Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Freedom isn't free.

FREEDOM is a funny thing.

If you haven't got it, you want it. When you've got it you want to give it away.

We insist on the right to self-determination, on not being controlled by despots or having our hands tied by the whims of others. And we spend a lot of time changing our behaviour to fit in with loved ones and enemies while reducing our freedoms with monogamy, laws, and an ever-changing public debate about what's moral and what's not.

We have a free Press, for example, a media which is the blueprint for newspapers all over the world. Yet in the space of the past year as journalists have been arrested and a year-long inquiry into our practices has picked through our bins, Britain has slipped from 19th to 28th in the global index of press freedom.

And that's the worst thing those guilty of causing the phone-hacking scandal have done. Listening to a missing schoolgirl's messages is appalling, but at least it harms only a few. The fact that it's led to a situation where the freedoms of an entire nation are less than those of a landlocked west African state where the army overthrew the government in March is terrifying.

If those responsible for hacking Milly Dowler's voicemail are convicted, it will be for the least of their wrongdoing.

We expect people to behave nicely with the freedoms they've got. And people, I'm afraid, are often stupid.

Two and a half years ago a man called Paul did something stupid. He did what most of us, stood at an airport check-in and asked by a po-faced attendant if anyone has fiddled with our luggage, have often been tempted to.

We normally control the urge to say "only some bloke called Osama, but he said he needed the Semtex out of the country" because the po-face in question is in front of us, and it doesn't look like it would find it funny. We momentarily trade our freedom of speech in return for not being cavity-searched.

So when he got to the airport and found it shut, an annoyed Paul wanted to make a joke about blowing it up. He didn't do it to the face of anyone at the airport, probably because subconsciously everyone knows that's not wise. He did it to few hundred followers on Twitter, where he thought they'd get it.

They did, and no-one minded. The tweet was noticed five days later by an off-duty security manager from the airport, who was also not concerned. But as a matter of process it got passed along a chain of officials and when it arrived at the Crown Prosecution Service they decided to haul him to court, because the CPS can be stupid too.

He was convicted and fined a little under £1,000, and for most of us it would be an object lesson in keeping your mouth shut. But Paul was a trainee accountant and couldn't get a job with the conviction hanging over him, however ridiculous it was.

He quite rightly began a two and a half year fight for common sense to prevail and on Friday the Lord Chief Justice, equally rightly, acquitted him of committing any crime. He said: "Satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished."

The court was right, eventually, but perhaps accountants ought to have got their shit together as well and been happy to employ a man who makes silly jokes.

When the decision was handed down on Friday people were highly delighted that our freedom to be idiots had been protected. And by Monday we were demanding that a child be personally banned from doing the same.

Just three days after Paul's victory we've arrested a 17-year-old lad for doing something not much different.

Reece Sonny James - the name he gives on his online profile - is not a trainee accountant. He's a thuggy little twit with a gob the size of Dorset and the emotional intelligence of a mistreated pitbull. Here he is having a debate with another young male about matters of the heart.

A charmer, as you can see.

The above didn't get him arrested, although issuing threats at people you and 'your girl' actually know probably should do.

No, Reece was nicked because he sent some tweets to someone famous. More than just the one that Paul sent, and rather different in tone. After not-so-golden boy Tom Daley failing to land a diving medal yesterday Reece told him he'd let down his recently-deceased and much-loved father.

Tom, as many of us on Twitter sometimes do, decided to shame the troll by retweeting some of the abuse to his followers. Reece went on to threaten to drown him, and shoot, stab and harm his supporters. He laughably threatened Sky News with a lawsuit for reporting on it, and alternated between apologies to Tom and foul-mouthed tirades which you can read here.

Tom's only a year older than Reece, and infinitely better behaved, inspiring and pleasant. Reece on the other hand is a psychologist's wet dream and if he doesn't have a few family problems I'd be very surprised. His behaviour caused his name to trend worldwide on Twitter, and the abuser was abused a million times over by people who demanded he be banned from the site.

He was arrested by Dorset Police in a Weymouth guesthouse in the early hours of this morning. But how likely was he to act on any of the threats he made? Would he really have travelled to Stratford, bypassed the army guards, broken into the atheletes' village and drowned Tom Daley?

Would he have been able to track down a supporter of Tom's, who used the name of a fictional Coronation Street character, and strangle him as suggested?

No. Anyone sensible would see those tweets and know them for what they were - a big mouth being operated by a tiny and unwell brain. In normal circumstances Tom's retweet would have shut him up, but when Olympics fever is gripping the nation it became front-page news and caused the local bobbies to trundle round and nick him.

Nick him for something they hadn't bothered to nick him for doing before, which he did to someone who wasn't famous.

I wonder if Reece will go to court, I wonder what the effect will be on his future prospects, and I wonder if Stephen Fry would lead a charge of famous people demanding Reece be free to be an idiot, and offering to fund his legal team.

It is an uncomfortable fact, but a fact nonetheless, that if Paul is free to tweet a bad joke about blowing up an airport then Reece is able to call Tom Daley a prick and say he's let his dad down. The Lord Chief Justice said so. Remember?

"Satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished."

Tom is equally able to shame him; the troll should be forced to defend himself or apologise for his actions; that's what freedom of speech means. It's not about allowing only the people we agree with to tweet what we want them to.

It doesn't just apply to trainee accountants. Trolls have rights too, even with threats to kill, if it's quite apparent they've no serious intent or ability to act upon them.

Freedom, you see, isn't free. The price we pay for it is that we have to give it to people who don't know how to use it properly, and just hope that they learn.

Sometimes you have to spend thousands on good lawyers in order to protect your freedoms, but very rarely have I ever seen it won and then thrown away within the space of just three days.

Amazing how quick it can go.

Monday 30 July 2012

What goes around comes around.

THERE are many wonderful tastes in the world.

A first kiss; some vintage wine; a fine chocolate fondant. Or maybe a bacon sandwich with brown sauce wafted under your nose by a kind soul when you have a hangover of 9.7.

There is nothing, though, which tastes quite so wonderfully bittersweet and hits all your pleasure centres in quite the same way as karma catching up with someone who thoroughly deserves it.

Not that they should get any more than their due - few people merit having their entire lives ruined. Just that they have a fit and neat punishment for a previous transgression. A banker loses his money, a wife-beater gets thumped, or a cheater is cheated on.

In this case, a woman whose marriage sprung from a doubly-adulterous affair and who when publicly castigated for her selfish decisions said "men don't leave happy marriages" has thrown her husband out on his ear over claims he's been seeing a woman less than half her age.

Lovely, saccharine-sweet Anthea Turner, who was once the nation's TV sweetheart, is now facing a long few days of being the nation's object lesson in natural justice.

She is a prime example of the television executive's habit of taking something which is popular and hitting the audience over the head with it until we loathe it. In Anthea's case she started off on children's show Blue Peter then moved on to the GMTV sofa, Top of the Pops, the National Lottery and prime-time travel show Wish You Were Here?

By this point her perky pixie act was starting to wear a little thin, but she was the second highest-paid woman on television and apparently happily married to her manager, former Radio 1 DJ and all-round good egg Peter Powell.

Behind the scenes all was not well. GMTV co-host Eamonn Holmes hated her so much he nicknamed her Princess Tippy Toes and ended up telling bosses 'either she goes or I do'. She went.

