What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

July 31, 2006

Trumpeting Time Trumpet

There's a lively interview with Armando Iannucci in today's Indy - and, unusually, it's not yet disappeared behind the newspaper's firewall. A couple of snippets, below.

(The hook is his new TV show, Time Trumpet, which looks brilliantly funny - it premieres this Thursday, 3rd August, at 10.00 pm on BBC2, and, if you've not yet seen the trailers, click here now.)

Is Iannucci concerned that viewers might be offended by such jokes? "I imagine people might be - given that 'terrorism' is one of those words you say and people are instantly offended.

"But I'm trying to make a point here about politicians turning terrorism into a concrete concept that we can have a war on. They use the fact that we're at war to change the law on anything they want. They might as well say, 'we're fighting a war on inflation - therefore, everyone has to do national service and can be detained for 90 days'."

Iannucci expands his thesis. "I'm interested in the abuse of argument. In the build-up to the war in Iraq, the Pentagon said, 'we have evidence of contact between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida going back 10 years.' That phrase, 'going back 10 years' implies that it had been going on for 10 years. But what they actually had evidence of was a meeting at a very low level 10 years ago - and nothing since.

"It's like those posters outside West End theatres which read, 'amazing'. But if you go back to the original review, what the critic really said was, 'it's amazing that this play is on in the West End at all'. That sort of manipulation of language is now going on at an international level."
And it seems Armando may perhaps have snuck a read of Jonathan Calder's blog, for he also notes the Lib Dems' adoption of un-spinning spin:
"The first series [of The Thick Of It] was inspired by how politics was five years ago when Alistair Campbell was at his height. Now the notion of spin is much subtler. It's the spin of looking un-spun. Look at the Lib Dems, who say, 'the great thing about Ming Campbell is that he's Ming Campbell. There is no way we could have spun him - or he would have looked a lot better!'"

Back in Blighty

"The everyday story of a country folk" was how the brilliant BBC Radio 4 satire Little Blighty on the Down described itself when it broke into Week-Ending's cosy Friday night monopoly of topical humour.

The first series (broadcast way back in 1988) is currently being repeated on BBC7, and it's well worth a Listen Again, not least for I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again veteran Jo Kendall's hectoring Mrs Roberts, Chair of the Parish Council - who, in later series, is forced to cede control of the Council to ex-circus employee, John Barnum.

Half the fun, almost two decades' later, is trying to match the Blighty characters and events to real life. Like Spitting Image retrospectives, Blighty piss-takes a very different world - where Tories rule, Labour is left-wing, and Nick Hancock was funny.

July 30, 2006

I probably think this video's about me

No sooner do I term it a 'vidcast' than the BBC decides to popularise them as 'vodcasts' - a term I (rightly, I think) dismissed as sounding too weird. Anyway I've uploaded a new one:

Talking to camera about talking to camera. It's either meta, or vanity gone mad. You decide.

No blogging today...

... as I've been having to listen to a lot of Latin:

And, yes, you're right - I am too old to be only just graduating... I finally sold out, and agreed to upgrade my BA (for which I worked damn hard) to my fake Oxford MA (for which I did naff-all, except pay the £10 admin charge).

My reasons for participating in this charade? They're both in the photo.

July 27, 2006

Poll positioning

The headline results in today’s ICM poll for thegrauniad don’t make the happiest reading for the Lib Dems - we’re at 17%, less than half Labour’s rating, and trailing the Tories by over 20%. But to live your life by the polls is to condemn yourself to politico-manic depression.

It’s one of the features of the hyper-kinetic, hyper-connected digital age we live in that each and every poll is poured over by geek-obsessives slavering over the latest data set, trying to interpret, extrapolate and predict. How useful is their analysis? Let’s take a look at a recent historical example.

In April 1997, two consecutive ICM polls (taken just a fortnight away from the historic Labour landslide so many of us cheered in) showed the following:

13th-14th April, 1997: Con 31%, Lab 45%, Lib Dem 19%
20th-21st April, 1997: Con 37% (+6%), Lab 42% (-3%), Lib Dem 14% (-5%)

What would the contributors to, for example, PoliticalBetting.com make of such a poll in today’s climate? “Tories on the up, as Lib Dems slump.” Would Iain Dale be able to avoid creaming himself at the prospect of the Lib Dems losing some of the 23 seats the party then held? What angst would be provoked among Lib Dem bloggers, desperate to see the party’s election campaign gain traction? Would there be criticism of the leadership, and calls for the campaign team to be replaced?

Too many hypotheticals; let’s deal in reality. This is how The Observer reported the Lib Dems’ chances, on 16th April, 1997:
[Paddy Ashdown’s] party stands at around 15 per cent in the polls [and] unless his recent improvement accelerates, his gains are likely to be few and a large Labour majority may leave the Liberal Democrats as marginal as ever at Westminster.
Well, half right, I suppose - the Lib Dem actually doubled their number of MPs, but the size of Labour’s majority thwarted any prospect (however remote it was in reality) of the Ashdown-Blair flirtation getting to first base, let alone being consummated.

It’s often forgotten today how sceptical many people were that Labour would really win in 1997. The spectre of John Major’s surprise 1992 triumph, when he confounded the pollsters, still hung heavy. I won a sweep-stake by predicting a Labour majority of 146, which was 33 seats shy of Mr Blair’s eventual margin of victory. No-one else guessed three-figures, and several pessimists felt sure the Tories would pull a rabbit out of the hat once again.

Pollsters will rightly note that they do not pretend they can predict results - all they can do is take a snapshot of public opinion, with a 95% confidence level that their findings are an accurate reflection of the national mood to within a margin of error of +/-3%.

But both old and new media are often less than scrupulous in recognising polling’s statistical frailties, while the 24x7 news agenda’s voracious appetite can only be satisfied by whipping up a morsel of bad news into a three-course crisis to be feasted upon.

All this displacement activity is, of course, merely distracting from the fact that no-one has a bloody clue when the next general election might be, or what will happen when it’s called - least of all Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Ming Campbell.

It also absolves the media of their responsibility to have to focus on the boring crap - like, y’know, public policy - when they could be talking shit about who’s hot and who’s not.

Deja vu all over again

Fifty years ago, an unpopular Prime Minister, shorn of authority and credibility by a disastrous military adventure in the Middle East, resigned in disgrace. He was replaced by his scheming Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had supported the policy to the hilt behind the scenes.

Write your own punchline…

PS: Alex Wilcock got there before me (and more thoughtfully) here.

