaspora even includes over a million spread across South America. So why would there be a particular attraction to the UK?

The short answer is that there is no provable or likely attraction. But the Murdoch press has papers to sell, and frightening the readers is as reliable a sales pitch as any.

Tea Party Favourite In Expense Probe

Those who thought that politicians and expenses were a purely UK phenomenon would do well to look at recent developments surrounding one Senate candidate’s campaign finances. And, as that candidate is “Tea Party” favourite Christine O’Donnell, who lost heavily in Delaware, top entertainment is assured.

O’Donnell, who had been wary of all media outlets except for Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), still raised 7.3 million dollars for her Senate run, spending 6.4 million. But what she spent it on is now under investigation: using campaign money to pay personal expenses is outlawed in the US, and that is what O’Donnell is suspected of doing.

What is not yet known is whether her 2010 Senate run is under investigation, or perhaps a previous campaign. But what certainly is known is O’Donnell’s reaction: there is, she has suggested, a conspiracy at work against her. Opponents on both right and left are cited as part of this, as is Veep Joe Biden, and the FBI. All are accused of usingthug tactics”, the same T-word also being a favourite of Fox hosts, who applied it with vigour when pursuing Van Jones.

And even her pals at Fox are reporting the investigation, although the story is kept off the front page of their website. After all, they would much rather you know that Sarah Palin featured last night on the show fronted by professional loudmouth Sean Hannity. During her hour of softball, Sarah talked patriotism, “taking a stand”, plugged her book, and did not mention former protégé O’Donnell.

As I said, fair and balanced my arse.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Stateside Snow And Slanted Reporting – 2

What a difference a day makes: following my observations yesterday on the hopelessly optimistic reporting of New York’s blizzards by the Daily Mail, it seems that Paul Dacre’s finest have subjected themselves to a reality check.

After suggesting that the city was back to normal within a few hours, the Mail has conceded that there aremany streets still clogged with snow”. It also mentions the hazards faced by Sanitation Department ploughs, such as parked and abandoned vehicles – which its previous article suggested were being towed away, though they were not.

The lack of towing away may be down to Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to declare a “snow emergency”, which then gives the authorities clearance to tow. And the Mayor has been getting it in the neck from all sides, rather like his London contemporary Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson did when London’s buses all but stopped running last winter.

Now, far from his previous bullish tone, Bloomberg is conceding that he “probably could have done better”. In a follow up New York Post headline piece (“Bloomy finally gets our drift”), he admits that “there are city streets that haven’t seen a plow since the last snowstorm – 10 months ago”.

Yes, NYC had a snowstorm last winter. In fact, as MSNBC host Keith Olbermann – a city resident – has pointed out, the city averages 28 inches of snow a year, and has experienced ten ten-inch falls in the past decade. So the city authorities should be well versed in dealing with such events.

And the clear corollary is this: if NYC is having difficulty recovering from the kind of event that occurs, on average, every year, then the problems experienced in the UK recently should not surprise anyone.

Not even those who work at the Daily Mail.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

TPA: Another Waste Of Resources

Many businesses may be enjoying the quiet period between Christmas and New Year, but for one Astroturf lobby group, the pumping out of misleading propaganda never stops: today saw the launch of yet another “report” by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), this one a grandly titled “briefing paper” also carrying the mark of the Legatum Institute.

Announcing this new work, the TPA website tells that “New financial regulations could tip global banking sector into new crisis”, but a look through the document, “Financial regulation goes global: Risks for the world economy” shows precious little detail, bar a graph at the top of Page 3 that attempts to show a relationship between the M4 money supply indicator and a combination of share and house prices.

Why use M4, and why combine share and house prices? Alas, we don’t get an answer to this, and the assertion that prices of these assets “tend to follow” the movement in M4 is, at the very least, tenuous. Indeed, the “Executive Summary” on Page 1 shows the lack of substance. Consider the following:

TPA: “Regulation ... played a significant role in driving the financial crisis

ZS: What regulation?

TPA: “The increased internationalisation of financial regulation risks amplifying future global booms and busts

ZS: Assertion made, as with so much from the TPA, with no evidence to back it up.

TPA: “The Basel rules may still be procyclical

ZS: And they may not. Again, no evidence is offered.

TPA: “Some measures proposed, like attacks on tax havens and hedge funds, are motivated by other agendas

ZS: Look over there!

The following eleven pages continue in the same vein. No alternative to the strengthening of the regulatory systems in place around the globe at present is proposed: that is not the TPA way. Indeed, the report’s final paragraph admits this shortcoming, while asserting that regulation is somehow harmful.

This should come as no surprise: the TPA opposes and demonises any regulation, and the Legatum Group includes a portfolio investment fund manager and an investment fund. So this "report" is no more than the TPA giving solace to a soulmate.

Just fancy that!

Stateside Snow And Slanted Reporting

It’s been the turn of the USA’s Northeast Corridor to be on the receiving end of heavy snowfall: 20 inches of the stuff fell on New York City at the weekend. It’s the kind of stuff that happens, and with yesterday being a supposedly normal working day Stateside, clearing up was a priority.

Meanwhile, in the UK, clearing up has involved sanitising the less convenient news from NYC, and then using it to lay into our own hard pressed snow clearance services. In the vanguard of this slanted reportage have been the obedient hacks at the Daily Mail, who have told thatUS is back to work after THREE FOOT deluge”.

Note that, for the Mail, 20 and 36 are roughly equivalent numbers. And also note that this optimism is not shared by the New York Post, more tellingly observingFury as city is paralyzed by blizzard”. The Fire Department at one point had 1400 calls stacked up. Streets were impassable. Many main roads had not been treated or ploughed by late Monday. Ambulances couldn’t get to callouts, and hospitals were short staffed.

