Friday, July 29, 2011


Media Barons' Infuence is Much Exaggerated

Journalist and pollster, Peter Kellner, in the August edition of Prospect Magazine, argues something I have long debated with students and colleagues: that the power of media barons is usually exaggerated. He suggests we see them as scary monsters, the influence of which can actually be just shrugged away. He homes in on the definitive example always quoted: 'It's the Sun Wot Won it', the tabloid's headline in the wake of the 1992 election victory which many thought Kinnock would win but which it is believed was denied him by the impact of The Sun. Many thought this clear evidence that you needed Murdoch's support to win a modern election in the UK.

He quotes the study by Heath, Jowell, and Curtice, Labour's |Last Chance? This study re-interviewed in 1992 a survey panel first interviewed after the 1987 election.

'The date showed that the shift of attitudes between 1987 and 1992 among readers of The Sun and other pro Tory tabloids was much the same as among the rest of of the electorate. In both groups Labour's support rose by four percentage points. The study compiled a composite approval index for each leader, on a scale of 0 to 4. Among the electorate as a whole, Kinnock's rating slipped from 2.4 to 2.3 in 1992. It was lower among readers of the Tory tabloids, 1'9 in both elections- but no sign of decline between the two elections. The authors concluded:

'Neither The Sun nor any other Conservative tabloid newspapers were responsible for the John Major's unexpected victory.'

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Cricket Still the Gentleman's Game

As a fanatical fan of our summer game, despite the frequent dearth of summer weather, I have to insert a little encomium for its superior virtues in the wake of a worthy victory. Superior to what? Well, to soccer for a start. Having been finding sports pages filled with transfer news and gossip about managers all through the close season and now with the football season spilling even more voraciously into cricket's shrinking space in the national focus, I have to confess to a profound sense of depression. Who cares about these overpaid, and in England's case, second rate 'superstars'? I feel sick to my stomach when seeing these immature young narcissists cavort when scoring or mime fatal injury when pushed over just a tiny bit roughly.

OK cricket can be a bit boring at times and its major stars can irritate too, even in some cases, be capable of cheating or match fixing, though not in England's case to our knowledge. But the wonderful victory of our side over the super strong Indian team was something to relish and be proud of. It was a magnificent display of perseverance and perfect application of sporting skill. If only our soccer team could have shown some of this composure and quality in South Africa.

And there's another thing, hugely important: the spirit in which the game is played. As a young trainee sportsman in school I was taught that you should always show politeness and respect to one's opponents, however much one might fulminate against them off the field. This doesn't always hold good in cricket but the game is still a universe away from the squalid pettiness of soccer. I recall when Shane Warne, someone we England fans had cause to hate for his brilliance and Aussie chutzpah, took his 600t wicket in Test cricket. Without hesitation, everyone at Old Trafford rose to their feet and cheered the great player that he is.

And this is from the article by Vic Marks in last Sunday's Observer:

'They(the crowd) stood and applauded as one... to greet Sachin Tendulkar. Does Ryan Giggs get this sort of welcome at Eastlands or Wayne Rooney at Anfield'?

I rest my case.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Why Are Tabloids So Popular?

Nick Cohen writes an interesting piece today about popular newspapers.

'It's hard to think the British are intrinsically decent people when you go through the back issues of the newspaper the British enjoyed reading most....Instead of exposing the abuse of power, it routinely humiliated and taunted its targets because of their sex lives. Far from throwing the paper aside in disgust, the News of the World's audience wanted more of the same.

How do we explain this phenomenon? Cohen goes on to glean arguments in favour of the 'decency' argument: Gordon and Sarah Brown 'hated having to deal with the likes of Murdoch'; Samantha Cameron would not have Coulson in her home 'on the sensible grounds he was a worthless man'. He seems to conclude that the basic decency of the British public has ultimately brought shown that 'appeasing the vicious popular culture conglomerates leads to disgrace and possible imprisonment'.

Hmmm. I wonder. Is it not part of human nature to take a mordant interest in someone else's misfortune? Don't we all indulge in gossip to some extent? What is happening to those friends we met last week who are getting divorced? or Have you Heard Jenny and Joe's son has just come out? Surely we are a protean mixture of good and bad impulses and prey to the attractions of things which often make us feel more than a little guilty? I freely admit to having read the News of the Screws from time to time and even the Daily Mail too, out of an interest which I'd find difficulty in defending.

