The Murdoch tail wagging the British Bulldog

If Joseph de Maistre were still alive he might observe of the News International scandal “Every country has the media it deserves.” There was only ever one way that this country’s fascination with gutter journalism could go and it went there – digging for sleaze and for profits from the lives of ordinary people; bereaved people; and anyone unable to protect themselves. I find it far from surprising that News International (and in particular the “News of the World”) stands accused of leading the way in this type of journalism. For decades the Murdoch media empire has satiated the British need for sleaze and sensationalism, delivering through its red-tops on a grand scale.

It is sad that our well-meaning but amateurish political class has shown so little foresight and opened itself up for criticism about being too cosy with Fleet Street; even sadder that some people within our police forces are being drawn into the maelstrom. A lot of people have already been hurt by this scandal, some innocent, some probably not so innocent and some just naive. But many more are likely to suffer before all the facts become known.

Today’s Select Committee hearings must be the start of a process that results in an environment in which freedom of the press is fiercely protected and gutter journalism unable to thrive. Better self-regulation will play its part in that and burnt fingers will make journalists and editors think again before using any-means-possible to get the scoop. Ultimately the paying public should be the regulators of the British media; if we do not like the way a newspaper is behaving, we should simply stop buying that paper. We should not wait for the big scandal – if something smells rotten, it probably is rotten. I have not bought a News International or News Corp title for more than two decades simply because, for me, something about their products never smells quite right.

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Chapter three versus level three

The books I had to read at school, as part of my English language studies, really left me cold. Had I been a different child, this might have turned me off reading books for ever. The books and short stories on the
curriculum at that time were acknowledged and acclaimed. They included works by William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alan Sillitoe and George Orwell. They
represented an eclectic mix of times, styles and themes – yet each one bored me senseless. And herein lies the problem with encouraging reading at school – people have very different literary tastes and you can do more harm than good in forcing children to read books they have not chosen for themselves.

My love of reading came from my parents. They read to me – my mother when I was very young and my father every night before I went to sleep. From the books of Enid Blyton, progressing through ‘Treasure Island’ to ‘Three Men in a boat’ and eventually to Zane Grey’s ‘The Thundering Herd’, I was introduced to a wide range of fascinating stories that sparked my desire to read.  As I grew older the trailers for the films that I was not old enough to go and see in the cinema, played their part in inspiring contemporary book choices. And later still pure curiosity in what made a book a classic led me to broaden my literary experience.

I would love to see more young people with a book in their hands, replacing the obligatory cell phone, iPod or portable games console. I would love to see as reality, Education Secretary Michael Gove’s utopian vision of children reading fifty books a year. Schools, however, will probably never be able to give children more than the tools with which to
enjoy reading a good book. The motivation to pick up and read a good book from cover to cover will come from elsewhere – maybe parents, maybe J. K. Rowling, maybe the British Board of Film Classification but probably not from the curricular of our schools.

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Feigning “horror” at the £280m Europa building

It never ceases to amaze me just how hypocritical our politicians can be. They have very short term memories and they block out anything from their past that might make them wince a little. It is always somebody else’s fault and there is never the slightest hint of humility.

David Cameron is reported to have reacted angrily to “EU boasting” about a new £280 million head office for the President of the EU and his support staff (the Europa building). It seems that it is this boasting that sits most awkwardly with our noble leader. He would (of course) have cancelled the contract for the building if it had been within his gift, despite the fact that it was commissioned against the very different economic backdrop of 2004. I doubt that last week was the first that the PM and his party knew of the building but to them that really doesn’t matter because Tony Blair was in charge at the time the building was approved.

I like to think that the project would not be agreed if put on the table today. The PM’s displeasure is there to reassure us that his is the party of reason and thrift (forever vigilant against unnecessary burdens on the poor British taxpayer) and that even in those heady days in 2004 he would have said “No”. But I’m not convinced that anything would have be
different: remember Portcullis House? Two offices were not enough for our MPs back in the 1990’s, three apiece seemed more appropriate and so Portcullis House was commissioned. This, very similar, massaging of political egos cost us £235 million (a cool £11 million more in today’s money than the Europa building) and was agreed by the Tory government in the same year (1992) that the UK was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, interest rates rose to 15% and billions of pounds were spent by the Tories trying to prop up our failing currency. Perhaps politicians in glass office blocks should show a little humility and spend less time stone-throwing.