Not that you would know this by reading the Mail’s account, which says “US workmen had their country up and running within a matter of hours”. It is as if the two papers were reporting on two different countries. Compare and contrast:

Mail: “Just one train was stranded on the entire New York subway system

NYP: “Virtually every line in the subway system experienced either delays or shutdowns for the morning rush

Mail: “Here [UK] ... rail users ... were forced to spend the night on trains that had become stuck

NYP: “Hundreds of passengers were stuck all day and all night at Penn Station, including some who slept on parked trains

Mail: “1600 snow ploughs battling to stop the city grinding to a halt

NYP: “At one point yesterday, nearly 1029 buses were stuck in the snow and ice ... nearly a quarter of the ... total fleet

Mail: “24 hours of furious cleaning to open up all the streets

NYP: “It could still take days [plural] for the snow levels to come down significantly

Given the ease with which news sources in NYC can be accessed, it might be thought that the Daily Mail would err on the factual, even on an issue where their agenda dictates laying into the authorities, rather than demonstrate that the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre is not supervising a credible news outlet.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Season’s Greetings

Christmas is approaching, and Zelo Street is taking a break. The blogging will hopefully resume next week.

If you’ve looked in on the blog during the past year – many thanks. By all means tell others about it, whether or not you agree with what I post. All opinions are welcome.

In the meantime, enjoy an agreeable and peaceful Christmas – I certainly hope to.

Harry’s Less Than Excellent Journey

He got his why-oh-why copy into the Daily Mail, but Harry Mount is not a happy man, because he journeyed out to Suffolk to talk to former Fayed flunky Michael Cole mainly by rail, and his journey was delayed. For having the temerity to run late and suffer a breakdown, operator National Express East Anglia (NXEA) have become the subject of Harry’s bizarre and only occasionally coherent rant on the Maily Telegraph website.

From reading his piece in the Mail, much of which could have been written in the office – and probably was – one might think that Mount was just another Dacre hack delivering stories to fit his legendarily foul mouthed editor’s agenda. Cole, ever the PR man, has succeeded in inflating his irritation at a neighbour’s new wind turbine into a supposedly real story, although Mount does not seem to have interviewed anyone other than the Coles about it.

The copy thus produced confirms what is already known: the Mail thinks wind turbines are rubbish. But Harry has concluded that rail travel is also rubbish, although this for some reason was not published by the Dacre press, but by the Telegraph. “Forget the bad weather – blame the fools, liars, layabouts and thugs who work on our railwaysthunders the headline.

However, Harry does not back up his characterisations except in the retelling. And, had he made the most cursory of enquiries before setting off, he would have known that services on NXEA were subject to delay and cancellation because of the severe weather. I can be certain of this, simply by checking out the “service disruptions” part of the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) site.

As can be seen, the problems on NXEA were first notified on December 19. Mount doesn’t say when he travelled, but I doubt it was on a Sunday, so his journey must have been last Monday or Tuesday. That he apparently didn’t bother taking a couple of minutes to check NRE isn’t the fault of NXEA, who may well have had traincrew out of place because of weather delays.

And much of the supposed “sub-text” Mount uses to damn others is his own invention. The problem for overmonied hacks is their inability to understand the complexities of organisations like the railways: as a result, they all too often substitute ridicule and invention for actual knowledge, then end up looking even less credible as a result.

Harry Mount might benefit from a few weeks’ work experience in the real world. But after his rant on the Telegraph’s website, he should avoid any invitation from the railways. After his outrageous and baseless slanders, he might not keep well.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Yikes Readers, Another Dodgy Column!

In his latest Maily Telegraph column – generating the all important “chicken feed” – London’s occasional mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson discusses the wintry weather. Quite apart from his assertion of how well the city’s transport infrastructure has been coping – on the same day that Bozza penned his piece, Adam Bienkov posted a little factual information in dissent – the mayor has been eulogising over independent weather forecaster Piers Corbyn.

Corbyn, who runs his own predictions business, is right “about 85% of the time” according to Bozza. Where he gets this figure from is not clear, but the mayor continues, telling that “serious business people ... are starting to invest in his forecasts”. Actually, that’s been happening for a while, but Corbyn’s forecasts have not always been accurate.

His forecast of apocalyptic, or “raging” weather in September 1997 was wrong, as was his assertion that January 2008 would see the UK in the grip of arctic cold. So he’s now managed to nail a cold spell, although the idea that this winter would be the coldest for a hundred years might yet be a big ask: after all, it would have to top 1962-3 and 1946-7, the latter being particularly grim.

There is, though, one reason, not stated in Bozza’s article, why Corbyn should enjoy such celebrity with the Telegraph and many on the right: he has dismissed the concept of global warming, and the idea that higher carbon dioxide levels might cause higher temperatures. He also asserts that the earth is now cooling, a common gambit among the denial lobby.

That is not sufficient reason for Bozza, or any politician, to take Corbyn’s word as gospel. He should be treated strictly on his merits – as Johnson and many of the Telegraph’s pundits like to do when laying into the Met Office.

9/11 First Responders – The Time For Stalling Is Over

Later today, it is expected that the “Zadroga Bill”, which provides for health care for 9/11 First Responders, will come before the US Senate. Although both Senators from New York had previously expressed belief that they had the sixty votes needed to get this legislation through before the Christmas break, there is still opposition among some Republicans.

Most notably, Tom Coburn from Oklahoma has indicated that he intends to block the bill, saying that it hadn’t had a proper hearing. However, Coburn appears to have forgotten that the proposed legislation was subject to scrutiny by committee hearing in June – a hearing that Coburn could have attended, but did not.

The continued obstruction of a bill that, on the face of it, looks like a no-brainer, has caused anger even in the parts of the media that are normally ready to cheerlead for the GOP: yes, even at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Fox host Shep Smith has seemingly lost patience with the delaying tactics and, in turn, has been praised by liberal leaning commentators elsewhere.

This praise was on show in a live edition of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, which last night came from the 92Y. Maddow singled out Shep Smith for his unswerving criticism of GOP obstructionism, and also called out Tom Coburn, showing coverage of the hearing for the Zadroga Bill and Coburn’s unoccupied chair.

Adding their voices have been former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said that “This is a matter of morality, it’s a matter of obligation”. Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that “the time for excuses is over”, and Mike Huckabee admitted on last Thursday’s Daily Show that “every Republican should vote for this bill”.

