Th!nk About It: thanks for your time, Libertas

(A version of this post can also be found here, and you can vote for me if you so wish.)

I know that something dodgy’s going on when I attempt to interview someone and they willingly agree.

This is because my opening sentence usually involves the following words – so hated by most that they are often followed by the slam of a phone in its receiver – “student journalist”. When the all-too familiar slamming does not come, I am immediately suspicious.

(As an aside, a perfect example of someone cashing in on the benefits of student journalism is Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Islington, London. Her willingness to conduct interviews and give quotes has certainly done her no harm: on our website, Islington Now, she is not only featured in a worryingly large amount of articles, but also has a glowing feature all to herself…)

But back to the point.

My suspicions were also aroused, though, when I called up Libertas in December for an article I was writing as part of a job application about the effect of the economic crisis on perceptions of the EU in Ireland and the UK. Thrilling stuff, I know.

Libertas, your bus stops here.

Libertas, your bus stops here.

But despite the exciting subject matter, Libertas were not just polite in answering questions – they arranged for a “senior policy adviser” to call me back the next day and answer my (often stupid, in hindsight) questions for an hour.

I smell a rat, I thought. There’s something fishy going on here… (And then I spent a short time wondering whether rats smell fishy.)

I was reminded of Libertas’s over-eagerness to engage this week, when I read, on EuropeanVoice.com, that they have launched as an official political party in the UK.

I was intrigued. How would the British press respond to this news, I wondered; how would the British public react?

I am still wondering.

I turns out that my Google News search function is not defunct as I originally believed: the British press have, quite simply, not covered the story. (With the exception of, understandably, the BBC and less understandably, Sky News.)

There are a number of reasons why the news has not been covered. Perhaps it is, as Mardell highlights, because there is no sign of a manifesto in sight. More likely, it is because the British public couldn’t care less.

And with this, Libertas’s eagerness to speak to me became clear. No, it wasn’t because they were praying that my article might get published somewhere (ha!). Neither was it because they have a penchant for talking to young – and horrifically misinformed – interviewers (I hope).

It was because they have to grasp at any opportunity – literally, any opportunity – to speak to the British press with both hands.

At their UK launch, Libertas even embarked upon some Brown bashing – the British press’s favourite activity of late – arguing that Brown “deceived” voters by not holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

If even Brown bashing doesn’t spur UK newspapers to write about them, things for Libertas – and any future British campaign they may embark upon –  aren’t looking too great.

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Ding ding: Berlins vs Brown in a, quite frankly, unneccesary bashing

Ker pow: a familiar Guardian mug shot and an even more familiar face craftily superimposed, if I do say so myself

Ker pow: a familiar Guardian mug shot and an even more familiar face craftily superimposed, if I do say so myself

Today Marcel Berlins said that:

The government’s plan to allow people to comment on public services online is lazy and ill-considered.

There are a number of reasons, according to Marcel (we’ll go with first names, the plurals involved in the second will only confuse me, if not others) that the government’s “eBay style feedback for services” is not democratic. I have a problem with all of them.

One is that offering this online service is leaving out those who can’t go online. If you’re wondering who these people are, Marcel tells us they “might” include: old people, ill people and thick people.

Apparently, then, people without the internet cannot comment on public services. They mustn’t be able to write (and send a letter to: Mr Brown, 10 Downing Street, London, SW1A 2AA) or speak (and call: 020 7925 0918). My grandma doesn’t have the internet, and I’m pretty sure she’d disagree with the above – by letter and/or phone if required.

But there’s another reason, according to Marcel.

True democracy is not just about numbers. It is also about quality.

News to me, Marcel. As far as I can remember from my undergrad days, napping in Jonathan Wolff’s lectures on democracy, not much was said about the quality of the voice of the people. I’m pretty sure the voice of the people was enough.

But Marcel wasn’t finished.

