Friday, 29 July 2011

A pincer movement of sheer lunacy - Part II

In Part I (here) I bemoaned the absurd overreaction by the professionally smug to the non-news that newspapers buy information obtained by illegal phone tapping. A week has now passed since a Parliamentary committee manned by incompetent cross-examiners conducted a kangaroo court trial of three people connected to a particular newspaper and failed to pin a tail anywhere near the donkey's anus. The only public outcry of which I am aware concerns the distasteful bugging (tapping, hacking, call it what you will) of telephonic communications involving the families of deceased people. Reprehensible though I consider such activity to be, there is no evidence that disclosure of any improperly obtained material has caused inconvenience, embarrassment or upset to any family members. In short the whole thing is a bit of a non-issue over which politicians - sniffing the chance to pass laws preventing their own sordid secrets being exposed - have whipped themselves into an unnecessary lather.

Part II is about the apparent intent of all our main political parties to make electricity oppressively expensive. I am not going to rehearse the unanswerable arguments against reliance on generating electricity from wind and waves, nor am I going to rail against those in rabid servility to every scare story promoted by those whose financial position rests on acceptance of the catastrophic man-made global warming hypothesis. My concern is with something much more basic and, in my view, important.

As recently as twenty years ago I doubt many would have argued with the proposition that elected politicians in the UK had one duty above all other - to do what they considered to be in the best interests of the people they represent. Of course there can be honest disagreements about what is in the best interests of the little people but the focus of the exercise was unaltered by the outcome of the debate. MPs were in parliament to represent their constituents by acting in what they considered the best interests of their constituents. On local issues they would fight for what they felt was best for the constituency, on national and international issues they would broaden their remit to cover all the people living in the UK because the interests of their constituents were the same as the interests of every other person in the country.

Is it in the best interests of those living in a particular constituency and those living in all constituencies for electricity to be cheap or expensive? To my mind that is not a difficult question and should permit only one answer. Cheaper electricity eases pressure on household budgets and reduces the costs of doing business, as such it is a blindingly obvious desire for any right-thinking person whether or not he is a Member of Parliament. More expensive electricity hits the poorest hardest and hampers our businesses in their aim of selling goods and services to overseas customers. It takes a weirdly warped sense of priorities for any MP to promote a policy that impoverishes his own constituents and the country as a whole.

We all know why they continually pass laws making electricity ever more expensive. In part it is because they have fallen for the great global warming scam. In part it is because they hope it will bring in additional tax. In part it is because they want to set a pointless example to other countries in which politicians are not so craven to Saint Al of Gore and his distinctly unmerry fellow-travellers. In part it is because they have fallen for the "green jobs" scam. In part it is because they are scared of the party whips. In part it is because they think there might be votes in presenting themselves as "green". All these things explain why they support a particular line of policy, but none justifies voting for measures that hurt their constituents and damage the economy of the whole country.

Never let it be said I will miss an opportunity to state the obvious, and today is no exception. The reason we in the UK enjoy our current standard of living is that we have found ways of making physical comfort cheaper than it was before. Human beings have always been doing this and over the last two hundred years or so we have done it so successfully that we now measure material deprivation in the UK not in terms of basic housing, food and clean water but in terms of access to the internet, holidays and mobile telephones. Material comforts that are now taken for granted and deemed essential to subsistence living were either science fiction or oppressively expensive as recently as forty years ago. This happy state of affairs has been brought about by the amazing ability of human beings to invent new things and improve old things so that a luxury lifestyle of the 1950s is attainable on the minimum wage in 2011.

