Saturday, 30 August 2008


In the Telegraph, Simon Heffer has a rant about Barack Obama's speech, the piece claiming that it has left the election wide open. He argues that:
As Mr Obama came out to speak on Thursday night a poll gave him a sudden six-point lead over his Republican rival, John McCain. This “convention bounce” is a long-recognised phenomenon of election politics in America; Sen McCain may well get his own this time next week. If so, it would suggest that the last eight weeks of the campaign will settle it, rather than anything that might happen at either convention.
Faultless logic. If McCain cancels out Obama's lead, they will be all square. To think he gets paid for writing such circular nonsense.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Still no spin here

Meanwhile, the BBC has admitted that Frank Gardner did meet the Home Office unit pushing propaganda, as he made a radio programme saying exactly what they wanted him to say.

Nicola Meyrick, the executive editor of BBC Radio current affairs protested on her official blog that the programme was "absolutely not" the result of RICU feeding them information.

Strictly spin

The BBC continues to struggle to tell the difference between news and PR. Tonight's BBC One six O'Clock news included a propaganda film by Caroline Wyatt, reassuring us that the MoD's Nimrod aircraft is safe. A web version of the story is here. Wyatt mentions the criticism of the plane from coroner Andrew Walker, who called for the planes to be grounded after one exploded in mid-air, killing 14 servicemen. Wyatt observes:
His words clearly stung.
Yes, and they got you in to help counter the criticism. Wyatt also points out that the Nimrod's replacement is eight years behind schedule. In her film, Wyatt drew the conclusion that this would mean that the MoD would ensure that it was safe for years to come. The other possibility is of course that it would fly the Nimrod whether safe or not.

On the same programme was a puff for the new series of Strictly Come Dancing. Is that really news?

Wot not to say

Brian Cathcart continues to write a brilliant column on the media for the New Statesman. This week he analyses the so-called codes used by politicians and the proclaimed ability of political journalists to decode them, including drawing inferences from what politicians don't say:

The theory is that, because political correspondents know what politicians should say in any given circumstance, they are instantly alert when one fails to do so. And having identified a point of deviance, these correspondents are able to construe, from unnamed sources or circumstantial evidence, the true intention behind it - a signal or manoeuvre the ordinary reader would otherwise miss.

In short, these people know the meanings of the things that politicians don't say. So, for example, when David Miliband did not mention Gordon Brown in his Guardian article a few weeks ago, and went on not to swear undying loyalty to Brown in a subsequent press conference, he was obviously launching a leadership bid.

And his intentions were all the more transparent, we are told, because Miliband also knows the codes. Since he knew that reporters would construe what he didn't say in the way they did, it follows that he must have not said it deliberately because he wanted it construed that way. QED.

Of course, politicians and their spin doctors also tell journalists how to interpret what they do or don't say - like when Tony Blair didn't have the guts to tell the Labour conference that he would re-write Clause 4 but Alastair Campbell told the media that this was what he meant.

In the same column, Cathcart takes issue with Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph, on Gary Glitter: "Most rational people would find it quite acceptable if he were to be taken out and shot in the back of the head."

Cathcart observes:
no matter how much the Telegraph comment pages try to be modern or intellectual - and there have been heroic strivings down the years - somehow they can't quite shake off the attitudes and tone of the officer's mess, circa 1937.
This puts into a nutshell what I have been trying to say about the Telegraph lately. Shame about the misplaced apostrophe.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

A good time to bury bad news

According to Public Servant:
The government tried to bury a report that showed NHS cancer services are being undermined by the internal market, according to the Liberal Democrats.

While the report commissioned by the Department of Health was finished in May 2008 it wasn’t published until 8 August, "a quiet day when most people are on holiday" and the opening day of the Beijing Olympics.

The report said that the payment by results (PbR) system meant hospitals treating patients who need complex operations and care lose "vast sums" of money. Also, PbR "actively discourages" investment in new technology and in new treatments known to improve patient outcomes.

Purely co-incidental

Yesterday the Guardian had a great scoop, exposing a government plan to use media outlets, volunteers, contacts and web users in a propaganda campaign against al-Quaida.

Today the BBC has had to deny - slightly unconvincingly - that a Radio 4 programme fitted the government's propaganda script very nicely indeed. Any similarity between what the government wants the BBC to say and what it says is purely co-incidental:
the BBC was quick to deny that the editorial content of the programme was influenced in any way by the Whitehall report or that it had been fed stories.
The BBC fed stories? Never!

Campbells not wanted here

In the Times,
In New Zealand, Campbell's presence merely created a permanent negative story concerning the Lions' overblown backroom staff, so lavishly assembled that it even included a propagandist, the man who helped to compile the discredited dossier used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Good news, bad news

Both the Independent and the Guardian have good news on motoring.

The Indy reports :
The credit crunch and the rising cost of running a car has caused traffic on Britain's major roads to drop for the first time since congestion was measured, a report has revealed.
While the Guardian says that "Highways in the US are at their safest since the 1960s as the rocketing price of petrol puts a strain on America's love affair with fast cars."
Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the AAA motoring organisation, said high fuel prices had caused US drivers to travel 58 billion fewer miles in the first seven months of this year.
Wow! The sad thought that I keep coming back to is that someone else, somewhere in the world, is using the same oil that British and American drivers are foregoing...