Hurd heard - Blair’s ‘creepy’

Dashing out of the house this morning, late, I could have sworn I heard Douglas Hurd - that über-urbane diplomat - call Tony Blair “creepy” on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

I’ve just listened to the interview again, online, and here is milord Hurd discussing the chances of Anglo-American leadership resolving the Middle East crisis:

The United States has been weakened, it’s not able to do it by itself, even if
it had the will to do so. And, as you say, Tony Blair - he’s rather creepy these
days, his attitude to these things, the United States.

July 25, 2006

And the winner was...

Just back from London, having been at the New Statesman New Media Awards, hosted by the Staggers' genial proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson, at Hyde Park's Serpentine Gallery: swanky on the inside, municipal on the outside.

(I thought about trying to live-blog it, but was worried I'd spill canapes everywhere. Oh, and that it'd look tragically sad.)

Guest of honour was David Miliband, one of my fellow nominees in the 'Elected Representative' category. Something is seriously amiss when cabinet ministers look even younger than policemen. He delivered a disappointingly thin speech - apparently the Internet is changing how we communicate, creating a two-way conversation, and this represents an exciting opportunity for citizens and politicians alike. Well, yes, David: I think we'd all kinda figured that out. Still, he did say "batshit", and diss Guido Fawkes, all of which made me laugh.

In case you were wondering, btw, I lost. Or, to give it the glass half-full spin, I was a runner-up. But, then, nobody joins the Lib Dems expecting to win prizes.

Congratulations to Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne & Sheppey, whose excellent constituency site won the day. I don't feel I can begrudge him the victory, especially as his majority is about one-tenth of my own... I would, however, have been mortified if Mr Miliband's blog had won - I'm delighted a cabinet minister is trail-blazing in this way, but, please, fewer news releases, more interesting thinking.

Somehow I missed bumping into my fellow Lib Dem nominee, Jo Swinson. Apologies, Jo (maybe next year?).

July 24, 2006

Things seen while delivering, No. 87

A notice intended for the postie attached to a most respectable house in a highly desirable area in Oxford:
If mail item is too large to fit in letter-box please throw through the window.
It's insights like this which make leaflet delivering fun. Even in these sweltering conditions.

July 23, 2006

Reading is dead, long live reading

The Telegraph today carries one of those traditional whither-Britain-we’re-all-doomed, Sunday state-of-the-nation stories: Reading is a closed book to today's children:
Children spend less than an hour a day reading at school and many do not pick up a book at all during lessons, a study of reading habits has found.

I doff my cap to no-one in my desire for every single kid to discover, as I did aged six, the unconfined joy that becoming absorbed by a book which clutches you in its thrall can inspire. But let’s take a closer look at the Torygraph article:

The lack of time devoted to books at school, and the sorry state of many school libraries as revealed in a damning Ofsted report, in March may be among the reasons why many children have so little regard for reading.

Well, it may be - though as the survey shows 81% of kids spend up to an hour or more each day engaged in reading at school, I’m drawn to the attitude that home/parental attitudes are far more influential. A child who grows up in a house with no books is less likely to appreciate their value than one surrounded by literature (regardless of whether those books are Jackie Collins and Dan Brown, or Charles Dickens and the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

It’s just a little ironic to see the Torygraph instantly blame schools (and, by extension, the state) for this failure, and implicitly argue for greater state intervention to boost standards.

Many of the pupils surveyed were bemused by the question "Is reading your favourite activity?" Eighty-five per cent responded in the negative and cited watching television, playing computer games and socialising with friends as their main priorities.

Kids, eh… Well, what did the researchers expect? And what would they find if they asked the kids’ parents? - I bet boozing (or ‘socialising with friends’, as we would more euphemistically term it) would be higher up the list. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that up to 15% of those questioned appear to have answered positively that reading is their favourite hobby. I think I’d have said ‘playing football’ in my mis-spent youth.

A number of children thought Wuthering Heights was only a pop song by Kate Bush rather than a novel by Emily Brontë, and several others thought Bob Marley was the author of the work.

Hmmm. Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was released in 1978, a full two decades before the youngest children in this survey were born. I sincerely doubt a few 10 year-olds spontaneously piped up, “Wuthering Heights - oh, I’ve heard of that one. Are you referring to Kate Bush’s tender re-working of that tale of windswept love and doomed romance on desolate moors, set to a gushing orchestration of strings and piano? It was a book as well, you say? Well, who would have thought?”

And as for the notion that any child has the faintest notion of who Bob Marley is… it says much about the Telegraph’s idea of which popular beat combo artistes are down wiv da kidz.

The American rap artist Eminem was named by some as the author of To Kill a Mocking Bird.

A much easier mistake to explain away - as the Telegraph notes, Eminem did release a song called ‘Mockingbird’, a tender rap in which Marshall Mathers explains to his little girl why her parents have split up (lyrics with which I guess many kids will closely identify):
We did not plan it to be this way, your mother and me,
But things have gotten so bad between us
I don't see us ever being together ever again,
Like we used to be when we was teenagers.
But then of course everything always happens for a reason -
I guess it was never meant to be -
But it's just something we have no control over, and that's what destiny is.
But no more worries, rest your head and go to sleep.
Maybe one day we'll wake up and this will all just be a dream.

The Telegraph continues:

… a number of girls said they read magazines, not books, and one 14-year-old listed the Radio Times among her favourite reads of the year. Other chosen works included The Exorcist, The Manchester United Miscellany and Roy Keane's autobiography.

So what? At least they’re reading, so let’s not curl our lip at the content: Martin Amis devoured nothing but comic books as a child. (And let’s at least be grateful it was the Radio Times, not TV Quick.) Of course I hope these kids will graduate to books which stretch their minds further; but we’re hardly going to encourage them to do that if we make them think that ‘improving’ reading and ‘enjoyable’ reading are antithetical.

Lost in the Telegraph’s survey is any acceptance that the popular culture which envelopes today’s kids is vastly more intelligent than that which existed when I were a lad. Last year, the US author Steven Johnson wrote a terrific little book, ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’, about which I wrote an article last year:

His thesis is straightforward: that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture. Mr Johnson examines two components, video games and television, and draws the same conclusions from his study of each - that society's greater exposure to these cultural stimuli is ramping up our individual brainpower, both our intellectual and our emotional intelligence. He terms this counter-intuitive riff the 'Sleeper Curve', a hat-tip towards the famous Woody Allen joke from his mock sci-fi film where a team of scientists from 2029 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge.

Reading is not a rival to pop culture: it is integral to it.

July 22, 2006

Never thought it would come to this

It’s 12 years (and now one day) since Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party. I wonder if he ever thought it would turn out like this?

