all the news fit to print

It’s been a busy old week for news. Can you tell there’s an election coming? Yes, you’re getting quicker flicking over to Glee when you hear the BBC News theme aren’t you?

Always a sign.

Tony Blair – remember him? Last seen doing the old science-fiction “retcon” trick over at the Chilcott Inquiry? – has been sounding the drum for his (auld) enemy Gordon Brown. This surely cannot have gone down well in the heartlands, as most Labour seats are lost as a consequence of Tony Blair sticking around looking and sounding exhausted and deceitful.

This kind of thing is quite common in football, though, with just about as much sincerity. “I respected the job he did at the club and there’s a lot of signs of his influence around the ground today…” he says, looking at dwindling crowd of anoraks Twittering around a Thermos while a huddle of unfit next-big-things hoik long balls towards the local paper reporters.

It was Blair, we remember, who gave Brown the title “clunking fist”, and for headline writers everywhere, Brown has not disappointed. He’s made a clunking fist of everything since taking over. He couldn’t even make a disaster work in his favour though; he’ll always have the longest, deepest recession in history to his name – after all, he created it – but Blair sanctioned an illegal invasion of Iraq. Second place again, Gordon!

Bigger, more meaty news-stories of recent times struggled to make the lead on either BBC or Sky. The former retreated into usual territory – the ban on methedrone was treated pretty much like the IT’S WAR! frenzy over on The Day Today – while the latter continues to push its forthcoming Leaders Debates slot as though self-referential programme plugging is part of OFCOMs definition of “news”.

In times gone by, the staggering achievements at the Large Hadron Collider would have been enough to send all workers and schoolchildren home to enable the population the honour of being within a screen’s width of life-changing science.

The…shall I say…”incident” within troubled waters excited those of us who have North Korea down on the “end of the world sweepstake”. Currently – I think, you know how these things change when North Korea are involved – the South claim the whole thing was caused by a mine. Possibly Northern. Probably one of their own. But it definitely did not start with warning shots being aimed at flocks of The Dear Leader’s Armed Seagull Division.

Though you never know.

Last night, Ribéry showed what comes when you’re an expensive top-league footballing talent who doesn’t lose concentration after 80 minutes. Tonight, may Allah be kind upon us all, Messi will treat Arsenal’s gameplay as a particularly cruel and cunning poker player toys with novices used to the occasional on-line flutter.

I understand, flicking over to cricket for as short a time as possible, that there is some concern over IPL commentators referring to players “scoring a maximum 6” and wondering if “all bases are covered”.

We warned them this would happen, did we not?

To conclude, I have two stories, but only enough space for one….So it will have to be….Toads can predict earthquakes.

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Much ado…

Gordon Brown, so controlling and demanding, and reportedly high on the autistic spectrum, has never understood how the economy fell from out of his grasp. Having inherited the golden economic legacy from the Conservatives in 1997, nothing his clunking fist could get hold of stayed the way he wanted. Through political fudges and not exactly subtle stealth taxes – and let us not forget such highlights as the gold sell off disaster and unforgivable 10p tax abolition – Brown will be recorded by future historians as one of the least credible economic figures in British political history.

His attempt today to force Alistair Darling into yet another ventriloquists act has done nothing to rescue his reputation one inch. The Budget today is a middle of gimmicks and aspirations; above all else, it is the equivalent of treading water. Darling did not want the end of his career to come like this, reading out Gordon Brown’s words, coming up with sticking plaster solutions to the serious debt and unemployment issues facing the country. But Darling had no choice.

Today’s budget has few highlights. I welcome the tax-break scheme for British video game developers, an overdue recognition. The increase in the ISA limit is one I genuinely applaud.

I certainly don’t welcome the sneeky “freeze” on personal tax allowances, the oldest trick in the book, one to increase Government tax intake.

Freezing Inheritance Tax at £325,000 could cost an additional £37,000 in real terms.

And as for the 10% hike in the cost of cider – what exactly is this going to achieve? Oh yes, that’s right, the Brown “new puritan” drive, the same “ban everything, tax everyone, full naked body scanners for all!” mantra we have heard year after year. “Has he taxed curry, music and sunshine?” asks a work colleague.

The problem with this budget, of course, is how shallow it is, from the moment Darling stood to the minute he was duly patted on the back by his Master. There is nothing in this budget because Brown needs yet more breathing space before calling the election. His hatred of uncertainty, of things out of his control, will soon catch up with him. An election cannot be delayed much longer, and everyone in the Chamber knows this to be true.

This was the introduction. Now the main show. Time to show the depth to the slogans, the meat on the bones, and call the election.