Even if Murdoch, deservedly, goes down in flames, new purveyors to the public appetite for smut and brutal schadenfreude will step forward to take his place and, indeed, they may prove to be even worse. Murdoch, at least, can arguably be said to have saved the Times and the ST from closing and, through outfacing the print unions, breathed years more life into print journalism. What is required, I reckon, is a tightening up of the law as to what scandal sheets can legitimately publish. Nick is right that fear of 'disgrace and possible imprisonment' is a better safeguard than all that spurious guff about the 'public interest' and censorship.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Osborne Green Lights Two Tier Europe

We have been so entranced by the phone hacking affair that we have so some extent lost sight of the crisis over the euro. Not so Simon Jenkins whose striking piece today suggests a great turning point in Europe's history may have occurred. It always seemed to me a huge gamble that all EU members could be well served by a common currency. Given the great regional variety of European economies, both in terms of development and productivity a 'one size fits all interest rate' always seemed a dubious concept. For example, it could surely not help an economy with incipient inflation, nor those in need of reflation?

Some discussion has suggested that the euro-zone either has to relax controls to recreate something like pre-euro conditions, or to tighten controls to advance monetary, and by implication, political union. A compromise suggestion is to allow the 17 strong euro-zone to proceed at its own speed, enabling a 'slower' EU tier to remain outside. In the past Britain has spurned such an idea but, surprisingly, Osborne has apparently embraced it, as 'Bagehot' on The Economist's website reports his interview in the FT^:

Thanks to a great scoop by George Parker of the FT, it is clear the government now believes the following: (a) a big leap towards fiscal union is the only way of saving the single currency, (b) Britain has a strong interest in the survival of the single currency, (c) Britain must play no part in bailing out the single currency and will stand aloof from fiscal integration, thus (d) our national interest now lies in allowing Europe to divide into markedly different zones of integration, with us on the outside.

Here's the key passage from the interview:

"George Osborne says the “remorseless logic” of monetary union takes the single currency members in the direction of greater fiscal union, even if that did not necessarily mean having a single European budget or a single EU finance minister.

I think we have to accept that greater eurozone integration is necessary to make the single currency work and that is very much in our national interest,” he says. “We should be prepared to let that happen.”

Mr Osborne admits this flies in the face of traditional British policy, which has always suspected such a union as being the precursor of an elite group of EU members, which would ultimately dictate policy to those on the outside.

The chancellor seems more relaxed about that possibility, but insists that key decisions must still be taken at the level of all 27 member states, not least on matters affecting the single market.

If this happens, Jenkins thinks the end of the EU project might not be too far away. I can see that it would create a bloc dominated by the German economy and its related policies. This might presage the emergence of a 21st century Zollverein which itself opened the door to a united Germany. Or it could see nationalist resistance to such an outcome splinter what has been achieved since 1945. Either way, it's a huge gamble, but one Osborne now thinks less risky than allowing the weaker economies to default on their dents and possibly, in consequence, lay waste to the constituent economies of Europe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Two Angles on Phone Hacking Scandal

My first angle is to do with the vexed question of Dave's judgement. He said today that with the benefit of hindsight he would not have appointed Andy Coulson as his Press Secretary. Debate over? Not really, as Ed Miliband insisted. It is clear he was offered advice by a legion of people from Paddy Ashdown and Gordon Brown to Nick Clegg and John Yates
; in each case the advice was ignored. Judgement in such cases is crucial. If several reports suggest your house foundations are dodgy and you ignore them then you are culpable if your house falls down. And metaphorically at least, part of his has fallen down.

David Mellor, who should know a thing or two about poor judgement, said this morning on BBC news that Cameron should have heeded the warnings and not have stood aside as if the very act of being informed would 'compromise' him. He was being warned about something which could badly damage his government, not to mention the media and the standing of public servants including MPs and the police. Cameron's judgement is under attack here and his standing has been damaged, despite his robust display in the Commons today.

My second angle concerns Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng. Her action woman response to the threat to her aged spouse has thrust her into the news and we have been served up with aspects of her biography which, in other circumstances would make any tabloid hack's writing fingers itch to scribble down the dirt. This
explains how she was perceived by friends and enemies alike as extremely ambitious for self advancement. An American couple, the Cherrys helped her leave her humble background in China to settle in the USA and for a while gave her accommodation until Mrs Cherry discovered hubby was having an affair with the pneumatic former volleyball star. She was chucked out but soon married Cherry in February 199o; however, four months later she left because Cherry discovered she was seeing a guy called David Wolf. The linked article claims Rupert was unaware of Wendi's back story and was shocked when he discovered it.

Later on still, Deng met Murdoch at a function in Hongkong and soon was working for Star Television and being seen at Murdoch's side. Most Murdoch watchers agree she has acted like an elixir to him, rejuvenating the aging mogul's attitude to life and, if evidence were needed, bearing him two children. Her so-called 'Charlie's Angel' moment in attacking her husband's attacker yesterday reveals the unusual qualities of a highly unusual but extremely determined young woman.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Picture Saying a Thousand Words

I thought this cartoon wonderful. Not surprisingly as I think Riddell by far the cleverest cartoonist, both for his comment and artistry.