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The noble art of ‘sodcasting’

Since starting this blog, I wanted to write an occasional entry that was a little light-hearted – still topical and perhaps prompting a little discussion but that would also cause a smile or two. So how is a piece on ‘sodcasting’ going to make anyone smile? Or maybe you’re scratching your head wondering what on Earth I am going on about? So to start at the beginning, Pascal Wyse reputedly describes the noun ‘sodcast’ as: “Music, on a crowded bus, coming from the speaker on a mobile phone. Sodcasters are terrified of not being noticed, so they spray their audio wee around the place like tomcats.”

Strangely, the loudest voices against the practice are the thirty, forty and fifty-somethings. Cutting through the social commentary and psycho-analysis of why youth insist on playing music in public places, they summarise the practice as just being “obnoxious”, “arrogant” or “intimidating”. Well we should know, eh? I remember my grandparents moaning about the awful noise coming from a transistor radio being played by a youth on our West End
night-bus in the late 60s; and my parents moaning about cassette tape players being played in the streets of the 70s, and the continued griping as the cassette player metamorphosed (seemingly with the advent of punk rock) into the 80s boom-box.

It is, I believe, simply a generational thing. For as long as the delivery systems for music have been transportable, young people have broadcast their favourite tunes as they go (and older, more weary generations have complained). In the course of thirty years, I have gone from listening to music for hours, every day, to rarely dusting down a once favourite CD or spinning my treasured first purchased 45 r.p.m. (I just want a little peace and quiet; is that too much to ask?). Sure, the tinny sound from the mobile phone seems like a retrograde and irritating step in portable music but maybe we should be grateful for that – it could be worse, you could be forced to listen to Lady Gaga or Nicole Scherzinger on a boom-box set at 11.

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Putting the education of children first.

I missed the beginning of Newsnight last night and came in part way through the item on the teachers’ dispute about pension reform. Dr Mary Bousted, the General Secretary of the ATL (a union so moderate, that few outside of education will have ever heard of it) had the obvious displeasure of being sat with and patronised by, Graham Stuart MP (Chairman of the Education Select Committee).

The interview reminded me of why I have, over the years, become rather disillusioned
with politicians – as a collective, they are generally rather unpleasant (regardless of political persuasion). Although teachers may not have the same level of public sympathy as their colleagues in the medical profession, Stuart’s tactics showed concern that they might just have some public sympathy. Whilst being seemingly balanced and reasonable, he rattled off that tried and trusted politician’s line “I believe in the professionalism of teachers” – coded language, directed at any teachers watching, meaning that any of them supporting strike action are clearly unprofessional. This was followed by another common trick by politicians – disempower your opponent with one statement that they cannot
possibly argue against without looking like the bad one: Stuart (turning to Dr Bousted as he delivers the blow) spits out “we’ve either got to put the pensions of teachers first or the education of children and I hope Mary would join me in always putting the education of children first” – low Mr Stuart, very low.

Teachers are already pretty much the lowest paid of the professions (including those Stuart compared them to – solicitors and accountants) and teachers’ average earnings
are on a downward trend. They do not deserve this poor treatment and disrespect simply because their profession is predominantly funded by the public purse. It is time that we all stopped complaining about falling educational standards (the root cause of which, again, lies with politicians) and started valuing our teachers at least as much as we value accountants and solicitors – after all,  we’ve either got to ensure that teacher’s pay and conditions attract the best professionals or we prioritise making savings to cover successive government mishandling of public sector pension funds and I hope Mr Stuart would join me in always putting the education of children first.

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Is Regional Growth Fund a flight of fancy?

With the deadline for bids in round 2 of the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) looming (1 July 2011), I am surprised at the lack of opinion on the initiative.  Sir Ian Wrigglesworth assures us that interest is high, as does Lord Heseltine – and with £1.4bn of public funding behind it, interest should be high.

The RGF will operate across England from now until 2014, supporting projects and programmes that lever private sector investment, creating economic growth and sustainable employment. In particular the initiative aims to help those areas and communities currently dependent on the public sector, to make the transition to sustainable private sector-led growth and prosperity. It all seems a little fanciful – great ideas just waiting to happen in these target communities now that times are hard. Is this why there is a distinct lack of buzz?

I know, let’s go to the ‘Regional Growth Fund blog’ – perhaps that is where the buzz is.

Seems not – just one comment a month ago today and no visible response from BIS either. I hope that the RGF has a positive impact – it really needs to – but I have an inbuilt scepticism about such initiatives. And in all honesty if really good business ideas for sustainable employment and growth are out there in places like Dudley and Preston and Redcar would they have waited for RGF to be dreamed-up or moved forward years ago with or without public funding?