A few years later, it transpired she'd been cheating on Powell with a family friend, a former market trader called Grant Bovey who had produced her workout video. He and his wife Della were family friends and their youngest child was just 18 months old.

The wholesome pixie was suddenly a scarlet woman. The affair was front page news, Della danced wildly at a party in a red dress for photographers and briefly won her husband back before he threw his lot in with Anthea. When they each got divorced over their adultery - Della demanded £1million, Powell just wanted £127.50 for the paperwork - they married and sold the rights to a magazine.

As part of the deal, bride and groom posed while eating a new chocolate bar.

Probably due in part to distaste at their antics and dislike for the happy couple's matching, delighted-with-themselves smiles, there was a national backlash over what became known as 'Flakegate'. It was little more than an excuse to hang our dislike on, but Princess Tippy Toes was mocked, her popularity fell, and she found it harder to work.

Efforts to explain herself included Anthea saying in interviews: "Men don't leave happy marriages, and if it hadn't been me I honestly think it would have been someone else".

She tried and failed to have a family with her new husband, and spoke movingly of the devastation of repeated and failed IVF treatments. His property company collapsed in the crash owing £28million, they had to downgrade from a £11m mansion to a £5m one while creditors pursued him, and she had to do adverts for cleaning products.

She wrote a book giving lurid sexual detail about their affair, and saying her marriage to Powell had become a sham with "rushed conversations and loveless nights - all work, work, work and no play".

The stepdaughters said how much they liked Anthea. She set herself up as the 'Perfect Housewife' with a book and TV show telling people how to fold their towels correctly. The couple appeared on Hell's Kitchen. Della remarried.

None of it helped. That smile still liked itself a little too much, and few of us care that much about towels.

This weekend 'sources' close to Anthea have been telling any journalist who will ask that Bovey was seen kissing a 24-year-old while his wife was away working.

I expect that next we will have, in something like this order: denials, some grainy photographs, Bovey talking about his 'terrible misjudgement', Anthea separately revealing her 'heartbreak', a brief reunion, and Della's 'revenge interview'. Someone will say things had become 'all work, work work and no play', and Anthea will be reminded on a daily basis that according to some sage 'men don't leave happy marriages'.

Those things will probably all happen, and they're probably precisely what Anthea and Bovey deserve. It is a celebrity version of what always happens when somebody cheats, because whether you are the ratbag or the aggrieved party then next time around, even if everyone behaves as they should, doubt will always root a little easier in the mind.

It's also a lesson in what happens if you throw your lot in with someone who cheats on his wife, breaks up a young family, is a serial 'entrepreneur' whose businesses have a tendency to go bust, and who has been investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry over whether he should be allowed to run any more.

Silly Anthea.

We all love a bit of karma, not least because it's a rare thing. And I've never really liked Anthea, because after a long time as a hack I have come to realise that people who make a thing out of how nice they are generally aren't.

But while she might deserve what's coming to her, and while we might roll our eyes about the swathes of Anthea-coverage which will relieve the Olympic reports for the next few weeks, we might do well to remember one other thing.

Schadenfreude is a dish best served in a shot glass. Enjoy her misfortune if it gives you a thrill, knock back the irony of a perfect housewife with a broken home, but remember that people are bad to each other when they've lost their empathy and that you don't need to finish the bottle and join them.

Savour it, and move on.

"Is that your lawyer? Tell him I'm keeping the towels."

Friday 27 July 2012

Today's column...

... is hosted by the Daily Mirror's website and can be read here, if you fancy some gung-ho nationalist Olympic twattery.

Enjoy the opening ceremony tonight, and let's hope Danny Boyle's done us proud.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Bloody women.

IT'S my fault, I know.

Everything is my fault. It must be because, you see, I'm female.

So if a man wants to buy sex from me, I'm more likely to be convicted of an offence than he is. If I want to work and have a baby, I'm the one being selfish and causing problems for everyone else.

If I am raped, it's probably because I got drunk or wore the wrong clothes. If I am hit by my partner, it's because I was too stupid to leave. And don't forget that if a man is interested in me when he shouldn't be, that would be my fault for making him fancy me.

Whether he's married or I'm married, or either of us are single, it will be down to the woman if there's a fling or an affair. It will not matter which of the parties is cleverest, richest, or what the deeper reasons are - the woman is a siren, luring nice men to their doom.

When Jeremy Clarkson decided to injunct his ex-wife over a book she was writing about herself in which she claimed they had an affair after he remarried, she was said to be 'cashing in' and was personally threatened by the court with jail time, a fine and loss of her home.

When Kate Rothschild had a fling, which she and husband Ben Goldsmith tweeted all about, she was called a whore and a bad mother, and had threatening emails and phone calls. She wrote to the trolls: "This is the darkest time of my life and a weaker woman would be broken by your cruel, ignorant condemnations."

Even when sex is not involved, people assume it sort of secretly is. When Neil Heywood was allegedly poisoned over his business dealings in China and a woman called Gu Kilai was said to have confessed, it stopped being about business deals and started being linked to a possible affair.

And now an actress called Kristen Stewart, who has a boyfriend, has been seen kissing a man called Rupert Sanders, who has a wife and family. And it's all Kristen's fault.

There have been death threats, grief, outraged fans, abuse about her acting ability, questions of her intelligence, she's been called a home-wrecker and has now issued one of the most grovelling and heartfelt public apologies I think I've ever seen.

Kristen Stewart is 22. That might seem really old and grown up if you're a teenaged fan of her and boyfriend Robert Pattinson's appearances in the Twilight film saga, but it's a relative baby when you consider she'll probably live to over 80.

She's been famous since she was 12, and really famous since 2007 when she was signed up for the Twilight films. Since she was 19 she's been dating her co-star and they've been infantilised by their fans as having the same intense first-love as their on-screen characters.

They've been christened K-Stew and R-Patz, and if that weren't nauseating enough together they are 'Robsten' because they are one perfect unit rather than individuals or ordinary, flawed human beings capable of duff decisions and a desire to spread their wings.

Kristen is also the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, taking home £22million so far this year thanks to a canny share in the film rights and despite not being the kind of celebrity who trills about her love-life in magazines, poses in her kecks, cuts her body up or otherwise prostitutes herself in return for attention and money.

For the past year or more she's been working on a new film and touring the world for its premieres, which is more of a slog than it sounds, and somewhere along the line actress and director got too close. They were seen meeting for what used to be called some heavy petting behind a disused building in LA.

Kristen has been stupid, she's done what most 22-year-old girls would in the presence of a 41-year-old, handsome, admiring male, and while she's caused her share of the hurt to his wife it's the stupid, cheating, lying male who deserves most of the blame.

The director is old enough to know better. He has made promises to his wife he should stick to until she releases him from them, his children are going to hear all about it, and if anyone led anyone else astray it was almost certainly him doing the tempting when you consider he was dealing with a girl barely out of her teens who's been watched, controlled, directed and otherwise told what to do for 10 years and probably leapt at the first chance to do something wild. I'm surprised it took her this long.

But blaming men for anything other than being slave to their genitals is really difficult to do - even when we see there were two sides to it we still apportion the majority of badness to the female rather than the male. We're all taught from an early age 'they can't help it' and that it's up to women to act responsibly if men aren't to stray from the right path.

