Mid Staffs: Whither 38 Degrees?

Nik Darlington 3.16pm

In September 2011, I cavilled about the “rise of the clickocracy”, that multi-headed hydra of modern political ‘engagement’. The internet has spawned several campaigning movements, 38 Degrees being pre-eminent, who exist to put the democratic process within reach of a mere click. Click, click, clickety click - and the job is done. Your voice is heard.

The well-funded 38 Degrees made its name by opposing the Coalition’s healthcare reforms. There were just “24 hours to save the NHS”, we were told. Millions of emails made their way to MPs’ inboxes. All, of course, to no avail, but the point was made, not least by that moronic Mirror headstone.

The Health & Social Care Act has of course not killed the NHS. Yet the revelations within the Francis Report threaten to kill public trust in an institution that Nigel Lawson called “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.

Paul Abbott, sometimes of this parish, has a good little piece over at ConHome today, asking what campaigners such as 38 Degrees think about the grotesque conditions at Mid Staffordshire and allegedly sundry other hospitals around the country.

"Now that the Mid Staffs report has been published and debated in Parliament, it makes difficult and upsetting reading - wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Thousands died. The truth was covered up. Problems were endemic and not just because of a few rogue individuals. But, where is the 38 Degrees campaign for NHS reform? Where is the e-petition on their website, saying, “24 hours to save the NHS”? In the past, they have moved quickly to jump on a topical news agenda. So why not now, on their central issue of defending the National Health Service?

38 Degrees will have no credibility on NHS reform in the future, if they don’t step up to the plate now. I’ve met the CEO of 38 Degrees - David Babbs - a few times, and like him. He’s a nice guy, and seems sincere in his intentions. He has told me more than once that he’s not a front for the Labour Party, and I believe him.

But why the silence on Mid Staffs, David? What’s going on?”

Now we shouldn’t expect the likes of 38 Degrees to take a stance on everything (heaven help us all if they did). Though it would be interesting to know what an organisation so vehemently against structural tinkering thinks about endemic cultural and managerial misanthropy.

As Paul suggests, where is the deluge of emails under the subject of “adopt the Francis Report recommendations in full”, or similar?

Typically, big and successful public campaigns rely on catchy, straightforward messages. The nuanced and complex truth cannot compete. Under such conditions do governments often flounder; and organisations like 38 Degrees, conversely, thrive.

Except the entire debate about Andrew Lansley’s NHS Bill was mired in nuance and complexity. 38 Degrees took on the Government with a simple (sometimes just absurd) message, but it still required people to grasp with elaborate change.

The Mid Staffs scandal is, in comparison, really rather straightforward (if frightfully hard to fix overnight). It is simply made for someone like 38 Degrees to take advantage of and put to the people and their clicking mice. Isn’t it?

Press freedom, or press responsibility? It is time we checked the most powerful organisations in Britain

Giles Marshall 9.50am

Eight-six MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.

In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech. They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet. Yet the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech; it is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry’s exhaustive hearings unearthed example after example of astonishing abuse of press power. This wasn’t simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information; it was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.

Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jefferies, but they were hardly the first. There have been many more low-profile examples. The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail’s tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn’t a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.

The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so weak is the current system of press regulation. There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people’s reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong. The intrusion of the press into private lives continues unabated. The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, which makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interests without fear or favour should be unhindered. Agreed.

The problem is that it so often doesn’t. It isn’t MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control. It is the little people, the small people’s interests, who urgently require this support. The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering. It is in some ways astonishing that the eighty-six signatories of today’s letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.

Then again, many politicians mix freely with owners, editors and reporters. Mr Cameron’s friendship with Rebekah Brooks; Michael Gove’s past employment with Rupert Murdoch’s Times; Boris Johnson’s present employment with the Barclay twins’ Daily Telegraph; Jeremy Hunt’s cringeworthy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press.

The Guardian has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79 per cent of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press. It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people’s lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that today’s letter’s signatories don’t realise this.

It was Stanley Baldwin many years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press “have great power without any responsibility. The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Too much of the British media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves. It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Andrew Mitchell’s foolishness is only a small part of the Government’s bigger image problem

Giles Marshall 11.11am

Andrew Mitchell is an arrogant fool who should have kept his mouth shut, adopted a bit of humility and did what he was told when he left Downing Street on Wednesday night.

He might thus have saved himself and the Government a good deal of trouble, but the fuss over his alleged outburst  is indicative of much deeper and more serious problems.

First, there has been an extraordinary sea change – yet to be fully remarked on I think – between the Tories and the police force. From the time of the Bobbies’ formation by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, there has been an almost symbiotic relationship between the police and the Conservative party. It reached its apogee under Margaret Thatcher, but in the mere two years of the Coalition government it seems to have all but collapsed.

