What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

August 31, 2006

Kettle Chips (with added vinegar)

Three months ago, I pondered (fisked might be more accurate) one of Martin Kettle's more egregious articles.

Today he wrote - though that may be too strong a word - a piece, Three cheers for the Kennedy cover-up, so utterly devoid of substance, style or wit that - laughably brief though it is - he finds himself quite incapable of sustaining any argument beyond the first tired sentence.

I have only one question: did he really get paid for that word dump? I mean really, actually, like a proper journalist? 'Cos if he did, I so want that gig.

(This being CommentIsFree, Mr Kettle's waste-of-space is followed by a load of brainlessly petulant spleen-venting from thegrauniad's very own green-ink brigade. But one brilliantly pithy comment did capture my thoughts:
"Pot, Twat and Black.")

'Violent porn ban' revisited

There’s been a healthy debate among various Lib Dem bloggers - here, here and here, for example - taking to task the Government for what is being labelled the ‘violent porn ban’, following the tragic death of Jane Longhurst.

I wrote about this (here) a year ago, when the proposals were first brought forward, arguing:
Those of an authoritarian bent (and they're at least as prevalent on the left as they are on the right) argue it is the duty of government to intervene: to make laws which draw a line between what society accepts as decent and what it condemns as indecent.

It's an easy corner to fight because there will always be victims who've been hurt, and who will applaud laws they feel might have prevented that hurt. Liberals who are instinctively sceptical of state interference, and believe in freedom of
, have the tougher prospect of arguing against those who deserve our sympathy, and run the risk of appearing heartless bastards. Such are my thoughts today on hearing the news of Labour's plans to crack down on what it loosely terms 'violent pornography'.

This follows a long campaign by Liz Longhurst, whose daughter, Jane, was murdered two years ago by a friend's boyfriend, Graham Coutts, who had spent hours viewing images of women being strangled and raped. These images depicted acts of violence exerted on unwilling victims: it would be illegal to own such material in print or on film, but it is legally available for download from foreign websites. This particularly tragic case is an open-and-shut case of a legal loophole that deserves to be closed without delay.

The Government has (of course) not been able to resist going further than closing this loophole. The Telegraph reports that the ban will cover “material featuring violence that is, or appears to be, life-threatening or is likely to result in serious and disabling injury.” [My emphasis.]

How this will be interpreted is anyone’s guess - but I worried last year, and I worry now, when laws deliberately blur the distinction between make-believe and reality, between actual and pretend:

Does this refer to the filming of non-consenting acts of violence causing actual bodily harm or worse (my definition); or might it also encompass consenting adults doing what they please - even though that may displease others - behind closed doors?

Now this is where the argument gets tricky, and needs to be acknowledged as such. Because though the Longhurst case is clear-cut, there will doubtless be other murders and/or rapes in which the perpetrator is found to have been an avid consumer of legally availably pornography involving scenes of bondage, or sado-masochism, in which pain is inflicted, though the actors willingly participate (even when their characters appear not to). Similarly, films like A Clockwork Orange, Child's Play 3, Natural Born Killers and Straw Dogs, have all at some stage stood accused of inspiring copy-cat crimes. How can liberals like me possibly defend the legality of such works if they are linked to crimes of violence?

The first obvious point to make is this: there is still no proof, after half a century's research, that watching violent films causes people to commit violent acts. If there is a causal relationship of any sort, it is, I believe, that those who are inclined - owing to personal, family or social circumstances - to commit acts of violence are more likely to be drawn to images which depict violence. In other words, 'violent pornography' reinforces attitudes, it doesn't create them.

So what effect will banning it have? It will simply mean that those who currently get off on such images will either swap what's banned for other, legal stimuli, interpreting this in their own warped manner; or, alternatively, continue to view the material that's illegal, and risk arrest.

Feel dirty, feel good

Here's an easy way to assuage any guilt you might be feeling about buying a copy of Greg Hurst's warts 'n' all biography, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw*.

Buy it through Amazon via this link, and you'll earn commission for the Lib Dems.

It's a win-win.

PS: Will Howells has noticed how the publishers appear - sensibly - to have changed the title from the tastelessly over-dramatic A Fatal Flaw shown on the dust-jacket.

"Past precedent, future Presidents"

Nip across to PoliticalBetting.com if you want to read my guest article about the race to become the next Lib Dem president.

A lively discussion appears to be well under way there (as ever). The race to become the next Lib Dem president has even been mentioned once or twice.

The poll over at
m'other site - who would you vote for given the choice of the nine names I've oh-so-helpfully chosen for you? - is still open, if you've not yet had chance to take your pick. Here are the scores on the doors to date...

August 30, 2006

What's black and white but not read all over?

Yes, time for a new vidcast - this one asking, "Are newspapers really dead?"

(And please note the (relative) smartness of my attire this time. Back To School.)

August 28, 2006

Bored already

It looks like the media has staked out the Lib Dem agenda for our September conference in Brighton. It's awfully kind of them to save us the bother.

Having decided last year that we were all obsessed with getting rid of Charles Kennedy, this year they have decided we are all obsessed with who was responsible for getting rid of Charles Kennedy.

The Times in particular is bigging-up the forthcoming biography of Mr Kennedy, written by Greg Hurst, a journalist with, err ... The Times. Apparently this book will:
tell how, along with Ed Davey, one of the party’s other “young Turks”, [Sarah] Teather, the MP for Brent East, led the charge against her boss last January, issuing him with a public ultimatum to resign, signed by a number of Liberal Democrat MPs.
Thank goodness for this revelation! Otherwise we'd never have known - certainly not by reading this BBC News report of 6th January, 2006.

I have no doubt there will be a bit of leadership gossip doing the rounds at conference next month. Given the tumultuous events of the last nine months it would be odd if there weren't. But the vast majority of members will be focused for the vast majority of the time on policy - such as the proposals being recommended by the party's Tax Commission.

Time was political journalists would have aimed to report such issues, reflecting both the reality on the ground and their mature judgement of what matters. Such times are disappearing.

I can't help feeling that most journos have already written their copy for the Lib Dem conference, and will simply occupy their time 'fixing the facts' around the story.

PS: both Rob Fenwick and Jonathan Calder have already posted reasoned analyses of all this.

So you'll have had your ITV, then?