Giuliani and Huckabee were GOP Presidential hopefuls in 2008, and the latter may well feature in 2012. Hopefully Tom Coburn will quit stalling and discover his conscience in time for the vote later today.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

More Express Scaremongering

Not long ago, I noted that the Daily Express was trying to frighten its readers about potential food shortages, and that the reality in my part of the world was very different. Well, I’ve been over to Aldi and Asda today, following a read of yet another scare story from the Desmond press, and have reached more or less the same conclusion.

Supermarkets are struggling to keep shelves filled with fresh foods such as meat and milk” howled the Express. Not in Crewe they weren’t: Aldi had a whole cage of full fat milk and two more of semi-skimmed, with the fresh meat display well stocked. Asda was more or less the same – except that it’s a bigger store, and so there was more of everything on offer.

So where are the shortages? “Yesterday, milk supplies ran out at a Somerfield store in Bovey Tracey, Devon” the article explains. That’s just one store, and I suspect that, had the Express not been in frightening mode, they wouldn’t have cared one jot what was happening in Devon. But there’s more.

Yes, “in a Tesco Express in Birmingham, most of the fresh meat and ready meals had been snapped up by customers to stock their freezers, leaving one corner of the shop almost bare” we are warned.

Hell’s teeth. There are nine Tesco outlets just within the city’s ring road, and almost thirty in the greater Birmingham area. The idea that anyone in the West Midlands will have to go without food at Christmas just because one of them is out of ready meals is utter drivel.

But I did find one crumb of comfort for “Dirty” Des and his hacks: Asda in Crewe had an empty area in one part of the store. It would normally have held own brand six pack low fat yogurt. So there really was a shortage, after all.

But it won’t mean the locals going hungry over the holidays.

Terror Plot – What The Nationals Didn’t Tell You

More screaming headlines today as twelve men are arrested and detained after police raids in Cardiff, Stoke-on-Trent, London and Birmingham: Rupe’s troops at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun went with a modest’Terror Plot’ 12 Held”, while Richard “Dirty” Desmond’s finest at the Express had no such reservations, thundering “Evil Bid To Massacre Christmas Shoppers”.

Sad to say, there has not yet been any evidence unearthed to suggest that anyone was about to carry out a “massacre”: no weapons or explosives have turned up despite an exhaustive search. Moreover, the police that carried out the arrests were unarmed, although the Sun reassuringly told that “gun cops were on standby just in case”.

And over in Stoke-on-Trent, the Sentinel has made a discovery not yet picked up by the nationals: one of those arrested, Abu Bosher, a call centre worker, was also arrested back in 2008 over the alleged promotion of extremist views. That investigation went on for 20 months, ending with a lot of resources expended and no charges.

But, so what? Well, two possible conclusions may be drawn, depending on your point of view. The more suspicious might decide that this proves the original 2008 raid was right, and that Bosher was up to something. But to labour over the case for over a year and a half, only to throw in the towel, is not a good sign.

The alternative conclusion is that this is another “Forest Gate” incident, but fortunately without armed officers loosing off their weapons on someone guilty of nothing more than Being Muslim And Wearing A Beard With Intent.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Lie Of The Year – But Millions Believe It

Once again, the excellent PolitiFact site has conducted its poll for the biggest whopper of the year. And, once again, the winner is an assertion arising out of the debate over health care reform in the USA.

Last year, as I noted at the time, the winner was the claim, made famous by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, that reform would lead to “death panels”. As I also noted, although Palin’s assertion had no basis in fact, it took hold partly due to the inability of those supporting reform to get their rebuttal in quickly enough.

So it is with this year’s winner: the claim from the GOP that health care reform amounted to “A Government takeover of health care”. The reform as passed, without the “public option” did not increase Government control, and certainly was not a takeover.

But, as with last year’s Palin whopper, the assertion was not rebutted with sufficient speed and force, with the effect that more than half the respondents to this Bloomberg poll agreed with it.

That may be not unrelated to the move by Bill Sammon to hosts at his cable channel to stop referring to the “public option” and instead use the term “Government-run health insurance” or just “Government option”.

Sammon is Washington managing editor for our old friends, Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

TPA – Who’s Filling Your Wallet?

Nobody who regularly reads the tabloid press can have missed the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). This group, which is dedicated to demonising Government – any Government – along with public works and public service, gets its propaganda into the press on an all too regular basis. But who is behind it?

Thus the paradox: while the TPA consistently kicks Government for not being sufficiently transparent, it is remarkably coy when questions are pitched about its own finance, and its backers. That is not good enough: if the TPA wants to preach openness, then it must itself be open.

Of course, it’s possible that the TPA’s backers might wish to shy away from some of the group’s “research”, such is the lamentable quality of it (Christmas Tax Report roasted HERE, European Court of Human Rights Report, replete with a raft of dodgy figures, given a going over HERE). With this view I could not disagree.

But that is no reason for the wider public to be kept in the dark about the TPA’s finances. Enough interested parties have tried to get this information: typical of the genre is this Guardian piece from October last year. Another take on the TPA, from another organisation in the same sector, can be seen HERE. And HERE is a critique of the TPA, pointing up the resources that have to be deployed in public sector organisations just to service TPA Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

Investigation such as that from the Guardian is a good start, but more needs to be done: the TPA is a singularly judgmental body and we should know by whom we are being judged. No further secrecy can be tolerated.

The information that the TPA must release comes in three discrete categories: details of funding and its sources, pay and expenses of staff, and any payments or retainers by the TPA to other bodies or individuals.

Failing a voluntary release of this information, the leaking of it would be most welcome.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Booker Makes It Up

Today it is cold outside. What does this tell me? Well, the conclusion may be that it is cold outside, but for the climate change denial lobby, transient weather patterns are the meat and drink from which smears are generated and conspiracy theories bolstered.

And so it is in the denialist echo chamber inhabited by Maily Telegraph hanger on Christopher Booker, who has such difficulty with his sums that he has asserted that this is the “fourth unusually cold winter in a row”. Except, of course, that 2007-8 brought a relatively mild winter, so Booker is misleading his readership. This is at least consistent: he made the same error last winter.

But this is a mere taster for Booker’s attempted smear of James Hansen, who has the temerity to be head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). As NASA is a US Government body, this allows Booker to call it “state-sponsored”, which means it is A Very Bad Thing.

