Thursday, 23 December 2010

Time for Greater Westmorland

ANOTHER step will be taken in the New Year to create Greater Westmorland. It’s about time too.
The disastrous local government reorganisation by the Conservatives back in 1974 has been damaging for democracy and the standing of Town and County Halls throughout the land.
Now that we have a Conservative-led coalition, which also includes those champions of local democracy, the Liberal Democrats, there is some hope that traditional boundaries and the authorities that matched them can be restored.
There is already a grassroots movement behind the installation of traditional county boundary signs. The politicians need to catch up with this band wagon.
Two days before Christmas South Lakeland District Council crowed that its Cabinet has given the go-ahead to plans for a second shared service with Eden District Council.
Councillors backed the creation of a business plan for a shared Revenues and Benefits System following a successful trial of a shared IT service between the two councils.
Eden’s IT Manager was officially appointed as the shared IT Services Manager earlier this month in a move that will save SLDC £54,000 per year.
The full shared IT service will officially launch on 1 April 2011 saving an estimated £378,000 over the next seven years.
Brought together under the one manager the shared service will offer a more efficient, resilient and improved service both internally and externally. Staffing costs will be reduced with staff able to share their skills and knowledge across both authorities, said a statement.
Although this decision was driven by the Government’s cost-cutting agenda, it actually should be seen as a step towards the merger of the two authorities.
Eden’s Chief Executive is coming up for retirement so the obvious move is to appoint a joint chief officer for Eden and South Lakeland who will drive forward the merger.
There would be no need for new redundancies. Natural waste and retirements should do the job. There would be massive savings on back-room services and buildings, so that front line services could be protected.
Better still the old Westmorland County can be reinvented. By the time that is ready, say in five years time, all links with the Carlisle-centred Cumbria County Council can by severed and we can be back with a single-tier local authority which matches the loyalties and connections of the people who live there.
What a great thought to take into the New Year.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Why police keep media in the dark

ANYONE who wonders why newspaper sales are declining and why the public believe crime rates have risen, when they demonstrably have gone down, should have a look at a tremendous story on Hold the Front Page.
Here is the relevant link:
First credit where it is due to the Yorkshire Evening Post who used Freedom of Information legislation to find that police had responded to more than 2,000 incidents over the weekend of England’s departure from the football World Cup Finals, yet gave out just three statements to the media.
The story quoted the police as saying it was not their job to provide a news release service and they evaluated every incident before deciding whether to give it publicity.
The comments below the story are even more interesting, lifting the lid on years of frustration and anger from the media about how police attitudes have changed over the years.
Icons of the regional press, like former Editor Barrie Williams, joins the debate pointing out that in a democratic society police do indeed have a duty to inform the public through the media what they are asked to get involved in.
He is largely supported on a media-targeted web-site, but there are contributions from those who say it is the fault of the Media that they have come to rely on press offices and have run their own staff down so far that they couldn’t find their stories by more traditional direct means.
They are all right, of course.
For twenty years or more there has been a campaign among human rights lawyers and data protection zealots to stop the police and other authorities from giving to the media personal details of accident and crime victims and everyone else involved in public incidents. Largely the police have caved in to this pressure.
All they needed to do was say that releasing details helped them solve crimes and helped them winkle out information crucial to the background of accidents. These considerations should over-ride all bogus claims of privacy.
Instead careerist officers preferred to play the anti-media card and join in the pursuit of the individual’s rights. Never mind the rights or benefits of the community.
One day society will learn that the latter are more important than the former. Until then the media have no chance of being told what the authorities decide in their wisdom to keep to themselves.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Powerless in the world-wide web

TECHNOLOGY is great when it works. When it doesn’t, it is a mind-numbing, business killing, debilitating nightmare.
None of these thoughts is very original, but I am prompted to utter them because of a chain of telecommunications challenges that have dominated my week.
First the landline in and out of our house went dead, overnight Monday to Tuesday. I used my mobile to telephone BT who supply the service and found myself talking to a nice young lady, by the sound of her, in Bangalore.
I pointed out I was paying for the phone call, so she agreed to ring me back. When she did, and while she had me on the phone, she did a diagnostic and found that BT had an “underground” problem. It could not be fixed straight away as a contractor had to be called in.
I had no choice but to accept this, forgetting that the internet line on which both my, and my wife’s, businesses depend used the BT lines. So that jacked up the scale of the problem.
I phoned Bangalore again. They repeated there was no hope of repair until Friday. Then we started getting phone calls on the landline. But when we tried to ring out the line was so crackly that it was impossible to conduct a conversation.
The internet was lost most of the time, although flickered on tantalisingly now and then.
On Wednesday morning my mobile stopped sending SMS messages, commonly known as texts. All attempts met with the little red cross that means a message has not been sent.
I couldn’t use BT to phone the company which supplies my mobile service, Vodafone, as recommended, so had to ring on the mobile. That meant they had to talk me through the procedure, then ring off and then ring me back to see if it worked.
The SMS had apparently lost network connection, although how it could do this and still make calls was beyond me and the nice young man, from Cairo in Egypt this time, who talked me through the process. We ended up shouting at each other, in an entirely friendly way, across the world’s airwaves down my crackly BT line.
The solution worked, although the Vodafone signal continued to be weak and remains so.
On Thursday the telephone man arrived and used all his clever gizmos to find the fault, which turned out to be a tree interfering with the line 60 metres from my property. It was too high for his ladders so he, and we, had to wait for a cherry picker from another job.
This finally arrived Thursday tea-time and the BT line was restored, along with the Internet and no more crackly phone calls.
Two hours later the electricity went off all together, so the family stumbled around in the dark with torches, making frantic phone calls and being updated on the fault, which turned out to be caused by a fire in a sub-station. Electricity was restored two hours later.
By then I had given up all hope of getting any work done. From Bangalore to Cairo to Britain there were people tried to solve my telecommunications problems.
I lost three days all together. I couldn’t even post this blog until BT had sorted the “underground” cable, which turned out to be so over-ground they couldn’t reach it.
Before rural England gets too uptight about broadband speeds, perhaps it should insist that fundamental modern services, like mobiles, telephones, Internet and even electricity actually work at all.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The real threat to BBC journalists

THERE is something about being employed by the BBC which shields employees from the real world. That sort of naive idealism is part of its charm and also why it sometimes has a head-on confrontation with the Government, whichever party is in power.
But I fear that its journalists are about to get a rude awakening. The National Union of Journalists has warned the BBC it faces a fresh wave of disruption to news broadcasts that could affect programmes over Christmas.
But in this household at least we actually preferred the presentation of the news by bosses as they battled over the weekend to keep programmes on air during a 48-hour strike organised by the NUJ in a row over pensions.
Perhaps that was because high-profile presenters such as Nicky Campbell, Fiona Bruce, Bill Turnbull and Huw Edwards supported the walkout, leaving the way for less histrionic replacements. Perhaps it was because the facts were given without the endless verbiage of one journalist interviewing another.
The next 48-hour strike, is planned to take place on November 15 and 16. But the NUJ really needs to warn its members what would happen if the BBC was run as a commercial organisation.
The bean counters would be saying to the editorial managers: “Well you managed quite well without those journalists. Why do you need so many?”
Someone in accounts would be measuring the number of stories filed without the journalists and comparing the number with what happens when the journalists are at work.
Quality would be out of the equation. The time taken to research or interview contacts or monitor sources would be ignored.
And next budget time, the head count would be queried and the number of journalist jobs would be cut.
There would be no redundancies, no announcements, no high-profile confrontations. Vacancies would be left unfilled. Journalists would be allowed to retire early.
Particularly vulnerable will be the producers and desk heads who monitor reports to ensure they are accurate and relevant.
Already the war of words has started. BBC chiefs said only one in six employees had joined the strike and that its output was not as badly affected as it feared.
In an email to staff, director general Mark Thompson said: ‘No BBC services have been blacked out or gone off air. However, a few programmes have been lost and our ability to deliver the normal scale and quality of news and journalism to our audiences here and around the world has been impaired.’
Mr Thompson knows that if he doesn’t admit some impact during the strike, he will be undermining his own case when he goes into battle with the bean-counters.
But in austerity Britain with a Government bent on cutting costs, the journalists will not be sure of him winning those battles in the wake of their own strike.
If the BBC doesn’t tackle a £1.5billion pension deficit by putting a cap on rises in pensionable pay at one per cent after April they will have to cut costs elsewhere. It will not have escaped those who hold the purse strings that a deal had been agreed with the other major union, BECTU, which represents camera crew and technicians.
It is only human nature that when the cuts come, the journalists will be in the front line.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Waking up to impact of cuts

