All entries for March 2007

March 21, 2007

Brown finishes with a Jobs

The Chancellor’s been watching Steve Jobs, the maverick boss of Apple. In his final budget, Brown saved the big news until the end, just as Jobs always does – a 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax. It’s not a new iPod, but the iPod generation will be happy…

...until they see the small print. Less trumpeted was the scrapping of the lower rate of income tax at 10p. So the cut in the basic rate of income tax will be almost ‘revenue neutral’. Put in laymans terms, the BBC reckon Brown will get £8bn more by cutting the lower rate, but lose £9.5bn by reducing the basic rate. The £1.5bn will probably be made up partly through a rise in small business tax – sure to be controversial – and by selling more government buildings and the student loans, both short-term gains.

I still don’t understand why tax on beer and wine goes up by 1p per pint or 5p per bottle, yet spirits – which surely contribute to anti-social behaviour as much as beer – is frozen. Measures on the environment will be welcomed, but are hardly radical. The inheritance tax threshold went up to £350,000 (by 2010), by which time many houses will cost that much.

It was a big-headline budget, but beneath the surface, Brown did little more than tinker at the margins. As Menzies Campbell said, it was a budget of a man ready to move on.

Chancellor Doidge's Budget, 2007 Edition

Last year, your prudent Chancellor unveiled his measures to make Britain economically strong and ethically sound. This year, he shall repeat the exercise bearing in mind the strong likelihood that he will take over the reins of the sinking ship from Tony Blair in the coming months.

Last year, I began with a shameless attack upon the poor. That’s right. “Multi Stamp Duty”. The more houses you own, the more you pay in tax when you buy another one. Anyone buying a second home would pay 5% stamp duty, while anyone buying a third home (greedy buggeers) would pay 10%. Well this year Chancellor Doidge will scrap stamp duty altogether for people buying their first home (down from 1%). This undoubtedly popular move will come into effect as soon as possible, pissing off the rich no-end.

Talking of which, 4×4s. Last year I linked car tax to your MOT test. The more miles you do, the more you pay. If your car is a ‘big-emitter’, you currently pay (in Doidgeland) £100 if you do over 2,500 miles per year. Well I’m going to add a top-rate of £250 per year if you do over 10,000 miles per year. That’ll catch the estate agents in their Mondeos. Because no-one likes them anyway.

I’m not planning to tinker much with my simple tax rates that I imposed last year:

People earning between £15k – £30k pay 25% tax
People earning between £30k – £50k pay 35% tax and
People earning over £50k tax pay 45% tax.

But I’m going to launch a consultation on charging an extra 5% on anyone earning over £1m per year (in City bonuses presumably). We rely on the City of London for a huge amount of our income, but I don’t think charging the highest earners will really result in an exodus of executives to Luxembourg. And even if it does, at least house prices will fall.

And so to house prices. They’re clearly not starting to fall, and they’re not about to crash either. So along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, I can announce that by 2010, 20% of all new homes in Britain must be three storeys tall. In theory, this will mean less land is used, and we can build the millions of homes we need without encroaching too much on the green belt. I’m also sending every house a brick to put in their toilet. Less water used, you see.

Another thing about new homes that disappoints me is the small amount of garden space. True, this is slightly contradictory with what I just said, but I want to make sure there are plenty of green spaces in residential areas. Many local councils have a policy of ‘filling-in’ spaces between homes rather than building new housing estates. I think those spaces are a commodity in themselves and am launching a new national ‘green spaces’ fund to buy them from private landowners and turn them into community spaces, rather than squash more houses into them. Also, any new housing estate will have to have some arbitrary amount of shared green space per dwelling. Let’s say 20m2 per house.

Last year I scrapped BBC Three. The BBC ignored me, and put Anthea Turner on, just to inflame my bowels even more. In revenge, I’m taking BBC Two Wales off them as well. They’re filling it with programmes about Welshness – see here. BBC Two Wales will be replaced on Satellite (and moved onto Freeview too) with a sports channel. I’m still working on BBC Three, and fully intend for it to become a channel full of quality U.S. imports. I’m still planning to use the analogue TV signals for free-to-air High Definition, too.