Booker’s evidence in support of his smear of Hansen rests on two posts on a blog called Real Science, run by one Steve Goddard. Sad to say, though, Goddard’s reputation took a severe hit in 2008 when he spread misinformation about Arctic ice melting, and was caught out.

And both Booker and Goddard misinterpret their data: from this graph, both talk of temperatures rising or falling, although the data presented is of temperature anomalies, that is, a departure from a long-term average. All the data in the graph shows an anomaly higher than that average. Booker and Goddard’s talk of series other than that of GISS showing “temperatures plummeting” is drivel.

It doesn’t get any better when Booker tries another smear of GISS’ integrity, by telling that figures had been revised when it was found that the agency had been “revising older temperatures downwards and post-2000 figures upwards”. This, too, is drivel: some September records for 2008 were wrongly copied over into the October figures, particularly data from stations in Russia.

In that case, the error was rectified within 24 hours. If only the whoppers spouted by Booker were so speedily remedied. And, by the way, is the Maily Telegraph paying for this copy?

WikiLeaks – Even The Guardian Gets Suckered

Another day, another release of cables from WikiLeaks. There is so much material being released that, on occasion, interesting items get missed, and this was the case on Friday last. The subject was Michael Moore’s film Sicko – which found adversely on the USA’s health care system – and the cable suggested that the film had been banned in Cuba.

The reason for the Castro Government imposing the ban was, supposedly, because Sicko showed the Cuban health care system in a “mythically” favourable light. If that sounds strange, it is: Moore himself made sure that Sicko was available for release in Cuba, and the film was even broadcast on the country’s national TV in late April 2008.

So it might be thought that this fact may have been included in the Guardian’s report last Friday when it revealed the contents of the cable sent by a State Department representative in Havana. But only after Moore revealed the real story on his own website was the Guardian article appended with a one line acknowledgment of Moore’s statement.

Which is a pity: as Moore suggests, the more significant story is not merely the leaking of another cable, but the passing of totally misleading information around US Intelligence. Small wonder that the collapse of the Castro Government has been predicted regularly for decades, and that it hasn’t happened.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

High Speed Rail – Reality Versus Spin

While some debate, others act: today, the new high speed line from Madrid to Valencia was opened as a special train carrying invited guests reeled off the 391km in just 81 minutes. Full service begins tomorrow, with a fastest time of 95 minutes. And, along with this link, a spur to Albacete, part of the new line to Alicante, has also been opened, saving half an hour on the journey.

So has the Spanish press been as miserable about the event as some UK media outlets have been about the proposed HS2 link from London to Birmingham and beyond? Well, no they haven’t: Publico.es not only reported the event – with a photo of the party at Madrid’s Atocha terminus, which included King Juan Carlos – but also gave information on the new service, journey times and prices, and stressed the number of direct and indirect jobs created.

El Pais also noted that there have already been 90,000 seats sold for the new service. The photo showing Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia with PM Zapatero was taken while the train was travelling at around 300km/h.

Against this reality from Spain, what do we see in the UK? The HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA) has put together a report filled with questionable figures – as I noted last month – and its cause has been taken up by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), for whom reports full of dodgy data are a way of life. HS2AA do not want the new link, and of course the TPA are opposed, as they oppose and systematically demonise all public works.

The HS2AA report spins the idea that a package of bottleneck removal on the existing rail network will work out cheaper than a new line, but the Route Utilisation Strategy for the West Coast Main Line (WCML) shows that this would not address capacity constraints for much of the journey. Nor does the HS2AA demonstrate how or where they would provide more much needed paths for freight operators.

But in Spain, capacity has been released for freight by the opening of the new line from Madrid to Valencia, as well as giving an alternative to driving or flying. No such dividend would come from the HS2AA spinners or their new best friends at the TPA.

Crikey Chaps, The Cable Car Doesn’t Add Up!

It might have seemed a jolly good idea at the time, but now the proposed cable car link across the Thames from somewhere near the O2 Arena to somewhere near the ExCel centre looks as if it might be troublesome for London’s occasional Mayor and regular collector of “chicken feed” from the Maily Telegraph, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

The project was intended to be self financing, via private capital. Sadly, this has not materialised, and Bozza has “directed” the London Development Agency (LDA) to chip in 1.2 million. And the cost has risen from 25 to 40 million. Moreover, the numbers being touted for the system’s people moving ability do not add up.

Articles both on the BBC website and on that of the Daily Mail put the capacity of the system as “up to 2,500 passengers an hour”. The Mail piece adds that there will be a headway of as little as 30 seconds. So let’s do the math. The Transport for London (TfL) page on the scheme shows a small cable car, like those that you can ride up to Montjuic Castle in Barcelona.

Typically, these hold four passengers, so one of these every 30 seconds gives a maximum hourly one way capacity of 480. Maybe larger cabins are being considered – so let’s double those numbers. It still only gives 960 – nowhere near 2,500. And cabins larger than that will need heavier cabling and more time to get folks on and off. As for being fully accessible – forget it.

Maybe, as the Mail article suggests, a cable car system with single large cabins is what is proposed. But those cabins only take around a hundred passengers as a crush load – so Bozza’s “serene and joyful journey” can be forgotten. Also, given the need to get everyone off and on, a headway of six minutes and an hourly one way capacity of 1,000 is as good as this concept will get.

So, in summary, the cost has been underestimated, the capacity has been oversold, and the USP of having the system open for the Olympics has been missed. Bozza would be well advised cancelling his direction to the LDA and giving up on this one.

[UPDATE: This article in the Evening Standard claims the cars will carry ten people. That's still only a one way hourly capacity of 1,200, and I'd be very interested to see how they propose to get all those bodies in and out of the cars and maintain a 30 second headway]

Friday, 17 December 2010

A Plea For First Response

This week is the last of 2010 for the Daily Show, and the very last show was broadcast at 2300 hours ET yesterday (on More4 in the UK at 2030 this evening, then available on 4OD). It deserves a special mention simply because the whole of it was dedicated to 9/11 First Responders.