I fear that the country is still not waking up to the implications of the Coalition government’s plans to cut back on state intervention. This applies particularly to its own supporters.
While all the headlines, quite rightly, are about major issues like housing, jobs, defence, student fees and the like, it is the relatively minor victims of the cut backs that best illustrate their impact. It is in the minutiae of daily life that the pain will be felt.
Arts organisations everywhere in the North West were today having to come to terms with reduced funding. If we cannot afford homes, public services or aircraft carriers, then how on earth can luxuries like festivals expect to get away scot-free.
A good example is South Lakes MP Tim Farron calling on the police to meet to discuss the future of Kendal Torchlight Carnival.
He says the annual event has recently come under threat, with cuts in the Cumbria Police budget pressuring the local constabulary to consider charging for their support on the night.
Apparently the event organisers may be forced to find £15,000 to secure a police presence for the evening, which helps with crowd and traffic management throughout the town. Such a cost burden would almost certainly jeopardise the future of Kendal Torchlight, an event which is organised and managed entirely by local volunteers, said Mr Farron’s statement.
He goes to say: “Kendal Torchlight is a fantastic event for people of all ages across the South Lakes and has become a cherished tradition in the town after 41 years.
“The carnival plays a major role in instilling a sense of community and culture in our area. I, therefore, urge Cumbria Police to consider these merits when finalising their decisions on cut backs. It would be a significant loss to our area and something I will not let go of without a fight.”
Mr Farron is to be commended for pledging to fight student fee hikes, but he cannot expect every organisation in his Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency to escape the effect of the cuts. His party signed up to a Government that thinks it is necessary to reduce police funding. There are bound to be repercussions.
The police have to decide their own priorities. They cannot be blamed if they think Bobbies on the beat and tackling burglaries and violence have precedence over festivals.
Football clubs have for years had to pay the policing of match days, so why should a carnival be any different?
A far better case can be made to events such as the Mintfest International Street Arts Festival, which has been shown to generated £1.6m for the Cumbrian economy. The festival, also in Kendal, attracted thousands of visitors who watched performances by artists, comedians, acrobats, dancers and musicians.
The ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) at Manchester University into the impact of the Lakes Alive events in Cumbria showed that Mintfest makes a very important contribution to the local economy. That is the sort of cost effective event that deserves to escape the cuts. And not a policeman was in sight.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Confessions of a Sunday newspaper reader

I HAVE a confession. For the first time I chose my Sunday newspaper yesterday on the basis of an advertisement for a free CD offer.
My preferred option is The Sunday Times, which has cleverly adopted the slogan “THE Sunday newspapers” and indeed has the most comprehensive and intelligent coverage of politics, sport, culture and all other subjects which interest me.
I occasionally replace it with a joint purchase of the Mail on Sunday and Independent on Sunday, partly because they give a different insight and partly as they are my best customers as a freelance journalist. Interestingly the Sunday Times has recently raised its cover price to £2.20p, which has confused customers and newsagents, but is still incredible value for money.
The Mail shouts it is 70p less expensive than the Sunday Times but this wasn’t why I chose my other selection. The reason I opted for the alternative was that The Mail on Sunday gave away a CD of Atlantic Crossing by Rod Stewart, my favourite singer. I have a vinyl version of this album but the CD would be good to have for the car.
My only reservation was that the Mail over-egged its promotion by saying it was Rod the Mod’s “Greatest Album.”
It should have been as he travelled to all the great studios in America to record it, using icons of American popular music, such as the remnants of Booker T and the MGs, including guitarist Steve Cropper, and The Memphis Horns.
But unfortunately the songs were bland, commercial and poor compared with the great tunes and interpretations of Rod’s previous masterpieces: An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down; Every Picture Tells a Story; and Never a Dull Moment.
There was a run of compositions by Rod which put him up there with the greatest. Raincoat had the premier version of Handbags and Gladrags, copied so successfully by Stereophonics decades later. Just listen to the title track of Every Picture, especially the duet with Maggie Bell from Stone the Crows, or Mandolin Wind or Maggie May. Or examine the popular poetic brilliance of You Wear It Well, off Never a Dull Moment.
In comparison Atlantic Crossing is a pale shadow. The track everyone has heard of is Sailing, which is a poor attempt to create a football crowd pleasing Anthem. A rock classic worthy of an acolyte of Sam Cooke it isn’t.
Still, I suppose “Rod Stewart’s fourth or fifth best album” wouldn’t have had the same promotional appeal.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Historical gaffe

THE fact that Tullie House Museum tried to play the geography card to “keep the £2 million bronze relic Roman helmet in Cumbria” should have been ridiculed from the start. But no, the media went along with it.
Cumbria, as we were all told in 1974 when it was created by the Conservative government as part of its disastrous local government reorganisation, was purely an administrative area and not an attempt to roll away 2,000 years of history.
The helmet was found, by a student from the North East of England, on farmland near Crosby Garrett, near Kirkby Stephen, which is in Westmorland.
Tullie House Museum is in Cumberland. So how can it get away with playing the “keep it local” card? It is like the British Museum trying to keep the Elgin Marbles because London is in the European Union, so hard luck Athens.
The answer is that the media have forgotten that the traditional counties still exist, on opposite sides of the Orton Scar, with a great big mountain range between them. Cumberland looks to Newcastle for its soul mates. Westmorland looks to Lancaster, Preston, Blackpool and the rest of Lancashire.
So there is no foundation for the helmet going to Carlisle. And the buyer of the helmet needs pay no attention to the emotional blackmail Tullie House is still trying to apply even now to be able to show it.
Even Radio Cumbria, the very name and existence of which is part of the attempt to re-write history, tried to point out this anomaly to a Tullie House spokesman. But to no avail. The spokesman didn’t even seem to understand the question.
There are so many officials, politicians and bureaucrats who have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth of Cumbria, mainly to play the game of grabbing funds from the European Union regional policy, that they don’t even know there are two distinct counties.
If the helmet belongs anywhere it is probably in the Museum of Lakeland Life in Kendal.
But that seems unlikely, unless the anonymous purchaser was a Westmerian who actually understand history and intends to put it on public show in the county to which it really belongs.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cry for freedom

THERE are healthy signs that the judiciary is waking up to the very real threats to society’s basic freedoms from the flood of political interference on the media through new laws and case precedents.
Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, in a speech to the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association Conference, said judges could not afford to be divorced from the modern media because of the media's "impact on public thinking and public perception".
He said: "One of my constant refrains is that our judicial independence and the existence of an independent press are mutually self supporting.
"I ask you to find me a society or state in which you have an independent judiciary and a subservient media, or a subservient judiciary and an independent media.
"The short answer is that the pressures that would remove the independence of the judiciary are identical to the same pressures that would remove the independence of the media."
According to Solicitor Nigel Hanson, a member of Foot Anstey's media team writing on the excellent HoldtheFrontPage web-site, he continued by endorsing the right of reporters to challenge inappropriate reporting restrictions themselves in court.
Judge Patrick Moloney QC, a circuit judge who used to be a top libel barrister, expressed concern about the lack of open reporting of the courts.
In a speech he gave to a media law conference, he said: "The time-honoured old art of court reporting, even in the Crown Court, let alone of course the County Court, is dying away."
He was subsequently reported as saying there was no point in judges making lofty pronouncements in court for the benefit of society if no one "ever hears about it because there is nobody in court to hear us say it".
Judges can always arrange for their clerks to ring the local freelance or news desk of the local media if he wants to say something of wider interest to the public and have it reported.
But the judges' comments are valid and bring to mind a string of recent judgments that have highlighted the desirability for court reports and journalism in general to contain real names and personal details so as to be interesting and readable.
In a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year Lord Rodger said: "A requirement to report in some austere, abstract form, devoid of much of its human interest could well mean that the report would not be read and the information would not be passed on.
"Ultimately, such an approach could threaten the viability of newspapers and magazines, which can only inform the public if they attract enough readers and make enough money to survive."
This was a rare recognition of the realities of the commercial media world and welcome. But it is even worse during the current inquest into the death of a barrister by “suicide by police” in an armed siege in London.
Judges, coroners and others in the judiciary need to push back far harder against misguided legislation, which can be complicated, unhelpful and badly drafted.
They need to organise the court system, and this is particularly true of magistrates, so that cases happen when scheduled and are seen through to completion so that there is a final outcome for the media to report on.
Too often lawyers, social workers, the CPS, police and others treat the courts with scant respect by not having their cases prepared in time. Delays for background reports are a further obstacle to timely and topical justice.
Justice needs to be seen to be done as well as done. In the modern world the public at large find it virtually impossible to turn up in courts to see cases for themselves. The media should be enabled to act as their eyes and ears.
This means courts and the media working together for complete mutual benefit. The real winners would be society. Police contacts used to tell me the best crime prevention of all is the fear of publicity.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