In the world of journalism (for which I have what you might call a soft-spot), I intend to ban the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Democracy? Pah. They’d both rather have a monarch run the country on a daily basis, especially if they could get Diana back to do it. Fox News is also getting kicked off Sky. There are already rules about impartiality in the UK. It applies to Fox just as it does to Sky News, and yet we’ve done nothing about it.

I’ll sweeten the blow of losing BBC Wales by building a railway from north to south Wales. It takes ages to get there at the moment, and it’s silly. I’ll also build a decent railway from Cardiff to its airport, which is miles away and useless.

Last year I promised you I would introduce two things in 2007. I lied. I’m still going to give you free childcare by paying nurseries directly, but I’m not going to put Fathers 4 Justice into community service. Instead I’m sending them to Afghanistan. They can breach security like no-one else, so hopefully they can infiltrate Al-Qaeda too, and find Bin Laden for me.

As I’m about to take over the government, I thought I’d announce a few things I’m planning to do when Tony goes on his lecture tour. Firstly, I’m going to revoke his passport. Secondly I’m going to take out a banning order on his – and Alastair Campbell’s – memoirs. And finally I’m going to rent out his expensive new homes (incl. flats in Bristol) to poor people. It’s all for his own good. I saw that Channel 4 drama about ‘The Trial of Tony Blair’ and I reckon if he leaves the country we’ll forget about him pretty quickly.

I’m going to pull troops out of Iraq. Sorry, George. They’d be of more use in Zimbabwe, but we can’t do that because we’re not black and we’d look like the imperial aggressors that we, er… are. I’ll send half of them to Afghanistan because that’s a war worth winning, even just to kill the opium trade once and for all. And the rest I’ll retrain as rapid-response peacekeepers, like the S.A.S., but with incense sticks rather than AK-47s.

And finally I’m planning to invade Australia. I like the Aussies, I really do. But they’ve got a lot of unused land. And we have a lot of asylum seekers. I don’t think we should send them back to where they came from, because there’s usually a good reason they left. But with a few water pipes and a few traps for the snakes, I think we can make the bush hospitable. And with a few years’ climate change, we might even be able to grow strawberries out there!

And so, I present my final budget. It’s full of holes, but I don’t care. Someone else can come into the Treasury and clear it up. I’m moving on to new pastures. Well, next door, at least. It’s been an exciting ten years. I’ve cured world poverty, kept Blair and Bono in jobs, and only screwed up the universities, trains, hospitals and schools. Not bad. Now I can move to Number 10, fix it all, and say 1997 – 2007 was all his fault.

March 20, 2007

Am I getting myself a reputation?

Subject: TV Development

Hi there! I’m making a documentary about complaining for TV…I’m currently looking for a range of different complainers. I started browsing through some weblogs to see if I could find someone interesting, who might have some issues they’d like to get of their chest, and thought I’d drop you a quick line. I’m not sure if you consider your self a complainer, but it looks like you’ve got a lot of opinions on various issues, and I’d really like to hear more about what interests you and what issues you tend to complain about.

It seems I’ve been noted for my tendency to complain about things. Anyone who knows me will, of course, be able to refute this accusation much better than I can…

[Watches comments fill up with everything but…]

I’ve edited the e-mail to leave out the commercially sensitive stuff, but you get the gist of it. Let’s just say we’re not exactly talking UKStyle2 here.

March 19, 2007

Why would we want 'personalised' public services?

“eBay-style” ratings for doctors and teachers… Student reports on school websites… Competitive street cleaning and foster care…

Do any of these sound like good ideas to you? It’s all part of the government’s obsession with putting technology to good use. They’re obviously assuming that naming-and-shaming doctors and teachers will make them care how they’re doing. In fact, if one of them is rubbish, an online rating by miserable ‘customers’ is unlikely to change their ways. What people really want is a GP who they can see at short notice, and who remains their doctor for years.

Student reports and marks online? What a stupid idea. Few schools have anyone capable of building a simple one-page website, let alone a database that isn’t susceptible to hacking. Only those with an internet connection – not to mention the interest in it – would bother. And imagine the work required for teachers to input every mark.