  • His Government regarded as sleazier than John Major’s Tories;
  • Trailing the Tories in the polls;
  • Forced to defend his deputy who has been found guilty of flouting Parliamentary standards;
  • Aligned with a right-wing neo-con President against the United Nations over the latest Middle East crisis; and
  • Poised to be interviewed by the police pursuing a criminal investigation.
Still, plenty of time to secure that legacy...

Ming: the public's verdict

Three successive postings about Newsnight smacks of obsession, but - what the heck - I'm a blogger. Many commentators have passed judgement on Ming Campbell's Newsnight performance t'other night:

Alex Wilcock (impeccably fair);
Jonathan Calder (contemptuous of Newsnight);
James Graham (Ming's getting there);
Rob Fenwick (unconvinced);
Paul Walter (a happy bunny); and
Me (let's get some perspective).

Oh, and of course Iain Dale was his usual friendly Lib Dem-loving self.

If you want to know what some real people thought, though, the Newsnight site has posted a few reactions here. They make pretty positive reading for Sir Menzies.

(Initially, I was surprised because the BBC's public fora, rather like thegrauniad's comment is free, is usually teeming with deranged lunatics dribbling bile into their keyboards. However, these are solicited views from audience members who saw Sir Menzies's performance.)

Here's a few reactions:
"I was impressed by him. His decency and kind of political righteousness was exuding and marks him well apart from Blair and Cameron."

"He came across more personable than reported in the media and gave a good account of himself especially against the criticism of his age and passion for his policies."

"He actually answered all the questions he was asked, there was no attempt by him to avoid awkward areas or divert the conversation. Overall he came over, as ever, with integrity and honesty."

"I was impressed by Sir Menzies' performance, but I am a keen supporter and had intended to vote Lib Dem in any case."

"Sir Menzies' performance was a credible one. The passion and charisma, which he so often lacks in PMQs, came out as he begun to feel more at ease."

"The passion Sir Menzies has for politics is much more apparent in reality when compared to his television presence. ... Sir Menzies represented himself and his party well. He has persuaded me to think again about considering the Liberal Democrats as a real and viable political force in British politics."

Welcome to viewers joining us from Newsnight

There’s an interesting, if slightly odd, column today by BBC Newsnight’s deputy editor, Daniel Pearl. (Hat-tip: Rob Fenwick.)
If you write anything about Newsnight, or about me, on a blog, I'll probably find it via Technorati. So for example, I know that there's a whole debate going on about Ming Campbell's performance on Newsnight - the question being asked is whether Ming is the Lib Dems' Iain Duncan Smith... see here or here.

The thing I find strange about all this is that often people who write blogs, or
contribute to them, somehow think that they are involved in a private forum.
The first paragraph is not especially surprising. Most of us who have StatCounter, or an equivalent tracker, know when someone from a BBC address has visited our sites. And if they’ve clicked through via Technorati we’ll know that too.

Which makes even odder the non-sequitur of Mr Pearl’s second paragraph. The debate in the Lib Dem blogosphere that Sir Menzies Campbell’s appearance on Newsnight provoked was never intended to be kept behind closed doors - especially as most Lib Dem blogs have an RSS feed to the popular Aggregator.

The parallel Mr Pearl was seeking to draw was with a Newsnight intern who let slip details about the show to a blogging friend on the grounds “the blog was supposed to be just for her and her friends”.

It is, of course, true that there are many people who use their blog as a live journal. But there are very few political bloggers to whom that applies (though there was an infamously egregious exception to that general rule). Most of us are positively delighted for our views to be spread far and wide. In fact, the further and wider the better.

And in case he’s reading this: welcome, Mr Pearl. I’m delighted Newsnight’s team is so assiduous in reading all e-mails and blog postings in which the programme is name-checked. This should mean you are well aware of the concern that has been expressed at your employment of US Republican advisor Frank Luntz to conduct ‘group-think’ focus groups without making clear his political leanings.

In case this issue is new to you, the following sites should give you a flavour:
Feel free to leave a comment......

July 20, 2006

Newsnight Review: poll the other one

“Twice as many people believe Charles Kennedy would be a better leader of the Liberal Democrats than his successor Sir Menzies Campbell, a poll suggests.” So says BBC.co.uk, following up an ICM survey commissioned for Newsnight. What are we to make of this news?

Well, the first thing to note is that the poll is utter bollocks. In fact, a curse does it no justice; let’s try some alliteration. It was bunkum, bilge and baloney. And balderdash.

Newsnight, of course, is utterly ignorant of, and disinterested in, psephology. (Which is why they are happy to employ Republican advisor Frank Luntz to conduct skewed focus groups and pass them off as impartial political science.)

Desperate always to try and set the agenda, in last night's programme Ming Campbell was confronted by an over-caffeinated Martha Kearney, next to whom could be seen, like Banquo’s Ghost, a picture of Charles Kennedy: she eagerly revealed the finding that 53% of the public would favour him as Lib Dem leader, to 26% for Sir Menzies.

Why do I think this poll factoid is so much drivel? Am I simply trying to shoot the messenger?

In answer, I have dug out the Mori satisfaction poll ratings for eight months in 1999, either side of Paddy Ashdown’s retirement, and Mr Kennedy’s succession. Here’s what they show:

Paddy Ashdown: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
April 1999 = 55 / 18
May 1999 = 52 / 20
June 1999 = 53 / 16
July 1999 = 55 / 16

Charles Kennedy: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
August 1999 = 21 / 10
September 1999 = 24 / 11
October 1999 = 23 / 13
November 1999 = 28 / 11

Mr Kennedy, it can be clearly seen, was not an instant success. After five months in charge, barely half the public were as satisfied with him as they had been with Mr Ashdown.

And that, I should add, is no reflection on CK, who - let’s remember - went on to lead the Lib Dems to their two best post-war electoral performances. It is merely a reflection of the difficulty all third party leaders have in establishing their identities given our political journalists' craven failure to grapple with the collapse of two-party politics.

Sir Menzies had, by common consent, a difficult, even diffident, first 10 weeks as Leader.

The transformation of the Party into a smart, ambitious, tough political operation was being effected behind-the-scenes. Too little was visible, or even perceptible, to anyone on the outside. The stumbles at Prime Minister’s Questions, the absence of a media strategy, and a mixed-bag of local election results eventually seeped into the public consciousness. This can be seen in Sir Menzies’ own Mori poll ratings:

Ming Campbell: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
March 2006 = 22 / 17
2006 = 26 / 20
May 2006 = 22 / 31
June 2006 = 22 / 28

The perceived failure in May’s local elections - which in reality was neither as bad for the Lib Dems, nor as good for the Tories, as the media portrayed it - saw Sir Menzies lose a little of his authority. Those satisfied declined very slightly; far more noticeable was that the number of those dissatisfied increased.