At the heart of all this improvement in the quality of everyday physical comfort is electricity. The cheaper it is, the better we all live. And do not ever forget that those earning good money will always be able to afford comfort, what really matters is allowing those of modest means the ability to get more comfort for their limited money. That is a fundamental part of the duty of MPs to act in the best interests of their constituents and of the country as a whole. However tempting it might be to satisfy international or party agendas, their duty is to their constituents and to the UK. Electricity costs are at the heart of all our lives, especially those of modest means, and any MP with his or her eye on the ball should be fighting against any government measure that increases its price.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A pointless Olympic junket

Apparently the start of the Olympic Games in London is now just a year away. Tickets have been sold and many eager sports fans left disappointed by not being able to gain access to even a first qualifying round of an obscure event. The very nature of an Olympic Games means that promotion, advertising and encouragement to either watch or participate are wholly unnecessary. Many more than the number that can be admitted to watch have applied for tickets already and all those with a realistic chance of competing have been well aware of next year's event for years.

For some reason the prior anniversary of the start of the event has been deemed an appropriate reason to spend millions of pounds on promotional events around the world. The BBC reports (here) that yesterday London was subject to a rally in Trafalgar Square at which the head of the International Olympic Committee invited competitors to London and the design of the medals was unveiled, the Olympic swimming pool was opened and both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister made speeches saying what a jolly good games London will host. And (here) it reports that promotional events were hosted at British tax payers' expense at "nearly 100" foreign venues "to encourage visitors, businesses, students and sports people to get involved".

Has there ever been a more fatuous waste of money? I know the competition is stiff but this really does stand out as a piss-up-wall venture of heroic proportions. It's the bloody Olympic games for crying out loud. No one needs encouragement to visit London during the games, or to use it as an advertising medium (which is its only relvance to businesses) and absolutely no sports people are unaware that the Olympics come round every four years wherever they are held. As for students - what on earth have they got to do with the price of fish? I can't help thinking that these events exemplify three worrying phenomena.

First, we have domestic politicians lending their names and time (and our taxes) to an occasion of no relevance to anything domestic other than the standing of those same politicians. Had there been no rally in Trafalgar Square, no formal unveiling of medals and no formal opening of the swimming pool the games would happen next year just the same. As it is, events were organised. That gave a fine opportunity for politicians to divert from their selfless path of public service in order to be there and look good in front of the cameras of the world. They had the option of doing something useful instead and allowing the IOC to spend its own money promoting its own event without assistance from the UK tax-payer. Sadly, there are few votes and no fame to be gained by staying in the office and getting on with work.

Secondly, we have an unaccountable supra-national organisation flying a delegation into town and being treated like visiting heads of state. Why? The games will be held here next year and never again in my lifetime or the lifetime of anyone involved in the IOC. The venues will either be ready or they will not, the medals will either be pleasing to the eye or they will not, new rail and bus routes will either prove efficient or they will not, security measures will either prevent bombs being planted and/or detonated or they will not, visitors will either find hotels in their price range or they will not, everything else involved with the games will either work well or it will not, a visit by delegates of the IOC will make no difference to anything. All that will be achieved is the reinforcement of the concept that such people are special and are due special treatment. That, in turn, reinforces their unaccountability and the prospect of corruption.

Thirdly, we have an enormous waste of money with no one in power questioning a penny of the expense. It's only a few thousand, a few hundred thousand or a few million; chicken feed in the scale of government spending so it doesn't matter. To me it matters an awful lot. There are countless examples of local and national government throwing money at events of no value simply because the sum involved is minuscule compared to the total budget. I really don't care whether the total of all such sums would make a significant dent in the overall budget because they are a waste of money and should not happen regardless of their overall effect on a balance sheet.

I find myself asking why the Olympic Games is not treated like any other commercial venture. Be in no doubt, for the IOC it is a commercial venture just as the football World Cup is a commercial venture for Fifa. Those organisations rake in millions for their own use (and that of their officials) regardless of how much they then distribute to national sports associations. They operate like the EU. What comes first is the organisation at the top, everything lower down the pyramid of power is beholden to the, always unaccountable, Politburo.