Theresa May was booed at the Police Federation conference, and the Met’s Police Federation Chairman, John Tully, has lately wasted no time in taking every media opportunity possible to condemn Mr Mitchell.

Now Mr Tully is an intensely political individual. The issue at stake is not so much to do with the way in which policing is conducted. It is far more to do with perceived threats to police pay and conditions. Yet whatever the cause, the Conservative party has opened up a front in their war on public servants that even their most pugilistic leader in days past never dared to.

And the police are only the start of the problem. All over the public sector, the Government is now regarded with little other than suspicion and even loathing.  Mr Cameron’s fine words about school sports during the Olympics were – for teachers – hollow sentiments expressed by a man who had presided over the denuding of school sport with such apparent complacency. Meanwhile, Mr Hunt is going to have to bind himself closer to health service professionals than he was even to the Murdochs if he is to have any chance of winning some of them over.

The “public school snob” is the unwelcome description being ascribed to Andrew Mitchell, and there is a real danger for the Government that this becomes more generally applied to them all.

Despite the fact that Michael Gove, for instance, was educated in the state comprehensive sector, or that Mr Cameron himself relied enormously on the NHS during the years of his first son’s health difficulties, the perception persists that this is a team of ministers that sees public services as being only for the poor and non-coping.

It is a disastrous perception. It widens the gap between the governors and the governed to an unacceptable level. Mr Mitchell’s outburst, meanwhile, suggests a sense of entitlement and superiority hardly merited by actions.

Mr Mitchell has made a further statement this morning, which has hardly closed the lid on the matter. Yet I believe that this furore will subside soon enough, with or without his resignation.

What is less likely to go away is the lack of empathy between Mr Cameron’s Government and the people. The recent reshuffle was more ‘lurching to the right’ than appealing to a centrist majority. If he wants to have any chance of recovering the political narrative and being re-elected in 2015, he should return to the modernising roots that served him so well in opposition, and hang the rightists.  Battles with his own right-wingers are infinitely preferable to battles with the wider British public.

Giles is a teacher and a former chairman of the TRG. Follow him on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Reshuffle round-up: inside gossip and double-edged swords

Nik Darlington 4.41pm

The dust has settled on David Cameron’s first Cabinet reshuffle. The press pack has largely plumped for Jeremy Hunt’s appointment as Health Secretary and Justine Greening’s ejection from Transport as the main stories. The former is deemed suitably rehabilitated since Leveson to restore public faith in the Government’s NHS policies; while the latter is off to DfID, ostensibly to clear the path for a third runway at Heathrow.

At least that is the view of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and it is hard to disagree. Above all, it makes her appointment only a year ago look inept and extant policymaking ad hoc and desperate.

The junior ministerial changes look set to begin, with the Lib Dems’ Nick Harvey making way at the MoD, it seems as a trade ito get David Laws back into the Cabinet. As far as I am aware, Mr Harvey acquitted himself well as armed forces minister, but the return of Mr Laws is a long-awaited boost to the Coalition.

Meanwhile, Nick Herbert has apparently quit as police minister, which begs the question, which job wouldn’t he accept? It seems Damien Green will take his place, an appointment I thoroughly welcome. The changes among the lower ranks look set to continue into the evening.

So back to the Cabinet. I wrote about Ken Clarke this morning, and shall only reiterate that he remains a figure of vital importance to this Government and to the Prime Minister. A veritable, jolly ‘minister for the Today programme’, he is, as a friend suggested earlier, perhaps becoming something of a Willie Whitelaw to Mr Cameron.

Andrew Mitchell’s appointment as Chief Whip is a double edged sword in two ways. In itself, it feels like a good decision - until one considers how well Mr Mitchell ran DfID and how vulnerable that department (and its enviously coveted budget) might become in the hands of a disappointed Justine Greening.

Furthermore, Mr Mitchell is on no accounts universally loved. He has numerous friends and fans, of course, but the fears about his disciplinarian manner are already being well-aired. Matthew Parris said on the BBC this morning that the new Chief Whip will “either stop a rebellion or start a rebellion”.

Earlier today, one Tory backbencher mentioned Sir George Young - removed as Leader of the House in order to accommodate the demoted Andrew Lansley - as a superior candidate for 12 Downing Street. “Imagine having to go in to see Sir George and him calmly to tell you how ‘disappointed’ he was - you would feel awful.”

Elsewhere, the long-serving Oliver Heald is an apparently popular choice as Solicitor General, replacing the similarly popular Edward Garnier, who took his sacking with enough good grace to appear cheerfully on the telly immediately afterwards. With Ken moved, it is also awfully good to see that Dominic Grieve keeps his job as Attorney General.