These were the people, such as firefighters, who were first at the scene after airliners were flown into both towers of the World Trade Center. Many have since developed respiratory diseases and cancers. There is a bill – known as the Zadroga Bill – waiting passage through the Senate which would provide up to seven billion dollars in benefits to them.

But it is being filibustered by Republicans, as Jon Stewart has pointed out, “the party that has turned 9/11 into a catchphrase”. The GOP is never short of a talking head praising those first responders, yet now it is blocking real help for them.

And the only network that has focused on this issue? Al-Jazeera. A frustrated Stewart observed “scooped ... by the same network Osama bin Laden sends his mix tapes to ... this is insane!

So it is. Please watch this evening or catch the show on 4OD later.

WikiLeaks – Ellsberg Backs Assange While Mail Smears Him

The day after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted bail and walked free – well, subject to various conditions – from court, two articles sum up the attitude of the establishment and that of the individual.

In the WaPo, Daniel Ellsberg, instrumental in releasing the so-called Pentagon Papers back in 1971, spoke in full support not only of Assange, but also Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have obtained the information that was then passed to WikiLeaks.

Ellsberg has been unequivocal in that support: putting the information in the public domain was “exactly the right thing” to do, “they provided a very valuable service”, and pursuing Assange while not moving against the media outlets that published confidential information was wrong “Anyone who believes Julian Assange can be distinguished from the New York Times ... is on a fool’s errand”.

Ellsberg, against whom charges were ultimately thrown out, had leaked a report which laid bare the way in which successive US Administrations had misled their Citizens over the adventure in Vietnam. Given that the conflict was still in progress when the leak occurred, it might be concluded that what he did was rather more deserving of prosecution. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the more hawkish commentators in the US, should they wish to learn it.

In the UK, however, there is no wish to learn within the domain of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre. Today’s Daily Mail shows that the Dacre view is that Assange is guilty of, well, something: the piece lifts content directly from US gossip site Gawker (one hopes that the Mail paid them for it voluntarily) which had published details of emails sent by Assange to a young woman he met some years ago.

The emails are denounced by “Daily Mail Reporter” – for which, read “whoever is at the front of the cab rank when Dacre demands a hatchet job to order” – as “stalkery”. So did Assange stalk the woman concerned? Well, no he didn’t. The Mail goes on to describe a “stalkery courtship”. So was there a courtship? No, there was not.

So what is the point of publishing the emails? Simples. The impression has to be given that Assange could be guilty of the offences alleged against him by prosecutors in Sweden, despite nothing the Mail has published being relevant to the case. No smoke without fire, two plus two equals, well, you know what, and as a clincher, he’s supported by lots of rotten lefties. Daily Mail readers are now expected to draw the correct conclusion.

And then Dacre will wonder why the Ellsberg view gains traction – which it will.

Not A Good First Showing, Percy

So this week, after 25 years, Larry King has bowed out for the last time. Yesterday at 2100 hours ET was the last Larry King Live, with CNN management already knowing that King’s Tuesday show had come fourth in the cable ratings, behind not only Sean Hannity at Fox and Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, but also behind King protégé Joy Behar at HLN.

And next month, as I’ve already noted, into this time slot comes the untried, but confident Piers “Morgan” Moron, in a move that merely underscores CNN’s desperation. The changeover from Larry King Live to The Percy Moron Show caught the attention of Jon Stewart, who gave Percy a light roasting on Wednesday’s Daily Show (video for UK viewers on 4OD HERE, it’s the second item).

Stewart ran Morgan’s trailer for his new show, observing Percy telling that “I love interviews ... because I like talking to people”. After a suitable pause, Stewart noted this statement of the obvious, and added that it was rather like saying “I love breakfast, because I like eating in the morning”.

Moron has since tweeted that he loves Stewart, but is going to “beat him”, thus demonstrating his appreciation of space and time: the Daily Show goes out a whole two hours after The Percy Moron Show will air. And he’s already said he won’t be chasing Fox and MSNBC, which is dead right.

He’ll be chasing Fox, MSNBC and HLN. Bring on the car crash.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Laws Don’t Work – 9

Well said Bob Ainsworth, I thought after reading that the former minister had stated the obvious about the so-called “war on drugs”. But almost immediately another thought entered – that his intervention would, ultimately, have no effect at all. Predictably, Ainsworth has now been slapped down by Mil The Younger, rubbished by a Tory spokesman in a routine act of political advantage play, and has provoked the usual response from the Daily Mail.

The headline generated by the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre’s tame hacks was all too predictable: “Ex Minister condemned as ‘irresponsible’ by party for drugs U-turn” it screamed. But looking beyond the article to the comments – all of which have been moderated before publication – yields a glimmer of hope.

Readers are showing that they have realised what the Mail’s editor refuses to: that the “war on drugs” is not working. The numbers, as I observed recently, put this in sharp focus: one and a half billion a year spent, no more than 1% of currently illegal drugs taken off the streets, plus an unquantified amount spent on prosecuting drug related crime, and imprisoning many of the offenders.

Moreover, yielding the supply of these drugs to organised criminality has made them far more dangerous, due to the use of a variety of substances to pad out the pure drug to make it go further, and yield more profit for traffickers. Those wishing to retain the status quo cannot, or will not, take on board that much of the danger of these drugs is down to their adulteration.

So why can we not have the debate on currently illegal drugs, and the failure of current policy? And can someone explain why Paul Dacre, who is chauffeured from his country pile to city apartment to office, and then back again, without having to soil his personal space interacting with the general public, should enjoy such a disproportionally large say on the matter?

We could at least decriminalise the use of these drugs, as has been done in Portugal without the sky falling in, and thus remove the stigma that a habit brings. This would give addicts the reassurance that they could get help and advice without the threat of criminal sanction.

Or we could carry on as before, despite all the evidence that the current approach does not work, has not worked, and will not work in the future. This should be a no-brainer.

Express – But Not Anywhere Near The UK

Hard on the heels of the Daily Mail going after train operator SouthEastern by using a photo of a station in Scotland comes the Daily Express, determined to go one better.