Charles Allen’s full-throated attack on Channel 4 in his McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last week sparked predictable outrage - as I’m sure it was designed to do, despite Mr Allen’s protestation that attack “is not really my style”.

What was perhaps most surprising about his address - which, incidentally, had way more witty one-liners than most ITV comedies - was the extent to which he focused his tongue-lashing on a channel whose audience share is less than half that of the network of which he is in charge (albeit only for another two months). BBC1, a channel which might once have been thought to be the chief concern of ITV’s chief executive, was not mentioned at all.

Less surprising was the valedictory defence of his tenure at ITV:

This year has been tough, but we've still had some fantastic shows from Lewis to Wild at Heart, from Soapstar Superstar to Dancing on Ice. And that's with the likes of Cracker, Prime Suspect, and I'm a Celebrity still to come.

Grouped by genre, that equals:
  • three celebrity reality TV series (Soapstar Superstar, Dancing on Ice and I'm a Celebrity);
  • a detective drama spin-off (Lewis, the sequel to Inspector Morse, first broadcast in 1988);
  • two detective drama revivals (Cracker (1993-96) and Prime Suspect (1991-2003)); and
  • one original drama… about a vet (Wild at Heart).

I’m dissing none of them, but if those are the creative highlights you select to illustrate your McTaggart Lecture then [unfortunately, the rest of this sentence was drowned out by the sound of Lew Grade spinning in his grave].

The truth is that there is only one terrestrial TV behemoth operating today - the BBC - with two others vying to be also-rans - ITV and Channel 4. A licence fee settlement of RPI+2.3% for seven years (which is what the BBC has requested) will further entrench Auntie’s increasingly monopolistic position. And, with it, bang will go any hope of competition in public service broadcasting.

Mr Allen clearly spelled out the economic realities:

… even with all the legislation and regulation in the world, you can't buck the market. Look at ITV. Two lines - advertising revenues and programming costs - are steadily converging. This year ITV1 advertising revenues will be lower than any year since 1993. But over the same period, ITV's investment in programming is up well over 50% reaching nearly two thirds of our total ad revenues, an historic record. Investing more and more to generate less and less just isn't sustainable. That's not a threat or a negotiating stance for Ofcom, but a grim fact of economic life. The same applies beyond ITV.

(He might also - if he’d been more honest about ITV’s recent failures - have added two words: “Investing more and more to generate less and less ambitious programming just isn't sustainable.”)

Of course, Mr Allen has a point about Channel 4’s rapacious commercialism: how poaching the meretricious Paul O’Grady Show from ITV proves the channel’s commitment to a public broadcasting remit is beyond me.

But to accuse it of having lost its mission - alleging viewers would like back the old Channel 4 that “preferred the risky to the risqué, that sought out the bold, not the banal, the Channel 4 that was brave rather than brazen” - suggests a sound-bite in search of an all-too-clichéd argument. For sure, Channel 4 has tapped the revenue-generating potential of a show like Deal Or No Deal - but, then, the first programme it ever broadcast was Countdown, so the pattern was established early.

Mr Allen’s real gripe, I suspect, is that Channel 4 has - with huge success - established that most important corporate touchstone of this new millennium: a brand. The channel has a cultural head-lock on that advertising-friendly demographic, 16-24 year-olds - the Heat generation - pinned in place by its T4 strand, with programmes like The OC, Hollyoaks, Friends, The Simpsons and (what else?) Big Brother.

Ask anyone, “Who is ITV aimed at?”, and the answers will probably range from a bemused shrug to “People who like reading TV Quick.” In Emmerdale and Coronation Street, ITV might well have two of the most bankable programmes around - but do advertisers want to reach a diminishing share of everyone; or a targeted niche suited to their key demographic?

However off-beam I think Mr Allen’s diagnosis of TV’s ailments, the twin medicines he prescribes deserve proper consideration.

First, that Channel 4 be allowed to move into production (legislation currently debars it from doing anything other than commissioning from independent production firms):

... as Channel 4 becomes more dependent on independents, the indies are becoming less dependent on Channel 4 - the value of programmes is moving beyond first terrestrial transmission. With no ability to make any programmes in house, Channel 4 could become more and more exposed.

And, secondly, that the BBC’s in-house production be allowed to earn commissions from other broadcasters:

It is, after all, the British Broadcasting Corporation, not the British Production Company. And it puts BBC producers under a form of creative house arrest with only one internal market for their ideas. If we'd operated the same restriction at ITV, UK viewers would never have seen The Royle Family, The Street, The Deal. Even Countdown, God love it. … It doesn't have to be this way. We could free up BBC producers to produce for the whole of the market, for viewers of all channels.

There is a clear and desirable outcome to both these proposals: a freer, fairer broadcasting market in which “all UK channels [are] able to commission the very best programmes from all UK producers.”

That certainly sounds like a better deal than continuing to heap more and more licence fee eggs into the BBC’s increasingly engorged basket.

August 27, 2006

Can you feel the love in the room?

A shiver of nervous anticipation has tingled its way through the Lib Dem blogosphere in the last few days with the news that the inaugural Blog of the Year prize will be awarded at this year’s party conference. (Nominations can be made here.)

I’ve prevaricated mentioning it until now. Not because I don’t think it’s a good idea - anything which helps champion the importance of new media within the Lib Dems, and beyond, is to be welcomed.

My hesitations were two-fold. First, I felt if I wrote about it I ought to say who I’ve nominated. But that would be just too damn invidious, as there are way too many Lib Dem bloggers whose scribblings I enjoy grazing on: see the links on the right for my faves, though it’s not a comprehensive or exclusive list (because I find updating the template a bore).

Secondly, I find myself conflicted by the concept of awards. Yes, they will recognise hard work and good writing. Yes, they will encourage those who never read a blog to start doing so. And, yes, they might spur on more Lib Dems with something worth saying to start up their own blog. All Good Things.

But there is also a part of me which goes along with Dawn French’s trenchant take on awards: “I think they're vainglorious; I think they're corrupting. I think the minute you take these awards you're in trouble.” (Both she and Jennifer Saunders declined OBEs in 2001.)

When I was short-listed for the New Statesman’s New Media Awards thingy this year, I was determined to remain detached from it, to maintain total sang-froid. “It’s enough to be a finalist; just enjoy the evening,” was my mantra. But I defy anyone not to end up quite wanting to win something for which they’re nominated. Which is fine - nothing wrong with having a bit of a competitive streak.