Just as David Cameron was seen as a winner - for having added a whole 1% more to the Tory vote than William Hague managed in 2000, or Michael Howard achieved in 2004 - so Sir Menzies became tainted as a loser, despite the Lib Dems achieving their third best local election result in a decade. Which, considering the mensis horribilis the Lib Dems endured in January, was no mean feat in itself.

The last 10 weeks have, however, been a wholly different story, with Sir Menzies proving his credibility with each passing day.

He appears to have cracked the trick of Prime Minister’s Questions, vigorously tackling Mr Blair on issues of substance, in stark contrast to Mr Cameron’s flimsily clever point-scoring. Sir Menzies bested Mr Cameron’s Tories in Bromley, proving once again how formidable can be the Party’s campaign machine when operating at full throttle. Most importantly, the Lib Dem leadership has proposed a radically redistributionist tax package, an uncompromisingly bold environmental manifesto, and taken a resolutely liberal line on issues of international justice, from the NatWest Three to Israel.

While Mr Cameron is frittering away his honeymoon chasing yesterday’s headline, Ming is focused on setting tomorrow’s agenda.

Postscript: as Alex Wilcock has already noted, Ming is never going to beat CK in the cuddly stakes. Nor should he try.

Echoing the sound advice imparted by Jonathan Calder last month, the Party should be content to ‘Let Ming Be Ming’. Which segues me neatly into a West Wing snippet which seems somehow to be apt, following Ming’s forceful defence of his leadership on Newsnight.

Here, President Bartlet’s speech-writers, Will Bailey and Sam Seaborn, discuss their boss’s bravura election debate performance:
WB: I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial.

So did we. But then, we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning, at 3:10, my phone rings, and it's Toby Ziegler. He says, "Don't you get it? It's a gift that they're irreversibly convinced that he's arrogant 'cos now he can be." If your guy's seen that way,
you might as well knock some bodies down with it.

July 17, 2006

How The Long Tail can help raise the level of public debate

What are we to make of the fact that ConservativeHome, the unofficial refuge for Cameron-baiting right-wing activists, is now more popular than the official Conservative Party website? Or that LabourHome, within three weeks of its launch, is one-third of the way towards catching up the number of visitors clicking on Labour’s approved site?

Arch-blogger (in every sense) Guido Fawkes - whose reach, post-Prescott, exceeds all four of those sites - argues: “It means party members want honesty and openness, something that they don't trust the official channels to provide.”

There is doubtless an element of truth in this - though untrustworthiness is too trite an expression - but I think it misses two bigger issues at play here. The first is that readers want to be stimulated: to be encouraged to think, not told what to think. Let us take a look at examples of the main stories on offer from the political parties' websites:

Each of these news releases puts forward their party’s case clearly in plain language. But there is no light-and-shade here, no subtlety, no nuance, no context. I didn’t feel any the wiser for reading any of them. No wonder, then, that Internet-savvy readers are ordering their brain-food à la carte in preference to the set menu.

The second issue - one which has received blanket media coverage in the last week - is the application of Chris Anderson’s theory of ‘The Long Tail’: “culture unfiltered by economic scarcity”.

New technology is simultaneously democratising the tools of production (with MySpace helping break Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen) and cutting the cost of consumption (just 79p a pop at iTunes). But this explosion in supply and availability means that we, as consumers, are increasingly reliant on authoritative, trustworthy filters to deliver us to our destination - from Amazon to GooglePageRank to IMDB.

And this is where unofficial party political sites like the US Democrats’ Daily Kos - and, in the UK, ConservativeHome, LabourHome and Liberal Review - are increasingly finding their niche among their party’s supporters and activists. If you want to know what others who share your political beliefs are thinking, they are where you start.

And all power to the collective elbows of those who run such sites, say I. But something troubles me: why must all the interesting conversations happen on unofficial sites? Why is it our political climate feels so stifled, yet official party websites dare not open the windows to let in a breath of fresh air?

Even to ask the question is to stand accused of naivety. After all, which political party is going to stick its head above the parapet knowing its rivals have an armed rapid response unit just slavering to open fire? The outcome would be all too predictable.

The first time any internal dissent against Party X’s leader was voiced, however mildly, the opposition parties would pounce: up would go the cry, “Splits!, rancour!, chaos!”. If alternative, controversial policies - for example, legalisation of drugs, or abolition of the monarchy - were put forward for debate, rent-a-quote opposition MPs, whose brains have long since melted to mush, would leap forward to “condemn wholeheartedly this irresponsible proposal, so typical of Party Y”.

Their cry would be taken up with alacrity by the media, eager to feed the insatiable hunger of the 365x24x7 news cycle. By the time Jeremy Paxman and John Humphries had savaged Party Z for failing to answer either Yes or No to a series of complex questions, all three parties would have realised that any attempt to initiate grown-up debate was scarcely worth the hassle. Which is why, too often, they duck the challenge.

How can politics be rescued from this ever decreasing circle of vacuity? Well, it requires a recognition by both the media and politicians that theirs is an unhealthily symbiotic relationship - and that while they feast off each other, the public is going hungry.

In an excellent article, 'Saving Political Journalism', for The Political Quarterly, Peter Riddell identifies four key risks to proper news coverage in the media:

1. concentration on major stories to the exclusion of secondary stories - for instance, a new government initiative, a select committee report;
2. the focus of foreign news on the crisis of the day, with none of the historical context;
3. the obsession with personality politics: “Hard cases, or scandals, make good stories, not analysis or a sense of perspective and proportion.”
4. and the shrinking of newspapers, with one-story ‘viewspaper’ front pages relegating all other stories to the fringes.