But surely making companies compete to clean streets is a good idea? Er… no. People want clean streets, and yes, they want value for money. But the government is breeding a thousand companies who devote 90% of their time to watching their back, rather than nurturing a company who can provide something valuable and build on years of experience.

People want a good, local school and hospital. For a large proportion of the country living outside of the cities, there is no such thing as choice. And if they really wanted us to have choice, they wouldn’t have shut a load of hospitals.

But the government are still after their ‘urban’ dream where millions can choose between good and bad schools, clean and ‘dirty’ hospitals and where, inevitably, the rich, educated elite make better choices than those without an internet connection and broadsheet newspaper.

Stop trying to get ‘personal’. Get real.

Stupid railways

You begin to realise there’s something wrong with our railways when you arrive at a station at 2pm on a Friday afternoon and read the certificate saying “Small station of the Year 2005”.

You realise there’s something wrong because:

a) the station closed at 1.30pm, including toilets and waiting room
b) there isn’t a bus for over two hours
c) there’s no telephone from where you can call a taxi
d) it’s freezing cold outside

And yet this is “Small station of the Year 2005”. It seems cute plastic flowers and paintwork is more important to some than actually providing transport.

March 10, 2007

Image Rights and Wrongs

Paul McCartney and Heather Mills This has to be the most bizarre advert I’ve ever seen online. Presumably neither of them has given permission for this, which makes it all the more odd as it appears on a well-respected U.S. website.

The advert links to a UK-based consumer website, which is of no relevance to either Paul McCartney or Heather Mills – it’s just attention-grabbing. I hope they have good lawyers.

P.S. The word ‘abuse’ flashes in the advert, just for effect.

Tinkering with the television

I’ve just joined a new Facebook group. It’s called ‘I Hate BBC Wales’. True, this is the organisation that brings you Doctor Who, and for that we should be grateful. Their news isn’t too bad either, even if it suffers from the tedious banter associated with all local news programmes.

But what winds me up – and considering the existence of a Facebook group, it seems to annoy others too – is the constant tinkering with the schedules on BBC Television. You sit down to watch Top Gear on a Sunday evening and they’ve replaced it with the Welsh Open snooker. Even though there’s no-one Welsh in it and eight million people watch Top Gear (presumably some of them in Wales). You try and watch the first round of University Challenge, but you can’t because in their infinite wisdom, BBC Wales have decided not to broadcast it. Are the questions too hard for Welsh people or something? I think not.

Then there’s the sport. Whenever there’s an FA Cup match on a Saturday evening, BBC Wales ignores the pre-match build-up and cuts across (mid-sentence) to what people in England are watching seconds before kick-off. For anyone wanting to know anything about the game, it’s useless.

By far the worst example of this spectrum abuse is the torrent of programmes about ‘Welshness’. Instead of University Challenge you get a biography of a Welsh bloke you’ve never heard of, in which you learn how Welsh he is. Or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a programme in which Huw Edwards goes to London and … wait for it … tells you how Welsh it is! I kid you not, this last show was stretched over a whole series.

This would be fine if it was occasional. But with the exception of the snooker, I can’t think of a programme that BBC Wales has crammed in the schedule that wasn’t a documentary about Welshness. It seems the place is run by Plaid Cymru!

Imagine the uproar if BBC Two featured nightly programmes about the exceptionalism of the English!

March 09, 2007

A British Car… In British Hands? Surely not!

Aston Martin, one of the finest car makes in the world. Traditionally a British brand.

But how’s this for a shocker? It might actually be bought – i.e. paid for – by a BRIT!

This is shocking news for the world of cars. It’s rumoured Dave Richards and his team might even launch a Formula 1 team in 2008. Finally some good news for the British car industry.

March 08, 2007

Comedy… with a dark side too

Tim Minchin is a very funny man. He’s also a sickeningly talented musician. Rather than have two – I suspect – very successful careers, he’s merged the two. This hasn’t bought him as much success as it should have done. He won a big award in 2005, and has done some modest work on Radio 4 since. But I can hear you saying “Who?” from here.