What does matter is if being up for an award starts to alter how or what you write, however subtly; if you start to write according to what you think others will want or expect to read, and not because of what you want to say. That’s when writing becomes fake, stale, dis-engaged.

All of which might seem a bit heavy - Lib Dem Blog of the Year ain’t the Oscars, after all - so let me finish with the levelling words of American comedian Jack Benny on receiving an award:
“I don’t deserve this, but I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.”

August 25, 2006

Bush: a weak, busted flush

Philip Stephens in today’s Financial Times dissects quite how disastrous has been the Bush administration’s neo-con foreign policy in dealing with the dangers posed by a nuclear-equipped Iran.

As he notes, “Iran’s disregard of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has been well documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency” - but Iran has been tactically adept, both:

1) at building alliances with non-aligned nations by, for example, re-framing the issue as “the sovereign right of all signatories to pursue peaceful nuclear technology”; and

2) exploiting divisions within the international community: “First it was the divisions between the Americans and the Europeans, more recently the gulf between western governments on one side and Russia and China on the other.”

The Middle East is a diplomatic tinder box. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that America has a President who just can’t help playing with matches. Mr Bush’s hawkish policies have bolstered Iran, and emasculated the USA:
Almost everything the Bush administration has done in the greater Middle East, from the axis of evil on, has in one way or another benefited Iran. I remember a conversation with a prominent US neo-conservative on the eve of the Iraq war. The demonstration effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein, he said, along with the establishment of a flourishing democracy in Iraq, would isolate and weaken the Iranian regime.

Well, it did not work out quite like that. The shift in the balance of power in the region is well documented in a report released this week by Chatham House, the London-based international affairs institute. Iran has been the chief beneficiary, it says, of the US war on terror in the Middle East.

Just as US power and prestige has been weakened by the insurgency in Iraq, the overthrow of the Sunni regime in Baghdad eliminated Iran’s most dangerous enemy. Tehran has benefited similarly from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Its standing has been further enhanced by Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Iran has thus had a measure of success in cultivating relations with its neighbours, even those Arab Sunni states that are not natural allies.
The neo-cons bet the farm on a free, peaceful and democratic Iraq inspiring the whole region to throw off the shackles of tyrannical government (except, perhaps, in Saudi Arabia).

The gamble didn’t pay off, and we now have the worst of all possible worlds: the US and/or her government regarded with varying degrees of suspicion, contempt or hatred around the world - but no longer strong enough, politically (either at home or abroad) or militarily, to be able to act as guarantor in the Middle East for those principles of freedom, peace and democracy.

Mr Bush now can only vacillate. Forced by the realities, the frailties, of the US position - and against his natural instincts - he has adopted a multi-lateralist approach, inviting Iran to talks if it will suspend its uranium enrichment programme, and supporting the UN-backed ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon.

But only half his heart is in it. It is all too obvious Mr Bush would much rather be kickin’ ass.

Such duality is unsustainable, and yet it is probably the only route left open to Mr Bush. He’s a busted flush: too weak to be able to impose ‘Western values’ on the ‘Axis of Evil’ through regime change; and too tainted ever to have any serious leverage within the international community.

However much we might welcome the bankrupting of the Bush presidency, and the implosion of the neo-con agenda, any future foreign policy in which the United States is anything less than 100% committed is a foreign policy doomed to failure. America is too important a player in international relations to be left waiting for her 44th President to take office.

The fear must be that Mr Bush, finding himself backed into a corner, will feel compelled to lash out against Iran. As Mr Stephens gloomily concludes:
Mr Bush may judge he has little to lose in the twilight of his presidency. An uncompromising stance could otherwise emerge as a litmus test of a robust commitment to US national security in the 2008 presidential campaign. Military strikes on Iran could then be, if not the last act of this administration, the first mistake of the next.

August 24, 2006

POLL: next Lib Dem President

Right, it's uploaded and live, over at www.stephentall.org.uk. Simple question:

Simon Hughes has served one full term as Lib Dem Party President. Would you like to see him re-elected, or would you support one of the other possible candidates listed below?

  • Paddy Ashdown
  • Lynne Featherstone
  • Simon Hughes
  • Susan Kramer
  • Lembit Opik
  • Jo Swinson
  • Matthew Taylor
  • Shirley Williams
  • Jenny Willott
The choice is yours...

Tories under fire for loans secrecy

The Times today reports on the dressing down the Electoral Commission has given the Tory Party for failing to declare £36 million of loans:
In the three months to June, the Tories declared that they had taken out two bank loans totalling £2.8 million. But they made no mention of almost £16 million in outstanding loans to donors, plus a similar amount owed to banks. Nor did they mention the £4.5 million borrowed from Conservative associations and £200,000 from the Association of Conservative Clubs.

A party spokesman said that details of all “outstanding loans” had been published, but five months ago it announced that it had repaid £5 million to lenders who refused to be identified, some of whom were not registered to vote in Britain and therefore were unable to make conventional donations. …

The Electoral Commission criticised the Conservatives for not providing full details of all its outstanding loans, despite a voluntary agreement with all the main parties under which they would declare both existing and new loans before this becomes a legal requirement on September 11.

It suggested further that the Tories and Labour should have declared loans made to their local or regional parties. Of the main parties, only the Liberal Democrats did so, listing just over £100,000 loans to constituency organisations.
The Lib Dems have come in for a lot of stick from ‘certain right-wing blogs’ (newspaper code for Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes) in the last few months concerning Michael Brown, the Scottish financier currently facing nine years in jail, who donated £2.4m to the Party before the 2005 election.

But, despite all the innuendo, no-one has ever been able seriously to suggest that the Lib Dems acted in anything other than good faith when accepting the donation - and, as has become clear from subsequent events, Mr Brown gained nothing as a result of his gifts.

The contrast between the Lib Dems' full compliance and the other parties' obfuscations could not be clearer: the Tory Party is deliberately withholding information on loans accepted prior to 1st April, while the Labour Party nervously awaits the next move by Scotland Yard’s assistant commissionaire, John Yates, who’s heading up the ‘cash for peerages’ criminal investigation.

The end result is, of course, that the reputations of party politics and of party politicians take yet another battering, with the public dismissing it all with a weary sigh of ‘a plague on all your houses’.

