Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Political world reels as Sun endorses its own self-importance

The Sun matters less than it thinks it does.

In 1992, a mythology was born because the sheer wrongness of the opinion polls made it look as though there’d been a big late swing to the Tories. The Sun’s extra-vicious attacks on Neil Kinnock in the last week of the campaign gave the paper a pretext on which to claim credit for this ‘swing’.

Its endorsement of Blair in the final days of the 1997 campaign had as much effect as the Enola Gay going back over Hiroshima the day after the atom bomb and dropping a hand grenade.

What has an effect is not so much the Sun’s endorsement as its general political coverage, month after month, year after year. And for ages this has been pro-Tory and anti-Labour. Formalising this bias is neither a surprise nor all that significant.

OK, so we now know for sure that the paper will put itself almost wholly at the service of Conservative Central Office – but the main effect of its endorsement is on the rest of the media. It’s the story du jour almost everywhere.

8pm update: Overheard in the supermarket, a 7ish-year-old boy and his dad: "Who's Rupert Murdoch?" "Rupert Murdoch is a very rich man from Australia who's decided to get rid of our government."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A journey of a thousand miles...

‘Can Labour win?’ is, for party supporters, a deeply depressing question. Look at this chart of opinion polls:

(Monthly averages of YouGov, ICM and Populus polls, adjusted for accuracy at the last election. See footnote for explanation.)

The latest figures (a 17-point Tory lead) would give the Tories a majority of 122, according to Electoral Calculus. Can Labour win? Don’t be a fool. The gap is just too big to close. Go back to your constituencies and prepare for opposition.

So it seems a simple question with a simple and utterly negative answer, but it’s actually composed of a number of smaller questions – whose answers are a bit more hopeful.

For instance, could Labour take, say, two percentage points of support off the Tories? Surely yes. And that would cut the Tory majority by more than half, to 54.

A couple more percentage points? Probably manageable. That would take us – just – into a hung parliament.

Then another two-point swing beyond that? Well, maybe. And if so, Labour would be only three seats behind the Tories.

But let’s not go wild. Each step of political recovery will be harder than the last. And it’s a lot easier to point out that victory and defeat are matters of degree than it is to execute a strategy that could seriously narrow the gap.

And while it’s true that ‘something might turn up’ to help Labour and damage the Tories, it’s as likely that unexpected events would push things the other way. The Tories have proved many times that they’re simply better at responding in a politically astute way (expenses, Gurkhas… the glaring exception being last autumn’s financial turmoil).

I still expect a Tory majority, but if Labour simply tries to do as well as possible – and gives the unforced errors a rest – then a lot of people may be surprised at how far that possibility can go.

Footnote: where the numbers come from
ICM, YouGov and Populus are the only pollsters whose methods are unchanged from before the 2005 election. I took their average figures from during the 2005 campaign and compared those with the result.

ICM understated the Tory and Lib Dem votes by 0.7% each, and overstated Labour by 3%. YouGov overstated the Tory and Labour votes by 0.4% each and the Lib Dems by 0.1%. Populus understated the Tories by 1.9% and the Lib Dems by 1.6%, and overstated Labour by 3.7%.

Then I added and subtracted the relevant errors from each pollster’s monthly average, and then took the average of those. The overall effect is to add about 3% to the Tory lead from the published figures (via UK Polling Report). On the admittedly uncertain assumption that these pollsters are as accurate now as they were in 2005, this should give us a better picture.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Eternally springing

My solicitor says she’s “very hopeful” about being able to exchange contracts this week. And I’m “very hopeful” about world peace.

Freeman denies everything

Following recent speculation, I would like to take this opportunity to dismiss the malicious and unfounded rumours that I’m relying on painkillers to get me through the day. Apart from Saturday, when I really had a dog of a hangover. And there’s also no truth to the insinuation that I might quit blogging because of my failing eyesight. It’s true that I squint a bit to see bus numbers and sit towards the front of the cinema when there are subtitles, but I can assure you that I can see a computer screen perfectly well.

As for the other ridiculous allegations that are doing the rounds, I’d like to make clear that (a) those charges were dropped, (b) she told me she was 16, and (c) that money was just resting in my account. Now please, can we focus on the real issues?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The truth is what you can get away with broadcasting

A good point from Janine at Stroppyblog (via Chris):

Decent news reporting is supposed to report facts, and include opinions clearly flagged as such. And we're probably entitled to expect this more from a public service broadcaster than from, say, a tabloid newspaper.

[For instance], the repeated mantra that "Everyone now accepts that there must be cuts in public spending." Excuse me, but I don't. If you mean "Every leader of a mainstream political party, plus a great chunk of rent-a-quote bourgeois hacks and economists now agree that there must be cuts in public spending", then say so.

This supposed unanimity is, oddly enough, the product of news values that usually favour gratuitous argument.