In principle national governments are not beholden in the same way because they are not dependent on finance from the supra-national body, however the "ahem" in the woodpile is politicians. Politicians want votes and think, probably correctly, that associating themselves with those in charge of major sporting events is likely to gain more votes than it will lose. The unfortunate downside is that bribes have to be paid. I don't mean brown envelopes stuffed with folding cash (not in this country, anyway), what I mean is spending tax-payers' money to keep the international bureaucrats comfortable and to put on events that make them happy so they will heap praise on the hospitality given to and the respect paid by the Prime Minister to the august body they represent. There is no benefit to the people of the host country, all benefits land safely on the plates of the international bureaucrats and the domestic politicians who laud them.

The result is ever more power and influence being exercised by supranational sporting bodies. For so long as a national government wishes to gain prestige by securing the right to host a major sporting event it must butter-up the small coterie of bureaucrats at the top of the organising body. It would make economic sense for the Olympics to have a permanent venue because country after country that has spent many millions on stadia has found little demand for those facilities once the games ended. Well well, what a surprise. Were there a domestic demand for such facilities they would have been built and then paid for by the fees charged to the people who use them. As it is Olympic stadia for numerous sports are built in a closely defined geographical area which has never before witnessed any demand for such facilities.

Giving the Olympics a permanent home would remove the scope for the supranational body to exert influence, receive favours and bestow honour on incumbent politicians. That is why it will never happen.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Michael Gove plays with his organ

Looks like Michael Gove to me.

Bloody good playing anyway.


Friday, 15 July 2011

A pincer movement of sheer lunacy - Part I

In the curry house yesterday I was asked whether I had been out in the sun, apparently my forehead was bright red and deeply blistered. The reason is not exposure to sunlight, it is relentless frustration with the stupidity of current political debate that has caused the vigorous and repeated application of palm to head. At the moment our Parliament seems to be dominated by two topics - the activities of the press and the government's desire to make electricity prohibitively expensive. Both subjects seem to have a magical power over MPs such that they spout complete and total nonsense without any comprehension of the lack of common sense behind their analyses. I'll deal with the press today.

The basis of Parliamentary hysteria seems to be the "revelation" that a tabloid newspaper published information gleaned from illegal phone taps and computer hacks. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought any such thing has occurred in this country? Everyone, that's who. Another, secondary, "revelation" is that journalists paid money in return for information the law requires to be kept confidential. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought such a thing has occured in this country? Everyone, that's who.

There is only one sensible reaction to these "revelations". It is to get the police to investigate the matter and charge anyone against whom there is sufficient evidence. The activities complained of are already illegal under our law so there is no need for any more laws. The one and only thing that should be done is to enforce existing law.

Instead a Court of Appeal Judge is going to be kept out of court for a year or more so that he can conduct an inquiry which will be called a whitewash if he says current laws are fine and a witch hunt if he says new laws should be passed.

In Parliament we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of buckets of sanctimonious hogwash being sprayed around by hundreds of MPs, each trying to out-outrage the previous speaker with the level of their ignorant and hypocritical humbug.

Everyone with a brain larger than a pea knows newspapers act in underhand and, sometimes, unlawful ways to get attention-grabbing information they can plaster across their front pages. They all do it. Locals, nationals, broadsheets, tabloids - they all do it.

How do you think the Yokel Local Chronicle learned about the intention of Big Supermarket PLC to buy farmer Giles's front field for a new shop? It's obvious, someone working for the company leaked the news, probably in return for a fee or favour. In that instance the person working for the supermarket company broke the terms of his contract of employment and risked summary dismissal. He had to balance the benefit he gained against the risk of losing his job. The newspaper knew he was breaching his contract but also knew there was no realistic chance of being sued, so it published anyway in order to have a good headline, a reputation for having it's finger on the local pulse and the chance of greater circulation in future and higher advertising revenues. The only question that would trouble the editor is whether the information was true.