I am against any further state funding of political parties. But there is a third way, which I proposed here:

At general elections, all candidates are allowed an election communication, often called a 'freepost' - that is, one leaflet which is delivered free of charge to every elector in the constituency in which the candidate is standing. Why not extend this system? Perhaps allow up to three freeposts in any election campaign (local or general) to any candidate from any party? And maybe throw in a couple of paid-for party election broadcasts too.

Let's help political parties to communicate with those they hope to represent. But let's not give them free money, provided by the tax-payer, to do with as they wish.

August 23, 2006

Labour appoints fit minister

'Nuff said, or this blog's going to end up looking like Guido's:

Caroline Flint: New Labour's 'Minister for Fitness'.

New poll coming - next Lib Dem President...?

My posting last week, Another Lib Dem election? - wondering if the current Lib Dem president, Simon Hughes, would be re-elected unopposed, or would face a contest - triggered a vigorous response. And none of it will have made happy reading for Simon.

All of those who commented on my article wanted an election, while
Toby Philpott and Neil Woollcott both put finger to keyboard to urge a change at the top.

So I’m going to upload a new poll tomorrow asking folk who they want to be the next Lib Dem President - the person elected by members to be “the principal public representative of the Party”, and to chair our Federal Executive.

Do you want Simon to stay on? Or do you want an election and a fresh face?

The purpose of this article is to ask who else to include in the poll alongside Simon. The names which have been floated most often so far are (in alphabetical order):

  • Paddy Ashdown
  • Lynne Featherstone
  • Susan Kramer
  • Jo Swinson
  • Matthew Taylor
  • Shirley Williams
  • Jenny Willott

(Candidates do not, by the way, have to be members of either the House of Commons or Lords. But the demands of the job require whoever stands to be able to devote a significant amount of time to the role.)

How to report opinion polls

Accurately (have a bouquet The Scotsman and Gerri Peev):

Voters warm to the Lib Dems as Labour suffers a backlash

THE war on terror and the crisis in Lebanon have sent Labour's poll ratings plummeting to a near-record low, giving a boost to the Conservatives and especially the Liberal Democrats. In just one month, Labour's popularity plunged by four points, putting the governing party on just 31 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Tories have gone up one percentage point to reach the psychologically important 40 per cent threshold, but it is the Liberal Democrats who benefited the most, up five points to 22 per cent.

Moronically (take a brickbat thegrauniad and Julian Glover):
Tories open nine-point lead as Labour drops to 19-year low

David Cameron is on course for a possible general election win, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today that shows support for the Conservatives climbing to a lead that could give them a narrow majority in the Commons, while Labour has plunged to a 19-year low. …

The poll shows former Labour voters switching to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in almost equal numbers, boosting Lib Dem support by five points to 22%.
A number of Lib Dem bloggers have flagged up the news media's statistically illiterate reporting of this latest poll:
We should, of course, all get out more.

August 21, 2006

Because you can't take it with you

Stephen Byers’ call in yesterday’s Torygraph for Inheritance Tax to be scrapped might have been better regarded had it not been presented in such a blatantly populist, intellectually empty, and anti-Gordon Brown way:
It would be difficult to overstate the political impact of the abolition of inheritance tax by a Labour Government. It would send out a powerful message as to the political direction the party intends to take.

We know that Tony Blair will stand down at some stage before the next election. The danger for Labour in electoral terms has always been that when he departs from Downing Street, voters will feel that the pragmatic and modernising approach of New Labour has gone with him.

The challenge for his successor is to demonstrate that this is not the case and to show that the party is in touch with the British people. There needs to be a recognition that things move on and that new issues will emerge that will need to be addressed.
(Hmmm - what a relief to know his arguments are rooted in such firm and principled ground…)

It’s a shame that Mr Byers chose to make quite such a poor argument for abolishing Inheritance Tax - because there are cogent reasons in favour of scrapping it, or at least curbing its reach. And none of these involve resorting to the rather desperate branding of Inheritance Tax as the ‘Death Tax’, a ridiculously emotive label favoured by the Republican Party, the Daily Express, and - it now seems - New Labour MPs.

It was one of the Lib Dems’ great elder statesman, Roy Jenkins, who famously remarked: “Inheritance Tax is a levy paid by those who distrust their relatives more than they dislike the Inland Revenue.”

The fact is that, though only 6% of households currently pay Inheritance Tax, you can pretty much guarantee they are not the super-rich - for they will have employed smart accountants to devise cunning ways of avoiding paying their dues long before they have shuffled off this mortal coil.

Those disproportionately liable for Inheritance Tax are the folk who never dreamed their estate at death would be valued at more than £280k, the current threshold. They may not be poor by any absolute definition; but nor are they rich by any relative definition.

More importantly, as an increasing number of people become liable to pay Inheritance Tax, so the incentive to save for old age evaporates - the very opposite of what is needed if this country’s long-term pensions policy is to add up.

The economist’s logical, and revenue-neutral, response to this situation would be two-fold: reduce the rate at which Inheritance Tax is levied, and reduce the threshold at which people are liable to pay it. The net effect of this would be more people paying Inheritance Tax, but a less punitive amount.

The advantages of such a policy are that it raises the tax’s legitimacy, increasing compliance, while encouraging savings. There is an obvious disadvantage: it would be regressive, shifting part of the tax-burden from the well-off to the less well-off - which is why those of us who regard ourselves as progressive politicians have, understandably, left it well alone.

Nor has discontent with Inheritance Tax yet reached a tipping-point, beyond which politicians feel compelled to act (though Council Tax has, and still the Government dithers). But that time will come.

Inheritance Tax strikes me as an imperfect tax: better than income tax (which penalises productive activity), worse than environmental taxes (which penalise destructive consumption). Yes, it should be lower: but the first call on increased revenue from ‘green taxes’ should be to reduce income tax for the low-paid during their working lives, not lessening their taxable liability on death.

In any case - and here I must declare my interest as a professional fund-raiser - Inheritance Tax undoubtedly encourages greater interest in philanthropic giving, as legacy bequests to charity are free of all tax (as are gifts made by the living beneficiaries). It’s amazing how many people take a second look at their will once they discover the alternative is letting Gordon Brown get his hands on their cash.