My own marriage ended - as far as the court was concerned - because my husband had an affair with another woman, so I have spent a fair chunk of time blaming her for the hurt, selfishness, desperation, and lies which were involved. And after a while I came to realise she may very well have been thick and unkind but she wasn't the one who'd broken any promises - she had merely believed in him, like I once had, and all she deserved from me was passing sympathy.

As such I've not as much time for Kristen Stewart as much as I do the poor man's wife sitting at home filled with tears and snot and pain. She has at least apologised, although I wonder if she'd have come to her senses as quickly had her behaviour not been splashed across a US magazine. But it's the husband who should be scared to Google himself, not her.

I do not know where this urge we all have to blame the female or her love-life for things that go wrong - whether it's arguments in Thatcher's cabinet or a celebrity fling - comes from, but I can't help thinking it's not a million miles away from creation stories claiming Eve tempted Adam with the apple and as punishment her daughters were condemned to bleed for perpetuity.

Never mind that men and women are equally capable of being horrid and doing rotten things, never mind we don't know the gender of the snake or what was going through the mind of the alleged Almighty when he put juicy apples inexplicably out of bounds.

No, inquiring women reasonably questioning the received wisdom of what's right and wrong will be damned for all time because for some reason that's seen as unnatural, even though we've been doing it forever.

We are unclean. We must atone, forever.

And a women who is not content with that - even though discontent causes people to strive and improve the world around them - will find it is best to keep that dirty little secret to herself.

If you cut me, do I not bleed?

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Reasons to be cheerful.

WE'VE all been too depressed for too long.

Winter lasted all the way to June, it's been strike-strike-strike since 2010, everything's had either a tax or a u-turn and sometimes both, and the billionaires have got all the money.

The people in charge of us have always been disconnected from the common herd but the current lot are so detached they've got their own Palladian mansion set in 200 acres of Capability Brown-designed gardens.

We all know it's belt-tightening time but for some reason ours are around our throats while corporate businessmen are running out of notches to accommodate their ever-expanding girth. People are being slaughtered willy-nilly while the world looks on in Syria, and there's more soldiering going on in Stratford than there is in Helmand.

Nurses, coppers, border officials, taxmen, Job Centre staff, and the often-overlooked-but-quite-important clerks are all getting laid off from the public sector, the genuinely disabled are losing their benefits alongside the cheats, and it seems like everyone's avoiding tax except the people who earn the least.

We're in the biggest recession for 50 years, we're told it's all the fault of the poor who deal in cash and rely on benefits, we're very likely to be downgraded by some blokes in suits which will cost us even more and the man in charge of the economy is a 2:1 history graduate with the brain of a duck.

Six million of us are fuming around our own capital city because some Belgian bureaucratical git needs his own lane, we wish we'd had the money and foresight to leave the country for two weeks, everyone's going to be looking at us while we're feeling all sweaty and fat and bits of the country are literally falling into the sea.

Ronnie Barker's boy is in court for being a pervert, Michael Jackson's family seems to have kidnapped itself, this woman is possibly the most unhappy bride of all time, and the fact America's first woman in space was a lesbian is apparently the most important thing about her.

Fine. OK. Deep breath.

Let's look at the positives in this.

Summer has arrived, and the shorter it is the sweeter it will seem. At least there are still some unions with welly that can get the government riled, and they're also capable of seeing sense. As for the billionaires, they seem to spend their time dodging the taxman, addictions, and gold-diggers which probably catch them because they're so fat. The hungry move quicker, that's a fact.

Maybe if we let the one per cent who think they have a right to rule screw it all up for a few years, then we won't have to put up with them for another couple of decades. Fat businessmen will die quicker, Syria is surely just a matter of time, and at least Stratford doesn't have IEDs for soldiers to worry about.

The public sector probably was a bit bloated but if everyone who's been laid off sets up a limited company and sells their services to their old employers for more money and less tax then perhaps they'll all be rich and smug like Jeremy Paxman and Jimmy Carr.

The Chancellor can't last, not just because he's bad at his job but because he's ultimately not a stayer. Some day soon he'll wake up and realise he's made such a mess of everything his only option is to change his name back to Gideon and claim the voices in his head made him do it.

The Olympics will be over in a few weeks, and in the meantime all the predictions are that the opening ceremony is a corker, we've good chances of gold medals and there's almost bound to be a plucky underdog to cheer at some point.

Added to which - Katie Holmes has finally got free of Tom Cruise, Ronnie Barker's son has at least come back to face the music, the Spice Girls are only going to sing at us once more, Muhammad Ali is not dead yet, the navel-gazing of Leveson is over for now, and Batman is doing hospital visits.

Better than anything else, Banksy is still with us.

Everything is going to be OK.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Insane in da brain.

A GREAT writer once defined insanity as "being in a minority of one".

But there's an awful lot of mad people in the world, so that probably ought to be adapted slightly to read "being in a minority of one among the nearest 1,000 people".

It doesn't take much effort these days, no matter how unusual your thoughts, to find someone in the world who will either agree or co-operate with you, and the very fact another joins in makes whatever crazy idea you've had more acceptable.

So if you live in America and want to go and shoot an elk at the weekend, that's normal. It's more unusual elsewhere and if you wanted to walk around the east end of London dressed all in orange carrying a hunting rifle, this is not the month to do it.

And if you're a highly-intelligent neuroscience student who wants to buy two semi-automatic Glock pistols, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and a semi-automatic version of a military assault rifle with 100 bullets in its magazine in the space of just four months, someone will sell them to you along with 6,350 rounds of ammunition.

You can buy the workings for dozens of booby traps and flammable devices and fill your apartment with them. You can research such things, you can try to join a gun club and cause such concern they decide they don't want you, you can order gas masks and body armour and spend thousands of dollars on this stuff.

That's fine. That's not unusual enough to cause concern or questions or flag up your name on a watch list or anything sensible like that.

It's only when you wander into a cinema and start shooting people at random, killing 12 people including a six-year-old girl and wounding 59 with guns that fire up to 60 rounds a minute, that you become unhinged enough for people to notice.

It's only when you dye your hair red and look spaced-out in court that people start to ask if you're mentally competent to stand trial, although a quick look at the local laws shows if you can talk to your lawyer it doesn't matter how bonkers you are, you're facing the death sentence.

And when those things have all happened, the problem will not be that you were allowed to buy guns, or that you may have a mental illness, or any other factor which might in the cold light of day be something which ought to have caused concern a long time before you opened fire.

Nope, the problem will be that so many people died because they didn't have guns too:

Ah yes. The reason 12 people died is because they foolishly did not go to the cinema tooled up with a series of automatic weapons to protect themselves. Silly dead people!


Lunatics of the US gun lobby aside, let's look at the facts.

First off, the right to bear arms might be 200 years out of date but that's up to the Americans to keep or discard, and either way it doesn't give anyone a right to bear arms at 60 rounds a minute. There isn't really a need for that unless you want to kill a lot of people very quickly, which is why in 1994 Bill Clinton made assault weapons illegal.

That law expired in 2004 and partly because it had absolutely zero impact on overall crime rates, it was quietly dropped. Efforts to reinstate it have stalled not least because every time there's a mass shooting like the one in Aurora the firearms industry which is worth $3.5billion a year ups its spending.