The Express, adopting the rhetorical question style beloved of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), has started a “Have Your Say” feature asking “Are Rail Firms Ripping Off Their Customers?”. To help their readers to come to a suitably fair and balanced conclusion, it helpfully tells of fare rises “of up to 46 per cent – 14 times the rate of inflation”.

In the crosshairs of the Express hacks is operator First Capital Connect (FCC), which is responsible for the increase mentioned, although of course not all their fares are rising at that rate.

But the attack on FCC is not helped by the Express hack’s choice of photo. Anyone not recognising the train pictured will not be alone: although this is a very modern train, and only entered service last Sunday, it did so between Helsinki and St Petersburg.

That would be between Finland and Russia, and not anywhere near the UK. So no change in the Desmond press' level of accuracy, then.

WikiLeaks – Now It’s A Conspiracy

Ever since Julian Assange turned himself in to police and was remanded in custody, there have been noises coming out of the USA suggesting that he is a target for extradition. But what would be the charge?

At first, the likely weapon of choice for prosecutors appeared to be the 1917 US Espionage Act. This declares that “To convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies” is a felony offence.

But precedent suggests that invoking the Act may not be successful: it was the basis for proceeding against Daniel Ellsburg after the leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971. These showed that successive US Administrations, particularly the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, had misled the American people over the war in Vietnam.

Ultimately, the case went to the Supreme Court, where a majority of the judges found against the Government. A later attempt to indict Ellsburg was thrown out.

So it should be no surprise that the New York Times has reported the attempt to build a conspiracy case against Assange. This would try to show that Assange had assisted or encouraged the alleged leaker of secret information, Private Bradley Manning, and thus the conspiracy.

This would get around the First Amendment defence, that voluntarily passing information to others is a “freedom of speech” issue. Also, as the NYT reports, it would avoid questions on why Assange was being prosecuted, while the media outlets that published the leaked information were not.

One to watch.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Express Ditches Facts For BBC Bashing

Next Sunday is time for the Beeb to wheel out the annual celebration of all things sporting that is Sports Personality Of The Year. It’s true that the broadcaster no longer has a monopoly of major sporting events, but this event is well liked by athletes and viewers alike.

But, alas, it is not liked by Richard “Dirty” Desmond’s remaining hacks at the increasingly threadbare Daily Express. In today’s paper, one Neil Squires has put his name to a piece titled “BBC Ditch The Ashes For Sports Personality Of The Year”. So it might be thought that the Beeb were intending to screen the Third Ashes Test this weekend.

Except that they weren’t. The BBC decided at the outset not to bid for the rights, and eventually ITV decided to buy in: the highlights will be screened on ITV4. So the BBC have not “ditched” anything. And the lack of accuracy in the Express article doesn’t stop there.

Sports Personality Of The Year will be broadcast from 1900 to 2100 hours on Sunday next. Squires asserts that “At the same time ... highlights from day four of the Third Test will be running on ITV4”. Except that they won’t: the broadcast does not start until 2200 hours.

Otherwise, the article is pure Phil Space and why-oh-why. Typical of the poorly thought out arguments is this gem: “surely it is not too much to ask for the BBC to bid on our behalf for a few universally accessible highlights?

You haven’t heard of something called Premiership Football, then, Neil?

[WARNING: anyone looking at the Express piece should avoid what look like hyperlinks in the text, as these are yet more adverts]

The Departure Of Mr Dale’s Diary

The blogosphere is not like the world of print or broadcast media: it’s far more fluid, with folks coming and going on a daily basis. Even the best known practitioners leave the stage on occasion, and yesterday was the turn of Iain Dale.

And at the outset I have a disclosure to make: when I started Zelo Street back in March last year, the first blog I looked at was Iain’s. That’s not to say that I intended to imitate or borrow from him, merely that his blog was a good place to start, to get an idea of this new “art of the possible”.

Since then, I have read the Dale blog and many others, and very occasionally commented there. Iain has, on just the one occasion, mentioned this blog in his Daley Dozen. And there the similarities end: Zelo Street has been mentioned, and its posts featured, far more regularly on Liberal Conspiracy, and this has shown me Iain’s less amenable side.

In his post confirming that he is bowing out of the blogosphere, Iain tells that “I hate the backbiting that goes ... with it. I hate the character assassination”, but he has not been free of this trait in his dealings with Liberal Conspiracy’s Sunny Hundal. Nor has he been shy of personal attacks on any number of those of divergent political stance, particularly those who fail to support his preferred party.

And Iain has shown a reluctance to own up when he makes mistakes: I don’t recall him rowing back from his assertion some time ago that Northern Rock was involved in the US sub-prime mortgage business. More recently, his suggestion that Ken Livingstone had personally allowed French to be the official language of the 2012 Olympics was daft and he should have said so. But he didn’t.

So when the tributes are made – and in typically immodest fashion, the Dale blog links to some of these today – the thought might be borne in mind that Iain Dale is just one of thousands of bloggers. Some, like him, have decided to move on to pastures new. Given he now has a weekday radio show to look after, as well as other business interests, his decision looks sound.

There will be other bloggers on the right leaning part of the blogosphere to occupy the space Iain has left. The world will move on. As the Buddha and George Harrison might have said, all things must pass.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Sarah’s Media Law In Haiti

Nothing, but nothing about Sarah Palin should surprise anyone, not even a flying visit to Haiti last weekend. Very few ordinary Haitians will have known, or been concerned, about the Palin trip, especially as almost all media outlets were shut out for most of the time.

Palin was visiting a humanitarian organisation called Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy. In tow were husband Todd, newly famous daughter Bristol, and Greta van Susteren, weekday 10pm host for Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

The only time that Palin was on view to media players other than Fox was for a five minute “news conference” where she spoke, but declined to take questions, because “we don’t need to be getting political here today”. But the politics of the situation in Haiti are more important than flying visits by US Presidential wannabes.

Haiti is still in a terrible state after the earthquake was followed by hurricanes and now a rampant cholera epidemic. Results of recent elections have become mired in accusations of corruption. The last thing the country needs is to be used for photo opportunities by the likes of Sarah Palin.

