Friday 22 April 2016

Why so many sad farewells?

Can someone please ask the Grim Reaper to take a break? Go and lie down somewhere, go on holiday, anything -- just stop scything away at much-loved artists who have brought joy to millions.

Yesterday the shocking news was the death of Prince, the day before it was Victoria Wood, and before them went Ronnie Corbett, Terry Wogan, Alan Rickman, and David Bowie -- all gone, most of them too young, and that's just in the first four months of this year.

So what's going on? Is it just me, or are the deaths of some of our most popular public figures coming much faster than they used to?

Here's a partial list from last year: actors Anne Kirkbride, Geraldine McEwan and Anita Ekberg; Demis Roussos, Leonard Nimoy, Terry Pratchett, Ben E King, Ruth Rendell, BB King, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Patrick Macnee, James Last, Omar Sharif, Val Doonican, Cilla Black, George Cole, Jackie Collins, Henning Mankell, Maureen O'Hara, Warren Mitchell and Colin Welland. I make that 22, and of course I could have added many more.

What about 2014? Phil Everly, Roger Lloyd Pack, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Claudio Abbado, Pete Seeger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hoskins, Sue Townsend, Maya Angelou, Rik Mayall, Dora Bryan, Nadine Gordimer, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, Richard Attenborough, Joan Rivers, Lynda Bellingham, Lynsey de Paul, Acker Bilk, PD James, Joe Cocker, and Billie Whitelaw. That's 24, and again, there were, of course, many more.

So, with six gone so far this year, at the current rate, we might expect to end up with 18-20 celebrity deaths by the end of 2016. And that, surprisingly, would be fewer than in each of the past two years. So, accepting that there is something distasteful about reducing death to a statistical exercise, perhaps the Grim Reaper isn't any busier than usual after all.

On the other hand, the BBC is reported to have broadcast twice as many obituaries in the first three months of this year as it did in the same period last year. One possible explanation is that celebritisation really took off in the 1950s and 60s as television came of age, and as the people who rose to fame then are now in their 70s and 80s, their lives are inevitably coming to their natural ends.

Death comes to us all, celebrities and non-celebrities alike. Some of those listed above lived to a ripe old age; others died far earlier than seemed right or proper. Perhaps one reason why we are so shocked when we hear of celebrities' deaths is that we tend to regard them as somehow different from us, not better necessarily, but made of slightly different DNA components. That's why they are celebrities and we are not.

But then they die, and we are reminded that they are made of exactly the same stuff as the rest of us. Their bodies are as frail as ours, and as susceptible to disease as ours are. They die, and we will die. It shouldn't come as a shock, but it always does.

Once you reach a certain age (the Daily Mail called me 'venerable' this week, which I thought was pushing it a bit), the deaths of contemporaries and near contemporaries come far more freqently than they used to. So perhaps it's only us oldies who see death all around us -- and as it's us oldies who buy most of the newspapers, celebrity deaths are splashed all over the front pages.

Phil Sayer was never a celebrity in the way that Prince or Bowie were celebrities, yet his voice was far more familiar to me -- and to millions of other travellers in London and south-east England -- than any rock star's. Sayer was the 'mind the gap' man who recorded the announcements at some of the country's busiest commuter stations, and at all London Underground stations.

As The Economist wrote in a delightful elegy after the announcement of his untimely death last week: 'Travellers entrusted their lives to him. All across the London Underground, at his behest, they took care to Mind the Gap between the train and the platform -- or sometimes, more subtly, between the platform and the train. Thanks to him, they stood clear of the closing doors and did not leave cases or parcels unattended anywhere on the station.'

Sayer's family announced his death in exquisitely fitting style: 'Phil Sayer - voice of reason, radio, and railways. A dearly loved husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. We are sorry to announce that this service terminates here.'

By the way, I have made a series of short programmes for the BBC World Service about Shakespeare's legacy to the English language. They are available online here.

Friday 15 April 2016

Whipping up a Whittingdale storm

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was the news editor of a national newspaper. Every day, I took decisions about which stories we should be covering, and which ones we wouldn't bother with.