After the Columbine high school shootings in 1999 the gun lobby doubled its political spending. When the Clinton law expired it increased by 17 per cent, and after the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech it went up 40 per cent on the previous election cycle.

Lastly, the figures on spree killings are eye-watering. Since 1976 the US has averaged at 20 a year, every year. Between 1976 and 2010 there were 645 incidents involving 937 killers and 2949 fatalities, never mind the injured. That's 86 or more people dying every year, for 34 years.

Meanwhile people buy guns because they're scared, they bought 25 per cent more of them in the US after the financial crisis in 2008, and the politicians don't walk to talk about how to stop people using guns for bad things because they're scared too.

Different people have different rules for what constitutes 'insane'. But in general terms it means you're not thinking clearly, that your thoughts are unsound, and as a result you've become detached from reality and the consequences of your actions.

I really cannot think of anything more insane than selling someone an automatic rifle and expecting them not to use it on people; than sending thousands of bullets in the post and trusting it's just for fun; or a security service which does not have a computer that flags up suspicious purchases of such things.

I have tried and failed to work out the logic of allowing assault weapons to become legal after they've been banned or of allowing letting 86 people get slain every year when even if you continue to allow standard weapons more of them would survive.

Granted, it is best to listen carefully to the kind of people who think everyone should have a machine gun with them when they go to a cinema, and treat them very carefully indeed.

But while you're doing that, you're supposed to be luring them in to the padded cell where they won't hurt themselves or anybody else.

You don't make them part of the political system with a say in what goes on - not unless all 311million citizens are totally barking mad.

In which case, James Holmes would be better off out of it.

At least they don't all have passports.

Monday 23 July 2012

Writing wrongs.

IT'S sometimes hard to know the difference between right and wrong.

There are lots of grey areas in life, things like whether the ends justifies the means, if a white lie is all right if it makes someone feel better, or if something matters when no-one knows you've done it.

Most of the people on the planet, most of the time, can grasp the fact the means are more justifiable if they don't break any laws, that white lies need to be about small things, and that it will start to matter if you do it too much.

And most of us don't need to be told what's right and wrong. We know.

Bankers know they're supposed to look after other people's money, not gamble it. Politicians know they're paid to be representatives, not push their own agenda. Nurses know elderly patients sometimes need to be helped to eat and drink, neighbours know to turn the music down, the taxman knows businesses owe him more than individuals, coppers know not to take bribes and journalists know not to deal with bent coppers.

Most people, most of the time, are mostly good and manage to make a decent fist of the balancing act which is best described as 'acceptable behaviour' - the judgements we make of ourselves and others about whether we are right or wrong, which by their nature are constantly evolving.

For example Bradley Wiggins did amazingly well over a gruelling road race through mountain ranges and deserved to win the Tour de France, but he didn't win it on his own - he was helped by teammates who kept him safe from other cyclists, held back and were even ordered to slow down so that the chosen candidate could win the title.

Purists might not like it but that doesn't make it any less of a feat, and finding a way to make the rules work for you is entirely acceptable - just ask the taxman.

Sometimes though things are allowed to slip and a series of bad judgements pile up into a scandal which everyone who had ignored it for years is horrified by. A black lad is stabbed by a gang of white yobs in Eltham, south London, and such a mess is made of the prosecution that it drags on for 19 years and forces the Met to try to cleanse itself of racism and corruption.

Politicians get extra cash for having to live in two places, and slowly the ability to reclaim expenses grows to the monstrous point where they invent mortgages that do not exist in order to scam the taxpayer.

Bankers exploit a relaxation of their rules to expand their businesses, but get so used to the lack of checks that they gamble with our savings, lie over their lending rates, launder drug money and pay themselves vast bonuses.

A missing schoolgirl's voicemails are heard by journalists using techniques no-one would have minded them using on her killer, and the media convulses, eating bits of itself while being pinned down for examination by judges and lawyers. Its members are raided at dawn for the crime of answering a telephone to someone offering them a story they did not write, and journalists are shifted several branches down the evolutionary tree in the collective judgement.

Nurses ignore a patient who died of thirst. Antisocial neighbours are categorised as a criminal underclass which needs to stop breeding. The taxmen hassle small businesses while £69.9billion goes uncollected from the super-rich and corporations.

Wrong happens. Most of us know that it shouldn't, but then most of us aren't the ones responsible for most of the problems.

In my trade, and in life generally, about 90 per cent of people are sound - they work hard, do their best, and don't complain. About five per cent are inspired and inspiring people who have a vocation and amaze those around them. The surgeons who find a new way to operate on the brain, engineers that design better products, journalists who land front page splashes every week, coppers who always catch their man, nurses who work unpaid overtime, bankers who are cautious because they realise it's not their money.

It's the remaining five per cent who are the problem. The managers who call hospital cleaners 'an overhead' rather than a necessity, the journos who don't give a toss for the truth, the MPs who want glory and directorships, doctors who never really wanted to doctor and neighbours who get a kick out of upsetting those around them.

Sometimes that five per cent is just plain stupid; others they're insecure, unwell, over-compensating. Sometimes they're unimportant foot-soldiers in the great battle of life, but more often than not in my experience they're the generals who don't care who they throw in front of the other guy's cannon.

The world will always have problems but it is the ones we would not otherwise have which are caused by chiefs who don't care about the indians. It is the MPs who flip their second homes because they can and bugger the electorate, the media bosses who exchange thousands of pounds' worth of freebies with police commissioners and sod their underlings, the people who have risen to the top of the criminal underclass and in whose interests it is to keep everyone beneath them reliant or scared.

Those are the things that have arisen because someone saw a grey area, and exploited it.

I don't care what business those people are in - stop them doing it, prosecute them if necessary, make sure it can't happen again.

The problem with that is that the process to bring a halt to bad behaviour is run by - oh dear - the generals. And they rarely look at themselves.

Hence we have 23 journalists arrested on allegations of corrupt payments to public officials, and a mere four police officers who are apparently being corrupted by 5.75 journalists each. We have everyday hacks being turned over for arrest by their bosses on the strength of an ambiguous email, but nary an executive from an office with a nice carpet being examined as thoroughly.

Hence the guys who run banks have a sticky couple of hours in front of a select committee, and maybe have to resign, but don't get a 6am raid from a special unit of officers assigned to investigate them, while the employees further down the chain are castigated. Hence the nurse is struck off and the manager who slashed budgets and tripled that nurse's workload while removing checks on that work gets promoted. Hence the cop tells his juniors who to investigate, and it's never the cop in charge.

Neither you nor I need telling what is right and wrong. There are grey areas we could argue about but by and large we all pretty much know what you should and shouldn't do.

We do not need a police officer to tell us what is in the public interest. It is, by definition, a matter of public opinion and quite often relates to undetected crime, so the best way to decide it is if publication of the facts causes an outrage then it's in the public interest.

It is in the public interest to know why two top cops felt the need to resign from their jobs after allegations of a cosy relationship with media bosses, if they had done nothing wrong. It is in the public interest to know how much the public are paying them in pension, and when they're going to be raided at dawn and asked about what they knew and when.