Supermarket Creep

Within the boundaries of Preston, the phrase “Tithebarn Project” is something of a shibboleth. Not sure how many thousands will fall at the banks of the Ribble, although if any further delay is suffered by the scheme I dare suggest there will be a queue lining up to voluntarily plunge off the Old Tram Bridge.

At the centre of the on-going regeneration plans, now juddering into their seventh or eighth year of troubled growing pains, is the destruction of Preston Bus Station and its replacement by department store John Lewis. The argument against the former, and for that matter very much against the latter, has been repeated so often I think my fingers would break themselves rather than repeat the points made so many times; I will only say that such a move would be one of the least progressive steps in local government since the dawn of time. Or even before that.

Something resembling a curveball hit the Town Hall collection of 3D models and computer diagrams of “Prestanchester” yesterday with the £230 plan to finally do something about the dire transport system here. Okay, it’s an aspiration (like most things in Preston, there is many a “vision” for the future), and how sad to think it’s matching pretty much what everyone has considered good for the place for generations. In 1972 journalists filled the LEP with “visions” of the subsequent 1992 Guild being opened by monorails and skywalks. We’re barely one step closer to that in the second decade of the 21st century. It’s almost enough to be quite depressing.

Preston should not be forced into changing into a mini-Manchester over night. The new flashy apartments thrown up since city status show all the signs of hasty profit chasing. Their balconies resemble old chip-pan baskets.

Our Town Hall luminaries – elected and otherwise – ignore long-term needs for short-term headlines. Commuters in northern Preston are forced to leave for work at half-6 to attempt avoiding the logjams on the main routes, all of which could have been resolved had small railway stations or tram lines been installed twenty or thirty years ago. We’re playing catch-up because Preston has been strangled by politics and politicians for too long.

Instead of progress, we’re having to chase profit. John Lewis will be the great consumerist icon for the City Councillors who prefer to hear the ringing of tills over the pinging of bus bells. And who would have it any other way? A wise old Councillor reminded me with a heavy sigh, “Railway stations don’t pay council tax”

I hope – beyond all reason – that the tram system proposal is successful. I am also crossing my fingers in hope – beyond all sense – that the 20th Century Society is able to preserve Preston Bus Station for the benefit of all Prestonians.

I realise – with Lancastrian realism – that all this hope will come to nothing. Our Councillors want regeneration to mean more shops, cafes, expensive apartments and “visions”. For the city with its Ring Road built right through the middle of the main shopping street, it all seems pretty appropriate.

champagne and chips

“Mature, and depressing” was how I summed it up. Like the day you decide not to stay up late to masturbate over the Television X “ten minute preview”.

My decision was the big black line drawn through the one word question; “Laptop ?”. My April “budget” now reads like a list of actions rather than objects; nights out, at least two Burscough home matches, and payment of bills. I daren’t deal with percentages: over half my monthly wage is gone before the sun rises on pay day weekend…

Not having a laptop (and therefore regular internet access) is my biggest personal problem at the moment. Well, that and not bringing socks in from the washing line in time to avoid a passing storm. Oh, and eating most of an Easter Egg for breakfast this morning, that weighs pretty heavily, too. But let me focus on internet access for the time being. It’s not that I am the archetypal geek who misses live-tweeting Question Time and updating Wikipedia at 2 in the morning – as much as that truly is missed – it’s the very fact of being ‘locked away’ from a world I have grown accustomed to over ten years of dial-up and broadband access. Yes, okay, I have wandered into the 4chans and meme factories of the ‘net as much as anyone; I am with the Finns on this, Internet access is a human right, as important to business leaders as the child in a high-rise aspiring to be the best they can be in the world outside their flat.

It may sound somewhat like a sulk, and perhaps after nearly a year without access at home, my mild annoyance at having nothing to do when the television lets me down is close to developing into something less admirable.

I will land on one side of the argument, though. By deciding against buying a laptop this month, I have freed up spends and been awfully sensible about the use of my wage over a 5-week month. And that’s far more sensible than I have been recently.

This week Alistair Darling is set to read out Gordon Brown’s election budget, much like the Queen is forced to read Labour’s manifesto at least once a year. Oh for either Darling or Liz to bring their own script to Parliament.

In the case of Darling, he knows Brown cannot wait to get rid of him, which makes the cowardice over the Budget details all the more depressing. If it was me – and Good Lord, can you imagine that! – I wouldn’t let the Prime Minister within stapler-throwing distance of the Budget Speech until it was too late to change so much as the break in the first paragraph. Brown, responsible for the longest and deepest recession in British history, taking low income earners to 20p tax rate, and every other economic shit-storm since 1997, may well fail to impress this week in any case, given UNITE’s attempt to ensure every last detail of 1979 is recreated in colour prior to the election on May 6.

