Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Don't stop til you get enough.

THERE is a part of me which wonders why Conrad Murray is bothering to deny he killed Michael Jackson.

There's some quibbling to be done over how much fault can be attributed when the man who died was a drug addict with a heart and body under enormous strain, but it has to be unarguable that Murray was at the very least criminally negligent not only in continuing to supply that addiction but in administering drugs so powerful that it's illegal to use them outside a hospital. His 'defence' that he was giving Jackson a general anaesthetic commonly used in childbirth to help him with insomnia is simply mind-bending.

But as the court case unfolds it is putting on display not just the ever-fascinating Jackson clan but a procession of people each of whom, so far and as much as I can see, bears some blame for Jackson's death. The concert promoter who signed off £100,000 a month for Jackson's doctor, despite thinking it was astronomical. The lawyer who wondered why the singer needed a cardiac machine backstage. The assistant who dealt with him every day.

They're all raising concerns and pointing the finger now, and not one of them seems to have bothered doing it when the man was alive. But then all the witnesses in the case stood to make a lot of money out of the King of Pop, addict or not, so long as the good doctor kept him going.

Alongside the criminal case AEG, the promoter for the comeback gigs which Jackson was rehearsing for when he died, is being sued by Jackson's mother and children for not providing 'physical care' to him. AEG itself has lost many millions by failing to put on the gigs, and failing to put on tributes which were supposed to replace them. I'm sure there's an insurance firm somewhere refusing to decide on a pay out until after Conrad Murray's court case is settled one way or the other.

And if Murray is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter you can bet the result will be, not just a maximum of just four years in prison, but a massive bill from AEG, the insurers', and the Jackson family too.

Whatever you think of Jacko, for all that he did or was accused of doing, he was a baby in a man's body who'd been treated like a piggy bank almost from the day he was born and by the people he trusted most. His mum and dad ignored the rules of their own faith to put him on the stage and from that moment on he stopped being a mere human. He became houses, jewellery, cars and plastic surgery; their fame and fortune and their fuck-up, too.

The only people on the whole planet who saw Michael Jackson as a person were his children. I can't imagine what it's like to see your father die at such a young age, but I sincerely hope that the circus of lawsuits which will unravel over the next few years sucks up every last penny of the Jackson fortune and leaves those kids with nothing but an untarnished, priceless memory of their dad.

The hyenas can have the rest.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A delusional game.

I KNOW I'm a girl but I can't be the first person to point out football would be more enjoyable without the footballers.

Hookers, vanity hair transplants, dodging drug tests, roasting sessions in which women are treated like meat and all of it paid for by earning the kind of money-per-minute which would put an oil pipeline to shame.

And topped off, in pretty much every case, by the intellect of a village idiot.

Last night Carlos Tevez, whose transfer to Manchester City was worth a total £64million, refused to play 15 minutes of football on the basis he hadn't been brought on earlier and didn't like Manchester much anyway. By comparison, £64m is the same amount of money recently offered by the US government to the Horn of Africa to help alleviate a drought affecting millions of people.

For that kind of money I would do anything the Man City manager wanted, up to and including baa-ing like a sheep on national TV for the full 90 minutes. I'd even do extra time.

Not long ago I was in a top-end bar when a Premier league footballer who shall remain nameless came in with his mates. He was fairly ugly, wouldn't take off his baseball cap inside, and wore a watch nearly as big as his fat head. Within 30 seconds a dozen girls had swarmed to his side, grinding in his lap, giggling at his comments and two of them even put on a faux-lesbian show. They weren't hookers, but might as well have been, and it was only half-eight on a Wednesday.

It all leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and that's why even though if anyone asks me who I support I proudly tell them I can never be bothered to watch the overpaid thick louts unless we get into an interesting final of some kind.

I've been in Africa and Asia when there's a big win and seen love and devotion for a sport which can unify the whole world pour through the streets as grown men hug and cry and sing. I was working on a local paper covering possible 'hooligan trouble' during the 1998 World Cup and was watching the England-Argentina game through a pub window with a police patrol when Michael Owen had his amazing run to goal. I swear the roof lifted right off the pub with the crowd's roar, while me, the local inspector, his sergeant and four constables jumped and screamed outside then did the can-can down the street.

Football can be a beautiful game. I just think it would be even better, and less amoral, avaricious and stupid in so many ways, if we sent 22 labradors onto the pitch to run after the ball.

Either that or we start paying the players in dog biscuits.

I don't think he'd notice.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

License to grill.

IT IS to be expected that in a year which has involved Ryan Giggs, superinjunctions and a phone-hacking scandal some politician would get up on his hindlegs and blame everything on an unfettered Press.