It is wrong to sack taxmen, because we lose the equivalent of 56 per cent of our total NHS budget every year in tax avoidance and 70 times as much as benefit fraud. It is wrong to waste other people's money, to wash our hands of 120,000 families rife with crime, mental illness and child abuse, it is wrong to lie, corrupt, cheat or steal and it is wrong to trash dozens of low-grade journalists' careers with 18 months of arrests and bail over evidence so poor it will never be heard in court because it is those very same journalists we rely on to tell us about all this stuff.

There will always be wrongs. In any entirely-justified inquiry there will always be people arrested who shouldn't be, and heroes made out of villains.

But - journalists and their troubles aside - I have never known a time more filled with obvious wrongs than now. Wrongs about our money, our health, our neighbours; wrongs about who we ought to be scared of and what the problems are; wrongs which make me despair.

If these become the rules we all have to live by - that executives never take the blame, the rich do as they please, that scrutiny of the powerful is effectively outlawed because the powerful decide what should be scrutinised - that's the wrongest of all.

(I say this next bit not as a journalist, but as a walking, talking, sentient being with a critical mind and a hope that somehow, maybe, if nine of the Olympic sponsors can turn down the chance to avoid their share of £600m tax, then things can still turn out right in the end.)

And the quickest way to end up in that horrible wrongness is to have a media which is approved of by authority.

Fuck. That.

If People Disapprove Of You.

By Sophie Hannah.
  Make being disapproved of your hobby.
Make being disapproved of your aim.
Devise new ways of scoring points
In the Being Disapproved Of Game.
Let them disapprove in their dozens.
Let them disapprove in their hordes.
You'll find that being disapproved of
Builds character, brings rewards.
Just like any form of striving
Don't be arrogant; don't coast
On your high disapproval rating.
Try to be disapproved of most.
At this point, if it's useful,
Draw a pie chart or a graph.
Show it to someone who disapproves.
When they disapprove, just laugh.
Count the emotions you provoke:
Anger, suspicion, shock.
One point for each of these
And two for each boat you rock.
Feel yourself warming to your task -
You do it bloody well.
A last you've found an area
In which you can excel.
Savour the thrill of risk without
The fear of getting caught.
Whether they sulk or scream or pout,
Enjoy your new-found sport.
Meanwhile all those who disapprove
While you are having fun
Won't even know your game exists
So tell yourself you've won.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Hooray! Oh dear.

ARE you sitting down?

Of course you are, you're looking at the internet. You're at your desk avoiding doing any real work, or if you're reading this later you're at home on the sofa ignoring either your family, your loneliness, or your niggling desire for another glass and possibly all three. So I'm going to presume that you, like me, are already sitting down.

Which makes it safe for me to tell you the thing which I had to sit down to digest (If you're one of the weirdos walking around while reading this, now is your last chance to sit down before you read on).

There is good news.

I know! After biblical floods, riots, rocketing youth unemployment, a double-dip recession, a million women on the dole,  missiles on houses, nurses and police officers being laid off, hospitals going bust, banking scandals, a clone army of Pippa Middletons, massacres in Syria and more Olympic blunders than should really be possible, there is a reason to be proud.

For the first time in about 40 years Britain is selling more stuff to the wider world. In fact, we're selling 13.2 per cent more to those markets than we did last year.

Huzzah and hooray! Happy days are here once more, welcome to the eternal sunshine of how we pretend the empire use to be, and let's all look forward to seeing manhole covers manufactured in Smethwick on Beijing streets, cars from the Midlands roaring around Delhi, and Dyson vacuum cleaners being snapped up in Tahiti!

It's like Queen Victoria's on the throne again. Times of plenty are just around the corner, maybe we could all afford to get a butler and an elephant, and did you know it's all down to the government?

Since we joined the Common Market in the 1970s we've sold what we produced mainly in Europe, but for the past three months we've sold slightly more in places like South America, Asia and China, where they still have money.

Scott Corfe of the Centre for Economics and Business Research said: "A revolution in the orientation of British trade has taken place." Treasury secretary Chloe Smith added: "The government is working hard to drive export-led growth and make progress in emerging markets... this is positive news."

We're exporting more cars than we're importing for the first time since 1976, shipping out £6billion-worth of vehicles to break down in other parts of the world; we're selling 23 per cent more Scotch; export markets are expected to grow by up to 60 per cent in Africa in the next five years; and the next figures for the balance of payments - when you compare what the nation earns to what we pay for things - is likely to be in credit for the first time since 1997.

Except - and I almost hate to say this, because it makes such a change to have something positive to report - that's not quite the full story.

Manufacturing makes up less than a quarter of our economy. About 78 per cent of the money we make comes from services - business like insurance, tourism, retail and (ha ha) financial advice - which we provide mostly to the US.

And although selling more manufactured stuff is good, the main reason we're not selling it to Europe any more is because Europe is broke.

I wish the extra sales were because British cars are considered the best in the world, but it's not. People in Europe are less able to afford a Vauxhall Astra, so Vauxhall is looking for other people to buy them. And when they do, the profits go to General Motors in the US which owns the firm. Our other big car makers - Nissan, Mini, Land Rover - are all foreign-owned too.

It's hardly a new Empire, is it? We sell steel, vacuum cleaners, some chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and an awful lot of military hardware. The UK arms trade is worth about £5billion a year and this week alone includes armoured vehicles and dangerous chemicals sold to Syria when it's in the midst of a civil war.

More importantly, the Office of National Statistics reckons a tenth of our official exports are in fact due to VAT carousel fraud, when crime gangs claim VAT back from the taxman on goods they sell outside the UK and then disappear with the proceeds.

So if I have this right, our main money-making enterprises as a nation are 1) selling weapons 2) running dodgy banks 3) diddling the taxman.

It's less Queen Victoria and more Fagin's gang on the run with someone else's credit card. More importantly as financial services account for about 10 per cent of our economy and we're demonstrably making a hash of it, the dodgy banks aren't going to be quite as successful in the future.

Which leaves us with guns and the taxman. Neither is likely to experience a crunch any time soon, so I guess that's a spot of luck for those that can exploit them - which probably isn't you or me, sitting here looking at the screen and wondering what happened to the good news.

So here's some: they reckon the sun's coming out next week.

And if we can just seize control of the factory, we could probably export the Pippa Middletons too.

Four for a fiver.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

The naked truth.

THERE can't be many people that enjoy seeing an unmotivated male member.

They're not the prettiest of things. They're quite silly-looking, they droop and dangle, and bounce around like a deformed chihuahua with no hair and a silent yap.

There's never been one of my acquaintance which caused me fear, alarm or annoyance. The giggles, yes, a roll of the eyes, even a degree of fondness in exceptional cases. But nothing that could really amount to distress, unless you count trying not to laugh out loud.

Seeing the same item in a state of excitement is a different thing altogether. There have been a couple of memorable ones that caused some alarm, and there's been more frequent annoyance especially if too much beer had been drunk or the goods were less than advertised.

I can understand why we don't let them on the telly while in full glory, and why we're not too keen either on looking at them when they've nothing much to do. They seemed silly when I was a child, I was appalled at them as an adolescent, and sometimes I look at a room full of people and think about all the silly things they've hidden away.

But I've never been offended by a willy to the point where I felt the owner should be locked up.

A series of Scottish sheriffs however took great exception to a man called Stephen Gough because he persisted in letting his little man dangle wherever he went.