More Bad News For The Percy Moron Show

London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel was the venue for a party thrown by the fortunately soon to depart Piers “Morgan” Moron, a celebration of his appointment by increasingly desperate CNN management to succeed Larry King. The importance of the event was such that coverage was confined to the Daily Express.

And the host of The Percy Moron Show demonstrated that he has retained his misplaced sense of entitlement in some style, among a guest list of accomplished Z-listers such as Michael Winner, Andrew Lloyd Webber and someone from Dragon’s Den who only turned up because his wife wanted to go.

Percy told the Express hack that he wanted to get Barack Obama, Mel Gibson and Jack Nicholson on his show, but that Madonna would not be asked, because “she is so boring”.

In reply – not included in the fawning Express piece – Madge delegated the swatting of this particular insect to her publicist, who observedMadonna doesn’t know who Piers Morgan is”. The thought entered that Obama, Gibson and Nicholson may share that opinion.

Once again, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow are not quaking in their boots. Remember King’s interview back in October with Jon Stewart? Bring on the January 9pm weekday CNN car crash.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Daily Mail Overinflates Non Story

Next year – at the end of April – there is going to be a Royal wedding, featuring Prince William of Wales and the future Princess Catherine of Berkshire. We’ll get a bank holiday and no doubt there will, even in this less deferential age, be an amount of celebrating.

So will anyone be concerned about who is leading the BBC commentary for the event? Doubtful. But, as usual, the opportunity for Beeb bashing is a temptation that the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre and his obedient hacks at the Daily Mail cannot resist.

The basis for the Mail’s overhyped piece is that the lead anchor for the ceremony will be Huw Edwards. And, so what? We know him, he fronts the main evening news, and he’s a safe pair of hands. But Dacre’s finest have decided that “the decision is likely to surprise many BBC viewers, who are used to ... David Dimbleby”.

They are? Did “Daily Mail Reporter” bother to ask even one of them? How do the hacks at a paper which specialises in putting the boot into the Beeb have any idea of audience preferences, when they invariably shoot first and ask questions, well, very occasionally?

The answer to the Mail’s implicit question – “why oh why Huw Edwards” – can be found in their own article. Edwards is 49, and Dimbleby is now 72. He might just have decided that time and tide wait for no man, not even a Dimbleby.

But that conclusion would not have given the obligatory Beeb bashing opportunity.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Daily Mail – Routine Racism And Leftie Bashing

If a British citizen has relatives in Africa, India or the Far East, does that make that person an immigrant? Well, no: all it means is that they have relatives that live in another country – unless, of course, you’re a part of the empire of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, and you want to demonise politicians.

And one politician that Dacre’s finest love demonising is Harriet Harman, who had been speaking at a meeting at Southwark Town Hall, in her Camberwell and Peckham constituency. Ms Harman had observed that many of her constituents, who have relatives in west Africa, sent money to help those relatives, even though they were not well off, and receiving benefit payments.

Now, had those people been putting the money into the collection plate in church, or giving to charity in the UK, the Mail would not have raised a peep. But because it was going “abroad”, the language had to be suitably changed. So the constituents were “sending money back home”, and Harman’s comment about the “hidden heroes of development” was translated into the headline “Harriet Harman praises 'hero' immigrants who send welfare handouts home” (it’s a “handout” when demonising is in progress).

Are the people sending money to relatives in Africa actually immigrants? Dacre and his obedient hacks don’t tell us: after all, this would introduce shades of grey into an argument that, in characteristic Mail style, can be only black and white. The thought that some people are showing charity to those less fortunate than themselves is not allowed to enter.

As to the target audience for this article, one need look no further than the comments posted, all of which have been “moderated” prior to publication. The one at the foot of the captured image is signed “Yvonne, ex-pat White Brit”.

It’s rabble rousing, racist, and just plain nasty. So it fits neatly into the agenda that Paul Dacre and his coterie of obedient hacks are pushing. Once again, no change there.

A Simply Dishonest Advert

Putting out misleading advertising might be thought to be difficult nowadays. But one player in the airline industry has managed it, and even got its copy into yesterday’s Guardian: not surprisingly, this player is Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care).

Michael O’Leary’s finest are clearly keen to drum up traffic into Hahn, which is nowhere near Frankfurt am Main (it’s a whole 120km distant). Hence the advert, which talks of “popular Christmas markets on Rhine and Mosel”, and dispels any concern about Hahn being out of the way by reassuring readers that “Shuttle buses travel to and from Hahn Airport and [Mainz, Koblenz and Trier] many times a day”.

So it’s rather obvious that the focus of the advert is to suggest that day or weekend trips to Hahn to see the Christmas markets are what is on offer. But that would be to trust Ryanair without checking out the small print, and that is never a good idea.

For starters, the headline fare – as little as three pounds per person – is subject to “optional fees/charges”, “subject to availability”, and of course “terms and conditions apply”. But the act of blatant dishonesty is over the validity of the offer: travel must be between January and March.

The Christmas markets in Mainz, Koblenz and Trier all finish before Christmas.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

TPA – Desperate At Christmas

As if last week’s “report” by the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance – in reality a confused piece of euro-bashing featuring a raft of dodgy figures – was not bad enough, the group has now gone one better with another “report”, this time bemoaning the tax payable on some of the goods a typical family might buy at Christmas.

Yes, the TPA, through its so-called “research fellow” Mike Denham (aka Wat Tyler) have belatedly discovered that duty is payable on alcohol and fuel, and that VAT is levied on a range of non-essential goods. Nothing gets past our Mike. You can see the “Christmas Tax” report HERE [.pdf]. Mercifully, it is only three pages long.

And a look through the “report” shows the usual TPA level of accuracy and detail: Page 2 has “According to TPA calculations” (no detail, no cite, therefore worthless), “We estimate ...” on VAT (ditto), and “We estimate ...” on excise duties (ditto again). The table on Page 1 pricing various “Christmas ‘Essentials’” is equally weak.

Consider these four items on the TPA list, along with prices:

Moet & Chandon champagne 28.99

6’ Christmas tree 45.00

Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry 8.00

Quality Street family tin 10.00

And now consider what Sainsbury’s would charge for the same items:

Moet & Chandon champagne 23.99

6’ Christmas tree 24.99

Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry 6.00

Quality Street family tin 5.00

So there’s one very easy way for families to lower the financial burden of Christmas, and that’s to shop at the kind of outlet, and at the kind of prices, that exist in the real world.