Moreover, many people’s opinions will be based not on a careful consideration of their experiences, but on ignorance or misunderstanding of the profession they are dealing with.

Not that you’re assuming that the British public are stupid or anything, Marcel. And, no, I don’t know the difference between an experience, and a “carefully considered” experience either.

Marcel ends by predicting the disastrous consequences of the government “giving too much influence to amateurs, too little to the professionals”. 

Now I’m partial to a bit of Brown bashing myself – as regular readers will know – but I don’t see the point in bashing for bashing’s sake (if for no other reason than the quantity of bashing-worthy material out there).

And here we have (what appeared to me to be) a bashing-proof statement by our prime minister on increasing transparency of the services. It didn’t appear so to Marcel, but he went too far. Call it try-hard, call it desperate. But don’t call it disastrous before it’s even begun. Poor Brown.

Marcel, for some reason, greatly overestimated the weight the government will give to the proposed online feedback system. If he was right, I think there’d be more than just Marcel worried about our country’s democratic future being modelled on eBay.

Breaking news: Joe the Plumber has a book, and Americans can be funny

The recession has hit, everybody. Joe the Plumber’s book has sold just five copies.

Yes, you did read right. Joe the Plumber has written a book. (I reckon it was a publisher’s idea of a joke – quite a funny one actually. For an American.)

The Washington Post yesterday reported – in 700 words, typical – that poor old Joe held a book signing in Borders, hardly anybody turned up, and the author sold five books.

Thanks for this, Washington Post

Thanks for this, Washington Post

(Note: Joe is actually called Samuel. Interesting, then, that his book is nevertheless entitled ‘Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream’. He’ll have people saying he’s cashing in…)

Regardless, I couldn’t figure out why on earth a book with so much political and, I’m sure, literary clout was selling so badly. So I hunted it out on Amazon. Then I saw the photo.

Grrrr

Grrrr

I imagine the publisher was so impressed with the success of his first joke that he decided to try another one – telling Joe, sorry Sam, to gurn like his life depended on it for the cover photo. Again, funny for an American. Not so funny for poor old Joe, sorry Sam, I imagine.

But the jokes keep coming, because the ‘Product Description’ says:

Fighting for the American Dream is the Inspiration Guide for the New Conservatism. Get ready to get Angry, Laugh out loud, Cry, Shout, and Get Involved in the Future of the United States of America!

No one would ever employ that many capitals in a serious capacity.

Yet, as much as I was enjoying these Joe, sorry Sam, related jokes, I stopped laughing when my eyes were, predictably, distracted by Amazon’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ function. This informed me that those who had deemed ‘Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream’ a worthy literary investment, had also bought:

The Christmas Sweater: “Beck’s debut novel, the conservative radio and TV host makes a weak attempt at a holiday classic in the vein of It’s a Wonderful Life”

and

The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World: “How America became an economic powerhouse offering wealth to the average citizen! How the Federal Government was built to protect and safeguard citizens rights! 28 Principles disputably creating freedom & prosperity unlike any other!

As such I have concluded that a condition for purchasing Joe, sorry Sam’s, book is that you are mad. Needless to say, I was relieved to find no such ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ function on Amazon’s British site, which, I can only hope, means that no Brits have yet succumbed to Joe, sorry Sam’s, literary (and gurning) charms. And that Brits and more sane than Americans.

Snap! A tale of Team Brown’s four broken hearts

The tale of Team Brown’s four broken hearts begins when their American, and – I think we can accurately predict – far cooler counterpart,  Team Obama, informed them that no longer was Brown’s trip to the US going to involve the press conference of their dreams. You know, the one where Barack and Gords stand together, in front of the presidential seal, best buds, hands clasped, embracing… ah hem.

Snap! went their hearts: Obama just, like, totally stood up Brown.

Instead, they were told, there would be a… “pool spray”.What, I hear you cry, the hell is a pool spray? I’m sure Team Brown cried the same thing. Sounds like a, urm, spray. To perhaps be used on a, urm, pool.