The response of Jeremiahs like John Lloyd - author of ‘What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics’ - is to throw up their hands in despair: news journalism is debased, debauched and defunct, beyond redemption. But a lot depends, as Chris Anderson has argued, on our view of newspapers:

“If you define a newspaper as the thing you get 12 hours too late and that leaves ink on your fingers, well that isn’t going to be a growth industry. If you define newspapers as the creative writing and reporting of smart individuals, that’s clearly a growth industry.”
Which is where the Internet and our Long Tail come back in. GuardianUnlimited has been pioneering the way ahead, catering for increasingly niche markets, but recognising the aggregate reach of those individual niches. The variety of its three top stories visited today proves the potential is there, and demonstrates how exclusive web content and print cross-over can sit harmoniously together:

1) Over-by-over: England vs Pakistan
2) Profile of Justin Timberlake: 'I'm bringing back sexy'
3) Last-minute talks in Lebanon amid fears of ground invasion

Here, then, is the opportunity for newspapers to ensure the work of their political journalists always finds an outlet, published on their website rather than being spiked, unread: as Peter Riddell observes, “doing this would vastly broaden the range of political news that readers - of online sites, as well as printed pages - could choose between each day… Journalists would also feel more motivated, seeing a seamless link in their work between the morning paper and the online site.”

Politicians need also to face up to their responsibilities. If the digital age, and the application of the Long Tail theory, is going to enable greater availability of reasoned analysis and rational debate for a public increasingly hungry to access it, how can politicians actively participate? How are they going to enhance the conduct of civic discourse?

Let’s start with the ringing words of Leo McGarry, The West Wing’s fictional Chief-of-Staff:

“We’re not gonna be threatened by issues. We’re gonna put them front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”
The days when political parties were solely reliant on the press and TV to get their message across are dead and buried; and yet still, all too often, politicians trade only in verbal and written soundbites intended to catch a news bulletin, or worm their way into a journalist’s copy. Of course, ensuring the media understands your message will remain crucial: crisp news releases are not only critical to gaining attention, writing them is an important and useful skill in its own right.

But politicians and party campaigners have the opportunity now to think bigger, to use their websites to respond to the public appetite for healthy and free exchange of ideas: to elevate our thinking.

This isn’t, though, simply about official party websites. It is about the whole culture of our political process.

Politicians need a new vocabulary, one which eschews the cheap debating tricks so beloved by smart-arse hacks, and instead has regard for the public’s intelligence, crediting them with an ability to understand that few issues are black-and-white, and recognising that no political party has a monopoly in either flaws or truth. It’s easily said; less easy to live up to, especially in the heat of electoral battle.

Enthusiasm for new ways of doing things is often dampened down by careworn veterans who argue that it’s dangerous to raise expectations. But, perhaps, even just once, we could try living up to them?

July 15, 2006

Not taken as read

Like another Lib Dem blog-geek, I’ve had been having fun getting to grips with Google video clips.

I’ve posted the first one at my main gaff, www.stephentall.org.uk, where you can scoff at my floundering attempts simultaneously to operate a camera while ad libbing my support for Nick Clegg’s Extradition (United States of America) Bill. This aims to repeal parts of the lopsided Extradition Act 2003, and so bring an end to the unfair extradition procedures which this week saw the deportation of the NatWest Three to Texas without any evidence being presented.

I would love to say it only needed one take. The truth’s a bit more embarrassing than that. I can see why newsreaders have autocues.

Kettle calling the pot white

The Guardian’s New Labour apologist-in-chief, Martin Kettle, is in sprightly form today, vigorously defending Tony Blair’s Government from all-comers.

It’s worth reading in full, if only to get annoyed with; but for those who, quite reasonably, would rather be sunning themselves today than spend their time with Mr Kettle up the Prime Ministerial posterior, here’s my condensed version:

Sleaze-schmeaze… none of it matters, even if it’s true. Which it isn’t, though it might be. Anyway, the Tories and Lib Dems are even worse. Except they’re stupider. Prescott? Utter failure, but so what? - he’s only Deputy Prime Minister. So, thank God for Tony. He’s ace. I love Tony. But the public are fickle. Bastards. I wouldn’t trust ‘em, y’know. Which is why I vote New Labour.

Mr Kettle’s article appears on Comment Is Free, and prompted one poster to suggest:

Mr Kettle, save yourself writing time by cut-and-pasting this Britney Spears' quote to use for your next article:"Honestly, I think we should just trust our President in every decision that he makes, and we should just support that."

July 14, 2006

Say NO to Labour's extradition rough justice

The case of the 'NatWest 3' has been rightly championed by the Liberal Democrats over the last 10 days. It is an affront to natural justice that this Labour Government has signed a lopsided extradition treaty with the USA, which grants fewer rights to British citizens than to Americans.

I lost count yesterday of the number of times Tony Blair and other Government apologists referred to the Treaty arrangements as "roughly analagous" - weasel words that tell their own story.

This was compounded yesterday by the disgraceful House of Commons' exhibition of Labour's Solicitor-General, Mike O'Brien, who repeatedly smeared those facing extradition as the 'Enron 3', a flagrant attempt to prejudice their trial. Such was the outrage this provoked among fellow MPs on all sides, he eventually dropped the term.

How has the Labour Party sunk this low?

Anyway, if you're wondering what you can do, read this statement from the Lib Dems' Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg, who urges a write-in campaign to the Labour Government to support his Extradition (United States of America) Bill that would repeal parts of the Extradition Act 2003 and bring an end to these unfair extradition procedures.

Who knows if it will work - but it might make you feel better.

July 11, 2006

Let’s blow a liberal dog whistle on asylum

If there’s one issue guaranteed to make the blood boil of even the most moderate liberal, it is the despicable campaign that has been waged against asylum-seekers in recent years by the right-wing press.

Their ignorant, hate-filled, reactionary assault is epitomised by this Daily Express front page; but it is by no means an isolated example. As Peter Riddell remarks in his article, Saving Political Journalism, in the latest issue of The Political Quarterly:

Distortion of news coverage can have a big cumulative effect: for instance, scare stories about the number of immigrants and asylum seekers, as propagated in, for example, the Daily Express, can become self-reinforcing unless corrected.
Unfortunately, this racist filth has been lent credence in recent years by a Conservative Party desperate to cling to its core vote. To his credit, David Cameron has so far resisted the jerk of the Tory knee; though his appointment of William Hague as his Shadow Foreign Secretary - a man who once warned Britons not to let their country become a “foreign land” - suggests the old Tory attitudes are never very far away.

Once upon a time, we might have been able to rely on the Labour Party to stick up for the disadvantaged, whatever their country of origin. That ideal has long since bitten the dust. As Roy Hattersley remarked in The Guardian following David Blunkett’s resignation as Home Secretary, back in December 2004:

When I joined the Labour party, I believed that it represented the best instincts of the working class. Too often Mr Blunkett reflected and articulated its worst emotions.
Labour’s terrified zeal to safeguard its inner-city heartlands now prevents it putting forward the positive case for welcoming asylum-seekers with anything like the commitment a truly pro-internationalist party should view as its shibboleth.