After walking naked from Land's End to John O'Groats and being dubbed 'The Naked Rambler', he decided he needed to do it again, this time without putting his clothes back on every time he was questioned by police, which was often.

During his second attempt he got through England largely unscathed, apart from one attack by some youths, but in Scotland was arrested and convicted of breach of the peace which requires proof that his behaviour did or could cause fear, alarm or annoyance.

Mr Gough, a man who keeps to his principles if not his underpants, served a short sentence naked, was released naked, and promptly rearrested and convicted. The pattern repeated itself several times, with Mr Gough racking up further convictions for contempt of court after representing himself in court while in the buff.

Today he walked out of HMP Perth - naked, of course - after a total of six years in jail.

Let me say that again. SIX YEARS. That is as long a sentence as handed down to a Teesside man who killed during a drunken row, an American businessman got for embezzling $1.7million, and a German priest got for 250 counts of child abuse.

In fact, when you consider that with good behaviour a sentence in the UK can be halved, we're looking at him serving the equivalent time as someone who has committed extremely violent robberies, rapes or murders. It cost the taxpayer £500,000, too.

And he passed it all in solitary confinement, because he wouldn't put his clothes on.

There was no particular need for Mr Gough to do it, of course. There can't be much doubt he's what you might call 'touched' with an obsession which - while he is entirely sane and has managed six years living naked and with barely any human contact, which takes great mental resilience - is so extreme as to put him in a minority of one.

Despite having walked the length of the country naked, he chose to do it again because he felt he hadn't done it right the first time.

He said: "I kept thinking I'd been compromised. Why did I put on clothes when the police stopped me? That was wrong; it defeated the whole point." And so he did it again, "without compromises" or his undercrackers, hitting Scotland with epically bad timing in the middle of winter.

His ex-partner isn't too impressed with him; nor is his mum. His two teenage children stopped writing to him a while ago. Jail has aged him - he's 52 now, going grey and saggy, and doesn't look as good naked as he did when he started.

It all seems rather silly, doesn't it? Except that his reason for doing it was to show that in a world where we are repeatedly told we are bad - that we eat the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, that we are not up to scratch somehow - that we are born good.

He said: "The human body isn't offensive. If that's what we're saying, as human beings, then it's not rational."

What the sheriffs who jailed him never got their head around was his argument that it was putting clothes ON which he found offensive - that saying the way we were born is offensive to others is offensive in itself.

And he has a point. We are expected not to have wobbly bits, or saggy tummies, or grey hair. We are told to wear control pants or push-up bras, use the same razor or spray as a sportsman, so that we look like people in magazines who, if we saw them in the street, we'd think were freakish.

That's why young girls want long blonde hair, fake eyelashes and tan. It's why young men think they need to dress like the musicians they enjoy, why children starve themselves to look thin, it's why I don't like my bum and squeeze my spots.

There's not a mascara advert in existence that doesn't feature computer-generated eyelashes, or a shot of someone advertising hairspray or swimwear that hasn't been touched up. Tom Cruise being papped holding his daughter looks sweaty and short; Elle Macpherson has wrinkly sun-damaged legs; Katy Perry is plain without an inch of pancake on.

Yes, we prefer to look at Katy when she's made-up, and well-lit shots of Elle's amazing legs and Tom's chiselled torso. We'd rather see ourselves in the mirror as less hairy, less wobbly, more toned, and with better eyelashes, but that's because we're told that reality simply isn't good enough and we need to be perfect.

All our bodies are silly things, walking chemical plants with rogue hairs, scars and parts that are only roughly in the same proportion as others'. The fact that they exist beneath our clothes is not offensive to anyone sensible and it beggars belief that a man walking around au naturel gets locked up for six years while no-one is offended at the air-brushing, tweaking and lies which tell us we're not good enough every single day.

Mr Gough is now walking home to Hampshire naked, after he promised to avoid major towns and the Scottish authorities realised they were on a totalitarian hiding to nothing. I hope he gets a cheer and a pat on the bum everywhere he goes.

If any great achievement should be immortalised on the empty plinth at Trafalgar Square, it's his six years in solitary confinement for the crime of reminding everyone that there's nothing as silly as a willy pretending it's not there.

Stick your fig leaf where the sun don't shine.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Welcome to the metashambles.

TODAY a man in charge of a security company is going to be asked to explain why his efforts at providing guards for the Olympics are a bit of a shambles.

G4S promised 10,000 or so trained guards and last week admitted it would be nearer 6,500, which meant the armed forces would have to plug the gap.

Shambles do not happen by themselves, you see, so I expect he'll say part of the reason for this is that there is a hyper-shambles a bit higher up.

Because originally, G4S were asked to provide 2,000 trained guards. The remaining 8,000 were going to be volunteers and college students.

That was in 2010, and about six months after the contract was signed the security services raised the national terror threat level which most of us could work out would probably mean security needed to be tightened up.

But it took another six months before the Home Office figured this out and the security services explained that volunteers and students would not cut the mustard.

So in December 2011 it was decided that we needed more than 23,000 guards, which would need to include 7,500 military, 3,300 volunteers, and 10,400 G4S trained personnel.

Added to which the guards provided by G4S were supposed to pass some strict criteria set by the Home Office - they had to have a five-year checkable history, speak good English, and either already have or be able to qualify for, security industry accreditation.

In return most would be paid between £7 and £9 an hour, a rate an accredited guard could easily triple working in the same job for someone else.

And we were going to need it all within six months.

Unsurprisingly, and as a blind man could have seen a year ago, the security operation got all cocked up. They couldn't find enough people meeting very strict rules prepared to work for peanuts, and didn't mention this would be a bit of a problem until a fortnight ago. Now more soldiers are being pulled off leave, police officers are being called in, and even those signed up to work for G4S have started to disappear.

Around 300 guards were expected to arrive at Box Hill in Surrey yesterday to guard it in preparation for the Olympic cycling events; 40 turned up. Fifty eight were scheduled to be on duty guarding teams at the Hilton hotel in Gateshead, but only four arrived and one of those later disappeared. Undercover journalists who have signed up to the security courses in the past few weeks have found 'guards' who can't speak English, fall asleep, or are due in court. The ones who have made it through, and the volunteers, wonder how they're going to get to work for 5.30am starts when the Tube doesn't start until after that and they're not allowed to park at the Olympic sites.

So it's all a mess, not just because G4S have been rubbish but because the people telling G4S what they wanted got it all arse-about-face and, when they should have realised a year ago that wasn't good enough, didn't fix it or keep more of an eye on what we were getting for our money.

The cost today is £284million for those 13,000 guards, a number of whom don't seem to have bothered turning up. On top of that is almost as much again for the cost of police and soldiers who aren't doing other things, and the MI5 officers for whom all leave has been cancelled, and even though G4S are being fined it won't make much of a dent in the cost to the taxpayer.

And above all this is an omni-shambles, in which games organisers LOCOG won the right to stage the event in 2005 and were so busy wetting their pants they stopped thinking.

They allowed the £2bn cost to spiral to £9.4bn by 2007. When the financial crash came in 2008 they didn't scale back their plans or wonder if they needed quite so many BMWs. When the government changed in 2010 and a massive programme of austerity cuts was introduced they saw no reason that "we're all in this together" should include their sports competition. When recession continued through 2011 and we went into a double-dip Seb Coe didn't think it would be a bright idea to go over the spending and make sure we were getting what we'd paid for.