Calm down man!

In the Telegraph, Christopher Howse is still ranting about advice to avoid the use of the word "man" to encompass both sexes. (We know, he's male because unlike some people, he doesn't just call himself Chris.)

Howse helpfully quotes the Oxford English Dictionary:
The dictionary now adds an explanatory note. "Man was considered until the 20th century to include women by implication," it says. "It is now frequently understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people."
You might think that would be the end of it, but Howse's argument is really a traditionalist one - that because people used man in a particular way in the past, we have to keep doing so:
If we remake our language, literature risks being misunderstood. So when Hamlet exclaims: "What a piece of work is a man!" Shakespeare is made to sound like a sexist instead of a Renaissance humanist.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The view from the street

The Telegraph has the most amazing non story yet on "political correctness". A local authority has produced a guide for its staff advising them to avoid phrases like "man on the street" as it implicitly excludes women. This strikes me as the most obvious, basic advice you could give but the Telegraph, which lives somewhere in the time before women got the vote, describes it as "politically correct".

The paper couldn't even be bothered to dig up a woman to say that she wasn't offended.

Monday, 25 August 2008


The Guardian quotes British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh as saying that Breaking up BAA, the monopoly airport owner privatised by the Tories, will not help passengers. His main argument is that the issue of concern for the Competition Commission is already being addressed. BAA, like BA, is already:
enthusiastically backing a third runway at Heathrow
That's OK then. The Guardian says that the extended consultation over the third runway:
has alarmed airline executives, who fear campaigning by local residents and environmental groups is swaying ministers.
God forbid that the government would listen to public opinion rather than vested business interests.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Cruddas the Kingmaker

The lead story in the Observer is a bit of a contrived one, its headline claiming that Gordon Brown faces a party revolt over a possible energy windfall tax. The story is that some MPs, including some in the government, very much want this to happen. For it to be a revolt, you would have to assume that Brown isn't planning it anyway. Reports suggest that he may be.

But the main problem with the story is the description of former deputy leadership Jon Cruddas as "expected to play a king-maker role in any forthcoming leadership contest". Once again political journalists like to paint Labour leadership contests as the sort of thing that is stitched up between key players who can therefore give them the inside track, as opposed to (usually) contested events where party members get a vote. It's quite something that this article manages this while mentioning that Cruddas was a candidate in a vote last year.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Too tempting

The Guardian's Andrew Sparrow is tempted by the apparent highlight of Dylan Jones' book of interviews with David Cameron, a claim that a van driver once tried to push Cameron off his bike.

I think it's best not to say anything else about this.

Is the inquiry a mirage?

In my first piece for the Independent's Open House blog, I ask, "Is Gordon Brown’s promised Iraq inquiry a mirage?"

The government has been keen to spin expectations of a troop reduction from Iraq next year but won't say whether this will allow the inquiry to go ahead. The suspicion is that it will use the long term presence of a few hundred troops to delay the inquiry for as long as it is in power.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Rough Justice

The Chinese government will presumably be regretting its error in detaining and allegedly roughing up ITV news correspondent John Ray. Something of a public relations error.

Israel, on the other hand, feels free to kill journalists just in case....

Monday, 11 August 2008

Reverse spin

The Independent is one of a number papers stating that the government's proposals to give families a £150 "fuel rebate" were leaked because a civil servant was overheard discussing them on the train.

The culprit is identified as Brian Pender, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He's probably quite embarrassed. We get so used to this sort of proposal being "leaked" on purpose, it's hard to believe that anyone could do something so careless - and counterproductive.

The Indy also covers the alleged damage to the housing market caused by speculation over stamp duty. The government is right to say that it is not its fault if the media create this type of speculation, but if, as the Indy describes. it was No. 10 that fueled it, it's another own goal.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Pouring scorn on Gordon Brown's hopes of "relaunch", Ann Treneman in the Times sums up New Labour:
First, the PM is going to hold a Cabinet meeting in the West Midlands. (Lucky you, West Midlands.) As Hazel Blears, also not on holiday but how we wish she was, explained: “We will be taking politics closer to the people and hearing their concerns first-hand.” Hmmm. Prepare for some ruthlessly controlled, totally scripted photo ops.

Friday, 8 August 2008

More on Habbush adds a new twist to Ron Suskind's allegation that the CIA forged a letter linking Iraq with the September 11 attacks. It shows that Ayad Allawi was at the CIA just days before he gave the letter to Telegraph journalist Con Coughlin.

We're still waiting for Coughlin's take on this. The Telegraph reported the story on its website on Tuesday night, coyly adding in the final paragraph that
The letter's existence was first reported in December 2003 after a copy was passed to The Sunday Telegraph by a member of Iraq's transitional government.
On, I ask a bit more about why the UK's official inquiries were not told - or at least didn't report - that an Iraqi source had told MI6 that Saddam had no wmd.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

A million pounds...