Journalists always get the blame when they catch someone out, not least by the person who was caught. Ho-hum and fiddle-de-dee.

Already this year there's been calls for privacy laws, largely made by people who want publicity when they feel like it and secrecy when they don't. And today Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis - himself exposed by tabloids for pestering a young female aide with inappropriate texts - will tell the Labour Party Conference he wants to see licensing for journalists, with a system of "being struck off" if they're guilty of gross misconduct so they'll never work again.

Except - who's in control? Whether it's a privacy law or licensing, someone has to administer it. Someone who can draw a line in the sand which every single person in the country would agree with.

Politicians? Ooh, no thanks. We'd never know about MPs' expenses if we did that. I haven't forgotten, although they have, how many MPs excoriated the Daily Wellygraph for paying £75,000 for stolen data, criticised the 'intrusion' and urged the then-Speaker of the House of Commons to pursue court action and injunctions to plug the leak. We also wouldn't know about a dodgy dossier which took our country to war in Iraq on a lie, a Home Secretary's attempts to prosecute an Opposition MP for publicising a damaging leak about her own department, Jeffrey Archer's perjury and a million and one other stories. If a politician decided who could write the news we'd end up with a Government press release to read over our cornflakes every morning.

Judges? They'd stick to the law, surely, and be impartial. Except in the case of celebrities, privacy, superinjunctions, and stories about other judges. Lawyers are over-cautious to the nth degree and tend to err on the side of 'never publish something that someone somewhere might not like and might, with a squint and a following wind and not looking at the evidence be a little bit ripe for an old man who doesn't watch the X Factor to understand'. If a judge censored our news today's editions would be tied up in legal fannying-about until some point after Christmas and would look something like this:

Or how about the media itself? People like me with a vested interest in sticking our noses in everywhere, willy-nilly. No, probably not a good idea for us to be in sole charge either. The police could enforce censorship I suppose, but there's a few nations trying that already and I don't much fancy newspapers like they have in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps we could ask the public? Very democratic. Except we don't want Mrs Miggins at no74 to have a say, she's a dreadful racist. And that bloke across the way, the one with the loud music and all the girlfriends, he can't be relied on. No it will have to be the bits of the public that are well-behaved, polite, dress the right way, shop in the right places, think the same way as... oh. Not so many of them, are there? And let's not forget the public voted for Hitler, the public buy Coldplay records. They cannot always be trusted.

And how do we define gross misconduct? Having to make a payment, or an apology, or being found to break the Code of Conduct? I know of dozens of stories where newspapers have paid to settle-out-of-court because it's cheaper than fighting it and budgets are tight. I've had to write apologies to someone I know, but just cannot prove, to be guilty and most hacks have fallen foul of the code at some point by genuine mistake. Some of the reporter's tricks I think are right or wrong others disagree with; one hack's gross misconduct is another's prize-winning scoop. And heaven forfend we have to start licensing every blogger who calls themselves a journalist.

When  it comes to controlling the Press there are problems with every option, flaws so bad it makes you raise your eyebrows and whistle through your teeth once you think it through. What Mr Lewis and everyone else who bangs on about Press regulation has forgotten is that we already have it.

The courts and politicians already influence what we can report. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, Contempt of Court Act 1981, defamation laws, and a few words about privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights among other statutes constrict and confine the Press pretty well. The rules get pushed and tested and sometimes broken or changed; those that overstep the mark, quite rightly, get hauled before the beak to explain why and can be fined or jailed if they don't have a good reason.

The public already have a say. Up to 20million people read a tabloid newspaper every day, and millions more read our websites. If they don't like what we do they vote with their feet and their wallets, and we have to try harder. There are many reasons why the Screws of the World closed down but by far the most important is that it had lost the trust of its readers.

Last but not least there's self-regulation. The Press Complaints Commission could do with a few more teeth but editors take turns to sit on it and judge each other. There's not much room for favouritism. By far the strongest part of the system is that Fleet Street is a meritocracy - if you fail too many times you're out on your ear. If you get a reputation for costing your newspaper thousands in libel payouts you won't get another job easily. If you mire your newspaper in scandal The Editor will not look on you kindly, unless you're called Johann Hari and we've yet to see if his career survives long-term.

I do not want any one of those people to have a say in what I am able to report on or read. I want ALL of them to have a say.

It is far better to have a long, never-ending argument between everyone - a constant tug-of-war keeping the Press, politics and lawyers in check as the public throw their weight behind one or the other, forcing them all to compromise and find a way to muddle along.

It's not a perfect system, doesn't always work as it should, but what we've got right now is the best anyone's managed to come up with. Like democracy, or the Royal Family - there's plenty of flaws and fruitloops but in the end it usually evens out.