And there’s something about the TPA comparison with 2008 – they claim an increase in the “Tax on Christmas” of 40% since then – which their “report” misses out. Fortunately, Denham’s own blog gives the game away: “... 2008 coming immediately after the Lehman crisis” he admits.

So that’s another TPA “report” based on skewed comparisons, dodgy “calculations”, and inflated prices. No change there, then.

Joe Miller – Endgame In Alaska

Yesterday in Juneau, Alaska, Judge William Carey made his judgment on the case brought by Joe Miller in his attempt to prolong the Senate election which he had already lost. As I observed last month, “tea partier” Miller had won the primary against incumbent Lisa Murkowski, but the latter had run a “write-in” campaign and was leading by over 10,000 votes, although some of these had been challenged by the Miller team.

But, as Carey noted, even if all the challenged ballots were excluded, Murkowski would still be over 2,000 votes ahead. He therefore threw out Miller’s case, although the ruling does not come into force until Tuesday next, to allow time for an appeal. That move may not prove particularly productive: Carey also cited past high court decisions in his ruling, suggesting that precedent is not on Miller’s side.

The Miller camp is still giving the impression that it may appeal, but it’s hard to see what could be gained by carrying on. It is looking more and more certain that, in crucial Senate races, the “tea party” effect has been to lose the GOP the seats it needed to take control of both Houses.

And that could prove true for the 2012 Presidential race as well. Maybe Sarah Palin will take that thought on board, but I doubt it.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Would You Buy A Used Ferrari From This Man?

We in the north-west may be remote from the capital, but this condition does have its benefits: for starters, we are spared the dubious pleasure of broadcaster LBC and its less than stellar line-up, which includes morning show presenter Nick Ferrari. But, through the generosity of Richard Desmond, Nick contributes a column for the Sunday Express, so anyone outside London can see what they’re missing.

And what they’re missing is not particularly original: Ferrari is an on-message Express pundit who wastes no time putting the boot into the Beeb. Last Sunday, this meant sneering at “Left-leaning BBC news coverage” of Wikileaks. Ferrari quotes the BBC on the US Administration directly: Washington has been “engulfed by a diplomatic crisis”.

Well, if it’s a direct quote, as he implies, the Beeb must have recorded it somewhere, so I copied the phrase into a Google advanced search, and ... there were no other results returned. And, sad to say, this lack of substance sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Next on the Ferrari hit list is email. Nick tells that it’s “as genuine as a Gillian McKeith fainting fit”. Wow. How on earth do I send and receive all those messages using something that isn’t genuine?

But I need to be worried about email, because, as Nick says, it can be “hacked into by an 11-year old schoolboy in his bedroom”. Well, whether or not that statement proves true, the Wikileaks material was not hacked by a schoolboy or anyone else – it was simply downloaded by someone who had been given access to the system. When US diplomatic traffic was last actually hacked into is not told. After all, that might have involved doing some research.

And Ferrari gets his punch-line crossed up, too: he concludes by noting that “a nation with the might of the US ... hasn’t yet learnt how to press the delete button”. Very good, Nick, so tell us, just which part of the phrase “intelligence gathering” do you not understand?

Weakness, Not Strength

After another day of student protests, where the accusations of police using excessive force were rather more widespread than before, there was yet more “kettling”, this time on Westminster Bridge. And then a middle aged couple got their Roller kicked and scratched while en route to the theatre.

There have been so many column inches devoted to yesterday’s events by the assembled hackery of the Fourth Estate that it is at first difficult to cut through all the flannel to get to the heart of the matter. But cut through we need to do, to be able to grasp a simple and potentially disturbing fact.

The police may have appeared to the protesters to be coming from a position of strength, given the sheer numbers deployed, along with the use of officers on horseback, but the attack on the royal Rolls is what gave the game away. That was the straw that broke this particular camel’s back.

Because the police were so close to full stretch dealing with the student protests that they lost track of many on the fringe of the demonstration. Moreover, they then failed to take on board that the usual level of royal protection might not serve if protesters and royals were to meet. Or, whisper it quietly, they may have had no resources in reserve.

And this is before the rounds of spending cuts that will reduce police numbers across the country, including at the Met. Despite the impression of strength that may have been given by kettling, and horse and baton charges, when Charles and Camilla encountered their little local difficulty, it exposed weakness instead.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Daily Mail: Right Subject, Wrong Country

Rail enthusiasts used to enjoy complaining at BBC website reports when the stock photo was of a train type totally different to the one in the story. The Beeb has since managed to make the effort, but sadly, this is not the case at the Daily Mail.

And it’s not an obscure or nerdy point where Paul Dacre’s finest fall down: in a story rubbishing operator SouthEastern, the Mail and its hacks miss a raft of very obvious clues that their photo choice is wrong.

Near the top of the article, a photo is captioned “Out of action: Southeastern trains, which took de-icers out of service, was one of the worst hit lines last week”.

There then follows a rant about SouthEastern and Network Rail (NR) not keeping tracks and live rails clear. But in the photo, there are no live rails, but overhead wiring. SouthEastern, except for their services over HS1, don’t operate in any area with overhead electrification, and neither do they use either of the train types shown. Nor are they connected with First Group, whose name and logo are clearly visible.

This is because the photo was taken at Edinburgh’s Waverley station. So not even in the right country, then.

And the caption is wrong in saying that SouthEastern took de-icing trains out of service, as it did not have any in service in the first place. The next photo is better, but still not quite accurate: the part of London’s Victoria station shown is not the one used by SouthEastern.

But this is consistent with the rest of the piece, with statements such as “[A] Charing Cross to Hastings train was forced to shut down north of Orpington as an insulating layer of ice blocked the electricity from getting to the rail”.

Wrong again: the electricity was already in the rail. The problem was in getting it from the rail and to the train.

SouthEastern, along with NR, may have fallen well short of expectations during the worst of the recent weather. But that’s no excuse for the journalism to do likewise.