Some stories were important but boring; others were of no lasting significance but quite interesting. Most of the decisions I made were based on instinct, experience, and the views of my colleagues.

So suppose, back in November 2013, I had been approached with a story about a little-known, divorced Tory backbencher who was apparently having a fling with a woman who was a sex worker. 'Let's see what we can get,' I might have said. 'And then we'll decide whether or not to run with it.'

It was just a year or so after publication of the Leveson report, when the press had taken a hell of a mauling over phone hacking, and the air was full of plans to put in place a new, more intrusive system of press regulation. The MP with the girlfriend was chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee -- he was single, not particularly well known, and there didn't seem to be any over-riding imperative to publish. Better safe than sorry, I might have said; why pay £20,000 to attract more in-coming fire for no very good reason?

Fast forward to May 2015. The MP is now, to everyone's surprise, including his own, the minister in charge of press regulation. He also broke off his relationship with the woman in question more than a year ago, after he had been tipped off about how she earned her living. Should we revive the story? Again, I don't think I would have seen any good reason to: water under the bridge, no damage done, no real public interest defence.

And that, more or less, seems to have been the thinking of the editors of the Sunday People, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun and The Independent, all of whom are reported to have known about the story, and all of whom decided, at various times, not to publish it.

Pro-privacy campaigners are crying cover-up: they say the papers must have been blackmailing Mr Whittingdale, in effect saying to him: 'You'd better go easy on all that regulation stuff, or you know what will happen.' The Labour MP Chris Bryant, no friend of the tabloids, accused the press of holding a sword of Damocles over the secretary of state's head. None of which, I'm afraid, seems to me to make any sense at all.

The fact is that the people who are making most noise over all this are the same people who are livid with Mr Whittingdale for not pushing through a Leveson proposal that would require publishers to pay both sides' costs in a privacy or libel case, even if they won, unless they have signed up to the official press regulator. (Because that regulator would be backed by legislation and underpinned by a Royal Charter, most papers say it comes too close to State regulation and have refused to sign up.)

So we've entered Alice in Wonderland territory. The people who blame the press for gratuitous intrusion into people's private lives are jumping up and down with fury because the press, on this occasion, decided not to gratuitously intrude into someone's private life. Why did the papers hold back on Whittingdale, they ask, while they are fighting in court against an injunction that prevents them from naming a celebrity who was allegedly involved in what the tabloids quaintly used to call a 'three-in-a-bed romp'?

Well, for one thing, perhaps the celebrity is a tad better known than Mr Whittingdale. And for another, surely the campaigners should be championing the celebrity's right to a private life, rather than seeking to deny the same right to Mr Whittingdale.

Did Mr Whittingdale go easy on press regulation because he was terrified that his taste in girlfriends might be revealed in all its glory to a waiting world? The evidence suggests not; he has always been a pro-Murdoch free marketeer, and there's no reason to suppose that his instincts would ever have been to insert even the slightest suggestion of government involvement into the regulation of a 'free' press.

As for the suggestion that he should now be made to step aside from his responsibilities for media regulation, why? The story is out now, so even if he had been worried about being embarrassed in the past, he doesn't have to worry any more. I'm not exactly one of his greatest fans, and I greatly fear the damage he might inflict on the BBC -- but I don't think his dating arrangements are a reason to kick him sideways.

Final question: Should he have told the PM about this modest skeleton in his cupboard when he was given the keys to his ministerial office? I think he probably should have, as it happens, but on my own personal scale of current political stories, ranging from the EU referendum to tax avoidance to the unravelling of the Osborne budget, it comes pretty low down the news list.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

The Whippingdale Saga: A drama in one Act

It has been reported that the editors of The People, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun, and The Independent all decided not to publish a story about John Whittingdale's private life.

REPORTER: 'Hey, boss, we've got a great story for you -- "Cabinet minister has it off with Miss Whiplash."'