No-one's needed a licence to be a journalist in the 300 years since the first paper was printed in Fleet Street. You just have to be nosy and a little bit mad, the kind of person no-one else wants in their club. That's why politicians, judges and the public don't like us, and it's the reason why our Press with all its defects is still free.

Licences for journalists? 
What next, an exam to be Prime Minister?

Monday, 26 September 2011

Is there anyone there?

ANOTHER day, another slew of research from the University of the Bleedin' Obvious.

Today I have 'learned' that fruit juice isn't as good for you as eating actual fruit, women are more careful at parking in a strange car than men, and having a couple of glasses of wine a week probably isn't going to kill you.

Thanks for that, boffins. Did you use your whole grant on those studies or is there some left over to find out that Devon is a nicer place to live than Tower Hamlets? Oh, I see you've already figured that one out too.

But we shouldn't mock the UBO. A lot of people don't even realise it exists and some even ignore its constant efforts to teach the nation the stuff it knows full-well but can't be bothered to remember.

It was a graduate of the UBO who, while inexplicably attending a show by self-professed psychic Sally Morgan, overheard two technicians at the back of the auditorium feeding her lines about audience members which she would 'channel' onstage 10 seconds later.

When this was pointed out during a radio phone-in Sally got in a right old tizz - and no surprise, seeing as she's in the midst of a year-long tour of theatres selling tickets to several thousand people a night, three nights a week, at £25 a head. I'd get in a tizz if I saw that much cash going up the swanney.

Anyway Sally, whose main qualification appears to be that the delightfully-batty Princess Di used to ask her for advice, has gone on the offensive by telling audiences she has no ear mic and pulling her hair behind her ears to prove it.

She even made dark claims that she had no choice but to turn over, by my reckoning, a minimum £100,000 a week because if she didn't 'talk to the dead' the spirit world would take grisly revenge.

"They up there would do something to me. I don't want the ceiling to come crashing down on my head," she said in a tearful, 10-minute diatribe.

Well they wouldn't do that, Sally, because THEY'RE DEAD. It's hard enough to kill someone if you're alive, it's even trickier if your body's been reduced to its constituent atoms.

And as the dean of the UBO might point out - if the dead feel like taking revenge, there's around 100 billion of them and only six billion of us. We'd be heavily outnumbered and there's bound to be more than one of them with a grudge. Yet they seem, so far, relatively at peace except for the spirits who turn up to millionairess Sally's mass-séances with the sole intention of telling a bereaved relative 'the pain has gone'.

Of course the pain has gone, they've no nerve endings. Hello? If I've paid £25 for a ticket I want you to tell me where Grandad's money's buried or at least get a tip for the Derby.

But to be fair to Sally she has been trying to prove that her shows rely on her ability to talk with the dead.

Which is why I imagine her fan Sharon Baynard came out of the latest show and said: "The first two times I saw her she was brilliant but tonight she kept saying things that didn't seem to mean anything."

Now why could that be?

 Some things are just obvious.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Letters to Lillys.

WHAT with holidays and other hoo-hahs it's been a while since our last delve into the mailbag, so let's put on our goggles and rubber gloves to see what we've got.

(I know of Fleet Street agony aunts who open their post in just such a way. I see no reason to throw caution to the winds).

First up is this piece about the early release, two-thirds of the way through his sentence, of the man who watched Baby P abused and killed by his stepfather. Some of the newspapers got their knickers in a twist about him being freed, but failed to take Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to task.

Tom said: "You've got to let him out at some point." Richard added: "Great, let's move him in next door to you then." Max said: "Meanwhile Manchester's courts have locked up a fifty-year-old alcoholic for looting a box of Krispy Kreme during a riot. The system really does value property over people."

And Nik pointed out:
"Ken didn't have anything to do with the justice system when Jason Owen was arrested, tried, convicted or sentenced... that was Jacqui Smith. Let's have the right people held accountable..."
Ed: Ken is the one in charge now, so he's the one to ask about it. Otherwise we'd be asking every previous cabinet minister back to the year dot.

Then snoresheet columnist Johann Hari was given a slap over the wrist for making up quotes, misleading his Editor and his readers, and dragging the reputation of his newspaper through the mud, but rather than being sacked was sent to New York for three months. This offer to retrain him the foxy way drew 100 per cent approval.

Justin said: "Bravo!" Rachel added: "Bravo indeed!" And Enid said: "That's just the half of it, Lillys. But I'm afraid he just doesn't get it."

Jill added:
"Brilliant - spot on. And he didn't just set up a fake identity, but he stole the real identity of another (real) journalist to make vile attacks on people he didn't agree with or failed to see he was a living legend. It drove me nuts that so many seemed to think it was an issue of right and left, when it was all about right and wrong, no more, no less. Don't understand at all how he can still be in a job. He'll never have any credibility again."
Tim said: "What bugs me is that there is apparently nothing any of us can do about it - it turns out, as usual, that however badly caught out you get, if you have the brass neck to just ignore everybody you get away with it."