Darling does not want a “give away budget”, exactly the opposite to Brown, who would prefer to plunge into the bottomless pit [as he sees it] of debt to ensure more votes are bought for Labour in seven weeks time. Darling would be best to outline exactly how he intends to deal with the deficit and growing numbers of “invisible unemployed”, signing Brown up to a deal he cannot escape. Clearly in my current state I would prefer a £1,000 “citizens payment” straight into the bank accounts of everybody through some form of the fabled Robin Hood Tax. That personal moment aside, I am a Liberal Democrat, where fairness in the tax system has been at the centre of our policies for longer than Brown has been plotting to parachute Ed Balls into Number 11. And that’s a long time, readers.

I would have used this blog to vent spleen on the latest tabloid target – the legal high “MCat” or “drone”. However, given how well it is written, I leave you in the sensible hands on this subject to Charlie Brooker

playing on the right

Breathless, verbless news coverage met me this morning. BECKHAM INJURY SHOCK WORLD CUP LATEST.

I had assumed – expert on right-sided midfielders that I am not – that common consensus amongst front-room Fabios had agreed upon the notion of Beckham barely featuring in South Africa at all, almost to the point of inventing a Walcott/Wright-Phillips hybrid capable of combining pace with accuracy of crosses. Until such a splice actually exists – no, don’t think too much on that either – I will continue to largely sit out the 2010 equivalent of the mid-90s baroom discourse on “Why the left in English football is an almost impossible position to fill”.

If the sight of both Beckham and former England posterboy Michael Owen limping off with injuries on the cusp of middle age is not too much of a reality check for people (don’t….just don’t….), I found solace and reality all bundled together in a footballing context down at the humble setting of the Unibond Premier league. While my own club Burscough continue to suffer from successive poundings and High Court nail-biting, two places below the plucky stalwarts from Durham FC make things all the better to be alive.

In short, Durham beating FC United of Manchester 2-1 at Gigg Lane may not seem to much to make life seem nicer in a roundabout, barely tangible way. However the details really do shine a big light of reality on the hyperactive, hypereality of Premier League excess and showboating celebs. Durham barely have the right to exist, stripped of their sponsors and funding after an FA ruling against plastic pitches and “University teams”. With almost 30 games of this season gone, Durham had a goal difference of minus-120, not even a draw to their name, and the ignominy of a 6-point deduction for pulling the “Sunday League trick” of registering a player under a false name. That Durham won at all is worth celebrating; that their fans have stuck by them through cricket score drummings with Newcastle or Sunderland or Middlesbrough or even Conference side Gateshead on their doorstep is worth more than just a pint lifted to the skies. Durham sum up far more than a romantic notion of “real” football; they did what they could over a very hard season to brush themselves down, offering local teenagers the chance to play against semi-pro and ex-League players, and did so every week from Kendal in the north to King’s Lynn in the south with a good natured smile on their face every time.

King’s Lynn, of course, were wound up for debts far less than the hourly wage bill of Manchester United. That Durham got their first ever win against FC United of Manchester surely adds that extra line of black irony to the story. Long may Durham have success when the inevitable relegation occurs.

I am no more a football “purist” than I am a real-ale evangalist. It is just refreshing to have moments away from the big brands and tiresome Big 4 soap operas. Long may the lower leagues offer this break from the ‘norm’.

Revenge is not Justice

Following the imprisonment of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne, a friend and I had something of a disagreement over what was already being labelled “Sarah’s Law”; that is, the right for parents to know if a pedophile was living in their area. Subsequently, trails of this law have been reported as being successful, but I still feel rather uneasy. There will always be the potential for ill-informed or plain wrong information being used to seek ‘justice’ on people who may be nothing more than elderly men living on their own, or indeed something far more tragically comedic.

I am reminded of the disagreement with the current coverage of the re-arrest of Jon Venebles, and the inevitable media coverage.

Earlier this month, 27 year old Jon Venebles was returned to prison following an undisclosed breach of his control order. Seventeen years ago, Venebles and Robert Thompson – aged just 10 – abducted and killed three-years old James Bulger, in a case etched on the collective mind of the nation.

In a statement to the House of Commons I agree with Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said it would not be in “the interests of justice” to release information about Venebles’ return to detention. Quite rightly, Straw has reminded the country about the importance of putting the rule of law above both the mob rule of tabloid hysteria, and the often all-too heavy hand of simple assumption. Make no mistake; I remember the case as vividly as anyone did at the time, and understand why Bulger’s mother feels so emotional about “doors slamming in her face”, as she told television reporters today. Venebles must receive a suitable punishment for his latest reported crime.