TV local news plan doomed

THE new coalition government is not too busy slashing public services and cutting budgets to interfere in the commercial viability of the media, despite numerous warnings of how it is doomed to failure.
The last Labour Government got in a dreadful mess trying to save local independent television news from the bean-counters who run ITV.
In the old days ITV was run by regionally based stations who were obliged by conditions in their licences to provide local news programmes.
Since the internet stole what little remains in advertisement revenues in the lingering recession, independent television has gone down the route of economies of scale so there is in effect just the one national station. When it wants to squeeze costs, then local news in which it has no interest is an easy target.
Labour’s answer was the concisely-named Independently Funded News Consortia. These were conglomerate of current media companies who thought they could provide a service for local TV.
Trinity Mirror's bid to run regional TV news in the North-East and Borders region was joined by The CN Group, publishers of the News and Star, Carlisle, and the North West Evening Mail, in Barrow, joining the Press Association and production company Ten Alps.
It geared up to do battle for the right to broadcast regional TV news on Channel 3 with a rival team featuring Newsquest, publishers of the Northern Echo, and Johnston Press, which owns the Sunderland Echo and Hartlepool Mail. Johnston Press and Newsquest have joined forces with ITN, Metro Radio and the University of Sunderland to form a consortium to provide broadcast news in Border and Tyne Tees.
The groups were seeking to win the public funding which was to have been made available for one of three broadcasting pilot projects to replace ITV news in Wales, Scotland and this English region. If the pilots had been successful, Independently Funded News Consortia could be rolled out across the UK.
Luckily for all concerned this idea bit the dust in the lead up to the election.
Now the new Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is believed to be pressing ahead with plans for local TV stations despite a critical report on the idea.
A panel set up under investment banker Nicholas Shott to look into the idea has cast further doubt on its viability in an interim report published today. It says advertising alone will not be enough to pay for the network of new stations and that it may need a big corporate sponsor to get off the ground.
He cites Barclays Bank’s sponsorship of the London cycle scheme to the tune of £25 million as a role model. But cycles do not have sensitive issues like freedom of expression.
Would the likes of Barclays want to sponsor a news outlet that may ridicule the record of its new chief executive, or attack the closure of local bank branches for example?
Mr Hunt told the Today Programme on BBC Radio Four this morning that the absense of a city TV sector in the UK represented a "market failure." Well the virtual closure of Manchester Evening News’s M Channel, despite that city’s vibrant economy is not a good omen.
Mr Hunt thinks the answer is to life restrictions on cross-media ownership to allow newspaper publishers who already own big city titles to also control TV stations. But regional publisher Trinity Mirror, which owns the major newspaper titles in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff, has previously expressed strong reservations about the business model.
In a letter to Mr Hunt today, Mr Shott said the stations were more likely to succeed in urban areas, despite the Manchester experience, although he did accept that even there "the economics of a TV business funded mainly by advertising will still be challenging" and "additional revenue sources" would have to be explored, hence the sponsorship idea.
He added that stations could be hosted by existing channels and that discussions had started with "senior management" at the BBC which were showing "early promise". Well we all know what BBC managers know about viability and value for money.
Mr Hunt will argue the case for more local television in a speech to the Royal Television Society at the Barbican Centre in London.
He will say that an expansion of superfast broadband and the removal of cross-media rules preventing companies controlling newspapers, television and radio stations will all help make the plan more likely to succeed.
Still the old media and their supporters flail around in the post-Internet world. If broadband is to continue to improve then the obvious source of local news is web-based local providers.
These can be existing local media companies, like Newsquest or Trinity Mirror, or new independent entrepreneurs like the excellent Lakes TV. Keep television out of it.
And better still, keep the Government out of it. They have other more important issues to focus on than worrying about who provides your local TV news.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Plummeting sales explained

IF you want to know why newspaper and magazine sales are plummeting, as shown by the release of Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures this week, you could do worse than go and talk to your local newsagent.
One of the victims of the bean-counter regime that bedevils publishing companies these days is the department responsible for maximising copy sales (as opposed to advertisement sales).
They have been stripped of all power and influence in most companies, and in one memorable period during the demise of Westminster Press, closed down all together.
The accountants’ thinking was that it was a waste of time selling more papers, as that only cost more money than it raised in revenue. The ideal scenario seemed to be to sell as few copies as possible, then you would keep delivery, merchandising and newsprint costs down to a minimum.
The fact that advertisement sales, not to mention the confidence and morale of the whole industry, depended on a healthy vibrant copy sale seemed to escape them.
To be fair, most companies drew back from the most draconian of cuts to circulation departments, but the muddles and self-destructive thinking continue, as illustrated by two examples from my newsagent today.
I needed to buy a copy of the weekly Lancaster Guardian, part of the national group, Johnston Press, which was this week crowing about growing its profits (if not its revenues) last year, for the first time for years.
The Guardian says it comes out on Thursday, but on Thursday morning I was told it doesn’t reach the newsagent until some fluctuating time on Thursday afternoon.
Friday I was away from its circulation area, so I went first thing Saturday morning only to be told it had sold out. I remonstrated with the newsagent, to be told that the Guardian had just changed its returns policy so the agent is only allowed to claim for 12% of its returns.
Because newspapers have such a short shelf life and such unpredictable sales, outlet by outlet, most publishers allow agents full sale or return, otherwise the agents have no incentive to stock enough copies to satisfy high demand weeks. Some offer 50% returns to encourage sensible ordering policies by the agents. But 12% is unusually low.
The previous week this agent had been left with ten unsold copies, only one of which she was able to claim back the wholesale price for. So she cut the order by five, and sold out within 24 hours. Because it was the Bank Holiday it was going to be next Tuesday before she could order more. I told her to forget it.
The paper used to sell 40 copies a week at this outlet on the fringes of its circulation area. Now it sells 28, a 30 percent drop. ABC shows the Guardian selling an average of 14,517 copies a week from January to June 2010, a decline of 2.9% on the same period last year. Now you know why.
It’s got nothing to do with the quality of material, even though it has recently lost its editor and news editor without apparently replacing them. It’s the curse of the bean-counters.
At the same newsagent’s shop there was a magnificent display of Cumbria Life, a monthly magazine produced by Carlisle-based Cumbria Media Group. This is one of those quaint family-owned independent firms, usually much more in tune with sustainable products and less obsessed with lining shareholders’ pockets than the big groups. But even they are not immune.
The September issue of Cumbria Life has a splendidly written feature on the village in which the newsagent is based. But had the publisher seen the opportunity? Not a bit of it. They hadn’t even told the newsagent.
He spotted it by accident, mounted the display, and consequently expects to sell ten times as many copies as usual, and sure enough the whole village has been talking about the article and therefore the magazine.
What a brilliant sampling opportunity. But if the newsagent hadn’t been on the ball that opportunity would have been lost. It seems even Cumbrian Media Group has forgotten the basic skills of selling and marketing its products. No doubt the bean-counters would be proud of them.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Punch drunk media turn reckless

MY FREELANCE business has been at the centre this week of a fascinating episode highlighting the way the media works these days.
I received a tip off that a run-of-the-mill assault case at South Lakeland Magistrates court might be of interest as the victim of the alleged attack was Coronation Street actor Simon Gregson, who plays bad boy Steve McDonald in the long-running TV soap.
So I rang one of the tabloids obsessed with this type of celebrity case and they immediately ordered it as an exclusive, which saved me the bother of ringing round the other eight or nine news desks and guaranteed a pretty healthy payment, or so I thought.
Of course this all depended on the tip being true, and on the case going ahead. Amazingly it was and it did.
The only other journalist in court was from the locally-based Westmorland Gazette.
The defendant was a Windermere trainee dry-stone waller, Reece Barnes, aged 18, who admitted the battery of Gregson (also known as Gregory, which made for confusing evidence, as his name changed every few minutes).
It was something of nothing really. The two of them had been drinking separately in Bowness, ended up in the Wheelhouse, argued over seating arrangements, had a quick bundle, during which Barnes got in the first punch.
Gregson ended up with a badly bruised nose, scratches and dignity hurt enough to shout abusively at Barnes as he was evicted and banned from the club for six months.
The whole case was over in little over an hour and the bench gave Barnes a conditional discharge, a severe warning about his future conduct and ordered hime to pay £100 compensation to Gregson, as if he needed it.
Because of the guilty plea Gregson didn’t have to attend. Outside court Barnes’s photograph was taken. He said he didn’t even know that the man he struck was a Corrie actor.
Within another hour the tabloid had the copy. This was Tuesday. For reasons of their own they decided to hold it for 24 hours for use on Thursday.
However on Wednesday morning I got a call from the tabloid’s representative saying that the story was all over the web, had appeared in a rival tabloid, courtesy of a news agency called Northern News, based in Newcastle and with an office in Carlisle.
At first I was bemused as they certainly weren’t represented in court. The inference was that I had ratted on the exclusive and flogged the story, ruining the exclusive deal. This I denied as it wasn’t true. But how had the story got out?
The answer was simple. The Westmorland Gazette has a “web first” policy which means they put everything up on-line. The agency must just have cut and pasted it then put it out on the wire.
The tabloid I had the agreement with never used the story, which was even more infuriating as my own host web-site MSN had it as its most used story in its Editor’s Pick on its home page all day.
This raises several interesting issues: Why does The Westmorland Gazette give away material on the web that can be plundered by the world’s media and used by all and sundry before the newspaper that actually raises its revenues uses it?
How can freelance agencies plunder and sell as their own court cases they didn’t even attend? What would be their defence if The Westmorland Gazette got it wrong (if Mr Gregory was not Mr Gregson after all, for instance?) and someone decided to sue?
The only winners are the internet search engines and site hosts who ruthlessly exploit the absence of any copyright protection on news. It seems that Mr Barnes is not the only one to be flailing in the dark. The punch drunk media routinely behave recklessly these days, too.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Moving on from toxic words

THERE’s nothing as entertaining as politicians wriggling over interpretation of their words.
Many years ago there was this Newcastle City councillor who could barely string two words together. Think John Prescott, then quadruple the inarticulacy.
For years the Evening Chronicle had to tidy up his words for publication, until he actually had the cheek to complain about being misquoted.
So the paper sent their ex-Hansard, 200-words-a-minute shorthand expert to report to the letter what the councillor actually said, complete with non-sequiturs, appalling grammar and grunts. His speech was quoted in full, with explanation, and he never complained again.
I was reminded of this episode as two of Cumbria’s Coalition MPs have been caught in the glare of national publicity this week for tripping over their own words. Cries of “taken out of context” and “misinterpretation” were uttered. There’s nothing like blaming the messenger.
First out of the blocks was Rory Stewart. The newly elected Tory member for Penrith and the Borders, was accused of calling his constituents primitive, as evidenced by their proneness to wearing string to hold up their trousers.
This was seized upon by the Scottish Sun and then more sensationally by the Sunday Mirror.
Mr Stewart, a devotee of Lawrence of Arabia, and who once walked from Iraq to Bangladesh to get to know the Arab and Indian sub-continent peoples, knows a thing or two about primitive living.
He has also walked his new constituency to get a feel for the people of the Eden valley and surrounding hills. He was trying to say that rural poverty and remoteness meant that some aspects of lifestyle in the Pennines would seem primitive to urban dwellers, not that the rural folk are per se primitive.
Mr Stewart, who is now issuing apologies and threatening to take the Sunday Mirror to the Press Complaints Commission, should calm down.
When he has been around a little longer he will realise that rural folk love to fool city slickers into thinking they are poor by wearing string round their mid-riff. Some of the wealthiest farmers I know like to look like Worzel Gummidge on a bad hair day.
String may be the poor man’s friend, but don’t equate using string for sartorial support with poverty.
At least Mr Stewart had the intervention of newspaper journalists to blame for his apparent gaffe. His Liberal Democrat neighbour and colleague Tim Farron was live on Radio 4’s World at One when he referred to his party’s coalition partners as toxic Tories.
He explained that he was referring to the Tory brand having some toxic hangover from its last period in power. He actually thinks the coalition is doing well.
In the hurly-burly of debate and 24/7 scrutiny of the media, politicians are bound to say things that are quoted out of context or open to interpretation.
The worst thing they can do is apologise or, worse, try to explain what they meant to say. Being in holes, digging their way out is not the answer. Ignoring the furore and moving on is a better tactic. John Prescott got away with it for years.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Community policing