That great American philanthropist, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, viewed such acts with a certain dyspepsia: “men who leave vast sums in this way may fairly be thought men who would not have left it at all, had they been able to take it with them.” Indeed, he was a strong advocate of Inheritance Tax, arguing that “by taxing estates heavily at death the state marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire's unworthy life.” He lived by these principles, giving away US$350m during his lifetime.

But, then, it’s probably easier to be sanguine about such matters if you’re still worth US$30m when you die.

August 20, 2006

On being hit on

A couple of weeks back, Will Howells (of No Geek Is An Island fame) discovered he was The second most famous Will in the world. Sadly - and I think unjustly - I'm only the 44th most famous 'Stephen' according to Google.

But here's where I do score: I am Google's top return if you search for "Royal Mail complaints". Which is surely some kind of claim to fame (albeit fairly transient). I guess there must be a nerd-word which encapsulates being Number 1 - a Googlewhack-off, perhaps?

The reason for this supremacy is the series of articles I've posted to my main website about the poor performance of Royal Mail in my Oxford City Council ward of Headington. (These are archived on my 'Royal Mail In Crisis?' webpage.)

Flattering as, in some ways, this Google ranking is - it's also a little bit troubling. It suggests to me there might be a problem with Royal Mail's complaints procedure if the website of a district councillor - with naff-all responsibility for, or authority over, Royal Mail - should attract more hits than, say, their own site, or that of Postwatch or Postcomm.

So I thought: time to do some digging, and see if I can uncover more about the Royal Mail complaints procedure. I've filed the following request under the Freedom of Information Act:
In each of the last three years:

* The number of complaints received by Royal Mail customer within the Oxford city area. If the information is available, I should also like this data broken down into the areas within Oxford - for example, Headington, Marston, Cowley, etc.

* The types of complaint received by Royal Mail from customers within the Oxford city area - eg, missing post, late delivery, etc.

* How many of these complaints were investigated by Royal Mail. And of those which were investigated, how many were upheld and how many dismissed.
There's always a problem with requesting such information under the FoI - you have to be specific enough so that your enquiry cannot simply be dismissed as a vexatious waste of time; but broad enough to ensure there's a chance they might have data readily available (otherwise you get the "It'll cost too much to find out / It'll compromise individuals' right to privacy" response).

I shall eagerly await the response, and keep you posted (ahem).

PS: I am also one of the top Google returns for Clarke's shoes. I have to admit to feeling a little guilty I get so much traffic from people searching for footwear, and instead stumbling on a dissection of the implications of Charles Clarke's resignation for the Blair Government. But what can you do?

August 19, 2006

Now we know what John Reid's been watching

Jon Stewart's Daily Show targets CNN's OTT 'Target:USA':

Remember: "If you build a better mousetrap, the terrorists will build a better mouse."

August 18, 2006

Another Lib Dem election?

Election fever is in the air once again. Well, a mild temperature perhaps, as today's Lib Dem News carries an advert announcing 'Election of President of the Liberal Democrats, 2007-08': nominations open in a fortnight, 4th September, and close on 27th September.

The post was last up for grabs in 2004, when there was a Simon Hughes-Lembit Opik face-off. I was one of the 24,333 (71%) members who chose Simon as President for 2005-06, in an election which saw a pretty healthy 47% turn-out.

Prior to that, you have to go back a decade, to 1994, to find the previous contested election for the post of President, when 54% voted for Bob MacLennan in a three-way fight with Don Foster and Martin Thomas.

Two years before, in 1992, a certain Charles Kennedy (who he?) bested Martin Thomas, winning 70% of the vote, to successfully defend his position - the last time an incumbent President faced a challenge. He'd triumphed in 1990, topping the poll with a frankly rather embarrassing 82% in another three-way contest.

The first President (then of the Social and Liberal Democrats), of course, was Ian (now Sir Ian) Wrigglesworth, who gained 50% in the 1988 election, defeating Des Wilson and Gwynoro Jones. The turn-out then was a whopping 71%. (As I'd just started at Big School, I can only surmise the ballot co-incided with the leadership election; unless Presidential elections were much more of a Big Deal in those days.)

Will Simon be re-elected unopposed?

Or will the long-forgotten tradition of challenging an incumbent re-assert itself? And, if so, who might be the runners and riders? Names in the frame so far include: Matthew Taylor, Lembit (again), David Heath, Malcolm Bruce and Paddy.

But if we're going to have an election, please can a woman be persuaded to stand? Three blokes contested the leadership this year, while another three blokes contested the deputy leadership. In the eight all-member elections the Lib Dems have held, only one woman (Jackie Ballard) has ever stood. We have far too many talented and high-profile women these days to allow that unglorious track record to persist.

Six weeks until we know for sure either way. If the Presidency is contested, the all-member ballot will take place between 11th October and 3rd November.

PS: you can find details of the results of the Lib Dems' all-member ballots here.

August 17, 2006

When US politicians go racist

Okay, so I’m not a proper politician, just a bit of a jumped-up part-timer with enough brass-necked vanity to think people might sometimes want to read what’s in my head. But I do know this much: if you are troubled by racist thoughts, and you are running for political office - don’t speak them out loud, ffs.

First, Senator George Allen (Rep., Virginia) was captured on film addressing a young Indian-American volunteer for his Senate opponent, Jim Webb (Dem.):
"Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
Macaca, Taegan Goddard informs us, "could mean either a monkey" or "a racial slur against African immigrants". Wikipedia records that it is “a dismissive epithet used by Francophone colonials in Africa for native populations of North and Subsaharan Africans.”

Watch a political career implode here (1):

(To be fair, Sen. Allen has explained that the term "macaca" was not meant in a racist way. He merely meant to call the young man a "shit-head". Well, that's alright then.)

Now another Republican running for office, Tramm Hudson (could his name be any more American?) - who is hoping to succeed the flamboyant Republican Senator Katherine Harris in Florida’s 13th congressional district - has decided to get in on the act:

"I grew up In Alabama, and I understand, and I know this from my experience, but blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim."

Watch a political career implode here (2):

August 16, 2006

David Cameron: a fake Tory or a fake liberal?

At long last, the Tories have unveiled some policies. Well, not policies exactly; more a statement of aims. Well, maybe they’re not all aims; but they do give a direction of intent.