If his performance at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was anything to go by, he’ll be a much more familiar name soon.

He’s a physical comedian, but not quite in the same way as Eddie Izzard or Ross Noble. He hides behind his piano, his clothes and his enormous hair! There’s a bit of shyness there, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s genuine.

His musical ability is really very good indeed. Not only is he a fantastic pianist and an amazing vocalist (think a rougher Damien Rice vocally) but his songwriting is really top notch. A couple of his songs are so well written that they’re funny on stage but could be fairly genuine if heard on the radio.

It’s hard to describe him much more than that, so I’ll just list some of his song titles to give you an idea of what he’s about…

  • Inflatable You
  • If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (Take My Wife)
  • Angry (Feet)
  • Some People Have It Worse Than Me
  • Ten Foot Cock And A Few Hundred Virgins

Oh, and there’s Peace Anthem for Palestine.

He also plays a great song about Islam and Bob The Builder…

He’s great, and if he’s on tour near you, I urge you to go.

A night of good results; Democracy at last?

  • Man United go through to the Quarter Finals of the Champions’ League
  • Arsenal go crashing out to PSV
  • Oh, and the House of Commons votes for a fully-elected House of Lords.

I might be a Man U fan, but it’s the third result which I’m most pleased about. Given the recent debacle surrounding nominations to the House of Lords – as well as its countless historical anomalies – it’s high time the Lords was made accountable to the public and relevant to the 21st Century.

For sure, the Lords themselves will reject the plans. But even though the electorate will be wary of yet another round of elections, I think there’ll be a lot of support for kicking out the hereditaries.

But I have a solution which I’ve been kicking around for a few years. The Lords should be elected by Proportional Representation, using the same votes from the General Election. Votes would be added up nationally and a party list system would be used. It would keep the tradition of having ‘experts’ in the second chamber, rather than just useless party grandees.

True, the leading party in the Commons would probably have the majority in the Lords, but counting votes rather than seats would dramatically reduce the bias in favour of the winning party. Additionally, you could give Lords 8-10 year terms, with only half re-elected each time there was a general election. That would provide continuity and dampen the effect of fluctuations in the Commons’ composition.

Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, should be congratulated for achieving the result he did tonight. If the House of Lords is reformed to the extent voted for today, it would almost certainly be Labour’s most memorable achievement since the formation of the NHS.

March 07, 2007

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, has died. I first heard about him about four years ago, when I was writing an essay on war and journalism. He didn’t coin the phrase “the first casualty of war is truth”1, but he might as well have done.

He came to prominence during the first Gulf War, where he remarked that events in the Middle East had actually become disjoined from reality. Essentially, the war didn’t happen. Instead, like a video game, it was a show put on for the television cameras.

It was a controversial statement, and one which is hard to agree with when you consider the number of people who died. Hundreds of thousands of people were left permanently disabled by the war, and many thousands killed.2

But despite Baudrillard’s tendency to dehumanise death, he still gave some important lessons for journalists and warmongers. His name was mentioned again during the 2003 bombing of Baghdad. Thousands of people stayed up throughout the night to watch live coverage of the exploding skyline. Such pictures did, as Baudrillard said of the first Gulf War, completely dehumanise the killing that was going on, and probably made the war easier to sell at home. Close-ups of the destruction would have had the opposite effect, but were lacking from coverage around the world.

He’ll also be remembered for influencing the film trilogy The Matrix. It is this which will probably be remembered the longest, but then, as he said himself, the modern world doesn’t really do realism.

1. No-one is quite sure who did.
2. Again, figures are a bit sketchy, but one group claims a third of U.S. soldiers who were in the Gulf War are now disabled.

Dodgy phone–ins are more widespread than you think

Q. Name an item typically found in a woman’s handbag?
A. Rawl plugs, a balaclava and a rubber band!

This is the public face of the dodgy phone-in competition. You pay £1 per call and get to beat your head against a wall while attempting to win £50 or the £50,000 jackpot! The jackpot will probably be won if your birthday happens to be February 29th.