THE media is struggling to explain to its audience, viewers and readers exactly what new austerity Britain really means to services the public has become used to over the good years.
Consequently organisations just seem to want to carry on doing what they have always done.
There is no service that seems immune to this Ostrich-style syndrome. Heads are firmly fixed in the sand.
Take the police. Only this week the dire warnings have been emanating from chief constables about how the threatened cuts will bite.
It is claimed that just one in ten of police officers is on the street at any one time. Actually that is not so surprising when you take into account the 24-hours, seven days a week operation, holidays, sickness, back office functions, paperwork, court appearances, surveillance, victim support and traffic duties etc.
Yet here in Cumbria the Constabulary is vowing to toughen its stance on drink drivers after the number of people caught over the limit rose for the second year running.
They say they know this as every June, the Constabulary runs a summer drink drive campaign from 00:01 on the 1st June to 23:59 on the 30th.
This year, 95 people were arrested after officers conducted 952 breath tests during the campaign, meaning 10 percent of those tested were either over the limit or failed to provide a test.
In 2009, 88 arrests were made after 1434 breath tests, meaning six percent of those tested were either over the limit or failed to provide a test.
In 2008, 49 arrests were made after 1341 breath tests, meaning less than four percent of those tested were either over the limit or failed to provide a test.
But the reason for this apparent increase could also be better value for money policing. During the 2010 campaign, officers conducted fewer stop checks and breath tests than last year, but concentrated their efforts on areas where intelligence suggested people were more likely to be drink-driving. This tactic worked, with a higher percentage of drink drivers being caught.
But this was ignored by the force’s own press release which said: “The figures reveal an alarming reality - a significant number of people in Cumbria continue to think it is acceptable to get behind the wheel while they are over the drink drive limit.
“We work incredibly hard with our partners to get the message around the dangers of drink driving through to people but it seems that to some, the message falls on deaf ears.
“Our positive efforts to target and educate irresponsible drivers will continue but we need the help of the community to make drink driving socially unacceptable. We need individuals to realise that neither police or the communities in Cumbria will tolerate those who needlessly put the lives of innocent road users at risk. I would urge any member of the public with information about a drink-driver to contact the police, or Crimestoppers anonymously, in the same way they would about any other crime.”
If police do indeed face the cuts being mooted by the Home Secretary, they will have to rely ever more on the public to curb drink-drive offenders. This could give a new meaning to community policing.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Dumb and dumber BBC

SOMEONE really needs to get a grip on standards at the BBC.
In an increasingly complex and multi-faceted media world there is surely a place for a state-sponsored (but not controlled) broadcaster which is not totally focussed on commercial considerations.
Without the profit imperative, the BBC ought to focus on its Unique Selling Point: Quality. Instead it just gets dumber.
What evidence do I present? I will give just three examples: The World Cup, Springwatch and the News.
The quality of football at the World Cup has been a little disappointing, but that is nothing to the standard of the reporting. We sort of expect ITV and the satellite channels to be riddled with hyperbole.
But the BBC is just as guilty of talking up the latest genius of the beautiful game, who turns out to be incapable of kicking a ball, or catching one if a goalkeeper.
This interpretation relies on being able to understand what the pundits are saying. Over the years I have just about learned to translate the Scottish burr of Alan Hansen. But his English is crystal clear compared to Emmanuel Adebayor, the Togolese professional footballer who plays as a striker for Manchester City in the Premier League.
I am lost in admiration for the fact that he can babble on about a specialist subject like football in what is probably his third language. I couldn’t begin to match this feat.
But that is not the point. The point is that his accent is indecipherable.
In a desperate bid to get away from the World Cup, I switched over this week to watch Springwatch, which ought to be full of fluffy, cute creatures battling with tooth and claw to get a grip on life.
Instead it is full of the ridiculous twitterings and obscene gestures of Kate Humble and Chris Packham. When Packham first took over from Bill Odie he appeared quiet, knowledgeable and very much the junior partner to the veteran presenter Humble.
How the roles have reversed. She has gone from alpha female to whimpering, eye-lash fluttering, and archetype dumb blonde. He has become domineering, intrusive and outlandishly arrogant. He was actually massaging Kate’s thighs when I switched over. If I was Mr Humble I would be very concerned.
We were promised an explanation of the wonderful variety of flies and instead were given a token, short and largely uninstructive couple of minutes on flies, with large chunks of the hour-long show devoted to inane padding.
Even the normally worthy Simon King, who was undersea off Dorset, was reduced to buying crustaceans off the local fisherman to justify his expensive scuba-diving. Local sea creatures seemed to be keeping well away from the BBC cameras. How wise of them.
The BBC news, once so respected round the world, just goes from bad to worse. There was a headline introduction this week saying President Obama had compared the BP oil spill off Florida to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centre twin towers.
I was just un-dropping my jaw about his stupidity at mixing up a tragic accident which killed 11 people with a deliberate act of sabotage that wiped out more than 3,000, when the story started.
Of course he did no such thing. He said that the oil spill was to the environment what 9-11 was to terrorism, in that it was a multi-site event that would take a long time to deal with. That is not the same thing at all.
So BBC, when the cuts come your way, stop worrying about technology, and ratings, and hyperbole. Instead focus on standards, and accuracy, and helping the nation wise up, not dumb down.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Unholy trinity: Public, police and the media

NEWS today that Derrick Bird was followed by three police officers as he pursued his trail of death through the streets of Whitehaven and surrounding villages will no doubt ensure that media interest will continue.
Together with the opening of inquests into the thirteen deaths, there will be renewed impetus to the coverage, which will upset those residents of West Cumbria who want an end to the focus on such a distressing and negative view of their beloved area.
The three-way relationship between the local population, the police and the media is always a strained and complex one.
When the rampage started last Wednesday, there was a very real need for the media to pass on the message from the police that a dangerous gunman was on the loose. Great swathes of the Lake District were warned to take cover, which in such a large area in such a short time, could only be achieved with the help of professional communicators.
After Mr Bird was found dead at Boot, the media interest was roused by the scale and sheer bemusement at his awful deeds.
The speculation by the national dailies was about his parents’ will; his relationship with the more successful twin who was best friends with the family solicitor; his resentment at taking the Lion’s share of the care of his ailing mother; and his strained relationship with certain fellow cabbies.
The speed with which the media picked up on these details and reported them in an even-handed and amazingly accurate manner were all to the credit of the standard of reporting.
It was aided by the people of West Cumbria who are largely a helpful and uncynical bunch. They shared the need to know what on earth had happened to the psyche of one of their own.
This was obvious on the day after the events when I was helping a team from the National Broadcasting Corporation to understand and interpret what had happened for their American audience.
They had sent a team of five to Whitehaven and spent half a day compiling their one-minute report for breakfast TV, updating for lunch and knowing that by the evening news it would be swamped by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
They had two challenges. The first was the need to sub-title the West Cumbrian accents. The second was the lack, as they saw it, of help from the police.
In the land of the first amendment they have come to expect total and immediate co-operation from the law enforcers. Why wouldn’t the police confirm names? Why wouldn’t they give interviews outlining the innermost details of Bird’s life? Why no CCTV film or photographs of the actual shootings to broadcast live?
It has been a feature of the events of the last five days that the media has seemed to be at least one step ahead of the police.
But this isn’t really fair. The police have different priorities: gathering cast iron evidence; care for the victims; ensuring health and safety of the public to name just a few.
The media just wanted news, although their part in helping the wider community come to terms with what had happened was no less valuable.
By the time the Sunday newspapers came out, it was difficult to know what they could add to the story. But there were several genuine exclusive angles: Notably the Sunday People’s exposure of Bird’s failed relationship with a Thai girlfriend; and the Sunday Telegraph’s revelation that he had spent the night before his rampage watching a violent film and wondering about his own mental condition.
And so it goes on. Whitehaven and the rest of the area probably wish it was all over and they could return to carry on their lives.
But Derrick Bird’s actions were so extreme, morbid fascination with why he flipped so spectacularly is unlikely to end any time soon.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Future imperfect for media

