Words for Friends #11

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#11 Jo

Jo is one of the truest friends I could ever have wished for.

We first met in our second year at university, and now 40 years later

she carries secrets about me which she would never share. Well the last bit is a lie, because she shares them regularly to everyone’s amusement … including me!

As young students, Jo and I shared the same friends, music, humour, drinking places and vulgar Tory politics. I fancied her rotten, but we were only ever good friends. Now we talk regularly about those days… except the politics, which we try to bury as deep as Margaret Thatcher’s grave.

Like many student friendships, ours waned after graduation as we both left the campus environs in search of jobs, careers and family.

Then by chance (Friends Reunited) in 2003, we rediscovered each other and a new close friendship was reborn. It is nurtured almost weekly through social media, emails and buckets of shared retrospective humour.

A highlight in recent years was meeting Jo and her husband Ian for a coffee in 2014, when we could at last sit down, catch up and span the years since we last met. It was a wonderful moment.

Today, Jo is one of the first people I always turn to for advice and support, because I trust her implicitly and value every word she shares.

She is quite simply lovely… and a real best friend.


So Who is Frying the BBC Fish?

THERE’S a very strange drama unfolding at the BBC.

It’s a slow burning political thriller in which the final episode has yet to be written.

The latest trailer for this drama was unveiled on Sunday evening when David Cameron’s Conservative government came under unprecedented attack at the BAFTA TV awards, where the BBC swept the board with double wins for the Mark Rylance drama Wolf Hall.

The tone for the evening was set by Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky, who was given a standing ovation by the audience of TV stars and industry executives when he accused the government of trying to “eviscerate” the BBC and Channel 4.

Mr Kosminsky said: “In the week in which our secretary of state John Whittingdale described the disappearance of the BBC as a tempting prospect, I’d like to say a few words in defence of that organisation.

“It’s not their BBC, it’s your BBC. In many ways, the BBC and Channel 4, which they are also attempting to eviscerate, are the envy of the world and we should stand up and fight for it, not let it go by default.

“If we don’t, blink and it will be gone. No more Wolf Halls, no more ground-breaking Dispatches [on Channel 4], just a broadcasting landscape where the only determinate of whether it gets made is whether it lines the pockets of shareholders.

“This is really scary stuff, folks, and not something I thought I would see in my lifetime in this country. All of this is under threat right now, make no mistake. It’s time to stand up and say no to this dangerous nonsense.”

Government proposals to appoint a majority of members on a new BBC board threatened its independence, Mr Kosminsky said, and would turn it into a state broadcaster “a bit like … those bastions of democracy Russia and North Korea”.

He said the government wanted to tell the BBC what programmes to make and when to schedule them.

Mr Rylance later joined in the criticism, saying: “Woe to any government or corporation that tries to get between the British people and their love of a good joke, a true story, a good song, a fact or fiction, good sports commentating, newscasters who can hold themselves together as they tell stories about terrible tragedies in Paris, people who can help you bake cakes.

“We’re a nation of storytellers, were admired around the world for it. Tonight I was struck with the quality of storytelling in the country and I agree with Peter, times are hard.”

Ian Hislop and Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood were among other stars to speak out on behalf of the BBC.

Mr Hislop, accepting the comedy and comedy entertainment award for BBC1’s Have I Got News For You, said: “The BBC have allowed Have I Got News For You to be rude about governments … and rude about the BBC, which is a privilege you are given with public service broadcasting and not on state television.

“I have an idea that John Whittingdale’s ideal show would be the prime minister as host [of Have I Got News For You], the defence secretary and the home secretary as the two team captains.

“It is a ludicrous idea what he is proposing. But I think that like most of the really terrible ideas that this government has come up with, in about three weeks they will decide that they didn’t mean it and they will row back,” he added.

Revel Horwood spoke out after Strictly Come Dancing, which has been criticised by Mr Whittingdale and may be forced out of its primetime slot, beat ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent to the best entertainment prize.

“If they are in charge of anything entertainment-wise, it would be a complete disaster; we don’t want them in charge of any decisions, creatively,” he said.

“The scheduling is created around our audience. It’s a family entertainment show. You’d never schedule it at 1am would you? That would be ridiculous. I would hate to see it move.”

Without giving away too much of the plot of this steamy drama too early, the gnashing of teeth at the BAFTA awards does in some way explain why the BBC’s political reporting has been so biased in favour of the Conservatives.

Blackmail and bullying by the government has taken its toll on a Corporation still reeling from the Jimmy Savile and paedophile revelations about some of its presenters.