The Guardian quotes sports nutritionist Kerry Kayes as saying that boxer Frankie Gavin's failure to make the weight for his Olympic bid has cost Gavin a million pounds.

You do have to feel sorry for Gavin but - as with Dwain Chambers' court case - it's a bit sad when people say that the main point of going to the Olympics is to make money afterwards.

How do you prove a negative?

The revelations in Ron Suskind's new book (see e.g. the Times) that the UK and US were told before the war that Iraq had no WMD are fascinating. It's not clear that the claims of Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush should have been believed but where do they appear in e.g. the Butler Review?

Trying to work out the timing is quite difficult. The Times says:
The book claimed that the former Prime Minister sent a top British spy to the Middle East in 2003 — three months before the invasion
With the invasion taking place on 20 March 2003, three months before that would be 20 December 2002.

The other main claim from Suskind's book is that after the war the CIA used Habbush to forge a letter linking Iraq with the September 11 attacks. The Times gleefully says:
The forgery, adamantly denied by the White House, was passed to a British journalist in Baghdad and written about as if genuine by The Sunday Telegraph on December 14, 2003.

Watching the Olympics

Today's non-story from the Telegraph is a claim that the more than 600 publicly-funded British workers attending the Olympics will exceed the number (313) of British athletes.

Unfortunately, the figure is arrived at mainly by including the 437 staff sent by the BBC "at a cost to the licence payer of £3 million" to produce 2,750 hours of coverage. It doesn't seem that expensive, in the grand scheme of things.

The Telegraph's criticism of the relatively small number of government officials is that:
government ministers and officials may not play any part in the 2012 Olympics, as opinion polls suggest Labour will have been voted out of office by then.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Cobbled together

The Telegraph has a story claiming that David Miliband is lining up Alan Milburn to be chancellor. I don't know if there's anything in it but I can't think of anything worse.

I'm beginning to see typographical errors as a sign that stories have been cobbled together. What does this mean?
At the weekend a leaked memo by Mr Blair criticising the "vacuity" of Labour under Mr Brown.
Of course, the confusion conceals the fact that the memo was from last autumn. Is this bad journalism or bad journalism?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Exploiting churnalism.

Meanwhile the Independent has a piece on the "Taxpayers' Alliance", which could be called a campaign, but the idea that it is a grassroots alliance is just a piece of spin.

The TPA is quite blatant about how it exploits churnalism:
"What we've tried to do since 2004 is understand how the media works, so we've tried to give news stories to journalists on a plate. Journalists have 101 things to do in their day and don't often have time to read long and dry reports from think-thanks. So we use the Freedom of Information Act..."
That would be using taxpayers' money then.

Paul Lashmar, an investigative reporter and lecturer in journalism at University College Falmouth blames the state of the media:
"What you see now is journalists who are grateful for news which is almost perfectly packaged to go into the paper with a ready top line. In that sense, journalism is becoming very passive. It is a processor of other people's information rather than being engaged in actively seeking out and determining what the truth of a situation is in an energetic and inquisitive way."

Giving campaigning journalism a bad name

Today's Telegraph shows the perils of campaigning journalism. It claims that the government's policy on changes to road tax are in "disarray" following a report by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee. According to the BBC, which does its best to made it a negative story, the committee says the plans are "step in the right direction" and should be bolder to increase the environmental impact.

But the Telegraph is not campaigning for a bolder policy and is determined to pull out the negatives.
The rise in road tax offered "little benefit" to the environment and gave green taxes "a bad name", the MPs said.
Having thrown objectivity out of the window, the Telegraph is also making the best of the committee's finding that the application of the tax to existing cars is not a retrospective tax, pointing to a minority of the committee who think it is.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Sunday Telegraph reports concerns about the government funding documentaries to show their policies in a good light, including an ITV programme about police community support officers. It's a good story, but not a particularly good article:
The media watchdog Ofcom has disclosed that it had opened an investigation into one of the programmes
Is this just sloppy use of tenses, or has Ofcom given up its investigation?
The Sunday Telegraph established that the programmes appeared to break Ofcom’s broadcasting code by not making it clear that they were funded by the Home Office.
Is "established" really the right word here? Did it break the code or not?

Friday, 1 August 2008

An international scandal

It's still not clear who won the battle over BAE's payment of bribes to Saudi Prince Bandar. Although the high court has ruled that the director of the Serious Fraud Office had no choice but to drop its investigation in the face of a Saudi threat to withdraw intelligence co-operation, both the UK and Saudi governments must have been massively embarrassed.

On Comment is Free this morning, David Howarth asks whether the whole Saudi threat was cooked-up in the first place.

Warm under the collar

The BBC website has an interesting story about the UK's contribution to climate change, which, as the BBC and others have pointed out before, is higher than admitted if aviation and shipping are included.

It's the tone of the piece that I find most interesting. Environment analyst Roger Harrabin has been given licence to have a bit of a go at the government.
a massive blow to the British government

The government sat on the SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.
we are getting countries like China to do our dirty work
I'm not saying I disagree with any of it, it's just stronger than you would normally get from the Beeb.