FOR some strange reason I was invited to a very high-brow conference in London.
It was convened by the Westminster Media Forum, which aims to provide an environment for policy makers in Parliament, government departments and agencies to engage with media professionals.
The subject was the Future of the News Media, an obsession with all the stakeholders in the media world as it struggles to cope with the threat, and opportunity of fast-developing technologies.
The scene was set by Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow, who set off at a ridiculously optimistic pace.
His theme was that this was the golden age of journalism.
He said that different media forms were fusing, creating “intersections of interest” and that TV companies needed to do more to harness the potential of the internet.
The development of new technologies he added, had led journalism to be in a “better place than it had ever been”.
He said: “Welcome to the golden age of journalism. This is the best time to be a journalist, without a doubt…because we can do a job that is both a pivotal element of the society in which we live and the political life in which that society functions.
“There is a greater degree of democracy in journalism than there has ever been. There are still many challenges ahead but at least there is something of a conversation going on that means there is no longer any dictatorial capacity.
“You can complain about ownership and dominance but you can’t complain that the citizen can’t rock the boat.
“The citizens are rocking the media’s boat every day. The idiots are falling off the deck, the incapable ones are being drowned but the good ones are surfacing and thriving.”
He was followed by Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, who endorsed the view that this was the best time to be a journalist, with endless opportunities. The traditional media had to accept that journalism was an expensive necessity.
And so it went on. Peter Bale, Executive Producer of MSN UK, complained that his usual role as supreme optimist had been usurped by Peter Snow, then went on about the proliferation of high quality journalism.
Steve Folwell, Director of Strategy at Guardian Media Group, said the Guardian had gone from 9th largest print medium in Britain to the largest in the world by reach, via the internet. That enabled a multi-platform approach with 20 revenue streams.
I was absolutely dumb-founded by this torrent of well-being. The Guardian, after all, had just sold the Manchester Evening News and its associated weekly newspapers for a derisory £7 million to Trinity Mirror.
As I prepared to leap to my feet to play the part of the little boy watching the parade of the Emperor in his new clothes, I was saved from my embarrassment by Dr Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications with Goldsmiths, University of London.
She pointed out that this stated democratic panacea was not what it seemed. A survey of 200 working journalists had shown fewer asked to do ever more work.
They had become desk-bound, hide-bound by administration, and reduced to cutting and pasting words they laid their hands on, in what she described as creative cannibalism.
Relying on market forces meant that the commercial imperative would produce journalism that was cheap and far from what the people entering the profession wanted to do.
There followed a separate debate about the future of training, and maintaining standards in a world of citizen journalism.
My clumsy attempt to ask the point of training journalists when bloggers and commentators on mainstream web-site stories were allowed to be racist, homophobic, contemptuous and prejudicial, was misunderstood or ignored by the panel.
A third debate about the future shape of news degenerated into an entertaining but not very illuminating spat between Matt Kelly, Digital Content Editor of Trinity Mirror Group, and Struan Bartlett, chairman and chief executive of NewsNow. Kelly accused Barlett, whose site aggregates links to other news organisations, of being a parasite. You could say the same about any web company, from Google down, that gleans material from other web-sites without employing front line journalists who actually go out and get the news.
Anyway, this exchange even embarrassed the combative chairman Ray Snoddy who challenged the panel to explain how they could maintain standards when it was the most dumb-downed content that drew the most downloads on YouTube.
May Hockaday, Head of Newsroom at the BBC, totally ignored the plummeting standards of her own organisation, and tried to defend 24/7 news with its analysis, niche content and engagement with its audience.
Overall the day proved that the media had no real answers to the impact of new technology on their financial models, established products or even standards of journalism. Dr Fenton was the only one who even came close to understanding the threats, rather than being dazzled by the opportunities.
See Dr Fenton's article on her survey here:

Friday, 21 May 2010

Soggy swan song

On a remnant of the old Lancaster to Kendal canal, near Crooklands hotel, is a pair of swans who breed every year and are superbly successful parents. Last year they brought six out of six to maturity.
This year they had eight signets which they took for their first swim earlier this week, just at the time I pass by the nest, over the other side of the canal from the tow path, while on the early dog walk.
Today the adults were hanging around a culvert that takes overflow from the canal underneath the M6 near a huge 24-hour garage. The signets were nowhere to be seen.
On inspection I heard a forlorn tweeting and saw one of the signets trapped in the culvert, of the other seven, there was no sign.
I ran to the garage to call the RSPCA who said they would do what they could. As I went back to the culvert I was joined by the garage’s night mechanic Steve.
Together we managed to lift the lid off the culvert and retrieve the one signet which seemed surprisingly well. We lobbed it back to the parents who were predictably furious hissing and flapping at their attempted benefactors.
Steve and I walked round the other side of the M6, where there is another stretch of canal, to see if the signets were being flushed clear through, but there was no sign. So we went back and started delving deep into the water channel. We found one body of a dead signet, but two were just about breathing, although they had collapsed and were like drowned rats.
We got them onto dry ground and Steve gave them mouth-to-mouth by blowing into their beaks. They responded and we tried drying them with tissues.
When we returned them to the canal however they just flopped over onto their backs and head went beneath the surface. They were obviously water-logged and had lost their buoyancy.
So we carried them to the warm of the garage, put them in a box and surrounded them with garage kitchen roll to help them dry off. They improved quickly, started preening themselves, and by the time the RSPCA inspector arrived after two hours from Carlisle, they looked right as rain.
So we took them back to the canal and popped them into the canal opposite the swans’ nest, where rescued signet one was happily nesting with its parents. One of the two was quick to swim over the canal to join the family. The third was still too weak and flopped over, so the RSPCA man and I took it round to the council depot over the canal and put him through the fence as near to the nest as we could.
Last I saw the dad was calling to it to return to the family fold. So, that made three saved out of eight.
I persuaded the RSPCA inspector to try to convince British Waterways that they need to put a guard over the sluice, as apparently ducklings and signets disappear down there every year.
After spending the previous two days in London, it was back to rural Cumbria with a vengeance.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Caesar sparks war of words

A WAR of words has broken out in the blogosphere over an article in The Sunday Times magazine over why tens of thousands of journalism hopefuls graduate every year and then find themselves clamouring for increasingly rare jobs.
The article was by Ed Caesar, a feature writer and reviewer for the Sunday Times. He is 30, was educated at Wellington College, Edinburgh University and The Independent newspaper. In 2007, he won the Press Gazette British Young Journalist of the Year award.
His point was well argued if a little contradictory, in that he was obviously happy with his own career, yet worried that the decline in the printed media means that unpaid posts as work experience could lead to lowly paid staff positions. How he started in fact.
Adam Tinworth on his blog has a go for Caesar’s article being totally London-centric and focussing on the national media, while there are far more journalists employed by the regional press.
Roy Gleenslade sprang to Caesar’s defence (see by pointing out that journalism students he met were only interested in the nationals.
Well they would say that to Greenslade as he is in the same London goldfish world as Caesar.
Adam Westbrook had a far better point. See He is a distinguished advocate of what he calls New Age Journalism.
He objected that Caesar had totally ignored the opportunities of the new technologies, arguing that it was better to work for yourself than one of the old dinosaur media corporations.
There are opportunities for entrepreneurs to create their own niche markets, invent applications on their chosen subjects for mobile phones and then make money directly.
Well, up to a point. First that ignores the fact that the attraction for many journalism students is working for printed products, whether local or national.
Furthermore, if 30,000 journalism students a year set up their own businesses, the market may become saturated rather quickly.
My beef with the article was its incestuous nature: London-centric, yes; national media obsessed, undoubtedly; old media thinking, absolutely.
Would the Sunday Times use its precious space publishing a similar analysis on apprenticeships in the building trades or even the pressures of trying to start a career in accounting, banking, teaching, nursing or any other trade or profession?
The national press is getting further away from its markets, partly because of its obsessive London bias. Just because a few Hampstead media folk have to subsidise their over-educated offspring during their work experience in the media, is this really worth four pages in a Sunday magazine? I don’t think so.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Sneaky media beat the count