This post about the International Space Station and things to feel positive about on Mondays went down well with Mark, who said: "I do so like your positive blogs. That's not being sarcastic, I really do."

Paul said:
"I very much like your take on the benefits of research and development. I would have so in favour of funding and building the Large Hadron Collider out of a small portion of the bank bailouts and then enjoying the employment, expertise and brand-spanking-new physics leading to patents leading to innovation leading to future revenue all owned by the UK...That would be a way out of our recession. We could be the Hong Kong of Europe, an offshore island of free thinking hard working people not bound by European nonsense."
Martin added:
"You are right about the fact that those innovations might have come about eventually, but having that cutting-edge science, primes the universities and encourages people to take up science and engineering. Just look at how our nation has declined from the one that created Concorde (most engineers will tell you that Concorde was as technically challenging as going to the Moon was) and the jet engine to one now that bales out half-witted mongs who lose our money and then rewards them with a bonus. We are one of the biggest designers and manufacturers of satellites in the world, yet this successful industry is ignored. We give billions to bankers, perhaps we should be giving money to people who make things instead?"
Then ex-minister Elliot Morley became the latest expenses-fiddling MP to be let out a quarter of the way through his sentence and this post compared it to the 2010 Tory manifesto which had promised with a straight face to "clean up Westminster".

Manfred said: "'Tis the rich wot gets the pleasure, tis the poor wot gets the blame."

But Guy pointed out:
"The rules are being followed just as for anyone else. Sentencing is chemin-de-fer. It's just you don't know the rules, only the most egregious cases normally being newsworthy. 'Prison time' means the nominal sentence not the time that will be served in prison. Almost none of them has a previous conviction. All plead guilty and all will have made appropriate protestations of remorse. This is weighed and counted and determines the sentence. A judge if he strays from the guidelines has to produce a solid, clear, allowable reason, if he isn't just going to waste the public's money (many many thousands) getting appealed. Early release likewise is subject to rigid rules, which you have either to be unusually stupid, a maniac, or honestly believe yourself to be innocent and say so, to fall foul of."
Ed: I'm fairly certain none of them has expressed any remorse, and in fact they all spent thousands in legal aid arguing the criminal justice system had no jurisdiction over them. They changed their tune when the same system gave them early parole.

The most popular post by far this week was about Tory minister and millionaire Jonathan Djanogly's.

Rachael said: "That cunning stunt should be in jail." Sam asked: "Will this actually get through though? Will other MPs not see this and do their best to avoid being linked to it in any way? Much like that awful woman Dorries. If only writing to my MP and asking her to fight this had any point whatsoever."

Stuart wrote:
"Jonathan Djanogly is just another example of politicians who are totally disconnected from reality. Multi-millionaires who will never have to worry about money have no concept of the hardships they inflect on the 'average' person with their ongoing stupidity. Let's have a campaign to say that no politician can serve more than two terms in central government whether that's the Commons or the Lords. Once that's done they're banned from public office forever."
And Chris took the time to write a highly personal email which he has kindly agreed can be reproduced in full, with a few changes to prevent him being identified.
"I was an abused husband. In a strange situation: I was a war veteran. I had been raised that one should never lift a hand to a woman, no matter what. The abuse began with verbal insults. Over a short period of months it elevated to being hit with wooden rolling pins about the head because of temper tantrums and my cheek being gouged with surgical tweezers used in a downward stabbing motion; the cause of which I cannot recall. I was between a rock and a hard place. Here was I, a well-built man and a veteran exercising supreme self-control not to allow my self-defence instincts to rule me and hit back. Yet I was looked on by my colleagues as some form of mewling puff (as one chap called me). When I eventually complained to the police they detained me claiming that I had caused injuries to her. Admittedly I had, by scraping the skin off her knuckles where she had repeatedly punched me in the head until I turned around and shoved her onto the floor. I then had to wait seven months until the police dropped the charges with no apology or explanation forthcoming. I appreciate your article, particularly the tone of exasperation. Keep up the good work. Some of us out here are counting on your voice. Admittedly adding to it with my own, less conspicuous, voice. Thank you."
Which is a rather humbling way to sign off. Thank you to Chris for letting me pass his story on to you.

Have a good weekend everyone - we're due a last burst of summer next week.

Foxy out.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Some inconvenient facts.

HERE'S something to horrify you.

According to the Government, domestic violence is the main cause of death for women in Britain aged 19 to 44.