Ultimately, the contentious nature of ‘justice’ runs up against the scrum of ‘revenge’ in cases like this. I despair at the reactionary tabloid press, running rumours and ‘exclusives’ about possible reasons for Venebles’ re-imprisonment as though they were simply dealing with the latest reason for Pete Doherty being arrested or John Terry being seen without his wife. No killer, however notorious, can be regarded with any taste as ‘celebrities’. Inevitably the logic of tabloid newspapers appears to bend and curve when dealing with such ‘easier targets’.

If the tabloids get their approach to this story wrong, by splashing rumour and incomplete truth all over the front pages for days on end, all a good lawyer needs to do is prove the impossibility of a fair trail for Venebles to walk free.

“Revenge” is not justice. The death penalty, so often called upon in these circumstances, is simply a form of “revenge”, barely more civilised than blood lust. Maybe this sounds like “tabloid logic”, but I cannot see that killing criminals has made the United States of America any less dangerous for its citizens. The decent rule of justice has already been proven this month; Venebles committed an act against his control order, and is now back in prison. Should be hang for his first crime, or this reported second?

I am not naive enough to believe that tomorrow’s newspapers will U-turn on the exhaustive, breathless crusade for ‘the truth’, as though the full details of Venebles’ latest crime will satisfy readers as the conclusion of a soap story line. I trust that Jack Straw will maintain this measured and mature handling of the situation.

Sometimes “man is the measure of all things”. How we, as a nation, handle this story in the coming weeks could well be the measure of us all.

It’s your BBC…

I almost choked on my Aquafresh this morning. “And now we go live to the scene of Jamie Bulger’s kidnapping all those years ago…”

Would you believe it, there it was, a BBC commentator, at 6 in the morning, live outside the Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, looking for all the world as a scene from The Day Today. “If you want to send in your memories of the gruesome kidnap and murder, we’ll love to here from you,” said the bloke with the bad hair and ill-fitting suit. “Viewers who press the red button can access detailed CGI reconstructions from that tragic day, Freeview viewers are advised to go on-line where there is the added extra of a moderated chat-room.”

You see, the BBC is pretty darn faultless, in my mind. There are certain elements that are clearly in need of surgery, if not complete amputation, and some time ago I made the case for scrapping BBC Three as a sure fire way to make more friends than enemies under the current circumstances.

The “strategic review” is something of a dog’s dinner. Rushed into hacking off their own limbs before the oncoming Murdoch/Cameron tag-team do it for them, the BBC has come up with a document full of glaring contradictions and half-baked ideas. Why capitulate so easily? They fell apart more rapidly than a Frenchman on hearing the passing footsteps of a German with a heavy chestcold.

Scrapping 6Music and Asian Network has no logic or business case at all; indeed hearing BBC executives back-pedal yesterday suggests a full plug-pull on these networks is not going to occur. Put simply, the Corporation cannot stay to its remit for public service broadcasting while removing the stations which would make Lord Reith proud. Where exactly would Asian Network’s programming fit upon its disconnection? Edith Bowman may not agree to 30 minutes of Devotional Prayer being tagged on to the end of her chart rundown.

I agree with some elements of the “strategic review”. BBC News must be improved. It has fallen into the same repetitious, ticker-tape sensationalism it was supposed to avoid. I welcome plans to reduce the amount of money invested in imported shows, more so if it means BBC Four being turned into – or turned BACK into – the BBC Knowledge channel from which it regenerated.

It is easy to join the Daily Mail/Murdoch/”biased BBC” brigades in cheering every time the network tries to improve itself. The problem, of course, is that the anti-Beeb consensus act like the Knight from Holy Grail, dismissing the network’s cuts as nothing more than flesh wounds. That 6Music is “listened to only by a low number” cannot be synchronised with the argument – from the same people – that 6Music “is a threat to commercial stations”. Threat to whom? XFM? Have you tried listening to XFM? It’s like being trapped in The Tash in Blackpool. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. ON REPEAT.

So, BBC, these planned cuts – “strategic review” indeed – do not add up to a compelling case to begin hacking the corporation to shreds in the Kill Bill model. Reduce the pay of the biggest starts, invest in comedy that makes us laugh, ensure QI reaches the end of the alphabet, sell Andy Parsons to the highest bidder, stop the NEWS department becoming indistinguishable from Live From Studio Five, and please remember that “public service broadcasting” means more Adam & Joe with less “Snog, Marry, Avoid”.

Murdoch and Cameron know the licence fee discussions will start under their watch. I’d prefer it if the BBC didn’t make it easier for their enemies to tear them apart.