All entries for Thursday 18 January 2007

January 18, 2007

The rain in Spain falls mainly on Peter Hain

Peter Hain Blamerbell is surprised no-one has stuck up for Peter Hain’s rant against American foreign policy in the New Statesman. (link)

I love a challenge, so here goes.

Peter Hain is representative of one of the nicest things about politics. For while opponents will complain about any ‘policy splits’, they’ll do the same when the government all have their heads in the sand.

What he represents is the plurality of views within a political party. We all know that parties are broad churches (Labour is no narrower than the Tories and Lib Dems).

Yes, collective responsibility is important, and yes, Hain voted for war in Iraq. But there is an alternative to politicians sniping about ‘u-turns’.

They might, for instance, welcome the wide range of thinking within the government. They might think that everyone singing from the same hymn sheet might be a little boring and self-defeating. They might put opportunism to one side and even welcome Hain’s remarks.

For the truth is that they all agree with what he’s said. But for the daft, opportunist politician who wants a cheap headline, making fun of intelligence within another party is all too tempting.

No, the title of this entry doesn’t make much sense.

Standing room only

Britain’s trains seem to be becoming like low-cost airlines. Only without the low cost.

The Head of Railways at the Department for Transport said yesterday:

If you are travelling a relatively short distance I do not think that it is unacceptable to expect to stand in the peak. The cost of providing sufficient capacity to enable everyone to get a seat would expand the railway budget way beyond anything we have here.

Dr Mike Mitchell clarified his remarks, saying a ‘short journey’ was anything under thirty minutes in length.

Given that a season ticket into London costs £5,000 a year, this is unbelievable. There should be an urgent investment in longer trains and longer platforms, as well as an attempt to reduce prices from their spectacular highs.

For many years, train travel has only been a realistic option for wealthy people. Now it seems you also have to be patient, well-balanced and slim to use the railways. How come most European countries can manage to provide a civilised train system, yet we can’t even come close.

What's wrong with our criminal justice system?

Well, what isn’t wrong with it? That’s almost the impression I got after a day spent observing the work of Her Majesty’s Courts.

Cardiff Crown Court I sat in on the start of a case in Cardiff yesterday. A nineteen-year-old was charged with GBH after punching a man in the face. He admitted making the punch but denied the charge (he’ll probably be found guilty in my opinion).

Of course, it’s his right to plead ‘not guilty’. But I wonder whether the whole matter might not have been best settled out-of-court. The government have played with the idea of on-the-spot-fines for minor offences. And this case – with neither party appearing particularly innocent – would have been much more easily settled with some money changing hands.

The cost of the case must have been enormous. Two barristers, a judge, a security guard, three legal assistants and several witnesses were all required, not to mention 14 jurors (two more than strictly necessary). It’s unlikely a jail term would be appropriate unless he’s got form, and in all likelihood, he’ll get a fine and maybe community service.

At a very rough guess, it’s probably cost over £10,000 for this case to come to trial. And yet the Crown Prosecution Service – cheekily called the Criminal Protection Service by some – ignores other cases because they don’t think they’re worth pursuing.

It seems the CPS needs far more resources to do its job properly. The assessments it makes seem a little slap-dash. And with prison a relatively pointless, and horrendously expensive exercise*, isn’t court very often a waste of time and money?

I can’t think of anyone who benefited from this case coming to court. And yet the taxpayer is probably funding hundreds of these wasteful cases every day. Is justice for minor crimes really worth it?

*The consensus about prison seems to be shifting. Few people still regard it as a method of rehabilitation. Given the overcrowding and drugs problems in prisons, it is merely seen as ‘punishment’.

The government concentrates on the important issues

We [Britain and India] are for countries that practise what we preach, which is a message of fairness and tolerance to all human beings

- Gordon Brown

This is not simply a piece of fun – this is a problem

- Ed Balls

I think this is racism being presented as entertainment and I think it’s disgusting.

- Tessa Jowell

The only people who don’t appear to be taking it seriously are Channel 4.

- Keith Vaz Shilpa Shetty

I understand concerns that there should be a debate and I will do what I can to assist

- Jack Straw

The current vulgarity is a classic example of the case against any kind of public subsidy for Channel 4

- Chris Mullin

And in a rare moment on honesty on the issue:

I have not seen this particular programme so I cannot comment on it

- Tony Blair

Is there anyone who hasn’t expressed a view yet?

Fun in the sun wind

A dodgy photo of a fallen tree in Cardiff Eight people dead, thousands of trees struck down. It’s been a crazy day. Apparently part of Warwick Uni’s campus has been closed as debris was being blown off the roof of the library.

I’ve spent the day trying to get video of said destruction in Cardiff (see right – not taken by me, I should add) and if there’s two things I’ve learned today, it’s:

  1. Trying to shoot in 50mph+ winds is fun
  2. Trying to show 50mph+ winds on film is a nightmare

Even blowing trees look tame on tape. I nearly fell over several times down in Atlantic Wharf, but the only way to show the strength of these winds would have been to hang me from a lamp-post. And you can imagine how bad that would have looked…

America's taking online politics seriously… but are we?

Millions of Americans were using the internet to learn more about the Midterm elections last year, with an average of 26million people logging on every day.

Research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that 15% of Americans chose the internet as their main source of election news, up from 7% in 2002. And 23% of those people were forwarding political commentary or videos on a blog, making it – perhaps – the most interactive election in history.

The busiest month of the online campaign was August, which is traditionally very quiet in American political campaigns.

Pew Research Project figures

As far as I know, these figures are broadly similar (in direction, at least) to the situation in the UK. We’re seeing a very similar picture in the decline of newspapers and television, while radio is holding up. Magazines are more complicated as some political publications (New Statesman etc) have struggled, while The Economist has been a runaway success story.

But on the internet, I wonder if we are seeing the same levels of engagement. While political blogs here are catching up with those in the U.S., more traditional websites (especially those of the main political parties) are very poor in comparison. Compare the British Labour Party website (here) with that of Democrat Presidential hopeful John Edwards (here) which is far more interactive and fresh.

There’s an interesting game of spot-the-difference to be played when looking at Democrat and Republican sources of news. Is there a similar split in the UK?

Pew Research Project figures (3)

Finally, while newspapers and TV seem to be in decline, it’s not all bad news for them as long as they’re willing to move their operations online:

Pew Research Project figures (2)

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