Read that again, and then look at it like this: being abused by a partner kills more women in that age group then cancer or road traffic accidents.

On average two women die at the hands of their partner every week. Over the course of a lifetime one in four women will experience domestic violence, and one in six men.

Most of those people will never tell the police, or even realise that what is happening to them is out of the ordinary. Last year around 392,000 incidents were reported but that represents just 0.65 per cent of the total population, and relates only to physical assaults. The death rate is argued over because of the lack of reporting but it's certain those reports are barely the tip of the ice cube chipped off the berg, which itself it mostly underwater.

Of those who do report an offence, this much is known - that three quarters of the victims have been abused repeatedly, and 35 per cent more of them came forward in 2010 than the year before.

Whether that is because violence has risen or people are more inclined to call the police, we do not know. Charities say that they always see a massive jump in domestic violence in times of economic recession, because it leads to mental illness, drink and drug abuse, and a desperate need for a victim of the recession to feel in control of something, and thus victimise someone else.

Because violence in the home - whether it is against men or women, the elderly, disabled, whether it is financial, emotional, sexual or physical - is all about control.

That's why most of its victims don't realise that's what they are. The insidious process of bullying and belittling happens so gradually that by the time the first bruise appears the victim genuinely believes what they're told - that it's their fault, they provoked it, and it won't happen again unless they do something wrong.

So the victim becomes terrified of a loved one, constantly worrying about how to change their own behaviour to keep the abuser in a good mood. They know their partner wasn't always this way, and think that if they just stick at it they can make them change.

They can't. But that's why people stay in those relationships, fooling themselves into thinking 'it was just a silly row' and adding to the common misconception that victims of domestic violence have only themselves to blame. They generally stick with it because they're trying to do the right thing.

Which brings me, with a deep sense of gloom, to Under-Secretary of State for Justice Jonathan Djanogly.

You won't have heard much about him, as the Tories try to keep him away from the public and with very good reason. He's a multi-millionaire who claimed second home expenses even though he lives in a house owned by his parents. He was accused of getting the taxpayer to fund his nanny to the tune of £13,000 and admitted using private detectives to investigate his Conservative colleagues, using the kind of techniques that would make even Andy Coulson blush.

He is also in charge of reforms to legal aid, which are mainly aimed at saving money and will therefore mean that unless you can afford to hire lawyers out of your own pocket as Mr Djanogly does there are many ways you will now be stiffed by the justice system.

One of those reforms is to the ability for victims of domestic violence to claim legal aid, which is the only way many people would be able to take action in the family courts against an abuser. Mr Djanogly says that in order to qualify victims will need to prove the violence took place. Fair enough, but he will not accept evidence from doctors, the police, witnesses, neighbours, friends or the victim themselves.

No, the only proof he will accept is a previous court finding, which will lead to the insane situation that a victim cannot afford to go to court to get an injunction against their abuser unless they, er, already have such an injunction. He will also accept a criminal conviction as evidence, but considering the low rates of police reporting and even lower rates of conviction that's about as much use as Nick Clegg's moral compass and twice as screwy.

The reforms mean that the few people - mainly women, mainly mothers, mainly not in work - who get the gumption and lucky break they need to take their abuser to court to protect themselves and their families now won't be able to do it. A lot of them will carry on being hit and intimidated, their children will suffer, and they will rely more on the already-stretched police, hospitals, social workers and charities whose budgets are all being cut.

In purely financial terms, it will cost us more in the long run.

And more importantly, because of Jonathan Djanogly more women are going to die in a pandemic which nobody notices.

It's all right, he says it won't happen again.

* If you think you've been affected or want to know more please click here to go to the Refuge website.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

And they wonder why people don't vote.

AS a general rule of thumb, I think we can all agree that promises made should be kept.

Marriage vows, appointments with the gas man, parcel deliveries, drinks with your mates - once you say "yes, I'll do that" I reckon you're morally bound to keep your word. Illness, bereavement and the ever-changing demands of a news editor are the only acceptable excuses for bailing, in my book.

So I'd like to draw your attention to the Conservative Party manifesto 2010, a very expensive and pretty-looking brochure which, like a tour operator or John Lewis recipe card appears to promise a simple and cheap way of achieving heaven on earth - only without the same recourse to the Advertising Standards Authority if it's not up to scratch.

I quote: "We will rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system so that people know it is on the side of victims and working for law-abiding people, not criminals... Prisoners will only be able to leave jail after their minimum sentence is served by having earned their release, not simply by right."

Then I'd like to point out the Crown Prosecution Service sentencing guidelines for fraud which is "fraudulent from the outset, professionally planned and either fraud carried out over a significant period of time or multiple frauds", which for amounts of between £20,000 and £100,000 should lead to jail time of between 18 months and three years; lower amounts carry at least one year's prison time.