And it is there for all to see in red and blue.

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party last September, the BBC was accused of an ‘anti Corbyn bias’ and challenged with a 61,000 strong petition demanding that they stop using the prefix ‘left-wing’ when reporting on events related to his leadership.

Even before he won a stunning 59.5% of the vote, ensuring the largest democratic mandate of any Labour leader in modern history, Mr Corbyn was subject to what a source from his leadership campaign described as a ‘complete hatchet job’.

Former BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, even wrote to his colleagues over concerns about the Corporation’s bias against Mr Corbyn, and Channel 4’s Michael Crick issued a stunning rebuke to broadcasters referring to non-left MPs as ‘moderates’.

Despite these protestations the BBC’s agenda did not change.

In January this year, Mr Corbyn’s so-called ‘revenge reshuffle’ led to the revelation, that BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Daily Politics presenter Andrew Neil and so-called ‘moderate’ Labour MP Stephen Doughty planned his live resignation on their programme hours before it began.

Despite the fact that a live on-air resignation could be considered dramatic broadcasting, it beggars belief how it is the job of the BBC’s political editor to be of service to an evidently resentful shadow cabinet member intent on weakening the Labour leadership.

A few hours later the producer of the programme bizarrely admitted in a BBC blog that Neil, Kuenssberg and himself manipulated the news to negatively impact Mr Corbyn during Prime Minister’s Questions that week.

In the blog, the producer – Andrew Alexander – admitted that the BBC team were not just reporting the day’s news but trying to influence it:

“We knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact,” he wrote.

“We took a moment to watch the story ripple out across news outlets and social media. Within minutes we heard David Cameron refer to the resignation during his exchanges with Jeremy Corbyn.”

As a fellow journalist of some 30 years standing, I found this admission shocking, but also symptomatic of degraded and biased journalism.

What we are told as ‘fact’ is now a fiction hi-jacked by big business ownership of our media.

These are the same big businesses which support a Conservative government and in turn influence draconian monetarist and capitalist policy at every turn.

Almost 78 per cent of our press and broadcast media is owned by a handful of mostly foreign-based billionaires.

The nature of media organisation is set by its owner.

Newspapers and broadcasters exercise power and influence in many ways. And one of their most powerful forms of influence is the ability to effectively set the political agenda for the other media and more widely, in parliament, the workplace, the home and the pub.

So-called editorial independence is a sham. Proprietors choose editors who they know share their views.

And now their sights are firmly set on a privatised BBC.

It seems it is ripe for the taking.

BBC News forms a major department of the Corporation, and for years has received complaints of bias in favour of the Conservative Establishment.

The commentator Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman pointed out the right-wing backgrounds of many BBC presenters and journalists.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones is also of the opinion that the BBC is biased towards the right, owing to numerous key posts being filled by Conservatives.

A study by Cardiff University academics, funded by the BBC Trust, and published in August 2013, examined the BBC’s coverage of a broad range of issues.

One of the findings was the dominance of party political sources.

In coverage of immigration, the EU and religion, these accounted for 49.4% of all source appearances in 2007 and 54.8% in 2012.

The data also showed that the Conservative Party received significantly more airtime than the Labour Party.

In 2012 Conservative leader David Cameron outnumbered Labour leader Ed Miliband in appearances by a factor of nearly four to one (53 to 15), while Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

Former Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, has criticised the BBC as part of a “Westminster conspiracy” to maintain the British political system.

And so the drama unfolds…

Matters moved up a gear this past week when a 38 Degrees petition to sack Ms Kuenssberg, following her outlandishly politically biased reporting on the 5 May elections, was signed by more than 35,000 people in less than five days.

The fact that a very small number of people on social media used abusive and sexist language in calling for the BBC’s first female political editor to go, seemed at first like flotsam on the political wind.

Then suddenly, on Tuesday, 38 Degrees executive director David Babbs announced that the petition had been taken down with the agreement of the person who had posted it.

He said: “I am really concerned that a petition hosted on the 38 Degrees website has been hijacked, and used as a focal point for sexist and hateful abuse made towards Laura Kuenssberg on Twitter.

“That is totally unacceptable and, with the agreement of the petition starter, we’ve taken the petition down to prevent it being used in this way. There is no place in the 38 Degrees family for sexism or any form of discrimination or hate speech.”

Having both signed and endorsed the petition myself, I was taken aback by this.

I had read many of the comments on the 38 Degrees site, and of the scores of comments I read through, only one was sexist. That one was quite unpleasant, but totally unrepresentative.