The broadcast media – including of course the Beeb – are very keen on what they call ‘balance’, by which of course they mean conflict. There are two reasons for this: first, a row is good viewing; second, the media are often afraid of the truth – that is to say, afraid of taking a firm position of their own on a factual matter that’s politically disputed.

Directly reporting facts as facts requires you not only to do the hard work of establishing what those facts are but also to have the confidence to present them as such and risk accusations of bias from any party to a dispute who happens to be in the wrong. (To be fair, the various TV newscasters can and often do get this right. But they also often don’t.)

It’s much easier to report what somebody says the facts are. And in that case, the producers like to get someone else on the programme to say that actually the facts are something else. Cue heated debate. Never mind whether they both have a point, whether they’re both talking self-serving crap or whether one is completely right and the other completely wrong – it’s good to present ‘both sides of the argument’.

But if there’s general consensus among most of the punditocracy, then the media know that they won’t get stick from anyone who matters for asserting ‘facts’. Hence the reportedly universal agreement on cuts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Quiet time

I’m trapped in Conveyancing Hell at the moment, hence the very light blogging. And when I get out of it – by whichever route – I’ll probably be either too busy or too dejected to write much. (Just in case my four and a half regular readers were wondering…)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Typo of the day

My inspiration to become a biologist came from my O’Level teacher

Would that be one of the County Kerry O’Levels then?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Brown ‘misled nation’ over forecast numbers

Now he struggles to explain his concealed projections.

This new publication shows that Brown keeps taking the public for a ride with his incoherent fantasies – at a price.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Niche market penetration

Julian Glover notes that political parties are following commercial firms in using “a marketing system called Mosaic UK to power their campaigns, which breaks Britain into 155 types of individual”.

Now, I don’t mean to be crude – or rather, I fully intend to be crude but want to feign a modicum of propriety while I do it – but something funny struck me about the list of demographic types, which includes:

  • Dormitory Villagers
  • Squires Among Locals
  • Country Loving Elders
  • Side Street Singles
  • Golden Retirement
  • Balcony Downsizers
  • Shop Floor Affluence
  • Asian Attainment
  • Footloose Managers
  • Domestic Comfort
  • Brownfield Pioneers
  • First To Move In
  • Small Block Singles
  • Deprived View
  • Back-To-Back Basics
  • Study Buddies

I don’t mean the sheer torrent of bullshit, although there is that. What I mean is that an awful lot of these categories sound like downmarket porn mags.

Product placement: because you’re worth exactly what it says on the tin

I’m in two minds about having product placement on TV. On the one hand, it’ll provide a much-needed source of income as advertising revenues struggle. On the other hand, which incidentally sports an elegant Rolex Explorer 16570 around the wrist, there’s the risk that it could detract from the content of the programming.

It’s a tough call.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

9/12ers: the morning-after pillocks

For some unknown reason, I’m on the email list for some right-wing anti-government US pressure group. Because, you know, I’m very right-wing and American.

From these emails, I’ve learned of something called the 9/12er movement.

9/12? Well, you’ve heard of 9/11, right?

The 9/12 Project is designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.

I feel desperately sorry for these people. For them to think that the ideal condition for their country is the greatest shock, grief, horror, fear, anger and unthinking bloodthirst that it has seen in modern times is terribly sad. And, to be charitable to their intentions, it’s terribly stupid.

I suppose in British politics, the nearest equivalent would be just after the 7/7 bombings. And yes, I was glad and proud to live in the company of mostly good, decent and sensible people at that time. But I wouldn’t want us to perpetually live in a state of being artificially and superficially united by the emotions that surrounded that mass murder. A far better ideal would be the (also, admittedly, artificial and superficial) compassion shown around the Live8 concert for international development a few days before.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Local cuts for local people

Laurie Penny thinks that a Tory welfare proposal could be a good idea – at least in principle:

The plan in question involves decentralising the benefits system - giving individual councils a lump sum of money to spend on welfare howsoever they choose. Provided that safeguards were put in place ensuring a minimum amount of benefits and housing support were offered to the needy, this would actually be an improvement on the current system, which involves a great deal of overheads for very little positive return. …
I understand, of course, that the Tories are about as likely to really have the best interests of the poor and unlucky at heart as I am to be a contestant on the next series of Strictly Come Dancing.

Well, quite. If you listen to enough of David Cameron’s speeches, then apart from developing narcolepsy and/or murderous impulses, you’ll discern certain recurring key themes. One such is the need to cut public spending. Another is the need to decentralise the state and provide more public services locally. A third is the conviction that welfare is likelier to cause than alleviate poverty. And a fourth is the need for him to be popular and win elections.

Do you see where I’m going?