Built To Last is billed by the BBC's Brian Wheeler as “Cameron’s quiet ‘revolution’” (note the inverted commas) - a more sober analysis than the Beeb’s Political Editor Nick Robinson managed when the first draft was published, back in February: “The Tories have long craved one. Team Cameron now hope they've created one - they know what it did for Tony Blair. I speak of a ‘Clause 4 moment’ - a moment that convinces the country their party has changed.” This orgiastic encomium was rightly hooted down in derision by those who recognise a vacuous brand re-launch whose hype has gone hyperbolic.

Credit where it is due. The new version of Built To Last is a sequel which improves hugely on the original
(which was plainly Built Too Fast). Where the prequel was almost comically vapid - a bunch of slogans in search of a purpose - at least there is an attempt now to sketch out, if not a route-march, at least a gentle stroll through the countryside.

There is now no room for Mr Cameron’s empty homily, “The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money” (which comes easier, I guess, from a millionaire). Gone is the really rather odd notion that “a successful Britain must be able to compete with the world” (“in”, sure - but “with”?). And absent too is the belief that “government should be closer to the people, not further away” (why can’t the people be closer to the government?).

Of course, there is still enough verbal enuresis sloshing about to keep Mr Cameron in diapers ‘til the next election. Bizarrely, the very first sentence is perhaps the weakest - “Our party seeks to cherish freedom, advance opportunity and nurture responsibility.”

“Seeks to” - what kind of yellow-bellied, limp-wristed, pussy-whipped language is that? Surely freedom can be cherished, opportunity advanced and responsibility nurtured without their first needing to be sought? Unless, that is, the Tories have forgotten where they put them, in which case I sympathise, because I’m the same with my keys.

But, of course, this is the new-look, metrosexual, girly-man Tory Party, in which the vocative is banished. Governments no longer make laws: they “encourage” (seven mentions), “support” (five), and “share” (five). This is because “change” (nine) is all around us - it’s everywhere we go - and each of us must take “responsibility” (17) if we are to “find true and lasting happiness” (one, which is one too many).

The Tories are alert to accusations such terminology might make them sound emasculated. I remember some advice I was once given - if ever you are writing a document which is essentially a sales pitch make sure you use the word ‘visceral’. It’s strong, emphatic, and no-one is exactly sure what it means. Whoever wrote Mr Cameron’s foreword - and, who knows?, it might even have been Dave himself - must clearly have been given similar advice about the word ‘revolution’. It appears six times there, though nowhere else, and is never once used correctly. Perhaps his auto-correct has been trained to insert ‘revolution’ wherever the phrase ‘slight change’ would otherwise appear?

But maybe I have fallen into the Tories’ cunning trap, lulled by the soporific gentility of Built To Last’s chloroformic phrasing? Who can say what shards of glass Mr Cameron might deliberately have sprinkled among this pick ‘n’ mix - too small to see, unless they catch the light, but sharp enough to draw blood from the unwary?

  • What might be the “constructive Unionist response to the West Lothian Question” that they promise? Is this code for ‘English votes for English laws’, which their last manifesto pledged?
  • What, for example, do the Tories mean by “new approaches to planning and building regulations” when promoting the construction of housing? Is this code for stripping from local councils their planning and building enforcement powers?
  • And can anyone tease out for me what I am to make of the commitment to build “into our energy policy an understanding of how energy insecurity threatens national security and stability”? Is this code for ‘nuclear power - bring it on’?

Answers on a postcard, please, to The Conservative Party, 25 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0DL. (But don’t forget first to ask the permission of whoever pays the tax bill in your household.)

It would be churlish, however, not to welcome some of the sound, liberal measures proposed in Built To Last. Mr Cameron’s commitment to scrapping ID cards is a welcome reversal of the policy he inherited from his predecessor, and I’m delighted the Lib Dems will no longer comprise the sole official opposition to this expensive, irrelevant and authoritarian stinker of a scheme.

The emphasis on drugs rehabilitation - rather than a commitment to throw yet more money at the failing war on drugs - is also a baby-step in the right direction. It is, though, a shame that Mr Cameron was forced during his party’s leadership contest to retreat from his unequivocal 2001 position: “I am an instinctive libertarian who abhors state prohibitions and tends to be sceptical of most government action, whether targeted against drug use or anything else.”

And - though here I am pretty much a lone voice in the Lib Dems - the Tories deserve a straight Alpha for advocating that universities should have “the freedom to raise an additional element of financing through tuition fees”. This country faces a simple choice. It can either have world-class universities funded both by the state and tuition fees, with generous financial assistance available for those who need a helping hand; or we can commit ourselves to free higher education, and watch our universities sink into decline as they run out of the cash they need to compete against the world’s best. Labour has realized this; the Tories have now accepted this; my party will, sooner or later, have to come to terms with this as well.

The best that can be said of Built To Last is that it is a start. The dots are now there on the page, even if they are not yet joined.

But what it doesn’t resolve is the fundamental tension at the heart of the Cameron ‘revolution’ - does he mean any of it? This, after all, is the guy who, just 18 months ago, wrote the Tories’ “It’s not racist to think there’s too many of ‘em over here” manifesto. Have his views changed so radically since then? Is he a “liberal Conservative”, or a “Conservative to the core of my being”?

Die-hard Tories, the Cornerstone Groupies, are hoping this centrist, moderate liberalism is all a bluff - that Mr Cameron’s hoodie/African/tree-hugging will distract the electorate from the implementation of the next wave of Thatcherism. Most other Tories don’t currently care - they just want Labour out, and for the natural order that is a Tory Government to reassert itself. The policy stuff can go hang until Downing Street is an occupied territory once again.

The rest of us can still only hazard a guess. Maybe Mr Cameron is a fake Tory? Or maybe he’s a fake liberal? Which means there’s only one thing for certain…

If you've got nothing to say...

David Cameron today broke his long silence, and spoke out about the Middle East and last week’s Heathrow security alert.
“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” (Anonymous proverb)
The ever-brilliant Millennium Elephant pricks his balloon here.

August 14, 2006

"JLC Brings Back The IRA"

I have some friends what do comedy. The two who appear in this video got married last week-end.

Before they took that respectable step, they recorded this scurrilously funny sketch. If you enjoy good taste, prepare to shed it now...

If you have RealPlayer, you should be able to watch it by clicking here.

If you don't - or want to show your appreciation for their brilliance, or fulminate against their wretchedness - you can visit the BBC Comedy Soup site here, and watch it officially.