THE Media turned out in force to witness the remarkable feat by the Liberal Democrats when they not only held on to the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat on a disappointing night for the party but actually increased their majority significantly.
For those that missed it the sitting MP Tim Farron (Lib/Dem) polled 30,896 (60 per cent of the vote); John Mander (UKIP) – 801 (1.5%); Gareth McKeever (Conservative) - 18,632 (36%); Jonathan Todd (Labour) - 1,158 (2%). With 82 spoils there was a 77% turn-out overall.
Mr Farron narrowly gained the seat in 2005, with 22,569 votes and a majority of 267 (0.5%), over the then Conservative Education spokesman Tim Collins. It had previously been a Conservative seat for almost 100 years.
In this election, the Conservatives put the seat at 14 on its list of those they would have to win if they were to have a chance of regaining power.
Mr Collins had resigned after his defeat and after a false start with another prospective candidate, who also resigned, the Tories finally found former financier Gareth McKeever, an Ulsterman from a farming family.
He was seen by some as a bit of a Tim Farron clone. He is a charming, sincere and hard-working man. The local Tory party shook off its lethargy and got behind him with a vigorous and noticeable campaign. The national big guns arrived for support.
But it was swiftly clear to the party members who witnessed the count at Lakes Leisure Centre that it was going to be Mr Farron’s day.
The constituency was one of those with a huge rural area for whom the geography and the burden of sorting postal votes was too great to manage the usual Thursday overnight count. Instead the army of counters gathered at a civilised 9.30 a.m.
It took three hours to validate that the votes matched the numbers recorded at each polling station.
During this process the army of party faithful who witness procedures can tell which party is doing well.
The count proper had hardly started when Liberal Democrats started clapping each other on the back and the Conservatives descended into doom and gloom. Mr McKeever, who had given up his job in the city and moved home to Kendal to fight the seat, seemed close to tears.
His bid to regain the seat had been hit when computer and paper records of membership, voting intentions and leaflets were destroyed in an intense blaze that ripped through the offices and roof of Kendal Conservative Club on February 19 this year.
Mr McKeever described the fire as devastating, and the election campaign headquarters had to be moved to an edge-of-town business park. Two men were arrested by detectives investigating the fire and they are due to respond to police bail later this month. A political motive is not suspected.
But there was no attempt to blame the fire for Mr McKeever’s apparently appalling performance. His party colleagues said they just couldn’t break through the tremendous personal following Mr Farron had built up during his five years as MP.
When acting returning officer, Debbie Storr, finally put the other three parties out of their misery, Mr Farron said “blimey” and then after the usual platitudes warned his party supporters that he would work as hard to protect his majority of 12,000 as he had with just more than 200.
This was all played out in front of BBC radio and television, with Nick Higham who usually reports on media and cultural affairs in London, independent radio and local, regional and national print journalists.
It was fascinating to see how busy the reporters were on twitter, blogs and web-site updates, even when there was nothing to say. See Another media guest was well-known Lakes-based cartoonist, Colin Shelbourn, who twittered away. See and http://radiocartoonist.blogspot.
But the most remarkable media moment was seeing the BBC going apoplectic when Ms Storr refused to give them the result when it was known five minutes before the announcement.
Mr Higham cried it was the only constituency in the country where this was the rule. When asked why it mattered he said that it was to help provide instant graphics for the viewers.
Anyway Ms Storr relented and the BBC got their way. A few other sneaky journalists looked over shoulders at the slip of paper that gave the information, which is why some media outlets actually had the results before the people at the count.
Such is the power of the media in a modern democracy.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Election Classic

MOST observers seem to agree that this general election is more exciting than most: A combination of global recession, the Government’s massive debts, the faltering starts by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, and the surprisingly good impression by Liberal/Democrat leader Nick Clegg have all combined to give the hustings impetus.
The national excitement is reflected here in Westmorland and Lonsdale which has the added dimension of it being a tight marginal won, just, by the Lib/Dem Tim Farron from the Conservatives back in 2005.
Inevitably the BBC North West Tonight team decided to feature the constituency this week and decided they needed an “independent observer”. Less inevitably, they chose me.
They had wanted to explore the Nick Clegg factor, only to find that what people in the constituency wanted to talk about was the Tim Farron factor.
I managed to say that in all elections the best the local constituency party hopes for is that the national leaders and central offices don’t muck up their chances. In this case Nick Clegg has done the reverse for Mr Farron.
He has made an impression as a likeable, energetic and very effective local MP. The Tories, however, have found an equally likeable, energetic and effective candidate in Gareth McKeever.
The UKIP and Labour candidates, by contrast, stand less than no chance. Embarrassingly I forgot their names on camera (John Mander and Jonathan Todd, respectively). But I suppose my loss of memory reflected the fact that this really is a two-horse race.
All four runners were at a lunch question time organised by the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce at The Riverside Hotel in Kendal today.
Hotel owner Jonathan Denby made the most insightful contribution, pointing out to UKIP’s Mr Mander that in 2005 his party polled more votes than the margin of Mr Farron’s win. So, in effect, they had handed the seat to the Liberal Democrats.
In view of the Lib/Dems pro-Europe stance, wouldn’t the best tactic be for him to withdraw and support Mr McKeever? Mr Mander, who made a poor impression generally, was completely flummoxed by this.
The other outsider, Mr Todd, and the two main men performed better, although Mr McKeever made the mistake of attacking the spending of public money on the Kirkgate entrance to Kendal, especially as the main protagonist, formidable businesswoman Mandy Dixon, was in the audience.
The debate lurched between Europe, the Economy (especially the impact of a 1% increase in National Insurance contributions), Immigration, Crime, Education and Pensions, to the more prosaic New Road free car park in Kendal.
But the debate as always in Westmorland & Lonsdale boils down to whether a hung Parliament, facilitated by a victory for Mr Farron, would make decisive Government impossible, or whether it was better for a rural constituency to vote for Mr McKeever to help ensure a Conservative government committed to change.
A photo-finish is ensured.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Story finally takes off

THE Media was dreadfully slow to wake up to the implications and opportunities in the story about the volcanic ash grounding all flights in or out of the UK.
The BBC in particular kept telling the same story illustrated by the same graphics: Volcano erupts, plume of ash might get in engines, flights grounded, airports quiet. For several days, Heathrow and Manchester airports hosted reporters giving an exercise in déjà vu.
The first real human interest angle I heard was actually on good old Radio Cumbria which featured a lady from Barrow who had her trip to Penang and on to her daughter in Australia cancelled. What was really interesting was the knock on impact on the lives of all the people she knew.
If there were 150,000 Britons trapped abroad, there would be that many fascinating stories to tell on how people were coping.
By later on Saturday it was the plight of celebrities that was obsessing the national media.
First there was former Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star John Cleese who took a £3,000 taxi ride from Oslo in Norway to the Belgian capital Brussels after becoming stranded.
The 943-mile journey is due to take him more than 15 hours. He is being driven by a total of three taxi drivers who are taking turns at the wheel.
But Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker wasn't far behind. He made sure he was available for Saturday night's programme by making a marathon trip across Europe.
Lineker was holidaying in Tenerife when the flight ban took effect. So he booked a flight to Madrid, hired a car at the airport and drove through the night to Paris where he caught the Eurostar to London.
Clare Balding drove back from Switzerland to present the fourth-round rugby league Challenge Cup tie between Hull and Leeds. And Jonathan Pierce drove from northern France to commentate on football this afternoon.
Singer Whitney Houston, who was due to perform in Dublin as part of her Nothing But Love world tour, was forced to take to the Irish Sea on a less-than-glamorous car ferry.
The 46-year-old star opted for the boat after the flight ban threatened to cause another cancellation on her tour, which has already suffered several cancelled dates due to her respiratory infection earlier this month.
By the time I had bought my Sunday papers, they were full of journeys of daring-so by staff trapped abroad (which says something about the lifestyle of these national media types).
One Independent on Sunday writer wrote glowingly about his adventure getting from near Rome back home, the travel editor of course was stranded in the Algarve, and Janet Street-Porter, God Bless Her, filed her copy from Italy, saying: You’re Stranded – Get Over It. She would say that, wouldn’t she.
But if you want real Dunkirk spirit, TV presenter Dan Snow had been planning on ferrying people back to Dover throughout Sunday. Each round trip was expected to take two hours. He filled three rigid inflatable boats with 25 people but was told by officials in Calais that he would not be able to return. A spokesperson for the group said they did not know the reason why.
It’s a good job there were no health and safety inspectors around in 1940.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Gene Hunt image is Labour's own goal

POSTERS are a much maligned medium. I am surprised more use is not made of their ability to get across messages.
If you need convincing on the potential power of the images on bill-boards plastered on hoardings then remember the Labour isn’t working slogan which helped Margaret Thatcher lead the Conservatives back to electoral victory back in 1979.
But Labour may well have shot themselves in the foot by trying to repeat that success, ironically using the same advertising agency responsible for that Tory coup.
According to web-sites today, Labour will portray David Cameron as politically-incorrect TV detective Gene Hunt in a poster campaign designed to revive memories of 1980s social unrest and youth unemployment.
The poster - the winner of a public competition - shows the Tory leader sat on the bonnet of an Audi Quattro like that driven by Hunt in the Life on Mars and Ashes To Ashes series.
And it appeals to voters: "Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s."
Apparently cash-strapped Labour launched a poster competition in a bid to save money on design by tapping into public creativity after a slew of parodies of Tory ads swept the internet.
The Gene Hunt theme was the brainchild of 24-year-old activist Jacob Quagliozzi and was worked up by Labour's ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Cabinet minister brothers David and Ed Miliband are due to officially launch the election poster.
Foreign Secretary David said he and his brother first got into politics in the 1980s and that the poster was a "powerful reminder of the damage which the Tories did to Britain in the 80s and the threat which they pose to the country should they win the election".
The pair is expected to make several campaigning appearances together with the aim of securing the support of under-25s for a fourth Labour term.
But my own reaction that Labour may have seriously misunderstood the mood of the nation was borne out by comments on the story.
“This could be a campaign that could backfire very badly for Labour. Labour could actually manage to do what the Tories can't and make Cameron seem cool, this campaign couldn't have been timed better”...”The 1980s... I wish, how kind and gentle they now seem, please, please take us back!”... “Labour has totally missed the point of Gene Hunt? Gene Hunt is cool, women want to sleep with him and straight British males want to be him, own goal”...“Labour so genuinely out of touch that they don’t realise Gene Hunt is pretty much exactly what people want? Someone who kicks the bejeezus out of criminals and doesn’t respect 'political correctness' is something people would vote for” ...these are typical of reaction.
It depends on which image of the 80s you share: the horrors of the Falklands war, the 4 million unemployed, and the destruction of mining communities; or the glorious victory over the Argentinians, the property boom and putting the unions in their place.
Like Gene Hunt, the 80s polarised public opinion. I suppose that is what elections do, too.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Icy blast for old media