It seems astonishing that a tiny and unrepresentative number of people can get a petition scrapped which had been signed by many thousands of genuine people.

The only people who claim to have seen this widespread sexism is 38 Degrees, who have not produced any public evidence of this.

Laura Kuenssberg is the most openly biased journalist I have witnessed on the BBC over the past three decades.

But she is by no means alone. Of course by targeting her we are only drawing attention to a particularly egregious symptom of the terrible disease of a rampantly right wing corporate and state media.

Nobody believes that removing her would solve the problem.

Nobody seriously believes the BBC actually would remove her even if the petition reached a million. It is purely a campaigning tool to highlight the injustice of media control, access and bias.

But behind all of this Game of Thrones is one man, billionaire media mogul and the man behind Sky TV, The Sun newspaper and The Times.

His name rings like that of Rasputin or Goebbels: Rupert Murdoch.

He is the man credited with winning the Conservative Party three General Elections in 1983, 1987 and 1992, and credited with the ascendancy of Tony Blair.

After flirting with Blair’s New Labour for a decade, Murdoch found a comfier bed fellow in David Cameron and became king maker again in 2010 and 2015.

Last June he gave David Cameron’s new Conservative Cabinet his personal stamp of approval, opining that the Prime Minister’s picks for his inner circle were “surprisingly good”.

Four years after the phone hacking scandal, which rocked the media and political establishment and saw the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World, the kingmaker is back at the centre of power in the UK.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of ad group WPP, said of the media mogul: “He certainly hasn’t been diminished. If anything, he has more vim and vigour than ever. He is just as powerful a figure and in the future will be even more so.”

At the start of 2015, the head of the company that controls more than a third of British newspaper assets, as well as 40% of Sky, still faced the possibility of corporate charges on both sides of the Atlantic, while many of his employees faced criminal charges for paying public officials.

While nine journalists were convicted over hacking, none where convicted over corrupt payments to public officials, and Murdoch has seen corporate charges dropped on both sides of the Atlantic.

After splitting the two arms of his media empire into a film/television and publishing businesses, ostensibly to prevent the phone hacking scandal tarnishing his more lucrative 21st Century Fox franchise, Murdoch has watched as both companies have grown in value on the stock exchange. He has also elevated both of his sons, Lachlan and James, into the top jobs at each company over the past year.

Even the decision to close the 168-year-old News of the World has resulted in a far cheaper seven-day operation for The Sun, which, though facing an advertising and circulation decline, is still the UK’s biggest selling tabloid.

He may have spent $500million (£336million) on settling hacking claims, closed a national newspaper and lost several of his staff but, after four years, Rupert Murdoch appears to have emerged a winner.

He is rumoured to be considering a returned offer for the whole of Sky he does not own but his interest in Time Warner, the US media giant behind the Harry Potter films and the CNN news network, suggests he may now have far bigger fish to fry.

And the biggest fish on this side of the water is the BBC.


Fairness, Compassion and Equality can Finally Overturn the Scourge of Capitalist Greed

WHILE the political pundits in the Westminster village are twisted into knots over Jeremy Corbyn’s so-called ‘Revenge Reshuffle” and BBC duplicity over the resignation of one minor minister, it is time to reset our focus to something much more important.

Put simply, the ongoing scourge of ordinary people by the most arrogant, privileged and right wing government of my lifetime.

For decades our country – and most of Western Europe – has been sleep-walking into a world of personal greed, arrogance and self-importance with totems such as The X Factor, tanning studios, Top Gear, designer clothes labels and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Human kindness, gentleness, peace, society and social justice have been jettisoned for a ‘winner takes all’ mentality and a scapegoating of the homeless, those claiming benefits, Muslims, asylum seekers and the poor in general.

All of this is underpinned by our malicious right wing press who smear and pillory anyone who dares question the status quo or suggest alternatives.

The press barons and their big business buddies are terrified of those alternatives, because they threaten a smug status quo which means that the five richest families in the UK now own more wealth than the poorest 20% of the population.

The combined wealth of the 1,000 richest men and women in Britain has more than doubled in the last 10 years. The wealthiest 1,000 individuals and families now have a combined fortune of £547.126 billion, up from £249.615 billion in 2005, despite the world economy being gripped by a punishing recession over much of the last decade.

Meanwhile, thousands of families survive on the breadline, make weekly use of food banks or starve due to draconian benefits sanctions.

When Cameron’s far right Conservative Party was elected in May this year I genuinely feared for our collective futures.