EDITOR: 'Sounds good. Who's the minister?'

REPORTER: 'John Whittingdale.'

EDITOR: 'Smashing. Love it. So while he was trying to slap tougher restrictions on us, he was being slapped about by a fetish lady.'

REPORTER: 'Not quite, boss. This was before he became a minister.'

EDITOR: 'Ah, pity. But he's married, right? Betrayed his marriage vows?'

REPORTER: 'Er, no. Divorced.'

EDITOR: 'Ah. So the story is worth publishing because …?'

REPORTER: 'C'mon, boss. He took her with him to public functions, for Christ's sake. Blackmail? Security risk? Remember Profumo?'

EDITOR: 'Not quite the same, is it? Whitters ain't exactly the man with his finger on the nuclear button.

REPORTER: 'Yeah, but still …'

EDITOR: 'Does he know we know?'


EDITOR: 'So if we publish, will he then be more or less likely to push through all the Leveson stuff that we hate so much?'

REPORTER: 'Dunno, boss …'

EDITOR: 'Yeah, well I do. If we piss him off, he'll come down on us like a ton of bricks. And we don't want that, do we? Much better to be "responsible" for once in our lives. It'll make a nice change …'

REPORTER: 'Yeah, but hang on, he's a right-wing Tory bastard, hates the BBC, loves Murdoch …'

EDITOR: 'What's the public interest defence? Why are we invading his privacy?'

REPORTER: 'We do it all the time. Politicians, celebrities, footballers -- c'mon, it's what we're paid for.' 

EDITOR: 'You know what? If we publish this, we'll regret it. He'll push through Leveson and we'll all be worse off. Including our readers. So my decision -- and I'm sorry, cos it's a cracking tale -- is that in our interest, and in the public interest, we won't publish it.'

Something like that, anyway ...

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Rich man, poor man ...

I'm going to have to do a bit of tip-toeing here, because I can't afford expensive lawyers. So I'll leave you to join up the dots.

Fact 1: House prices in London rose by 13.5% over the past year, bringing the average price to £530,368.

Fact 2: Off-shore companies associated with the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca own more than 6,000 properties in London worth at least £7 billion.

(In response to the so-called Panama Papers disclosures, Mossack Fonseca have said in a statement: 'For 40 years Mossack Fonseca has operated beyond reproach in our home country and in other jurisdictions where we have operations. Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing.' The full statement is here.)

Fact 3: The family of the president of the United Arab Emirates have property interests in London worth an estimated £160 million.

Fact 4: Average London house prices now stand at a record nine times average earnings, nearly twice the level they were at during the housing boom of the 1980s.

So now I'll stop tip-toeing. The people who hide their wealth from the taxman -- sorry, some of the people who hide their wealth from the taxman -- are thieves. They take money to which they are not entitled and squirrel it away so that it can't be used to pay benefits to disabled people, fund local authority services for children at risk of abuse, or provide emergency assistance for people fleeing from war.

It is as if they had read the story of Robin Hood and turned it on its head: they rob from the poor to give to the rich. Cuts to welfare services, made necessary, so we're told, because 'we are all in this together', mean that some of the most vulnerable people in the country die unnecessarily. I draw no conclusions, but you may wish to draw your own. You may even wish to start joining up the dots.

The son of the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has denied any wrongdoing in connection with London properties owned by off-shore companies associated with Mossack Fonseca, described the family's involvement with such companies as 'a legal way to avoid unnecessary tax'.

Perhaps you'd like to ponder the true meaning of those words: 'unnecessary tax'. (Note: there is nothing illegal about the use of off-shore companies.) You may also like to ponder the difference between 'legal' and 'moral'. If you were to conclude that what is legal may also sometimes be wholly immoral, that would be a matter entirely for you.

The 11.5 million documents that were leaked from the Panamanian law firm prove what many people have long believed: that the American businesswoman Leona Helmsley, who was worth an estimated $8 billion and was jailed for tax evasion in the 1980s, was right when she (reportedly) said that 'only little people pay taxes.'