That this Labour Government has abdicated its responsibility to help lead public opinion - that it has cravenly sworn fealty to the xenophobic dogma of the Mail and Express - has allowed a cancerous growth to swell through sheer neglect.

Jenni Russell rightly took to task this failure of confidence in her article in yesterday’s Guardian, Barricades won't stop migration. We have to learn how to manage it:

a change in the rhetoric from the top might free other politicians to be both more honest and more inspiring about what migration means for this country. The fact that they are not doing so is illustrated by the startling change in one statistic. In 1997, a Mori poll found that only 3% of the population thought that immigration and race relations were among the most important national issues. By 2001, that was 14%. And in March 2005, shortly before the last election, another poll showed that figure had risen to 30%.
It is little wonder such public concern has risen: politicians are too cowardly to present the real facts. As Amnesty International observed last year in their report, Seeking asylum is not a crime

The biased view of asylum-seekers the organization came across represents a grossly unfair slight on people who are entitled under international standards to be presumed as deserving of protection unless and until their application for asylum is dismissed as a result of proceedings which fully meet internationally-recognized standards for refugee protection and due process of law.
This is why it now must fall to the Liberal Democrats to raise the standard, and to proudly put forward the case for treating with due dignity all those who flea their own countries for a better, safer life. This will come naturally to our party. In the Lib Dems’ 2005 Ethnic Minority Mini-Manifesto
, we took an unequivocal stand:
The use of asylum as a political football by successive governments and the other political parties has had severe repercussions for race relations in Britain. Liberal Democrats have been consistent – we recognise that for much of our history Britain has had a proud record of granting safe refuge to those fleeing persecution, and in turn, refugees have enriched our culture and wealth immeasurably.
This is no time to be abashed about our support for asylum seekers - for years, Labour and the Tories have been ratcheting up their right-wingery, desperate not to be seen as a soft touch. We should stand up and be counted for a cause to which all true liberals, regardless of their party label, should happily subscribe: decent treatment in accordance with international law of all asylum-seekers who find themselves in Britain under whatever circumstances.

We should launch a campaign to ‘Let Them Work’, to end asylum-seekers’ dependence on the benefits system, allowing them the dignity of earning a living wage for themselves and their families. What better way to show up the media’s lies that all asylum-seekers are scrounging off the state while plotting their next terrorist outrage than to give them the chance to get a job, making a practical contribution towards British society?

It would be the right thing to do. It would also be a popular thing to do. Not because everyone would agree with us - some will never view foreigners with an equable eye - but because even those who think us a deluded push-over will respect the fact that we are standing up for something we passionately believe in.

Meanwhile, a vast swathe of liberal England will breathe a sigh of relief that, at long last, there is a political party with the principles and confidence to tell our right-wing press where they can stick their sickeningly casual racism.

What's sauce for the BBC...

The Times’s David Aaronovitch makes a compelling point in his article today, No, Mr Humphrys, there is no excuse for probing into the DPM's sex life:

... last Thursday listeners to the Today programme heard John Humphrys ask the following question to the Deputy Prime Minister: “There are now reports, and they’re circulating on the internet, as you know, that you have had other affairs — is that true?” Let me just stop here for a moment. I went to work at the BBC in current affairs in January 1988. I stayed for seven years, working in political news and — for six months — on the Today programme. I was at the BBC throughout the David Mellor affair. It is inconceivable that such a question would have been asked ten years ago. It would have been considered a breach of journalistic standards.

But I can't help feeling Mr Aaronovitch's case is slightly undermined by The Times’s choice of lead story on page 27, peddling allegations about Tommy Sheridan MSP, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party:
Sheridan 'had group sex with his brother-in-law'

July 10, 2006

Labour's 'hug-a-hoodie' mugging of Cameron

For once, David Cameron has been out-spun.

His speech to Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Justice was a pretty blatant attempt to triangulate an approach to law and order, supposed to show the new touchy-feely side of today’s modern Tories.

Just as Tony Blair’s sound-bite, “tough on crime, touch on the causes of crime”, was designed to prove Labour would be no pushover in power, so Mr Cameron is seeking to distance himself from the Tory Party’s innate belief in secular original sin, and demonstrate his Party recognises criminals are made bad, not born bad.

reports Mr Cameron as saying:

Let's try and understand what's gone wrong in these children's lives and we'll find it's about family breakdown, it's about drugs, it's about alcohol abuse, often it's young people who are brought up in care when they should be in loving homes.

Let's now deal with those problems. That doesn't mean at the same we can't be tough when a crime is committed.
It would be easy to snipe at these words; to assume that they are a mere positioning ploy targeting small-l liberals; to observe that they are long on observation, short on solutions; and to note that these things have been said a thousand times before.

But I’m going to suspend my cynicism - because these are not things that have been a heard a thousand times before from the Tories. Whatever the motivation, it is undoubtedly a Good Thing that the Tories have advanced beyond the “Prison Works” mantra, to recognise that prevention is better than cure.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, he was mugged by Labour’s spin machine, who swiftly branded the Tory U-turn a ‘hug-a-hoodie’ plan, a phrase which will linger long after the Tory leader’s speech has vaporised.

I shan’t expend too much sympathy on Mr Cameron. He has already enjoyed far too comfortable a ride from a media desperate to see a return to the gladiatorial conflict of old-style, easy-to-report two-party politics.

What amazes me - though it shouldn’t by now, I guess - is Labour’s desperation never to be out-right-winged. Home Office minister Tom McNulty promptly lambasted Mr Cameron, claiming his 'hug-a-hoodie' message showed the Tory Party no longer took punishment of crimes seriously, implying only Labour can be trusted to crack down hard on offenders.

It would be nice to think that Mr McNulty, when he looks back on what he said, will pause to ask himself why he joined the Labour Party in the first place. And that he might then choose to regret his words.

Finishing what job?

Defence Secretary Des Brown today committed a further 900 British troops to Afghanistan “to help security and reconstruction efforts”.

Last week, Ming Campbell voiced his support for the decision, arguing this expansion of effort was needed “to complete the job”. As Jonathan Calder acerbically noted, “Fine, but wouldn't it be a good idea to decide what ‘the job’ is first?”

A fair point, so I turned to the Party’s website to find out. Our Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey, has issued a statement: “I welcome the deployment of extra troops. … What is needed is a clear operational strategy with achievable objectives.” And there it stops. What that strategy might be, and what those objectives are, is left dangling.