NOT Obama's gift to Brown.

NOT Obama's gift to Brown.

But no. Surprisingly, Obama is not planning on presenting Brown with an aquatic cleaning instrument. Instead, Team Obama have decided that Brown can – what with being the Prime Minister of the UK ‘n all – face some questions.

At this point, I reckon, Team Brown’s hearts lifted. Questions? Well, that’s pretty much like a press conference, right? No one will ever know! Perhaps it was at this point in the tale that the press officer released this statement:

We always said that a media event was planned and that’s what will happen. The White House will confirm details in the course of the day.

Little did they know that this “pool spray” actually consists of four – yes, four – questions. Perhaps Team Obama had heard of the Arctic Monkey incident. Snap! Their hearts, I predict, broke for a second time.

Still, at least they could rest in the knowledge that the UK public were unlikely to miss the news of the momentous trip. After all, not only is Nick Robinson off to the US with our good old PM, but so is Oliver Burkeman along, I’m sure, with others. Missing news of the momentous trip should, in fact, have a hefty cash prize attached to it, so hard is it to avoid the publicity of Brown, who is – didn’t you know? -“the first European leader invited to Washington… blah… blah”

What publicity Team Brown didn’t bet on though, was the news that, although Obama is seemingly too busy to hold a press conference with Gords, he is not too busy to meet with the Scouts this afternoon. Snap! For the third time in two days, the Team’s hearts crumbled. At this point, I imagine, they could take little more. Three times in two days is enough for any heart – even those hardened, practised ones of Team Brown.

But there was more: this photo was about to find its way into the media.

Snap! (Wow, almost a pun.)

Snap! (Wow, almost a pun.)

As if it wasn’t bad enough that Team Obama didn’t rate Brown highly enough to give him a press conference (perhaps they’d been checking out the polls); as if it wasn’t bad enough that Brown was deemed only able to cope with four questions; as if it wasn’t bad enough that Obama places scouts above our PM – now everyone’s got a photo of him having make-up applied.

Either that, or he has a strange fetish for having his nose stroked by a lady in red with an unidentifiable object (his expression does look oddly sexual).

Regardless, I think it’s fair to say that Brown’s trip to America has not been good for his Team’s love life.

Th!nk About It: How do you make £1m? Become an MEP

(Also posted here…)

This time last week I said:

I reckon there’s something wrong with all expenses over £100,000. Forget second home, that’s a second flipping salary, that is.

But that was before I came across this Monday’s findings of the Tax Payers’ Alliance (TPA). And I thought UK politics was bad.

Yet another paint masterpiece...

Yet another paint masterpiece...

The TPA somehow got their eager campaigning hands on a leaked EU document called the Galvin Report (download here), which, it says:

revealed so many examples of poor financial controls, dubious practices and outright abuse of taxpayers’ money that it was kept secret from the public, and only a handful of MPs were allowed to see it on the condition that its contents were never revealed.

But the crux of the TPA’s findings – which should help dear old Jacqui Smith sleep better at night – is the following:

Over and above their salaries an MEP can personally earn a further £1 million during a typical Parliamentary term through their generous allowances and expenses

The report was based on a sample of 167 payments, out of a total of 4686, made in October 2004. And I’m going to assume – with, I grant you, no proof what so ever – that as the report has only just been published, repercussions have been somewhat lacking – and things have only got worse.

But there’s more. Because, it seems, £1 million might not cover quite as much glass and mussels as an MEP might like, the TPA also state that MEPs can expect a 47 per cent pay rise after this June’s elections; British MEPs could soon earn a ‘take-home’ salery of £68,801.

By george. I want tips! What sneaky tricks are these MEPs resorting to? I want to take notes in order to make the most of my future expenses-fuelled career as a journalist… (Difference being that I’ll be earning approximately £54,801 less than a British MEP.)