Paying for information obtained in other unlawful ways is different only in degree from paying for leaked confidential information about the intentions of a supermarket chain. The degree might be higher or lower, but the substance is the same each time. That some information results from activities that amount to criminal offences and other "feeds" involve a breach of contract but not a crime is a distinction without a difference in this field. We have laws against this sort of activity. Those laws provide a penalty for anyone proved to have breached them. There is one reason and one reason only why those laws were broken - the people breaking them considered the benefit of the breach to outweigh the risk of being caught and/or the penalty for being caught and pursued to judgment. Making the activity doubly unlawful will not change this because it is a matter of human nature rather than of law.

Increasing the penalty can make a big difference to how people behave but it brings up a wholly different matter that makes serious penalties impossible. How does phone tapping or hacking emails compare to burglary, or stabbing someone or holding-up a bank with a shotgun? Obviously infringements of privacy are not in the same league, so what maximum penalty can be justified without the law becoming absurd? There is no certain answer to that question although the general answer is that the maximum penalty, and the penalty actually imposed in any particular case, is unlikely ever to be so severe that it would deter those offered a chunky financial inducement.

Members of Parliament can huff and puff all they want about how morally reprehensible it is to tap the phones of the families of deceased soldiers and victims of crime. I doubt that there are many in the country who have not huffed and puffed in disgust. Nothing MPs say and no amount of hot air they expel can change anything. Newspapers will still use whatever means they can get away with to obtain the information they think their readers want to read, because more readers means more advertisers and that is where the money is.

A theme that ran through contributions in the debate in the House of Commons was a call for regulation not just of how newspapers obtain information but of what they publish. This deserves to result in blistered foreheads across the nation. Do these people really think the interests of the people of this country as a whole are best served by newspapers being constricted in what they are permitted to print and how in buggery do they think such restrictions can be imposed?

Only two restrictions can ever be justified. First, they should not publish things that are untrue. The law covers that already (albeit imperfectly) through the law of libel. Secondly, they should not publish anything that causes them to lose business. This is nothing to do with the law, it is all about the little people voting with their feet. Editorial judgment must be exercised to decide whether a story will be good or bad for circulation. If it will be bad it should not be published, if good it should be published, if it appears good but turns out to be bad the paper can look for a new editor. No other restrictions can have any justification under any circumstances. I hear you cry: what about kiddy porn? Simple, advertisers will disappear overnight, only a few pathetic dribblers will buy the paper, the publisher and numerous editorial staff will face lengthy time behind bars and next week there will be no newspaper.

The very suggestion that there should be any sort of State control over the content of newspapers other than the law of libel is so absurd as to be obscene. Some might suggest it is part of a plot by politicians to protect themselves from criticism, I do not agree. I believe it to be nothing other than an irrational knee-jerk reaction to extremely distasteful newspaper activities that have been exposed recently. The politicians want to be heard expressing disgust so they can have their local paper report they have stood up to be counted. OK, fine, let them say it and get their favourable editorial, then they can return to the real world and acknowledge that what was done was unlawful so no new law is needed and that any attempt to censor the press is bound to fail.

The question they are really addressing is this: should Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? Sadly, they do not seem to be willing or able to understand that this is what they are doing. In any event, how can Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? The key here is "prevent publication". How can Parliament - which can only do anything through the laws it passes - prevent someone doing something? As the law now stands there are penalties for doing naughty things once you have done them, and only then if you are caught and there is sufficient evidence to prove you did them. It is the risk of penalty that is preventative. Short of physical restraint, all the law can do is threaten a penalty in the hope the threat will prevent naughtiness.

So, how do you prevent the truth being told? The simple answer is that you cannot, all you can do is pass laws imposing penalties for telling the truth and therein lies the fundamental flaw in all the guff spouted in Parliament. They can moan about invasions of privacy and the extreme distastefulness of some of those invasions until they are any colour in the face they choose, but they cannot produce a rational argument for the truth being suppressed. If that truth is not to the taste of a newspaper's readership there is a risk to advertising revenue, if it is to their taste the till will ring triumphantly. The little people will vote with their £1 coins. Parliament is an utter irrelevance on this issue. Honourable members should shut up and keep their fingers crossed that their peccadillos remain below the radar.