THIRTY years ago some bright spark had a great idea for a freebie give-away to promote sales of an aerosol de-icer spray for motor car windscreens.
It was a neat little scraper with three surfaces, one sponge for water, one soft edge for mist and one hard edge for ice.
It worked a treat, so well, in fact that I still have the scraper and never had to buy any spray again, which was good news for the environment, good news for my pocket, but terrible news for the de-icer manufacturer.
I often laughed at the thought of such a self-destructive promotion. Who would be stupid enough to give something away free that worked so well that no-one wanted to buy the main product?
And who would have guessed that my own beloved media industry would make exactly the same mistake?
For de-icer spray, think newspapers. For scraper, think internet.
For ten years or so newspapers have been giving away content for free on the internet, and wandering why their newspaper sales figures have been plummeting.
Even worse, the old media companies have been incapable of raising any revenues from the Internet, despite what they may say.
The new kids on the block, notably Google, have none of the expense of producing newspapers or bulletins, nor any editorial staff who have to find stories.
Instead they trawl the Internet with their spiders and pinch all the material, whether it be advertising or editorial content, from the sites of the traditional media.
Then to top it all, they coin in cash from their own advertising revenue streams. Google alone now garners more cash from advertising than the whole of ITV.
It would be as amusing as the de-icer gaffe, if it had not been for the thousands of staff in newspaper, radio and television offices up and down the country who have lost their jobs as a result, including yours truly.
Not that it has been an easy conundrum for the traditional media industry to solve. How could they have protected themselves from the new wave of technology?
Well, they could have ignored the world-wide web, which would have robbed the search engines of their content and meant that the local media at least could have remained a unique source of news and advertisements.
But that smacks of head-in-the-sand mentality. And it wouldn’t have stopped house, jobs and motors advertisements stampeding to the new platforms.
Alternatively the old media could have invested in ensuring their own web developments stayed ahead of the competition and then charged customers for their internet offering.
This is what Rupert Murdoch is beginning to do. And the regional press is also giving it a try.
Two North West dailies are spearheading the latest experiment in paid-for online content by launching new subscription-only e-editions of their titles.
The Bolton News and Lancashire Telegraph, both owned by Newsquest, are currently advertising electronic versions of the paper costing 10p a copy - compared to the 40p cover price for the print versions.
The papers are marketing the move as a chance for readers to get the news earlier and save money at the same time.
The e-editions will use the 'page-turning' software run by PageSuite which is becoming increasingly popular with many local press companies now using it.
Reaction to the news, on Hold The Front Page, was typical: “Interesting marketing strategy - don't buy our product which costs more - buy this one which comes out first and is cheaper” was one comment. “Surely it’s only going to further affect sales of the printed product?” said another.
But another thought it was the only way to go. “For once I have to agree with Murdoch that ALL newspapers should have paid-for online versions. People are decreasing buying newspapers because you can get the same news more quickly and for free online. Online advertising hasn't proved to be the cash cow it was once thought. It may sound harsh on readers but to stop the endless cuts and decrease in quality of journalism we all need to follow the above examples.”
So even with the benefit of hindsight, professionals in the industry do not agree as to what the answer is.
My suspicion is that the old-style media companies are responding far too late to the threat, and still haven’t worked out how to capitalise on the opportunity.
The intriguing question is: When the traditional media and its journalists have all disappeared, from where will the web-sites get their content?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

First ship jobs dominate list

THE Sunday Times this weekend had a fascinating extra supplement, as if it needed any more.
Its annual 100 Best Small Companies To Work For was inspiring.
Here were organisations which, according to surveys of their own staffs, engaged in meaningful consultation with workers, promoted their well-being, demonstrated a willingness to give back to the communities they served, and cared about personal development.
A lot were run by self-confessed weird and eccentric entrepreneurs; some didn’t even judge their performance by how much money they made.
But their satisfaction ratings for employees went up to a staggering 96%.
So what could possibly be wrong with all that? Well, nothing as it happens.
Except there was something else revealed by the list of 100 best performers out of the 571 which put themselves up for scrutiny.
That something probably says more about the state of the British economy, and its prospects for the future, than any surveys or dry Government statistics.
Practically none of the companies made anything.
The winner offered what it called IT Solutions. Next came a charity. Then there was a marketing consultancy.
And so on: Professional services, public relations, property management, software development, human resources and management consultancy were the names of the games featuring in the top twenty.
A contractor sneaked in at 21 and a retirement home construction company at 25, but largely the roll-call read like a description of all the jobs described by Douglas Adams in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as the sort of professions pursued by occupants of the first ship sent into space from a doomed planet before its destruction by an intergalactic goat.
The idea was, of course, that no such goat existed and it was a ruse to get rid of non-productive people. They ended up colonising Earth.
Well, I wouldn’t advocate going quite that far. But it must be of huge concern that so few primary industries (miners or growers), secondary (manufacturers) or even tertiary (retailers) made the grade.
That means either such firms don’t exist, or that they are run by bad employers who care not a jot for the people who work for them.
To extend the system used in my children’s geography classes, the companies who dominated the Sunday Times list could be described as quaternary (marketing, PR and Training) or even quintenary, if there is such a word, for consultants.
As a consultant, I don’t mind admitting that this is scary, and explains why this country’s economy is in such a rut and is taking so long to recover from recession.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rat gnaws quiche tale

REGULAR readers of this blog (that’s both of you) will know that I have previously highlighted the strange news values of the national press and how they feed off each other. See the Taffy Thomas tale in the archive.
Well a similar nonsense has been exposed by the story about a young woman being asked for ID to buy quiche in her local branch of Tesco.
The Leamington Observer story about 24-year-old Christine Cuddihy being forced to show her driving licence to staff languished almost unnoticed on its website for almost a week.
However after an agency repackaged the story after tracking down the woman involved, it quickly became national headline news.
The Daily Mail made it top story on its website on Tuesday with most of the rest of the national media swiftly folllowing suit.
Six days later it had become a top talking-point in BBC radio phone-ins while the Mail's online story had attracted more than 800 reader comments.
The Observer's deputy editor Kevin Unitt, who wrote the original story, told Hold The Front Page: “I knew it was a good story, and hoped it would be picked up by the national press, but none seemed particularly interested at first.
“The Sun ran just three lines on it on page 25 last week and the Daily Mail rejected it altogether because The Sun had already covered it, a bizarre decision given they would lead their own website with the story just a few days later.
“How our story – which had been printed for almost a week and for all that time had been visible to all on our website – finally grew legs nationally was the introduction of a press agency, who tracked down the woman involved, slightly re-packaged the story, and sold it on to their national newspaper contacts.
“On Tuesday, almost a week after we'd ran the piece, the Daily Mail finally screamed it from their website, making it the top story as it generated more than 600 comments from readers across the world in just 12 hours.
Unfortunately a lot of the comments on the HTFP story slag off agencies for picking up and exploiting local journalists’ stories.
“Agencies leech on to the local press, trawl through their websites and do little work and get great rewards,” was typical.
It was ever thus. Besides just try selling stories to the Nationals and you will see what a time-consuming, frustrating and fairly unrewarding exercise it is.
But I was more interested in why this was a story in the first place. One self-confessed cynical hack told HTFP: “google the name of the woman involved and you find she is on Saatchi's graduate scheme. One of the criteria to win a place on Saatchi is to get extensive media coverage. I smell a rat."
Another said: “Is the story true? The comment from Tesco was a bit non-committal. Did they confirm that it actually happened?”
And there lies the rub. If Tesco, also currently famous for its dress policy (no pyjamas and no bare feet), did ask for id before selling a quiche, then it is a story.
If they didn’t, it isn’t.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Verdict on inquests

AFICIANADOS of Agatha Christie or similar period detective novels will be accustomed to the all-powerful figure of the coroner.
The man, and yes it always was a man in those days, with joint qualifications in medicine and law held his investigations with the help of supplicant police officers and anyone else he called upon, within days of the suspicious death.
And if he thought he got to the bottom of nefarious deeds he would order the arrest of the person deemed responsible for the heinous crime.
That is not the case now. Coroners come right at the end of the procedural pecking order. The police have to investigate, the facts have to examined by the Crown Prosecution Service, the case has to be heard by magistrates and, more likely than not, the Crown Court, all before the coroner is allowed to have his say.
Take the case of Gordon Park, the convicted killer of his wife Carol thirty years ago, who then hid the body in a bag in Coniston Water. He was found dead in his prison cell at Garth prison, Leyland, last week.
He always denied the murder and campaigners maintained that his death, widely reported as suicide, was proof that he was so tormented by frustration at not being able to prove his innocence that he took his own life. Others said it was proof of his guilt.
The media was full of speculation as to which version was more likely. Yet the matter could have been resolved almost instantly by a confident coroner immune from litigation from aggrieved parties.
If it was suicide, and that is really for the coroner’s inquest to decide, then Park would more than likely have left a note. That note could clear up the mystery once and for all.
But because it was a prison death, the prison and probation ombudsman will have to complete inquiries and report before the inquest is held. So the warring branches of Park’s families are unlikely to get the peace they deserve for a year or more.
In the days when coroners ruled the roost, he wouldn’t have waited for the ombudsman. Even if he did, then he could quite easily have revealed whether a note was left and what it said at the inquest opening, held within days of the death.
The Government could save itself millions of pounds in public inquiries and statutory investigations if it just handed powers back to the coroners.
Nearly every disaster and high profile death is followed by calls for inquiries. Independent and thorough inquests would achieve the same result for a fraction of the cost.
There would be a price to pay in insisting that coroners reaffirmed their priority of getting to the whole truth and stopped giving verdicts designed to protect families from emotional upset and financial penalties imposed by life insurance policies. But that would be a small price and one well worth paying to restore coroners to the status and influence they once held.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Media landscape transformed