Meanwhile, Peter Preston puts forward a depressing and sobering analysis in today’s Guardian:
Afghanistan has never, ever, been a successful state. It hasn't failed, for there has seldom been a worthwhile period of steady governance and legality, let alone freedom, throughout its tortured history. It is, and always has been, a dust bowl of violence, lawlessness and profound instability. And the fact that we don't see that instantly, that we bumble along hoping to create some new civil society at gunpoint, comes straight back to George Bush's original 9/11 formulation and the "war" word. Wars - even wars against terrorist groups like Eta or the IRA - are waged between finite, coherent forces. They may end, as those two have ended, via submission or negotiation. There is a structure to them.

But the particular difficulty with al-Qaida is that it doesn't fit that pattern - and thus any eventual resolution is non-negotiable. And the particular, grievous difficulty with Afghanistan, far worse than Iraq, is that there is no structure in place to build on. Plaster it with aid and the benign patter of the ballot box, and you'll still see your dreams come to nothing. This, in so many ways, is a medieval country, a land that time has passed by. It cannot be spun five centuries forward by bemused brigades from Nato who can't understand who the enemy is or why it hates them so. It pays no heed to the collected speeches of Tony Blair. …

… forget also the thought that "more" troops will "finish the job". This is Afghanistan: and the job, whatever it is, has barely begun.

July 09, 2006

Revealing e-mails revealed: part 2

Life without e-mail may be considered pretty unimaginable; but occasionally life with e-mail is unmanageable.

Desmond Swayne, David Cameron’s eyes and ears in the House of Commons’ tea rooms, may today be reflecting on the unwisdom of committing so explicitly to writing his robust views on Tory policy and personnel.

The Sunday Times has helpfully uploaded them all to their website, and they make highly entertaining reading. Here are a few excerpts:

* On the Tories’ fisheries spokesman (presumably Bill Wiggin MP?): “it does not help to have a mince head as a spokesman.”

* On Roger Gale MP, aka “Mr Angry”: “[he] bent my ear about your refusal to come to the Industry & Parliament Trust’s big dinner (next year) … they are a bunch of boring colleagues with nothing better to do and some corporate bureaucrats.”

* On the Tory members of the EPP: “… they are content with everything except your intention to withdraw from the EPP about which they remain furious (‘never seen the lads so angry’).”

* On Theresa May: “neither liked nor trusted across the party.”

* On Francis Maude’s Spring Forum, Built To Last: “Ignore what was said at Shadow Cabinet, it was frightful. We endured a really weak round table discussion with stooges agreeing with one another in a meandering conversation.”

* And on Francis Maude himself: “he may be a likeable fellow but he is not yet trusted by the parliamentary party.” (Are these two facts in any way related?)

There is only one thing more baffling than Mr Swayne’s propensity to offer up such hostages to fortune via the sieve-like medium of e-mail - his spelling of Czechs as “Checz”.

Such lacunae are clearly infectious. As the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens remarked of David Cameron last month:
foreign policy is not his strong suit. He has not travelled widely and has met precious few political leaders from overseas. It shows. Mr Cameron has been heard to refer to one such meeting as being with the president of Czechoslovakia.
From a Czech-date to check-mate… For Mr Swayne, though, it might just be time for the “Cheque, please.”

Revealing e-mails revealed: part 1

Today’s Sunday Times carries the welcome news that:

Tony Blair’s flagship identity cards scheme is set to fail and may not be introduced for a generation, according to leaked Whitehall e-mails from the senior officials responsible for the multi-billion-pound project.
Of course, I would prefer it if Labour had seen the light, and recognised that the ID card scheme is wrong in principle. But it’s nice to know this Government’s incompetence can also create a benign impact.

The article quotes David Foord, the ID card project director at the Office of Government Commerce (responsible for vetting the project to ensure that the Treasury gets value for taxpayers’ money):

“Even if everything went perfectly (which it will not) it is very debatable (given performance of government IT projects) whether whatever [the register] turns out to be (and that is a worry in itself) can be procured, delivered, tested and rolled out in just over two years and whether the resources exist within government and industry to run two overlapping procurements.

“What benchmark in the Home Office do we have that suggests that this is even remotely feasible? I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail.”

He reveals that the contracts for the ID card scheme are under threat because of “the amount of rethinking going on about identity management”. He also says they are “[un]affordable”; “lack clear benefits from which to demonstrate a return on investment”; and suffer from a “very serious shortage of appropriately qualified staff”.

Foord says: “I do not have a problem with ministers wanting a face-saving solution but we need to be clear with … senior officials, special advisers and ministers just what this implies.”

He then warns of a “botched introduction” of the scheme, adding: “If it is subject to a media feeding frenzy, which it might well be close to a general election, [it] could put back the introduction of ID cards for a generation and won’t do much for IPS credibility nor for the government’s election chances.”

So a failed identity card scheme could help bring down this Labour Government…? sounds like a win-win.

July 08, 2006

NEW POLL: John Prescott - fool, knave or fave?

I'm running a new poll over at m'other gaff, inviting visitors' views on our Deputy Prime Minister.

Do the last week's revelations - the stuff that matters, I mean, not the silly gossip about his private life - make him a fool, a knave, or is he still your fave?

I think I've made my view pretty clear.

Oxford Labour: environmentally clueless

A provocative headline… let me explain it.

A couple of weeks ago, at Oxford city's Full Council meeting, Labour put forward a motion urging the County Council and Oxfordshire Waste Partnership "to exclude incineration in the tenders for future waste treatment". My Lib Dem colleague, Jean Fooks, proposed amending this to: "Choose the least environmentally damaging option for the final disposal of residual waste."

The local Labour spin machine then whirred into action - with what has sadly become, since being defeated in May's local elections, their customary disregard for the truth - claiming "the new Lib Dem administration appears to support building incinerators round Oxford".

Absolute rubbish, of course, and typical of the cheap debate which overly partisan party politics provokes. Incineration is an emotive topic, and one which should be examined seriously. It's depressing that Oxford's Labour group have come to see the environment as no more than a political football.

All of which begs the question: can incineration ever be justified as the "least environmentally damaging option"?

Richard Tomkins, the Financial Times's Consumer Industries editor, has written a fascinating article, published today, examining the recycling industry. Here's what he has to say about incineration:

… environmental cost/benefit analysis explains why, paradoxically, it can sometimes be better to incinerate waste than to recycle it. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, which speaks for companies in the packaged goods industry, supports recycling of most materials. However, it points out that some waste materials - crisp packets, yogurt pots, microwaveable meal trays and the like - are simply not worth recycling because it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to collect, clean and transport them. Far better to incinerate them in power-generating, energy-from-waste plants: that way, each unit of energy released from the waste creates an equivalent reduction in demand for electricity generated from fossil fuels.