And the reason those things didn't happen is that even further up, right at the top, is an overarching meta-shambles being woven by three blundering twonks whose hamfisted handling of all the problems on their desks, whose shonky maths, unprincipled politics and slimy denials of the bleeding obvious make G4S look as efficient and well-oiled a machine as the T-1000.

Yesterday Cameron and Clegg announced they had achieved more in two years than the entire governments of Thatcher and Blair over a total of 30 years.

Well, they have, if you count Olympic-level bungling as an achievement.

It's these three unwise monkeys who have cut police and armed forces numbers, just when we need them to stop the Olympics being blown to smithereens. They reduced the size of the welfare state just when more people needed its help because the money's all gone. They made 32 budget u-turns, upset every nurse and GP in Britain and failed to lift us out of recession. They have denied a judicial inquiry into the ethics and practices of the banking industry, which made Cameron and Clegg's family wealth and did Osborne no harm either but has done the rest of us few favours.

Thanks to their efforts during the past two years, most natural Liberal Democrats in Britain - teachers, nurses, clerical public sector staff, lecturers and students - loathe Nick Clegg.

Most natural Tories - those running small businesses, manual workers, the aspiring middle classes - loathe David Cameron and George Osborne. Even the bankers whom they have done so much to protect, fighting at every stage a small tax on financial transactions which could raise billions from the City, are starting to back away from people whose idea of achievement is writing a press release about it.

It's all very well getting the head of G4S in to explain his bit of the "humiliating shambles". But that's the same as asking the winner of a school sports day three-legged race why he's not on the podium taking gold in the 100metres. What about the rest of them?

Get Seb Coe in there. Labour politicians who from 2005 thought the Olympics was so far off they didn't need to bother keeping an eye on things. Get the Home Secretary, the civil servants who negotiated the G4S contract, the bureaucrats who drafted laws permitting censorship of free speech, the politicians who were expected to scrutinise and instead wangled free tickets for themselves.

Of course if we did that we'd be here all year and the rest of the world would realise everyone involved in running this country is an incompetent wet fart who couldn't run a tap, never mind a race.

No, the best thing to do is moan about the shambles while ignoring the hyper-shambles, the omni-shambles and the great big meta-shambles, and hope like hell that if we do that then no-one else will notice it either.

I'm sure everything will be fine.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Monday 16 July 2012

Les cheeky sods.

IT'S amazing the way you can always find a lawyer to work for you, even if your case is hopeless.

There's the one who swore blind I could get a few grand from my ex-husband in our divorce, and another one who charged that same ex thousands to argue that I couldn't, and who between them took twice what we were arguing over.

Then there's the truly expensive ones who take £50,000 and upwards from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Ryan Giggs for injunctions which either won't hold, are extremely unreasonable or threaten someone who has every right to express an opinion with jail if they do.

I expect some of this last group will be engaged, at some point, to protect the reputation of the Olympics, which is costing us up to £24bn, creating jobs mainly for foreign workers forced to live in squalor, and now wants to take control of common nouns and stop people mentioning this massive abortion of time and money we could well do without in the midst of a double-dip recession in derogatory terms.


More importantly there will be a lawyer somewhere rubbing his hands over this little stunt, in which the French city of Angers has officially launched action to sue the Queen for the Crown Jewels.

The city was home to the House of Anjou, which gave rise to the Plantagenet monarchs who ruled Britain and whose dynasty came to an end when the last one - Edward, Earl of Warwick - was executed in 1499 after Henry Tudor seized the throne.

The Frenchies reckon this was a crime against their state, and they've asked for 513 years of backdated compo which would amount to billions, but for which they're prepared to accept the Crown Jewels as payment. They've even got a display spot picked out for Betty's crown.

Righto. That's fine. Just a few points to make about this:

1. The Plantagenets were a combination of rulers from Anjou, Normandy, and Wessex. They were as much wurzel as they were ooh-la-la, and we're not being sued by the city of Gloucester, are we? Don't be so daft.

2. The Plantagenets were a cussed, determined bunch who fought The Hundred Years' War against the French throne. I note the current city of Angers has given up on this particular front. You're not very Plantagenet, are you?

3. Edward, Earl of Warwick was what historians call 'simple-minded' and unable to tell a goose from a chicken. He was executed for treason after plotting to escape the Tower of London with the son of a Belgian accountant who pretended he was the rightful king of England. If you want him, you can have him.

4. If Angers wants to take credit for the Plantagenets, they will also need to shoulder responsibility for the Third Crusade (Richard I), Agincourt (Henry V), the conquering of Wales (Edward I), the failed conquering of Scotland (Edwards I, II and III) and the lack of decent medical care which gave rise to the Black Death, wiped out a third of the population and saw Richard II quell the entirely-justified Peasants' Revolt of 1381 with murder, executions and lies.

5. You will need to take Prince Andrew too.

While the petition calling for a formal Royal apology and compensation could in theory start a legal case, it's fairly unlikely of course. Not just because the new French president hasn't had a chance to try the soup at Windsor Castle yet, but also because everyone realises that quibbling about what happened centuries ago is a futile business.

Well, everyone except the Serbs. And the Taliban. And us on Bonfire Night. But APART from that...

If they found a lawyer and actually filed a suit, they'd find that we're not Plantagenets any more either and we cannot obliterate them with our mighty war machine (currently searching bags in Stratford), sink them with our navy (with carriers the French half-own on which we can't park any planes), or even fire off an angry solicitor's letter because we can't afford the legal bills.

No, we'd have to rely on our wits. And mine tell me that if the Frenchies want the Crown Jewels for the execution of a simple-minded Royal we should let them have the lot.

In return we'll very politely ask for compensation for the Norman invasion, the serious telling-off we had to give Napoleon on more than one occasion, the costs of having to rescue them from two world wars, the €227billion of debt they currently owe us, their helping the Argentines with Exocet missiles while we were fighting them, their being arseholes to so many minorities for centuries they all moved to Britain, truly terrible drains and inflicting Jean Michel Jarre on the rest of the planet.

A set of Crown Jewels should just about cover it, if they've any to hand.

We'll write the receipt on Prince Andrew's forehead, because that way they'll have to keep him.

That should shut them up.

"That's not a goose! Or is it?"

Thursday 12 July 2012

An expensive way to get screwed.

IN about two months' time everyone involved in the Olympics is going to be rapidly washing their hands of it.

Just as with any orgy, it will all look a bit seedy once the fun's over, there will need to be a massive clean-up operation, and when the responsible person is totting up the bill everyone else will be quietly sneaking off home.

But before that happens there is the prospect of having ringside seats at a £24bn orgy, and when there are freebies to be blagged at the taxpayer's expense you can guarantee the slimiest bottom-feeders will crawl out to snaffle them.

Which is why John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture select committee in the House of Commons, has decided it's a good idea to accept some of the most sought-after tickets at the entire event to the men's 100metre final.

These are no ordinary tickets either - they come complete with corporate hospitality, a brief 'presentation' by BT which paid for them, and no doubt a chauffeur-driven car and some decent champagne, too.

Never mind that thousands of people tried and failed to get tickets for any of the Olympic events. Never mind there are many who would give their right eye for the chance to watch the fastest man on earth run around a stadium we all helped to pay for.