Thanks to the report, I now know that – if one wants to make the most of one’s expenses – one should claim money for fictional assistants, of which no record exists. And pay any assistants that do exist up to 20 times their salary – just to use up the full allowance. I should also, if so inclined, claim money for companies who have done absolutely no work for me.

This, it transpires, works for European Parliament members. I have a feeling it won’t work quite as well for a trainee journo.

Still, prior to this discovery I was feeling guilty about my two EU-expenses-paid trips to Brussels. I must admit, I feel a tad better now.

A genius + Google Earth =

A digression from my usual, I’ll give you that. But this, from today’s lecture by Chris Brauer, was too good not to share.

This, my friends, is what geniuses can do on Google Earth: a co-ordinate by co-ordinate re-enactment of the flight 1549’s crash into the Hudson River, complete with audio of the actual communications. I dare you not to feel nervous whilst watching.

Ut oh...

Ut oh...

Th!nk About It: more disappointment, with love from the BBC

Drum roll please… the BBC appear to have launched their ‘European Elections 2009’ efforts – with disappointing results. (This post can also be found here, on my Th!nk About It Page. Yet again – feel free to vote.)

More interesting than the EU?

More interesting than the EU?

I appreciate that this bemoaning of the BBC follows very much in the footsteps of my last Th!nk About It post, but when attempting to cover the EU from a British perspective your media options are bleak. To say the least. Most nationals avoid mentioning the EU at any cost for fear – I assume – of being tagged with the deadly label “pro-EU”, and even the BBC hides its ‘Inside Europe‘ page behind a confusing maze of links and graphics.

Once, however, one has managed to overcome the BBC’s attempts to keep you away, and reached Inside Europe, one might – if one looks hard enough – come across a piece entitled ‘Vote For Us’.

It was at this point that I got rather excited. And not just because when I see an EU name-drop in the British press a Th!nk About It light bulb lights up in my head – an energy efficient one, of course Etan. No, rather, I was excited to see how the BBC was going to kick off its election articles. I was disappointed. Even the first line:

Voters from across the European Union will be electing a new European Parliament in June – the first election since the EU enlarged in 2007, with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania.

inspired in me nothing but a sigh. A huge number of British citizens don’t even know they can vote – and I don’t think this introduction will have them running for the polling booths. The non-inclusive tone of “voters from across the European Union” (ie, “them, not us”) is only going to add to British EU ignorance. And although whether or not the BBC has an obligation to increase the UK public’s knowledge of the EU (what with being a public corporation) is another question (and one to be raised by someone with far more authority than me), I certainly don’t think it should be misleading. Yet, arguably, this is what the first sentence is.

I won’t even draw attention to the fact that it doesn’t give the date of the election.

Things appear to look up, however, when the BBC promises a couple of sentences later:

Here, leaders of the political groups in the outgoing parliament explain why, in their view, people should turn out to vote.

Great, I thought. Something really informative. Something that will not only give me something interesting to blog about, but will also (and maybe slightly more importantly) provide the European voter with compelling, balanced and helpful information enabling them to make an informed decision on 4th June.

Yet again, I was disappointed.

What followed seemed to be a series of SENTENCES (yes, just one sentence) pulled from press releases. A series of seven one-sentence adverts for political parties that appear to say little more than: “vote for me… please, vote for me!”

To illustrate my point:

“For us the European elections are very very important”

“We’ve got a chance here – where there’s no wasted vote – to try to actually say what we think”

“It is very important that electors and voters understand that they have to go to vote, because this is not peanuts…”

And with that, I found myself distracted by a picture below the article captioned: ‘Elephants kiss each other’ and along with (I’m sure) the rest of the British public, I clicked on it, leaving the BBC’s coverage of the Parliament elections far behind and not looking back.

Con (wo)men and their wives: yet another bad day for British politics

It’s not been a great day for British politics, I’m not going to lie. A quick glance at the Guardian’s politics homepage and any foreign visitor would think that our country is run by con (wo)men. And their wives. They’d be right.