Some years ago, I was in Nigeria, and I was talking to a local human rights campaigner in the bar of a 5-star hotel in the capital, Abuja. As an evidently wealthy businessman in resplendent robes and expensive jewellery swept past us with his entourage in tow, my companion remarked sadly: 'Every time I see a wealthy Nigerian, I know I am looking at a crook.'

If you were to think the same every time you looked at an obscenely outsized yacht, or a grotesquely expensive, foreign-registered sports car, or the people who buy houses valued at £62 million in Belgravia, I could not possibly comment. They may not be crooks (on the other hand …), but you may wish to form your own conclusions about their sense of morality.

And if you were to say that it made you very, very angry, I might well be tempted to sympathise. If I could afford expensive lawyers, I might even say the same myself.

Friday 1 April 2016

Cameron: not a man of steel

Guess who has been trying to reduce the dumping of cheap Chinese steel into the EU. Answer: the European Commission.

And guess who vetoed the Commission's proposals. Answer: the British government.

Or, if you prefer: guess who has been the biggest EU cheerleader for China to be granted 'market economy status' by the World Trade Organisation. Answer: the British government.

And guess what effect that would have on the EU's ability to impose higher tariffs on Chinese steel imports. Answer: it would be drastically reduced.

So when the prime minister assures the 40,000 families in and around Port Talbot whose livelihoods are threatened by the threatened closure of the Tata-owned steel works that the government is doing everything it can to safeguard their interests, my reaction is: really?

Is that why UK steel companies say they are paying up to seven times more in business rates than their European competitors?  Or why their energy costs are about 80% higher than the European average?

Perhaps you're wondering whether the British government would be better able to support the steel industry if we voted to leave the EU. The answer is No. For one thing, more than half of the UK's steel exports go to other EU countries, so if we left the club, we would either be hit by a tariff barrier -- like Canada, for example -- or, in return for a continuation of tariff-free access to the EU market, we would have to sign up to all its directives and regulations, like Norway or Switzerland, but without having had any say in the drafting of them. 

In the words of Port Talbot's Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock: 'We are in this crisis not because of Europe, but because of a Tory government that has singularly failed to stand up for British steel.'

I drive a car that was made in the UK by British car workers. It is made of steel that almost certainly was produced in Port Talbot, where about one-third of their production is used for British-made cars. Yet my car bears the name of a Japanese manufacturer, and the Port Talbot steel works is owned by an Indian company. Welcome to the globalised economy.

And here are some statistics to boggle your mind: according to Ed Conway of Sky News, in the past two years alone China has produced more steel than the total cumulative output of the UK since the industrial revolution. Over the past 35 years, Chinese steel production has gone from 5% of world output to more than 50%. That's a helluva lot of steel, and now that economic growth in China is slowing sharply, they have to dump that steel somewhere.

But the UK government is head over heels in love with China, which it regards as the answer to all its infrastructure investment prayers. David Cameron and George Osborne don't like borrowing to invest, and they don't like raising taxes to generate additional revenue, so what could be better than throwing open the doors to UK plc and announcing: All investors welcome, no questions asked.

That's why they don't want the EU to upset Beijing by making it harder for them to dump their unwanted steel in Europe. And it's why, when Mr Cameron rushes back from his holiday to furrow his brow for the TV cameras and tell us how 'very difficult' it all is, we are entitled to a snort of derision.

He's right, of course, it is very difficult, and the crisis at Port Talbot is not unique to the UK. But Germany, for example, has been far better at creating conditions in which a viable steel industry can survive by putting in place a proper industrial strategy involving long-term investment decisions, top-class vocational education and state-funded research and development programmes.

Still, it's not all bad news. According to the latest data from the European Banking Authority, the UK now has three times as many high-earning bankers as the rest of the EU combined. Nearly 3,000 City bankers earned more than €1 million in 2014, 40% up on the previous year, and 16 of them actually managed to take home more than €10 million.

Perhaps some of them might be persuaded to invest in the Port Talbot steel works.