Never mind that BT would do a lot more for its public image if it handed those tickets to some of its own randomly-selected customers, or that the thousands of people who worked on building the Olympics venues didn't get invited to sit in them afterwards.

Even Zaha Hadid, the architect who designed the aquatics centre where Britain has some of its best chances at medals, didn't get a ticket.

No, because as Mr Whittingdale says: "My committee has spent five years having regular sessions on the preparations for the Olympics. It's not terribly surprising that we might have wanted to go and have a look."

Fellow committee member Philip Davies added: "We've been scrutinising the Olympics for ages. I don't see why we shouldn't go along and have a look at the games."

You're not going to watch the ping pong though, are you?

Even committee members who turned the tickets down felt it was fair enough they should go, because of all the hard work they put in while sitting down scrutinising, for which we have already paid Mr Whittingdale an extra £14,582 on top of his MP's salary of £65,738.

And what has all this scrutinising brought us?

* A failure to spot security firm G4S did not have the guards it had promised to recruit under its £284million contract despite the fact another group of scrutineers - the rather excellent Public Accounts Committee - were rather better at scrutinising and pointed out the whole thing was a shambles back in March. The security bill doubled, the original estimates were seriously out of whack, and the Home Office didn't realise G4S' original plan needed to be beefed up until six months after the terror threat level was raised.

* A failure to spot until someone else noticed it a fortnight beforehand that this gap would need to be plugged with 3,500 extra military staff on top of those already seconded to the Olympics, meaning we will have 17,000 troops involved in the games overall when we have only 10,000 actually fighting in Afghanistan.

* A failure to spot that the volunteers and civilian guards who have been recruited need to get to the venues for 5.30am to clear security before a 6.30am start. The Tube does not start until 5.30am, there are no special buses laid on, and they are not given any parking spaces. This surely means either they will be an hour late for their unpaid or minimum-wage work, be getting up at 3am to walk it, or dumping their cars in residential areas nearby.

* A failure to spot that select committees whose role includes scrutinising telecommunications firms ought not to be taking freebies from said firms.

* A failure to spot that the £2bn original budget for the games has grown to £9.4bn and the entire thing is expected to come in at nearer £24bn once you take into account the money spent on upgrading the transport networks, overtime, and the spend on intelligence services and counter-terrorism.

In fact, while the culture committee has heard plenty of evidence and asked questions of people running the games, it has not produced a report on the subject since 2008. So while Mr Whittingdale may feel it's been scrutinising, it's not told anyone the results of that scrutiny which makes the scrutiny not only half-arsed but thus far pretty pointless, too.

A lot of these problems come under the remit of other committees, but the Olympics is the baby of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and therefore the overview of how the whole thing's going is the responsibility of Mr Whittingdale's committee.

And as far as he is concerned, the whole thing is going very well indeed if he gets a free glass of champers and a trackside seat to watch Usain shoot his Bolt.

The Olympics may well be fun, they're probably going to give us some new people to love, but they haven't even begun yet and it already seems seedy, expensive and like it all needs a good wipe-down with disinfectant.

But then that's the problem with orgies - they never attract the people you'd like them to.

I just want to watch.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Disgusting animals.

THERE is something almost heartwarming about the way some people can turn the misfortune of others into profit for themselves.

Like the way a local Del Boy will always pop up in the middle of a famine to act as fixer, translator and driver to visiting journalists, or how when you're bereaved or heartbroken a lawyer can always find a way to bill you for it.

People like that always remind me of seagulls - vermin if you live with them, a noisy pain in the backside, but capable of feeding on anything that comes their way whether it's chips, dog poo or the bag either of them came in.

Which is why it's hard not to admire the Coalition's latest announcement about long-term care for the elderly, which however you look at it is an absolute masterpiece.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley - a chap heckled by nurses, disdained by doctors and generally accused of putting another nail in the coffin of the NHS - has saved his reputation for being an axeman by fixing the issue of how we're going to look after people as they get older.

It's a tricky one this, because more of us will be older for longer and our bodies and brains aren't really designed for it. We will deteriorate for longer than we used to, and that is an expensive business.

Lansley wants to make a series of changes, including a cap on the cost of care and setting national standards, but the biggest is that he will offer elderly people loans to pay their care home fees, which can be repaid after their eventual death. He says this will stop people having to sell their home while still alive.

Nice Andrew Lansley, saving granny's house so that granny's family can inherit it!

Except he's not. He's actually taking more money from granny, while pretending he's doing her a favour.

The loan being offered by the state will have interest charged on it, meaning that more of granny's assets will be sucked up by her care than if she sold her home and paid for it herself.

In fact, under the existing rules you do not have to sell your home at all if you don't want to.

If the main reason for needing care is a medical condition - a heart problem, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer's - the NHS pays for the whole thing. It's sometimes tricky to prove that's the main reason, but it can be done and decisions appealed against. At the moment around 26,000 people are being looked after this way.

Secondly if the care is to be funded by the local authority because it's not for medical reasons - if granny just finds it too difficult on her own - you can defer the payment until after she's gone. The rules say: "Deferred payments should be offered when individuals are willing to pay their assessed contribution but do not wish to do so immediately."

But around 24,000 homes are thought to have been sold in the past year to fund long-term care. Seeing as families did not legally have to do this, they've either been misled, bullied, or felt that it was a good idea that granny paid for her own nurses

And where are these loans coming from? I thought there was no money left. Perhaps Lansley found some down the back of the sofa.

So let's get this straight. The Health Secretary is shouting about how great he is for stopping people having to sell homes they don't actually have to sell, and instead selling them to someone without any money so that he can cream a profit from it.

There are people selling DVD players from the back of transit vans who would be impressed by that. There are bankers in the Square Mile sitting at their desks and thinking "That Lansley - whadda guy." There are grannies and grandpas the length of the land saying "quite right too".

But there is no automatic right for relatives to inherit anything. If granny wants to leave it all to a dog rescue charity, splurge it on strippers or spend it on the best nurses she can find, she is entirely within her rights. Their families will stand or fall on their own efforts, as nice as extra cash might be. Would you rather have £20,000 in your back pocket or a granny being looked after properly in her final years?

And would you say the same if it was your care home you were talking about?

The fact that the government thinks inheritance is so important is probably explained by the fact that for most of the people in charge inherited wealth is their preferred method of wage-earning. The rest of us go out to work - those in charge simply pass the time until daddy has died.

And while they do it, they tell the oldest and most vulnerable people in the country they have to sell their homes, when they don't. They tell them they have to sell it to the state, when they don't.

And they tell us we should be grateful to them for figuring this out, when we ought to drive vermin like them who prey on the elderly like this over the cliffs and into the sea.

But the most amazing thing about it all by far is that at a time of double-dip recession Lansley has hit upon the nation's one and only growth market.

By 2025 a whopping one-fifth of the British population will be over 65, and so the state will be turning more profit out of the mental and physical deterioration of its people every year.

Unless, of course, we decide to fund our own care privately - by cashing in the savings we want to leave our children.

It is a policy so circular, vicious and obtuse that it is not possible to do anything but look at it and laugh in rueful admiration about the way Andrew Lansley's brain works.

And just be grateful that he cannot fly and doesn't want to nest on your roof.


You don't mind them until they shit on you.