And I'd like to know why, exactly, Eric Illeseley, Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Lord Taylor of Warwick and Lord Hanningfield were all released after serving just one quarter of their sentences for defrauding the British taxpayer to the total tune of £99,300.

I'd also like to know why the rest of the criminals in their fraudulent conspiracy - which the last time I looked included former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who is now paid by the BBC to talk about porn, ex-Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws who snaffled £40k for his boyfriend and is soon returning to Government, Dishface's one-time adviser Andrew McKay and Baroness Uddin who swindled £125,349 out of us - have not been hauled in front of the beak.

When and if anyone is capable of answering those questions satisfactorily, I would then like someone to tell me how this quote from the Tory manifesto - "we will change the law so that anyone acting reasonably to stop a crime or apprehend a criminal is not arrested or prosecuted" - applies to the quite annoying but entirely-correct journalists who exposed a failed Met Police investigation into phone-hacking and are being harassed to identify on their sources as a result.

Manifesto promises which don't hold water are nothing new. The release of most first-time offenders after serving only half their sentence is commonplace and journalists always get the blame when they prove someone else has made a mistake.

Those are the facts of life, and I don't mind them too much.

But the stench coming out of Westminster at the moment stinks of corruption and self-interest at the highest levels, a political elite which think the electorate are too stupid to notice, and an absolute lack of the basic standards of socially-acceptable human behaviour.

Thousands of rules for us, and not a single one for them. Boo-hoo.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Let's go to hell in a spaceship.

MONDAYS are depressing for most of us, today as much as any other.

Not least because on Mondays you feel like nothing changes. It's the same as every other Monday there has ever been or ever will be. If there is a hell, and if Time exists there, you can guarantee it will be 3pm on a Monday for eternity.

Today I can report some people who didn't want to live in a permanent home in any one place are, ironically, using bricks and mortar to build blockades to stop bailiffs who want to move them on from a place they've lived in for years. The people who are evicting them are doing it even though some (not all) of the evictees have nowhere else to go. Neither side has really been following the planning rules, and each claim they're in the right.

At the Lib Dem conference the nation's third political party is committing electoral suicide in the same way it has on an annual basis ever since it was founded in 1988. Pretty much everything every party worker has said so far is a guaranteed vote-loser, which I suppose makes a change from their MPs losing them votes by speeding, cheating, fiddling and turning their backs on everything they said before the election. Dishface is probably rubbing his hands with glee.

Meanwhile 13.5million people in this country are rubbing their hands just to keep warm. That is the number of people in Britain who are officially 'poor', because the cost of the basic standard of living has jumped 20 per cent in the past year. And what's Dishface doing about it? Why, he's going to New York to launch a business and tourism and campaign which will say Britain is GREAT, in big capital letters.

In other news, a rugby player has been an idiot, a Royal marriage has hit its first skid, and people are complaining that four miners killed in a pit accident in Wales didn't get the same coverage. Had those miners been alive they would have done - but human beings don't buy newspapers with dead people on the front. If newspapers don't sell, they close. If you don't like the way that equation works you will need to rewrite human DNA, and I wish you the best of luck with it.

On days like this it seems like humanity never changes, except for the worst.

But in fact the most remarkable thing humans have ever achieved goes whizzing right over your head. 

The International Space Station was launched eleven years ago and despite involving people who are enemies on Earth has not yet (we are led to believe) seen a single fight. No-one who's on it gives a damn about Spooks or Downton Abbey or gives much of a toss about the Lib Dems.

The space programme is insanely expensive, which in these straitened times means the shuttle has been grounded and a trip to the moon cancelled. NASA is hoping to get a manned mission to Mars within 30 years, but presumably they're going to have to find an even better iPhone buried there to convince anyone the trip's worthwhile.

Yet since space exploration began these things have changed as a direct result: liquid-cooled spacesuits have been adapted to help patients with burning limb syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and sports injuries; most homes have a smoke detector, first designed for Skylab in the 1970s; hundreds of firefighters' lives have been saved by new breathing apparatus; the design of NASA’s space shuttle main engine fuel pumps was used to create an artificial ventricle for heart patients; methods of enhancing computer images of the moon in the 1960s were used to create CAT scans and MRI imagery to diagnose disease and injury; every SatNav device uses GPS tracking from satellites; and a NASA fluid physicist hit on a way to diagnose cataracts early.

Techniques developed to protect metal from atomic oxygen in space have been used to save artworks which no known restoration method could have helped, and imaging developed to study the surface of Mars was used on documents from the ruins of Pompeii which revealed lines that had been unseen for centuries.