Jowllely Jowls and Jacs in the Serpentine - for no other reason than I got a bit click-happy on Paint.

Jowelly Jowells and Jacs in the Serpentine - for no other reason than I got a bit click-happy on Paint.

Your eyes have hardly taken in this stand-first:

Estranged husband of Tessa Jowell sentenced to four and a half years for accepting $600,000

Before they stumble upon the following:

Jacqui Smith is to face an inquiry into her claims for parliamentary expenses on her constituency home

First things first: Jowelly Jowells.

The woman in charge of raising £9.3bn to fund the 2012 Olympics was married to a man so bad with money he’s heading for an Italian jail. David Mills was paid $600,000 to “protect” Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi – but surely anyone with any money sense would have demanded at least a mill. Let’s hope his wife wasn’t too influenced by his prudence – or I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll be swimming our 800ms in the Serpentine.

But let’s move on to Jacs. As I’m sure her friends call her.

Our HOME secretary (the irony of which, as the capitals demonstrate, has not been lost on me) has been fiddling her housing allowances. She, of course, denies any wrongdoing in her £116,000 “second home” expenses – but I reckon there’s something wrong with all expenses over £100,000. Forget second home, that’s a second flipping salary, that is.

The Commissioner for Standards (which the BBC delightfully terms “Parliament’s Sleeze Watchdog” – a title almost too good to be true) has ordered an inquiry into Smith’s second salary after three neighbours raised questions about her housing habits. The recent complaints of neighbours Dominic and Jessica Taplin that Smith often spends only two days a week at her “main” home in South London is thought to have instigated the Commissioner’s move.

But if this isn’t interesting enough (and I’ll admit, I’d have stopped reading when I got to “housing habits” also), there’s better to come. Because the Taplins didn’t go straight to the Commissioner with their Home Secretary-shaped concerns. Oh no. Where do you go if you want to complain about old Jacs? The Tories of course.

And so the Taplins trot off the Cameron only to be told that… this was not a matter that the Conservative Party could deal with.

Hang on a minute. There’s something fishy going on here. The Tories passed up an opportunity to draw attention to another Labour bungle? That doesn’t sound right. Far too dignified if you ask me.

And you didn’t ask me, but I take your reading this as tacit consent (Locke would be proud) so I’ll tell you anyway: it doesn’t sound right because it isn’t. The Tories, according to the BBC, sent the Taplins away with the advice:

You might want to contact a newspaper as this would be “in the public interest”

You can almost hear the cough that sounded scarily like the “Mail” following them out of the door.

Th!nk About It: EU jargon, and the 73 pages that Mardell won’t blog about

In yet another desperate attempt to keep the EU light-hearted (and yet another successful – if I do say so myself – attempt to avoid “serious EU issues”), hereby follows my second Th!nk About It Post. As before, you can vote for me here.

Reading Mark Mardell’s Euroblog like a good Th!nker I today came across his most recent post entitled Learn EU-speak. My first thought was that the post was horrifically short at just 103 words – but then I realised it was less of a post and more of an advert for his Radio 4 appearance tomorrow:

What’s at the heart of the problem? Hear my answer on Radio 4 this Sunday 22 February at 10.45pm (2245 GMT) at the end of the Westminster Hour. It will be repeated on Wednesday 25 February at 8.45pm on Radio 4.

I appreciate that I have just copied his advert for more to see, but firstly, I wanted to demonstrate the blatantness of the advertisement-pretending-to-be-a-post, and secondly, because who can blame him?

(For non-Th!nkers, Mardell spoke to us in Brussels at the launch event and blogged about it here. I, for one, was slightly disappointed with his post. Most of the comments directed at him were about the lack of “official” bloggers’ links to “normal” (my term) bloggers and not only did he not mention this in the post, but neither did he link to any normaltons. Pah.)