Here we had the election of a UK government compiled of self-seeking rich elitists who care more about their mansions and banking friends than about people.

And their shopping list for change is truly terrifying as this is unshackled Conservative government promises to:

  • Rip up the Human Rights Act, which underpins our legal system and protects all our basic freedoms and those of persecuted minorities.
  • Spend £100 billion on replacing Trident with new nuclear weapons, which at the push of a button could wipe out millions of lives and pollute our planet for tens of thousands of years.
  • Make £12.8 billion of cuts to welfare, leaving the poorest, the oldest and the weakest in our society facing the bleakest of futures.
  • Begin a phased end to council housing, thus pushing up rents in the private sector and making families homeless. Once again – as under Thatcher – we will see a surge in rough sleeping and begging.
  • Will enact tougher sanctions on migrants, involve the UK in further illegal wars in the Middle East and trigger an increase in racism, terrorism and Islamophobia.
  • Extend zero hours contracts, thus massaging the unemployment figures and leaving thousands of the poorest people without any job security.
  • Legislate for more private schools which will imbed the class system even deeper in our society, rather focus on improving our state schooling system.
  • Escalate and accelerate the privatisation of the NHS, so medical care will depend on wealth rather than need.
  • Redraw constituency boundaries so these same corrupt capitalist elitists stay in power for another 20 more years.

Following Cameron’s election victory I said the Left “must begin now to unify around a leader or leadership we can all trust, organise and start the fightback, or we wave farewell to any hope for a fairer and better future.”

Well the fightback has begun. And I must admit I never thought it possible.

But none of us expected Jeremy Corbyn!

Over last summer this gentle political firebrand packed out meetings and hustings the length and breadth of this country with his simple messages of an end to austerity, an end to nuclear weapons and an end to needless wars over oil in the Middle East and beyond.

His messages caught the hearts and minds of millions:

  1. The UK’s financial deficit should be paid off – but not through spending cuts and not to an arbitrary deadline. Instead, a Corbyn government would fund its reduction via higher taxes for the rich and a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion. “Quantitative easing for people” could be used to invest in housing, energy, transport and digital projects.
  2. Britain’s railways should be renationalised. Energy companies should also be under public ownership. He is “totally opposed” to fracking. However, he says deep-mine coal pits in the north of England could be reopened.
  3. Far more allotments would be good for the UK and councils and builders “should be doing their best to ensure that every new development includes some allotment space”.
  4. Talking to militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah is necessary to win peace in the Middle East. And arms embargo should be imposed on Israel to give Palestinian refugees a “right of return”.
  5. Replacing Trident would be a costly mistake. Jeremy Corbyn believes the project’s £100 billion price tag could be better spent “on our national well-being“.
  6. A National Education Service modelled on the NHS should be established. Under Mr Corbyn, state-funded academies and free schools would be forced to return to local authority control while university tuition fees would be scrapped and replaced with grants. He would look at ending the charitable status of public schools, although he accepts this would be complicated and might not happen immediately.
  7. The air strikes against ISIS in Syria are a crass mistake. Mr Corbyn wants to see “illegal wars” replaced with a “foreign policy that prioritises justice and assistance”. This would ameliorate refugee crises. In turn, the arms trade should be restricted.
  8. Rent controls should be re-introduced, linking private rents to local earnings, and more council houses should be built. Mr Corbyn also believes that council tenants’ right to buy their homes should be extended to private sector renters.
  9. Remaining in the European Union but with changes. Mr Corbyn wants to stay to fight for a “better Europe”. He also opposes the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal.
  10. Ireland should be united and returned to Irish rule. Mr Corbyn has long supported British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
  11. Protect trade unions in the face of Conservative plans to overturn almost 100 years of workers’ rights with new legislation.
  12. A national maximum wage should be introduced to cap the salaries of high earners. He would also introduce a windfall tax on former state assets such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.
  13. Every child should have the chance to learn a musical instrument or act on stage. Mr Corbyn’s arts policy also includes directing a greater proportion of funding to local projects, widening access and despite this weeks’ shenanigans, protecting the BBC.
  14. Private Finance Initiative deals with the NHS should be ended by using government funds to buy them out.

All in all, a brave new world indeed and those Corbyn messages are forever true.

And at last we have a political leader who can offer a true progressive alternative and a way forward for us all. So let’s now all unite and spend 2016 fighting together for that better tomorrow.

Fairness, compassion and equality can finally overturn the scourge of capitalist greed.