But the scam of dodgy phone-ins and competitions goes much further than recent revelations have suggested. Daily, radio stations are hosting competitions where the winner’s already been decided. Phone-ins that have been recorded the previous week. And contributors who are little more than actors.

Proof is hard to come by, and relies on anecdotes of people who have won competitions weeks before they were broadcast – and weeks before people were asked to call in and ‘play’.

It’s just as prevalent at the BBC as in the commercial world, even though they can’t make money from phone lines. Well-known radio shows use fake guests, play competitions that were won the week before and make ‘real-life’ features which are completely faked. Shows are often pre-recorded, yet they’ll still ask for your e-mails and then read out manufactured ones.

I can’t prove this, and it seems no-one else can either. The contempt of producers towards their audience will continue, and only an industry ‘supergrass’ will ever be able to do anything about it.

But when you get asked to phone in to a radio or TV show, ask yourself first whether you trust the people making the programme. Because worryingly often, you shouldn’t.

March 06, 2007

Who's leaking in the Cash for Honours debacle?

So the cards are on the table. Ruth Turner, the Head of Government Relations at 10 Downing Street sent an e-mail to her boss, Jonathan Powell, saying Lord Levy was telling porkies to the police.

But here’s the interesting bit…

The BBC has not seen the document containing her concerns but has been told about it by more than one source.

For the Beeb to fight so hard for a story – about a document they haven’t seen – their sources must be damned good. And I reckon they must have got their information from at least one of these two people: Ruth Turner and Jonathan Powell.

It sounds like there’s a lot of nervousness in Downing Street. And they seem to have chosen Lord Levy as the scapegoat. Levy himself has been fighting back – “friends” of Levy have told newspapers how the story is nonsense. Except Levy has no friends. It’s an open secret he’s the “friend” making the calls.

So if you see someone from the government complaining about leaks, ignore them. They’re the ones making holes in the bucket.

P.S. It seems I broke part of the story on this one – you would have read it here first the e-mail was to do with Ruth Turner. It might – technically – have been pushing the boundaries of the injunction issued on Friday, but my guesswork was right.

March 05, 2007

Politics, 1921–style

How times have changed (or not):

[Winston Churchill] then, and subsequently, delivered himself of a number of well-phrased and semi-contradictory aphorisms. “The British government is the greatest Moslem state in the world,” he said at the time, “and it is well disposed to the Arabs and cherishes their friendship.” Then, three months later, he told a Manchester cotton audience: “In Africa, the population is docile and the country fruitful; in Mesopotamia and the Middle East the country is arid, and the population ferocious.”1

You could get away with a lot before broadcast news was invented. It makes you wonder whether, under relatively constant scrutiny, Blair et al are doomed to fail.

1. Churchill by Roy Jenkins, p.360

March 04, 2007

YouTube wants best of both worlds, but is getting neither

Google’s probably wondering why it bothered. YouTube is causing it a major headache, which it should have seen coming.

According to the Washington Post the company is trying to shore up content deals with providers like MTV and NBC, but is finding it hard because of the illegal content on its site.

At the same time, the great USP of YouTube is the ease with which people can get this illegal stuff. The BBC’s content deal this week is all well and good. But it’s all behind-the-scenes stuff and archive clips. What people want is last night’s EastEnders and Casualty. There’s a danger YouTube’s desire to get ‘proper’ content on its site will kill off its appeal.

I think this is probably just a transitionary phase though. Content owners will be happy to show real videos on YouTube when they get given a sizable sum of advertising revenue. If YouTube hosted EastEnders (with adverts) and the Beeb took 50%, they’d probably be pretty happy. So would I. As much as I don’t want to watch EastEnders, I’d be glad to see BBC programmes available 24/7. Their iPlayer seems destined to land some time around the next lunar eclipse at this rate.

The opportunities for companies like the BBC would be incredible. Shows that currently get six million viewers could be seen by ten times that number.

But the big ‘What If’ in the room is whether YouTube’s going to lose its street cred as it becomes all corporate and legal. If it wants to kill off the linear channel as we know it, it needs to act professional while still feeling like the naughty little kid of the internet.

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