Nevertheless, I am grateful for Mardell’s lack of words on the subject of, urm, words. For it means I can blog more about them here.

When I went to Brussels in December (independently of Th!nk About It, not independently of the EU) I was given the following:

73 pages of excitement

73 pages of excitement

This is, my friends, a book on EU Jargon entitled ‘E! Sharp Jargon Alert’. And it’s 73 pages long. A visitor, apparently, needs 73 pages just to understand what’s being said – I don’t even want to think about how many pages would be needed to understand what is actually going on.

Here’s a taster, from the ‘C’ section:

Cedefop, CEN,CENELEC,CEPOL,CIVITAS,COM Documents,CEC,COPA,COGECA,COREPER, CSR,COSAC

And that’s only about half of the ‘C’s. I’d be surprised if Barroso and Pöttering together would be able to explain them all.

As such, I think it’s clear to all that the EU has somewhat of un problemo with language. But I don’t think that warrants Mardell’s question: “Does the EU shroud itself in obscure language on purpose?”.

Surely we can forgive an institution has been developing since the Second World War and has 23 – yes, 23 – “official languages” a confusing lingo?

Let’s look at Mardell’s answer to his own question shall we? Oh no. I forgot. We’ll have to wait for his radio show tomorrow…

So long Crosby, and thanks for the all the gift (I know that doesn’t really work)

It was like a gift, it was. A gift wrapped up so perfectly that only an over-paid banker could have justified the expense. The gift came in the form of (Sir) James Crosby‘s resignation from the FSA, and was bestowed upon the people who revel an unacceptable amount in political bungles. Like me.

So long, farewell

So long, farewell

For those who are better at avoiding news than me, Crosby resigned from his position as deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority today after he (allegedly, blah blah blah) fired a whistleblower for, urm, whistleblowing.

Paul Moore (the man with the whistle) claims that he warned of the problems HBOS’s risky strategies could cause – and you’d think that as the bank’s head of regulatory risk Moore was in a pretty good position to know about these things. Apparently not. He was promptly sacked.

Ah ha, I hear you cry. This confirms what we’ve been saying since Northern Rock’s failure to be rocklike: (and I apologise for the overused alliteration but…) the bankers are to blame.

(Incidentally, today our very proper shorthand teacher Margaret Lidell made the obvious comparison between the word banker and “another that sounds a lot like it and is perhaps more appropriate”. If Margaret’s saying it, it must be true.)

It wasn’t hard to find an example of people blaming of the wankers, but it is the following specimen that I love the most. Firstly because it was printed in The Sun and secondly it was written by David Blunkett. Gold:

Of course, people are right to look for someone to blame.

But this time economic collapse has nothing to do with trade unionists or incompetent managers of small businesses, or the failure to invest in new technology.

Along with the Government, business has been doing the right things — with one exception, the bankers.

Yet Crosby is, of course, denying the allegations, which he says have “no merit”. And I’d be much more inclined to believe him if he hasn’t just resigned. Undermines the protests a tad I feel.

Even his old mate Gords says it’s “right” that he has resigned, which brings us on to the extravagant bow that tops this gift of politics present: Brown had hired Crosby as an economic adviser to the government. Yes – the hit man for the whole economic crisis was advising the government on how to get out of the economic crisis. Or, as Cameron puts it:

Sir James, the man who ran HBOS and who the prime minister singled out to regulate our banks and advise the government, has resigned over allegations that he sacked the whistleblower who knew his banks was taking unacceptable risks.

Taxpayers have poured billions into this bank and not only was Sir James appointed as one of the top regulators in the country, you have been relying on him for economic advice.

You couldn’t make it up this good.

In fact, the only thing that puts a slight dampener on this dramatic tale can be found in the BBC’s coverage of the incident:

The BBC’s business editor Robert Peston said he understood that Sir James had stood down to protect the FSA from controversy.

Yes. The BBC are quoting their own business editor in their business stories. Brill.