Depending on the size of the block grants that the councils get, this policy could easily be used to cut benefits while allowing the government to claim that it’s not their fault.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Bum tape

I love this map of the London Underground on which all the station and line names have been turned into anagrams (via Roger Darlington):

You’ll find the map very handy should you wish to do some shopping (or clubbing) around Crux For Disco, or catch a movie premiere at Queerer Elastics. A common attraction is the observatory at Wing Cheer, and you could also check whether Blood Rending really is falling down. If you fancy travelling a bit farther out, there’s the tennis at Bowel Mind or you can find out whether there really is a Raging Hell school! Sticking with fiction, why not see where Apt Nodding arrived from darkest Peru? Then there is, of course, the source of all British legislation, Written Mess. Finally, all you Humphrey Lyttelton fans will find this map essential when you’re trying to navigate to Concerning Torments.

(NB Fabric Larks is closed for rebuilding until late 2011. And there’s no interchange at Knab and Mount Men stations, except between the Allowing Dastardly Hick and the Rent Horn line.)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Maths standards: 1976 vs 2008

These are only provisional results from a study, and I only have the media highlights to go on, but it’s dismaying all the same:

“The overwhelming conclusion is that there are far fewer changes in mathematical attainment over a 32-year period than might be expected, or which have been claimed," researchers said.
Academics from King’s and Durham gave 3,000 secondary school pupils a test in algebra, ratios and decimals last year. Pupils aged 11 to 14 were given the same independent exam as young people sat in 1976.

“There is no evidence for significant improvement, or significant deterioration, of standards between 1976/7 and 2008,” researchers said.
“Although performance in some areas has improved it looks as if, when all the results are analysed, there will be little evidence for the sort of step-change in mathematical attainment which might be suggested by the claimed improvements in examination results.”

That sentence I’ve highlighted is politically inconvenient for almost everybody involved in the perennial debate on standards – surely we all know that kids have either got commendably brighter or disgracefully dumber!

Friday, September 04, 2009

BMJ paper on waiting times

I can only access the abstract, but it sounds good:

Between 1997 and 2007 waiting times for patients having elective hip replacement, knee replacement, and cataract repair in England went down and the variation in waiting times for those procedures across socioeconomic groups was reduced. Many people feared that the government’s NHS reforms would lead to inequity, but inequity with respect to waiting times did not increase; if anything, it decreased. Although proving that the later stages of those reforms, which included patient choice, provider competition, and expanded capacity, was a catalyst for improvements in equity is impossible, the data show that these reforms, at a minimum, did not harm equity.

Perspective quiz

Complete the opening sentence to this article in today’s Independent:

  • The British Government's strategy in Afghanistan was thrown into crisis last night after…
  1. …the White House demanded that UK troops take the lead in Farah, Nimruz and Kandahar provinces as well as Helmand.
  2. …a major assault on the MoD Camp Bastion base revealed the Taliban to have far greater military capability than previously thought.
  3. …the Defence Secretary's right-hand man resigned in protest about the handling of the war.

I’m sure Eric Joyce has some fair points to make, but really.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The effects of a party funding cap

The idea most commonly proposed around party funding reform is a donations cap. A £50,000 annual limit on donations from any individual or organisation was recommended by the Hayden Phillips review a while back. But there are plenty of disputed issues, not least whether trade union donations to Labour (or in theory any other party) should have the same limit applied or be treated as aggregates of many smaller individual donations, with the cap applying separately to these.

The Electoral Commission produced its latest set of donation figures last week, so I’ve taken a look at how either reform would have changed things. In the chart above, I show the actual donations (cash and non-cash) received by the three main parties over the year to June, as well as how the figures look if you cut out all donations from any given source above £50k, and how things would look if union donations were in effect exempt from this cap.

It’s no surprise that the Tories favour capping union donations: at present, they’re getting just under half the donations received by the three parties. With a blanket £50k cap, they’d go up to a massively dominant two-thirds. And it’s no surprise that Labour wants to keep its union funding.

My own view is that it’s reasonable for union party affiliation fees to be treated as aggregates of smaller donations as long as each individual member is explicitly giving a particular amount for this purpose, but for other contributions that are made by the union collectively to be treated as coming from a single donor. The result of this would put Labour’s funding somewhere between the second and third set of numbers in the chart.

If we assume that there will be no reforms before the election, that the Tories are very likely to win, and that they’ll take a self-interested view of funding reform, Labour and the unions will need to rethink their set-up if they are to retain significant financial links. What springs to mind is for union political activities to become much more devolved, with local/regional branches having their own political funds that they can allocate independently.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

News: dominance and independence

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about James Murdoch’s anti-BBC speech, in light of Liam Murray’s critical response to me.

I’ll focus on two areas: dominance and independence.

Key to Murdoch’s argument was the charge that the BBC’s dominance crowds out the news market, particularly for new entrants.