Yes, you could argue human beings should have come up with all that stuff anyway. But the space programme provided a catalyst for us to strive for things we didn't understand, and the benefits are amazing. There are a dozen different ways in which space travel made it possible for Rital and Ritag Gaboura, twins born with their skulls fused together, to have successful surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital which they could never have hoped to have at home in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Things do change, all the time. It's just that for most of us we are not unlucky enough to notice it.

The ISS is next over the UK at about 6.30am on Friday. It's a whizzing light in the sky, moving at 17,500mph. If you get a chance, look up at it and be proud of us.


Thursday, 15 September 2011

You're Hari a laugh.

THE WORST journalists are the ones who don't get it.

The ones who shrug when they hear a contact has had their life threatened after they printed a lie; the ones who think because they survived one screw-up they'll survive the next one; the ones who think power equates with being bullet-proof.

Despite common belief, such journalists are rare. It's exactly the same as in any other industry where there is always one person in your office whose lack of general human decency makes them stick out. In a newsroom the remaining 99% of the staff might be sociopaths but they generally know roughly what morals look like, not least because otherwise we could not do our jobs.

If you don't know right from wrong yourself it's impossible to interview someone with empathy, hard to get the right quote, difficult to see past your own ego to the story and the people in it. If every journalist were like the caricature many people believe us to be we wouldn't be able to spot human interest, much less feel it, and newspapers would not have sold millions of copies for 300 years.

If nothing else a sense of survival keeps you roughly on the straight and narrow. If you make up stories other journos who are made to look bad as a result will stitch you up every chance they get, if you don't stand your round you never get one bought and if most hacks had done what Johann Hari did they would be down the Job Centre quicker than you can say "gross misconduct".

For those as don't know, Johann is the star columnist of a snoresheet which I have not been bored enough to read since I was last in a dentist's. He made reference to polishing quotes in his interviews and a tabloid hack called Brian Whelan did some digging and found that Johann had fabricated entire slabs of interviews, repeatedly, for years. He used quotes his subjects had said or written previously along with heartfelt details about how they were looking deep into his eyes while they said it.

It's not phone-hacking Milly Dowler, but it's still not on. It's a lie, his subjects didn't know about it, and what's more he used such pieces to win a prestigious award for political journalism with a £3,000 pot and a judging panel who, presumably, were unable to use Google.

He was subsequently found to have set up a fake internet identity to discredit critics, accuse other journalists of alcoholism and anti-Semitism, and act as an unofficial Hari cheerleader. I have got drunk with and greatly respect two of his victims, former New Statesman deputy editor Cristina Odone and Observer writer Nick Cohen, who are both fine journos. It was all pretty vicious and - just as with that guy in your office - his behaviour showed more about his own insecurities and character than it did his industry.

He was suspended for two months, was subject to an internal inquiry, has returned his prize (but not the cash) and issued a public apology for most, but not all, of his behaviour.

But he still doesn't get it. And here's why.

Johann Hari disgraced himself and tainted his profession just like Andy Coulson, through hubris and stupidity. He thought he could do whatever he liked because he was Johann Hari, with a big picture byline.

He says he was "wrong and stupid". No mate, you were crap at your job, nasty when you were found out, and you just didn't care. You were incapable of drawing the right quote out of your subject, unable to see beyond your own prejudices to report fairly and accurately, and more importantly did not manage to put your monstrous ego to one side and see that you were in the wrong. And you have apologised now only because you must.

It's not all Hari's fault. He was recruited straight from university without ever studying law, shorthand, government or anything else I had to sit an exam in. He never had to chat his way across a doorstep, deal with someone threatening suicide or waving a gun, or realised long-term contacts have to like and trust you. He never learned a bit of humility or that everything you write has consequences somewhere.

That's because big-name writers who bring in readers get a little leeway from The Editor. Jeremy Clarkson can be almost as rude as he likes, Su Carroll can pick her own subjects, Richard Littlejohn can write 2,000 words in iambic pentameter if he chooses. But they're still supposed to have a basic grasp of the main rules of their trade and the first and most important of which is: NEVER BECOME THE STORY.

Hari failed on all counts. He's a bad journalist earning a huge salary on a struggling newspaper with tight budgets that can barely afford proper news coverage, staffed by people trying their hardest and each of whom, had they brought their newspaper into the disrepute he has, would have been sacked.
Yet he's not only still in a job, he's on a five-month holiday two months of which were paid, and is "retraining" at Columbia University in the US. How can you retrain someone who was never trained in the first place?

Well, in the certain expectation I will never be asked to do it, I hereby offer to train Johann Hari. If he wants to spend three months with me rather than attending seminars on the free press in Somalia I'll not charge him a penny. I will teach him shorthand, lecture him on the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, grill him on local government, the council tax system, the defences against defamation and how to win a drinking contest.

