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.