HERE is an article that illustrates perfectly how the Internet has led to seismic changes to the media landscape and why traditional television, radio, magazine and newspaper companies are struggling to maintain their previous monopolies.
A former finance adviser, with no experience of publishing, has set up a magazine aimed at people aged 65 years or more.
Over65 Magazine was launched this month (January 2010) on-line. But the publisher, Paul Rodman, intends to roll it out as a printed version when it has become established.
Mr Rodman, aged 49, of Heron Hill, Kendal, Cumbria, says that he saw the opportunity while in his previous roles of financial adviser and will-maker.
“I dealt a lot with older people and got an understanding for their requirements. It struck me that there wasn’t a lot out there on the world-wide web for them.
“There are organisations that target the over 50s, but for some reason they seem frightened to target the older age group, which is surprising as they are increasingly computer literate.
“It is more than likely that they will have worked with computers at work, and are likely have a home PC as well.”
The web-site is deliberately designed to look like a traditional printed magazine, with single PDF pages.
This makes it easier to read and follow on screen and also easy to print out and read like a traditional paper product.
“There is a lot of information on the Internet, but it is often designed for the Internet generation and older people can quickly get turned off by the dazzling displays,” said Mr Rodman.
“I wanted to create a publishable environment with attractive photographs and interesting articles which are easy to follow.”
“Older people have more time on their hands and it is great if they can access items that help pass the time and stimulate them.”
Among the subjects the monthly magazine plans to cover are health and welfare, finances, food, pets, holidays, nostalgia, motoring and travel, all aimed at the target market.
“Its tone will be ethical and wholesome, although I won’t be afraid of a bit of controversy,” said Mr Rodman, who plans plenty of surveys, feedback and other user generated content.
Mr Rodman is disarmingly honest about his lack of publishing background and is open about his dependence on support from professionals in the field.
Among the experts he has recruited are Robin Pritchard from Kirkby Lonsdale for graphic design, Julian Healey a business consultant from Morecambe and yours truoly, Mike Glover of Milnthorpe for campaigns, content and marketing.
Although all these people are based in the North West of England, the magazine is deliberately national in tone and content.
Despite his lack of experience, Mr Rodman has hit upon a business model that would have been unthinkable before the Internet.
Magazines traditionally depend on two sources of revenue: cover price and advertisements.
Over65magazine is totally free to the user, although there will be a charge for subscriptions to the printed version if the demand is there. This is possible because there is no printing and paper costs, no distribution network and no commission for retailers.
As for advertisements the magazine relies on an Internet-specific service, where 800 leading companies put linked banners out there on the web for use by anyone, in exchange for a commission for business they generate.
The internet means that all data is traceable, so the companies can tell from whose sites business comes, and pay a commission.
Over65magazine will, however, ask readers for name and e-mail address only to avoid fears of their personal details being passed on.
The technology also means that all copies and articles can be archived for search by subject. This also has a benefit for advertisers who know that readers may explore purchase options weeks, months or even years after they feature in the publication and still seek out the relevant information.
“This is a really exciting project and I am confident that if enough people look at the site they are going to like it and come back in enough numbers to make the business viable,” said Mr Rodman.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Media battalions in TV war

IT is more than half a century since Lord Thomson of Fleet’s famous remark that ITV was a licence to print money.
How things have changed. Lord Thomson was head of the famous media family that owned the Times and several of the larger regional newspapers, as well as Thomson Directory, Thomson Holidays and other world brands.
When the company decided to ditch its regional newspaper interests back in the 1990s most of them were bought by what was to become Trinity Mirror. Others gravitated to the ownership of Johnston Press.
Now these two groups are on opposite sides in a bid to save independent regional TV news services.
Licences for the pilot projects will be handed out in March with the eventual aim of them taking over the running of all Channel 3 regional news services from 2013 when the ITV licence expires.
Preferred bidders in each of the three pilot regions are due to be selected by the Government in March and the final contracts are set to be awarded in May.
Another ironic twist of fate means that former Trinity Mirror Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves will help oversee the award of licences for a pilot TV news project.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport has appointed five other senior media figures on the panel to decide which groups will be allowed to run the independently funded news consortia to provide regional news in Scotland, Wales and the Tyne Tees and Borders area of England.
The panel will be chaired by Richard Hooper who is a former deputy chairman of Ofcom and was awarded a CBE in 2005 for services to the communications industry.
The others are Val Atkinson, who spent 27 years at BBC Scotland; Fru Hazlitt, former chief executive of GCap Media and Virgin Radio; Glyn Mathias former political editor for ITN at Westminster; and William Perrin, former civil service policy advisor on technology, culture, media and sport to Tony Blair.
Former editor of Channel 4 News Stewart Purvis will act as an advisor to the panel.
Trinity Mirror's bid to run regional TV news in the North-East and Borders region has been joined by The CN Group, publishers of the News and Star, Carlisle, and the North West Evening Mail, in Barrow, joining the Press Association and production company Ten Alps.
It will do battle for the right to broadcast regional TV news on Channel 3 with a rival team featuring Newsquest, publishers of the Northern Echo, and Johnston Press, which owns the Sunderland Echo and Hartlepool Mail.
Johnston Press and Newsquest have joined forces with ITN, Metro Radio and the University of Sunderland to form a consortium to provide broadcast news in Border and Tyne Tees.
The group is together seeking to win the public funding which is had been made available for one of three broadcasting pilot projects to replace ITV news in Wales, Scotland and this English region. If the pilots are successful, Independently Funded News Consortia could be rolled out across the UK.
Staff involved in the current ITV service in the regional will also be involved in the bid. And broadcaster Melvyn Bragg is acting as a special adviser to the consortium.
ITN chief executive John Hardie said: "We’re excited to bring together this compelling consortium which combines the very best of commercial journalism in the region, spanning television, print, online and radio.
"This unprecedented alliance will act as a catalyst to revolutionise local news, delivering a ground-breaking new service for viewers. Using the considerable skills and capabilities of our partners combined with ITN’s proven journalistic and creative pedigree, we will offer an unparalleled strength in regional and local news coverage available across all platforms."
Current ITV head of news in the area Lucy West represents the existing ITV staff who are involved in the consortium.
She said: "We will aim to build on our strengths and deliver a first class news service to viewers across the North East, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders. We are looking forward to developing new, exciting and ambitious ideas with our partners to provide the best local news service to audiences across all platforms in the Tyne Tees and Border region."
Johnston Press chief executive John Fry said: "Johnston Press boasts an army of journalists on the ground, embedded at a grass-roots level and very much part of their communities. We look forward to playing a central role in this new era for local news to best serve readers, surfers and viewers in the area."
The question is why these major battalions of the regional press want to run a TV news service which the current ITV bosses just see as a drain on resources they cannot sustain.
Convergence of media means that journalists currently employed by the regional press have been trained on podcasts and video for the internet, so will probably be expected to film for TV at the same time as taking notes for their newspaper versions of stories.
Whether they are really willing and able, while being paid in most cases less than £20,000 per year, is yet to be seen.
For the major newspaper owners to be battling to run local television news services shows just what a traumatic change there has been in the media industry since the advent of the internet.
Lord Thomson’s words now seem an age away, which in today’s fast moving world they are.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Taxing time at New Year

WELCOME to the New Year, and I sincerely hope you have had a better start to 2010 than my family and I have.
First the sickness: The least said about this, the best. A form of novo-virus, or Winter Vomiting disease as it is more descriptively called, has swept through at least three branches of the family, meaning festivities had to be cancelled, presents remain unopened and mountains of food and drink remain unconsumed.
A couple of family members have actually had the lurgy twice, once at Christmas and once at New Year, which I think is taking a devotion to Scrooge a little too far.
But the question here is what are we, as victims of disease, supposed to do? Suspecting that novo-virus was one of the growing number of conditions, like swine flu, which doctors don’t want to know about, we contacted NHS direct.
Sure enough, it said get on with the vomiting, take plenty of liquids to re-hydrate yourself, take Paracetamol if you have aches and pains and stay away from your GP.
Second the refuse collection: or what are we supposed to do with all the food, drink, Christmas wrapping and unwanted presents (when they are finally opened)?
We have actually been giving unwanted food to various animals: wild birds, supposedly tame rabbits and the dog is having a wow of a time. The rest of the food is being put on the compost heap, which is now so large I expect to be told I need planning permission for it. We are burning most of the rest of the rubbish, no doubt breaching some public health directive.
But there has been no bin collection for four weeks and our two bins are now full to the brim despite our best efforts, as are the blue boxes. Sadly the bottle one is full of Lucozade empties and the tins one full of soda cans, which says everything about our Christmas.
So I politely phoned South Lakeland District Council where the most charming, disarming Mrs Cannyboddy is on the switchboard.
The gist of her message is: “I know pet. They are doing the best they can. I haven’t had mine collected for weeks. Just put out bags.”
When I point out the threat of vermin, she gets extra cute, laughingly referring to rats in woolly jumpers.
This neatly brings us to the weather or specifically its impact on transport. In this part of the frozen North the highways authority, Cumbria County Council, has been quite brazen about its policy, which is to keep the main highways between centres of commerce open and forget the rest.
Consequently no one in our family has been able to leave their country lanes or town centre estates to get to the main roads.
The struggle to get to work has become a daily dice with death. So the policy is obviously aimed at saving grit for a rainy day, so to speak, or saving money, rather than keeping society on the move.
So, to summarise: if you get sick don’t bother the NHS; if your bins need emptying don’t bother the district council; and if the roads are impassable, don’t tell the highways authority. So remind me just what do we pay our taxes for?