By way of preparing us for tomorrow's Select Committee hearing for Murdoch pere est fils plus Rebbekah, see this. And even better, see this by Nick Davies who must surely at this moment be the UK answer to Bob Woodward.

After 12 hours of questioning last night before being bailed, Brooks will be well fed up of questions by Tuesday evening.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Over Hyped or a 'Revolution'?

Returning from the intense humidity of Hongkong on Thursday, I felt a similar but different intensity in our political life. In a good article today Jonathan Freedland suggests we are in the middle of a 'very British revolution'. This contrasts with Mathew Parris, last Saturday in The Times, that it's all been overdone: newspapers have always paid money to acquire stories and used any number of devious tricks, including spying, to do the same thing. He concluded the fuss was 'hugely overblown'.

Well, I'm not so sure about either analysis. If it is a 'revolution', it's nothing like the Romanian one with which Freedland seeks to compare it. The power structure of UK remains intact and, as Freedland himself fears, despite the present furore, no real change might ensue, as in the case of MP's expenses and the shaming of the banker's. What seems to have been overthrown, rather, is a two decade near hegemony of press influence by one organisation, extending to incestuous social links between the topmost tiers of News International personnel and the British political system.

During the 1980s The Sun became a potent force and in 1992 dared to claim it was The Sun 'wot won' the 1992 election. Its huge readership and desperate, underhand methods made it almost immune from criticism as even MPs feared being 'monstered' by the 'Currant Bun'. Murdoch wielded so much power over Labour, after drawing it into its embrace in 1997, that one of Blair's aides reckoned Rupert was a 'shadow' member of the Cabinet, exercising direct influence over policies relating, especially to the EU and media ownership and control. Thank heaven this last might, just, be on the way to being swept away and even his interests in the US might come under severe attack. But is this a 'revolution'? Not really, it's more like a minor earthquake, an adjustment of tectonic plates.

Has it been 'hugely overblown'? Well, maybe, but there is a huge difference between suspected wrongdoing and being caught in the act. We all knew Murdoch's papers were ruthless in pursuit of a story and suspected laws might be being broken. But the hall mark of power is its ability to deflect, obfuscate and emerge unscathed. Nick Davies in The Guardian had been banging on about NI phone hacking for ages before anyone listened and they only did so once it was revealed the hackers have overstepped the mark by illegally hacking into the phones of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities. For once a shadowy but potent behind the scenes operation has been found out. Coulson will probably do time, just as Aitken and Archer did.

I agree with Freedland that, while everyone is furious now and calling for more heads to roll but we might well be close to the end of it. Murdoch has been humbled, forced to apologise and appear before a select committee against his will (and doesn't he look so vulnerable with his bald pate and black hole of a mouth?). Now that so many senior figures have gone, it could be the scandal will die down. It will all depend, I suspect, on what will happen at the committee hearings next week. Murdoch will be desperate to calm the atmosphere and get back tom making money as well as repairing his channels of influence. But having arrived back in UK in the middle of the scandal, I just hope the entertainment can continue for another few days at least...

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Oh Boy! A Day to Remember

When I was in a pub quiz,here in Hongkongacouple of days ago, the news came through that the News of the World had been closed down. There was instantly riotous celebration in the bar, peopled by Aussies, Yanks, Kiwis as well as Brits and a few baffled Hongkoners. We had a few more drinks on that one, you may be sure.

I don't get regular news from HK down here but one or two summaries have got through,including reactions of UK press. I note the Daily Mail has criticised Cameron's intention to investigate more widely media practices. Its editorial says:

"it's a 'dark day for the Conservative party, when its leader, in a bid to save his own skin,advocates the muzzling of a free press'.

It goes on to point out that it was a newspaper, The Guardian, which persisted with its investigation, [amid widespread press complacency,including from the Mail it neglects to point out]. I'm glad even the Mail, has now decided to back the premier UK newspaper's principled stand.

I was able, via my friend Roy, to access Steve Coogan's spiffing demolition of a N o W jobsworth on Newsnight recently. Do take a peek. It is so sweet to see those goitre eyed, knee-jerk Tories who dismissed this a 'reheated' story as irrelevant and transient when it has gone on to shake the government to its foundations. No doubt the awful News International will do something similar with the Sunday Sun but for the time being, it's still celebration time that an 'evil empire' has received a direct hit. Let's hope it continues to unravel.

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