Paper presents another paradox. "The argument as to whether you should recycle or burn paper has been going on for 25 years," says Professor Roland Clift of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at Surrey University. "The answer isn't simple. It depends on the background energy economy of the country where you're operating."

To understand why, you need to know two things: first, that incinerating paper, trees and other biofuels is seen as carbon neutral because living matter sucks up as much carbon dioxide from the air while it is growing as it emits when it is burned, and second, that the main newsprint producing countries of Europe (Sweden and Finland) use mainly non-fossil fuels for power generation.

So, as Clift explains, if you are in a country such as Britain where less coal is burned when the demand for energy falls, it makes sense to incinerate used paper in an energy-from-waste plant and import fresh paper from northern Europe, because less coal will get burned overall. "And so it turns out that the net effect is a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions."

If there's one phrase in Mr Tomkins' piece, I'd like to pick out, and invite Oxford's Labour group to reflect on, it is this: "The answer isn't simple." Incineration might sometimes be the "least environmentally damaging option", other times it won't be. The public deserves to hear all the facts to ensure the best, most appropriate, and greenest, decision is taken. Spoon-feeding them puerile propaganda betrays politicians' duty to frame the debate responsibly.

I have, by the way, exempted Oxford's Green group from this critique. They, too, are against incineration, at all times - but at least it's on principle, as the Green Party believes economic growth to be unsustainable. Their answer to excess waste is to impose restrictions on consumer demand, no matter that this would lead to economic recession and a lower standard of living.

The Lib Dems, in contrast, believe society should harness technology to enable environmentally sustainable growth, while shifting taxation away from people's productive activities (ie, their work) and onto their destructive consumption (eg, air travel).

July 07, 2006

Why John Prescott should resign

I guess I have to own up to some level of responsibility for John Prescott becoming Deputy Prime Minister: I voted for him in 1994 to become Labour’s deputy leader.

When Mr Prescott was last assailed by his critics, I stuck up for him. Whether he has had one extra-marital affair, or simply worked his way through the Labour Party’s membership list, is a matter for Mr and Mrs Prescott to resolve. It has no bearing on the Deputy Prime Minister’s pitiful failure ever to get to grips with his ministerial duties, whether at transport, environment, housing or local government.

Those now-infamous political bloggers giving Mr Prescott so much gyp, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, like to claim there is some public interest underpinning their gossip. It’s utter toss, and I’m sure they know it. Let’s just accept we English relish a good snigger at ‘down below’ activities, and the more self-important the VIP publicly embarrassed the better.

But my sympathy for Mr Prescott - and the unpleasant snobbery meted out to him by our ugly right-wing press and their attack dog pundits - has been exhausted by his decision to stay at the ranch of Philip Anschutz, the owner of the Dome who wants to be allowed to set up Britain's first super casino on the site.

Fortunately for Mr Prescott, he has been acquitted by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, the foreman of the commentariat-jury:

His defence - and, for now, it seems to be a pretty solid one - is that all times he got his permanent secretary's approval - and that he separated himself from decisions about the casino bid. Until someone proves that he knew something or that he was lying, I think he is on safe ground.
Just as the Daily Mail’s attempt to blacken Mr Prescott’s character with a thousand smears is too try-hard, Mr Robinson’s plea of mitigation lets the Deputy Prime Minister off-the-hook too easily. Paragraphs 1.3 and 1.5 (f) of the Ministerial Code of Ethics (Part I) could not be clearer:

[1.3] Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct in Parliament. The Code is not a rulebook, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers.

[1.5 (f)] Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.
There is no wriggle-room in the Code for Mr Prescott to hide behind the skirts of his permanent secretary: it is Mr Prescott’s responsibility, and his alone, to ensure that no member of the public - and no business rival to Mr Anschutz - could reasonably infer a conflict of interest might have arisen. Our Deputy Prime Minister treated this bond of trust with contempt.

In his revealing
interview with John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme, yesterday, Mr Prescott defended his seventh meeting with Mr Anschutz:

JP: He knew I was in America and he said would you like to come and see a cattle ranch, which I was very much interested in, and also I said I wanted to talk to farmers, which I did, about the Doha, the negotiations, sugar beet industries, agriculture subsidies. … And so that is why I took that opportunity, probably not only to look at a working cattle ranch but to visit one, I'm curious about it, I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn't you? I was interested to have a look at it.

JH: Why should the British taxpayer pick up the bill for you, and indeed your officials, going to stay with a very rich man to indulge your interest in cattle and cowboys?

JP: Well, I didn't say it's, er...as to whether the charity money should be used, that's a legitimate point made, and um, I, I never got into the details of it, I just assumed all those matters of paying for accommodation wherever they were made was cleared and arranged by the department and that's what happened, and you're quite right to raise that question, but in fact it wasn't one that was put to me.
The faux-jokey blokeyness (“I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn't you?”) is plain embarrassing; the displacement of personal responsibility (“you're quite right to raise that question, but in fact it wasn't one that was put to me “) utterly breathtaking. To fail to declare the trip in the Register of MPs’ Interests, until the story broke, should have triggered Mr Blair to call time on his deputy’s booze-up in the last chance saloon.

Mr Prescott should, quite simply, have known better: enjoying the hospitality of Mr Anschutz might not have been improper; that does not mean it was right. I don’t expect Mr Prescott to have 20/20 hindsight, but 20/200 foresight would be nice.

The Deputy Prime Minister has shown himself to be a rank hypocrite; and anyone who thinks that verdict unduly harsh should imagine what Mr Prescott would have said about this story if it had involved a Tory. Actually, we don’t have to imagine. Here’s how he barn-stormed the 1996 Labour Party conference:
They are up to their necks in sleaze. The best slogan he could think up for their conference next week is, 'Life's Better Under The Tories'. Sounds to me like one of Steven Norris's chat up lines. Can you believe that this lot is in charge? Not for long, eh? Then after 17 years of this Tory government, they have the audacity to talk about morality. Did you hear John Major on The Today Programme? - calling for ethics to come back into the political debate? I'm told some Tory MPs think ethics is a county near Middlesex. It's a bit hard to take: John Major - ethics man. The Tories have redefined unemployment they have redefined poverty. Now they want to redefine morality. For too many Tories, morality means not getting caught.Morality is measured in more than just money. It's about right and wrong. We are a party of principle. We will earn the trust of the British people. We've had enough lies. Enough sleaze. (Hat-tip: Iain Dale.)
Enough, John. Enough.