My response was that News International does just that – and deliberately, rather than just as a side-effect of its presence. Like many large companies that have established themselves as market leaders, it finds itself less keen on a level playing field for its competitors. With a wide variety of large income streams, when it fears that one such stream may be under threat, it can divert money from elsewhere: most obviously by predatory pricing to undermine smaller competitors and set a high bar for potential newcomers.

This means that, for instance, the broadsheet (as was) market comes to function less as a market because the (Sun-subsidised) Times has more resources to draw on than it can generate for itself. It’s an anti-competitive practice that reduces the scope for others to offer greater choice. Liam suggests an analogy with supermarkets selling dirt-cheap bread as a loss leader, but that’s so that people will go there to buy bread along with the more profitable goods while they’re there. What more profitably priced NI products are Times readers buying along with their Times?

And it’s not pertinent that the source of the Times’s cross-subsidy is itself a commercial source; the point is that it comes from a different (tabloid) market and so creates distortions in this particular (broadsheet) market as surely as would a public-sector or charitable grant.

Now to independence.

Independence of what? Murdoch, as Liam says, lists a few things that one might be independent of, although he doesn’t elaborate on them (and one appears to be ‘dependency’ – hmm). I complained that two of these items – politics and subsidy – are actually not a form of independence you’ll find in News International. As to the others…

‘Absence of supervision’ – true, the BBC’s output gets a unique type of scrutiny from above. But then, in media companies, editors and commissioner still don’t get to do exactly what they like – they’re supervised by managers, directors, proprietors. ‘Independence of gift’ – what ‘gifts’ are BBC news staff being swayed by that private-sector reporters aren’t?

As for ‘independence of patronage’… good heavens. Every NI editor knows who their patron is, and his patronage pretty consistently promotes right-wing views, with limited exceptions when there’s a need to cosy up to a popular centre-left party. Of course his editors have discretion, but they’re picked with their views known in advance. The result is greater homogeneity than you might imagine.

And then there’s ‘independence of industrial faction’. Murdoch presumably equates this with producer interests such as unions and bureaucrats. It may not have occurred to him that owners of large corporations (both advertisers and the media themselves) are an industrial faction.

A large but simple question: why does independence matter for news media? It matters because dependence can breed systemic bias. Total impartiality is a chimera, although obviously some news outlets are more strongly and consistently biased than others. Different types of independence can guard against different types of bias, and independence of public funding (and of the types of accountability that come with it) is certainly one count on which the private-sector media have the edge over the BBC.

But on other counts the BBC is more independent: it’s independent of commercial pressures, of large corporate interests, of the prejudices of the type of people likely to own large media corporations. There are biases that it’s free from as a result. If a significant section of the media free from these sources of bias is something worth having – and I’m certain it is – then we shouldn’t look to the market to provide.

There’s an analogy with the House of Lords. One argument for hereditary peers is precisely that they’re there by accident of birth: they owe their seats to neither patronage nor party, so they’re independent in that sense. But what this overlooks is that the families that happen to have hereditary peerages are from a pretty narrow section of society (usually old money, mostly small-c conservative), with attitudes to match.

You can say a similar thing about a news market dominated by large corporations. I don’t want to go all class war on you, but the people who control these businesses have a limited range of views about economic and other policies – not just media laws. And even with the mild-to-middling anti-monopoly laws we have, there’s always a tendency toward oligopoly.

The BBC is a counterweight to news dominance by commercial interests, particularly by a few large private-sector players. It gives us, to put it non-idealistically, a broader range of biases to choose from, and this (popular) choice is not one that the market can adequately supply.

A final quick point on the licence fee in this context. Yes, in effect it’s a tax, and one could go from there into a general libertarian argument about the immorality of tax or a more specific one to the effect that most of the BBC’s output is hardly a ‘public service’. However, the thing is that Murdoch was specifically talking about news, not Strictly Come Dancing and all the other populist fluff. To his credit, he’s largely forgone the softer targets and headed straight for the worthiest public-service broadcasting jugular. His case would be much the same if the BBC only did news.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Have your pay

Anton Vowl has had a brilliant idea:

It's a simple way to monetise digital news while keeping content free to view for everyone. …
All newspapers have to do is simply charge for online comments. Call it "my two cents' worth" or something - and make it literally a couple of cents. People will be so incensed by the stories of the evil PC Brigade stopping ordinary middle-class Anglo-Saxon British families from writing racist abuse on bricks and throwing it through people's window - an appalling clampdown on free speech in this once-great country which has been ruined by ZaNuLab - that they'll be happy to pay a couple of pennies to have their say.

Very, very good. Harnessing the power of angry stupidity has a lot going for it. But I think there may be an even better idea – one that will also help to open up the ranks of journalism to new entrants.

Let online readers vote (for 50p a go, say) for which writer they want kicked off the paper each week.