I'll send him out on deathknocks, pack jobs, magistrates' hearings, junkie inquests, tell him to drive 300 miles on a hopeless tip at 10pm then insist he's back at work for 7am, make him spend his birthday at a late-night local council planning committee, publish his phone number and paint his name on the side of his car so everyone knows who he is. I'll show him what to do when someone comes at him with a lump of wood or collapses in tears, and how to file off a notebook down a bad line while you're being shot at to someone who's drunk.

It's not perfect and I could probably think of some more stuff but that seems to me like a syllabus which will teach him to care about his trade, the people in it and those he writes about. That, or it puts you off for life.

He probably wouldn't last an afternoon.

He hasn't even got his pen out.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Shock! Horror!

JASON Owen is not a nice man.

But I really couldn't care less that he was pictured walking in a park while failing to hurt any children.

I'm quite pleased, on balance, that he was seen looking in a recruitment agency window advertising jobs, because if he is released I'd far rather he was working than claiming benefits.

If the justice system decided to let him out after only two years of what was supposed to be a three year sentence for his role in the death and abuse of Baby P - which was largely carried out by his brother Steven Barker - there's no reason to whip up a public storm every time he leaves the bail hostel to buy some fags. It's not his fault he's out.

It's the fault of someone else. Probably someone who drives a desk in the Probation Service who thinks they know better than the judge who heard the evidence, or a prison officer who wrote a report saying he'd been well-behaved. And more than likely, the politicians who frequently promise to be tough on crime and then because we've no damn cash and the cells are needed for teenage rioters who nicked a £149.99 telly and got a lot of Press coverage let nasty bastards out early because it's easier than fixing the system.

Someone who watched or encouraged a terrible man abusing children should be locked up for a good 10 years. Someone who actually did it should be forced to clean sewers and eat rats for the rest of their lives, every day of which should be made as miserable as hell. But it's the fault of someone else that the tariff for Owen's incarceration was set at just three years, that he was let out after two, and that he will probably use free lawyers to claim he's now being harassed by the Press.

Harass this man instead, doorstep him, shove pictures of Baby P in his face and ask him to explain why baby-killers get out early and 18-year-old riot rubber-neckers get six months for nicking chewing gum.


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Money can't buy clarse.

IF THERE'S one thing to admire about the aristocracy, it's their sheer lack of any kind of brainpower.

That's why Prince Philip's forever putting his foot in it, why we all had a soft spot for bumbling George in Blackadder, and why Dishface is Prime Minister despite having the wide, flat, rich man's arse which signifies centuries of breeding by people who did a lot of sitting down. It's probably why he uses it to think with too.

(I know, he runs a lot. But trust me, if you ever see him from behind, it looks like a tired Chesterfield sofa).

Every posho in Britain is just very, very silly. Brian Sewell. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. And there is no-one sillier than Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

Leaving aside the predictability of his above and below stairs plotlines - oh, a feisty female servant! A visiting cad of a lord! Might there be a ravishing on offer? - he has decided it is appalling that his wife cannot inherit the Earldom of Kitchener.

He barked to the Radio Times: "If you’re asking me if I find it ridiculous that in 2011, a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title, I think it’s outrageous, actually. Either you’ve got to get rid of the system or you’ve got to let women into it. I don’t think you can keep it as 'men only'."

He added: "The point is not whether or not you approve of hereditary titles, but given the fact they do exist, the exclusion of women from them under English law is absolutely bizarre."

And like all poshos, there's a tiny bit of the peasant inside me which tugs its forelock and agrees with him. Of course a woman should inherit a title as well as any man. All our greatest rulers have been queens, although I wouldn't like Elton John to go getting ideas. Kate and Wills' firstborn, if she doesn't have to carry it in a box and it is a girl, should be the heir apparent. The aristocracy are too much fun to get rid off but why not modernise them a bit?

Yet if you start down that road it only leads you to one, inevitable conclusion.

It's not only wrong only boys can inherit, it's daft only the first-born can. It's insane anyone gets to sit in the second House of Parliament voting on legislation simply because their great-great-great-great-great grandpa once played dice with a king. It's beyond mental the head of state is decided in a random genetic lottery among people who haven't done anything to add to the sum of human achievement for several hundred years, can't marry a Catholic and don't sit an exam first.

So working class logic leads me to point out to Julian Fellowes that if he wants to apply equality legislation to the aristocracy and start making it a merit-based system then a) he can afford to launch the court case and b) it would inevitably lead to Prince Philip's extinction. And none of us want that.

It might be interesting to see it argued about in court, though. If nothing else we might find out if all aristocratic wives are actually just shop dummies from the neck down.

Samantha Cameron, explained at last.