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Home working: an Olympic effort?

With the government calling for more people to work from home during the 2012 Olympics, corporate bosses across the capital will be waking-up with night sweats from increasingly recurring nightmares about their employees watching “The Games” at their expense. And yet time and again it is shown that home-workers save companies money, are up to 20% more productive and are less likely to throw a sickie.

The cause of the boss’ night-frights is generally unfounded – it stems from the natural urge of a manager to control and if they cannot see their employees, they cannot control them or their behaviour. Where are they? What are they doing? Why haven’t they called-in? Worryingly, the boss’ insecurity can often lead to protocols that the home-worker must observe: occasional emails copied around the management chain; the odd phone call during the day with a question or request; and, always being instantly contactable by telephone for spot-checks (sorry, “unforeseen important matters”).  The manager can set a whole raft of these and similar conditions that must be followed – not by them but by everyone else. And then you have distrust on both sides of the camp.

As managers, we need to let go of the desire to control every last minutiae of our teams’ input to the corporate objective. If you are still getting the results you would expect of your home worker when they were in the office, then they are doing their work from home effectively. Chances are that they are working longer (wasted commuting time often becomes productive home working time) and producing better work (without the constant interruptions of office life). So let’s work at changing management mindsets towards home-working and have an enjoyable and productive 2012 Olympics.

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What future for the property-owning democracy?

Since 1994, when I took out my first mortgage, I have been predicting that my generation would probably be the last to automatically expect to be home owners. My prediction was based on nothing more than observing that more-and-more
money was clearly stretching less-and-less. The house I live in now would be beyond my reach had I been looking for a mortgage just two years ago, and yet my income since 1994 had increased some 200%. So learning that more people are resorting to private rental and that mortgage approvals (seasonal skews aside) have hit a new low was no surprise.

For most of us, owning our own home represents security in our old age. When the mortgage is finished, you can save for your retirement the money you were spending each month with the mortgage lender. And you can downsize and release the capital from your old family-sized home. And should the worst come to the worst and a nursing home beckon, at least the costs can be covered from the sale of your home and not from your children’s pockets. For most of us, home ownership is seen as the ultimate second pension.

But is the future for our children, working until they drop? Will we be seeing future generations of pensioners evicted for failure to pay rent? The importance of home-ownership must not be under-valued and the societal implications of fewer people owning their own homes must be understood. The state will provide less and we must provide more for ourselves but the scales are tipped against future generations if they cannot afford their own home.

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The “essential relationship”

Courtesy of FreeFoto.com

The “special relationship” (now deemed “essential” by Cameron and Obama) has only ever existed in the minds of politicians. The American people tend to think of the British as their quaint, gay, elderly cousins from across the pond – stuck in our ways, with soccer, cream teas, crooked teeth and the Beatles, being the only identifiable traits most Americans would recognise of us. And on this side of the pond the British see their brash younger cousin as over-confident, ill-educated and inevitably fake – and as if to prove that that is the case, we seem to adopt and crave pretty much only the worst of what American culture has to offer.

There can be little doubt that, at the political level, it is an essential relationship. The United States and the United Kingdom are also “united” in that they are probably the most universally disliked members of the international community.  Generations of poking about in other countries’ affairs (and usually making matters worse), coupled with a snooty attitude of superiority in comparison with all other beings has left both nations with a reputation for being “that neighbour” in the world street (you know the one, trailer in the front yard, loud music blaring from the house, and unruly kids roaming the street at all times of day and night). When push comes to shove, however, it has always been a rather one sided relationship and that is what has always rather galled us here in the UK. We need to get over it though – we have not been the biggest bully in the global playground since the end of the empire, simply the bully’s sidekick.  We need to stop seeking political approval and support the U.S. government only when it is right for us to do so. The real “essential relationship” will bear fruit despite the politicians; it will be driven by a greater understanding of one another (in a world opened-up by the internet) and the yearning of ordinary citizens on both sides of the pond to work together for mutual economic benefit.

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Congrats, LinkedIn!

Excellent news today – LinkedIn closed its first day of trading on the NYSE at $93.86 per share. Although priced at $45 per share, trading opened 84% higher at $83 a share and fluctuated during the day before giving the company a closing valuation of just under $9 billion.  Always the unsexy Web
2.0 network, Reid Hoffman has created an increasingly essential business tool used now by over 100 million people worldwide. And suddenly Reid is the entrepreneur role model from the Valley – and quite right; as TechCrunch observes, LinkedIn “represents one of the few large-scale working examples of a freemium business model”.

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