Young people have sex: shock, horror

The results of this year’s BBC Radio 1 sex survey are here. It’s been reported - with tedious predictability - by the Daily Telegraph here:
Casual sex is rife among young Britons, who are putting their health at risk by not using condoms with new partners, a new survey has said today. The survey, BareAll06, found that nearly a third of 16 to 24 year olds lost their virginity before the age of consent and that, of those, 38 per cent do not always use a condom with a new partner.

Let’s assume that all those surveyed told the truth - because, after all, what possible reason could anyone have to lie about their bedroom action, or lack of it? - and take a fresh look at the results, as they weren't reported today:

  • 70% of 16-24 year-olds waited until they were over 16 before they had sex for the first time;
  • 82% of 16-24 year-olds have had fewer than 10 sexual partners;
  • 43% of 16-24 year-olds have never had a one-night stand;
  • 62% of 16-24 year-olds always use a condom with a new partner;
  • Two-thirds of 16-24 year-olds didn't have a drink before their first sexual experience;
  • Nine in 10 16-24 year-olds have had sex education at school;
  • Three-quarters of 16-24 year-olds used contraception when they first had sex;
  • 53% of men kept their virginity until they were over 17.

Looked at like this, the findings are perhaps a little less shocking - but, then, where are the headlines in that?

Shopping and bucking (the market)

An editorial in today’s Financial Times analyses the state of shopping in the UK today:
People are not deserting the malls or the high streets but they are using them in a different way. The internet makes it cheap and easy to buy goods. That means consumers can devote more time to choosing what to buy - these days a leisure activity in itself - and they do so by browsing in the mall. Consumers want service and they are willing to pay for it. That explains the resurgence of department stores. It is also one reason for the strength of retail property: a good shop feels spacious, so outlets are growing in size. People now buy more services than goods anyway. The internet is a wonder but it cannot (yet) cut your hair.
Very similar points were made in the current issue of Intelligent Living magazine, the Economist’s consumer lifestyle spin-off, which envisioned the shopping experience of the future in a recent article, ‘Are you being served?’:
As the trickle of web-based transactions turns into a flood for certain categories of goods, high-street stores are striving to weather the transition. For household appliances and consumer electrics, for example, people nowadays prefer to visit the store only to brows, compare and seek expertise. They then return home to deliberate, order the goods online, and wait for delivery. The trend has taken a toll on store staffing, something that was traditionally tied to shop floor-takings.

Fortunately, retail stores are changing. While understaffed stores lose appeal and drive visitors elsewhere, stores that provide plenty of product information and compelling experiences, and are staffed by product experts and sales personnel, will attract both regular customers and the speculative online shoppers. …

… more and more retail spaces are becoming ‘experiential destinations’ - offering food, fun and pampering, as well as things to take home. Their purpose is as much about converting visitors into customers over time as it is about moving the merchandise on a day-to-day basis.
Though it’s easy to mock the terminology used - ‘experiential destination’, my arse - what both articles have to tell us about the future for the producer-consumer relationship is powerful stuff.

Generations of consumers have been limited to shopping close to where they live, the degree of restriction depending on the extent of the individual’s mobility. This made it easy, for both consumers and producers. Consumers didn’t have to worry about being confused by choice (often they had none); while shops had a captive market, with limited (or no) competition. Though there were occasional nibbles into their market share - from the ‘Avon lady’ to mail-order catalogues - the high street ruled supreme.

This situation has gradually eroded in recent years, with the high street’s dominance being threatened by out-of-town shopping centres and the expansion of Tesco and WalMart hyper-markets. As living standards rose, so consumers were more willing to regard shopping as an affordable leisure activity, and to travel further to indulge their hobby.

Now the situation is reversed: the best deals can often be found by sitting in your house (or, ahem, office), surfing the web, and clicking ‘Submit’. But what Internet shopping lacks is the sensory delight and instant gratification of a retail outlet. Which is why even the pile-'em-high clothing stores, like Primark and H&M, are self-consciously light and airy, spacious and trendy. Their customers are quite happy to shop in ‘bargain hunt’ malls; that doesn’t mean they want to be treated any differently from those living it up at John Lewis or Selfridges.

Moreover, ‘real-time’ shopping provides us with the reassurance that - though we are all individuals, with unique preferences - our choice of shop and product has been affirmed by popular acclaim.

Some put it more bluntly - that we consumers are a mass freakin’ mess of refracted distortions and distorted refractions. Again, from Intelligent Living:
In their book, ‘Trading Up: The New American Luxury’, Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske characterize consumers as creatures saturated with choice and bursting with contradictions. As shoppers, we apparently expect consistent quality, but demand unique and personal products. We want to participate and fit in, but we guard our individual tastes scrupulously. We are immersed in global culture, but long for home comforts.
Can any shops hope to cater for such capaciously capricious whims? The FT’s leader thinks so, and sums it up neatly:
Traditional retailers face the greatest challenge. They must design stores to attract people rather than process their sales: something bookshops do through coffee and comfortable seats. They must educate, support and advise their customers. They will need more skilful staff, to form relationships, remember names, and sell customers service as much as goods.

Retail in the future will be hard work but it will not just be big-box warehouses and faceless websites, although their share of retail volumes will rise. Instead, a lively world of innovation and service is in prospect. The shop-­aholics should have a lot of fun.
Size will not be the sole determinant of success in such a retail environment. Producers which nurture and develop their relationships with customers will thrive, whether they are Tesco or your local corner shop. Those which take us for granted, who fail to respond to change, who assume we will always want in the future what we have wanted in the past, will fail. Simple, really.

August 12, 2006

Postcard from Cadiz

I'm finally returned to Blighty, after a mere 19-hour plane, train and autobus trek from Cadiz in Spain.

I had a lovely time, and thank you for asking. To prove how seriously I take my blogging responsibilties, I've uploaded a new vidcast for your viewing pleasure.

(That it's a little discursive and disjointed I ascribe to the lateness of the hour when it was recorded. And not at all to the very good dinner that preceded it.)

PS: I reserve the right to delete negative comments about my choice of clothing. I welcome compliments on the tan.

August 04, 2006

Hasta luego

I'm off in search of sun, sea and other such sibilant stuff. To fill the void of my absence I've uploaded a new poll onto m'other site, www.stephentall.org.uk, inspired by last night's rather splendid episode of Armando Iannucci's Time Trumpet on BBC2. (If you missed it, make sure you watch the 'Copycat Cameron' clip here. Fantastic stuff.)

Quite simply - what do you consider the best modern satire? Your options, randomly selected by me, are:

  • That Was The Week That Was
  • Brass Eye
  • Have I Got News For You
  • Private Eye
  • This Is Spinal Tap
  • The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
  • Bremner, Bird & Fortune
  • The Onion
Or you can bung your alternatives in the Comments box, below.

Here's the result of my last poll, by the way... Q: John Prescott's personal and professional life has been dominating the headlines again. What's your view of our Deputy Prime Minister?
  • 56% of you consider John Prescott to be a 'fool';
  • 26% are harsher, and view him as a 'knave';
  • while 18% of you are absolutely barking, and voted him your 'fave'. (There are people out there who are trained to help you.)

August 03, 2006

Here I go again on my own...

“So bad it’s good” - how often has this clichéd expression been deployed as a skirt behind which some ponced-up pseudo-intellectual can hide when confessing to his love of cultural detritus?

Here I go, then, with my “So bad it’s good” musical list - all of which can be found on my iPod - inspired by Q magazine’s Top 10 Guilty Pleasures, and already blogged about at Love and Liberty.

Think of these songs as the musical equivalent of eating a cold, leftover pizza slice with salad cream to nurse a Tequila hangover - the taste might be shocking, but sometimes nothing else will do.

  • All Saints (Never Ever)
  • Alvin Stardust (My Coo-Ca-Choo)
  • Andreas Johnson (Glorious)
  • Avril Lavigne (Sk8er Boi)
  • Bananarama (Love in the First Degree)
  • blink-182 (All the Small Things)
  • Boney M (Rasputin)
  • Brian McFadden (Real to Me)
  • Busted (Year 3000)
  • Charlotte Church (Crazy Chick)
  • Daphne & Celeste (U.G.L.Y.)
  • Darius (Rushes)
  • Dolly Parton (Jolene)
  • Emma Bunton (Maybe)
  • Falco (Rock Me Amadeus)
  • 5ive (Everybody Get Up)
  • G4 (Creep)
  • Girls Aloud (Racey Lacey)
  • Hanson (MMMBop)
  • Julian Lennon (Saltwater)
  • Mark Owen (Four Minute Warning)
  • Nena (99 Red Balloons)
  • Rachel Stevens (Sweet Dreams My LA Ex)
  • Ricky Martin (Livin' La Vida Loca)
  • Robbie Williams (Radio)
  • S Club 7 (Don’t Stop Movin’)
  • Shampoo (Trouble)
  • Shania Twain (That Don't Impress Me Much)
  • The B-52s (Love Shack)
  • Wheatus (Teenage Dirtbag)

August 01, 2006

How we rate our telly

If there’s two things I’ve always had a weakness for they’re: telly and statistics. So, unsurprisingly, I find myself irresistibly drawn - like a moth to a flame, or David Cameron to pastel-coloured vacuities - to MediaGrauniad’s TV Overnights, which reports the audience figures of the previous day's viewing.

For instance, I now know that last night 7.3 million of us were watching Emmerdale, representing a 39% share of the available TV audience at that time. (And if you haven’t yet seen it, I do commend the current Emmerdale “It’s far from quiet in the country”
trailer to you - watch it here. Genius.) This tells me that 18.7 million people in Britain were last night sat watching telly at 7.00 pm - or 31% of the UK’s total population. Which is currently estimated at 60,609,153, by the way.

Now to celebrate their 25th ‘birthday’ - why does everything have to be bloody anthropomorphised? It’s their anniversary, not a birthday - BARB, the ratings experts, have published the listings for the Top 10 programmes in each year since 1981. It throws up some interesting quirks. For example, the Royal Wedding of Charles and Di was watched by 39 million of us (ah yes, I remember it well
); yet Diana’s funeral attracted fewer than half that, 19.3 million viewers, indicating they were wrong to split, as neither have found such success as solo artistes. I guess Charles is the Art Garfunkel to Diana’s Paul Simon.

Some things, of course, haven’t changed. Coronation Street - the only show to feature in each and every year - is still a ratings winner: it peaked at 18.8m in 1981, and pulled in 12.6m in March this year. The Royal Variety Performance continues to exert an enduring, and frankly perverse, fascination: it features in the top 10 in 1984, 1988 and 2001. Only one news programme, though, has ever made it into the top 10 in any one year - the ITN News on 25th April, 1982, was watched by 17.3m people. It was the day the Royal Marines landed in South Georgia, and re-captured the Falkland Islands.

The genres that emerge as losers are films and game shows. Sixteen films were top 10 draws in the 1980s; only Billy Elliott’s terrestrial premiere, in 2003, has made the grade this millennium. Video may not have killed the radio star; but it has slaughtered the Big Event movie. And the days when Family Fortunes, Name That Tune and Play Your Cards Right could rivet 16 million or more viewers to their sofas have long since passed - “Nice to see you, to see you… where have you gone?”

So what dominates our collective viewing habits now? Well, football for a start: one-quarter of the top-rated shows since 2000 have been soccer matches, six of them in 2006 alone. This points to an unsurprising phenomenon: the success of live, or ‘as live’, TV programmes, when the national consciousness is gripped - whether by the hype, or genuine excitement of a show whose ending is unpredictable.

* In 2001, it was Popstars (who could forget Hear’Say? To ask the question is to answer it);
* then, in 2002, there was Gareth v Will’s nail-biting Pop Idol Final;
* the next year, 2003, we were gripped by Tara, Tony and Rhona in the I’m A Celebrity jungle (and, again, in 2004 and 2005);
* in 2005, Comic Relief and Strictly Come Dancing showed up to the party;
* and, this year, desperate spin-off, Dancing On Ice - The Skate Off, somehow muscled in, with 11.7 million viewers.

The more choice we as individuals have of what we watch, and when we watch it, the stronger the desire we appear to have to come together - as family and friends - to participate in a shared, and often tense, experience. It might be a reality telly final, a penalty shoot-out, or the re-generation of Dr Who: we all want to be there, and to be able to say who we were there with.

However much we value our own private space, it is our public space - our common cultural realm - which gives real pleasure, real meaning.