Which brings me on to the Ministry of Justice, which now has a non-lawyer as Secretary of State (the Guardian has also picked up on this). Chris Grayling has done a very good job at DWP, not least in dismissing the claptrap spouted about the work experience programme, but his appointment is being lauded in several quarters for the wrong reasons. The likes of the Sun, the Daily Mail and ConservativeHome will surely be delighted. I hope Mr Grayling goes some way to disappointing them and continuing with the important reforms of the past couple of years.

The only other news of note is what hasn’t happened. Tim Montgomerie didn’t get his wish of Michael Gove as Conservative Party Chairman (that bauble goes to Grant Shapps), which thankfully means he can continue his exceptional work as Education Secretary. Iain Duncan Smith remains at DWP, overseeing the crucial implementation of his welfare reforms. And, of course, George Osborne is still Chancellor - but then only the truly cuckoo believe anything different.

I doubt there will be many promotions for the class of 2010, though I suspect we’ll see some worthy roles for their 2005 predecessors. The speculation shall, I’m sure, continue all the same.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

PMQs review: A muttering idiot of a draw

Jack Blackburn 3.45pm

The last Prime Minister’s Questions for three weeks before a joint Jubilee and Whitsun recess was a distinctly bizarre scoreless draw.

It didn’t so much resemble the two most senior politicians in the land debating matters of policy, as it did two angry siblings who simply weren’t listening to each other. Oh, and there was an irritating cousin thrown into the mix.

Edward Miliband’s tactic today was divide and rule. It is one we can expect to see more of over the coming months. Seeking to exploit the evident antagonism between the Business Secretary and Adrian Beecroft, author of this week’s controversial report on employment reform, the Leader of the Opposition set about asking where the Prime Minister stood.

This strategy is brazen but flawed, not least because all the front bench Lib Dems were strangely absent, thereby not allowing for television shots of awkward Lib Dems.

However, Mr Cameron avoided fulsomely embracing the report, suggesting that some recommendations would be taken and others would not, before the major exchange descended into an unstructured melee.

Edward tried to score points on, well, just about anything: Hunt, Coulson, growth, tax cuts for millionaires -  they were all there, culminating in his claim that “the nasty party is back”. Dave started banging on about the trade unions influence on Labour policy. All of the questions and the answers seem to have been decided quite some time before the session. It was a total damp squib.

The meat of the session actually took place after the Leader of the Opposition had sat down. The Prime Minister was asked about the ECHR’s ruling on voting rights for prisoners. The Prime Minister said he would stand for the sovereignty of Parliament and his belief that going to prison meant you lost certain rights, including the right to vote. This is a story that shall keep on rolling.

However, the headlines were stolen by that irritating cousin, namely Ed Balls. He repeatedly asked the Prime Minister how many glasses of wine he’d had, and needled the Flashman in Dave, as is his desire. Finally, by now having “we’re in recession” chanted at him by Mr Balls, Dave could take no more and Flashman flipped. He described the Shadow Chancellor as a “muttering idiot”, causing uproar in the chamber.

Succumbing to goading as such an easy thing to do. It is also easy to wind someone up. However, both these important public figures should not be doing it. Mr Cameron was forced to withdraw his “unparliamenatry” comment. Mr Balls is not subject to sanction. Speaker Bercow, of the pseudo-Headmasterly air, should perhaps get in touch with that instinct now, because these two schoolboys could use some discipline.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

Publish and (don’t) be damned – just don’t do anything illegal

Stuart Baldock 12.55pm
Lord Justice Leveson, at the beginning of his inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, stated:
The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The answer is definitely not Government regulation and thankfully the Government appears to agree. Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, talking to Andrew Marr, stated:
“I think everyone recognises we don’t want the state regulating content. We have one of the most lively free presses in the world, they make life for me and my colleagues extremely uncomfortable and it is part of keeping us on the straight and narrow”.
Imagine a nightmare scenario: a future Government may disapprove of a line of enquiry been undertaken by the press and simply decrees the topic to be ‘out of bounds’. For example, reporting on inadequate military equipment prior to a military campaign could be blocked on flimsy ‘national security’ grounds. This may seem farfetched - even absurd - but if Government regulation of the press is allowed there is no telling where it may end.

The answer to ‘who guards the guardians’ is simple. Who are supposed to be the ‘guardians’ of society’s rules – the police? The police have been complicit in these scandals too, something we are not reminded of enough.
There are already enough laws on the statute book to govern the conduct of the press – transgressions simply need to be investigated and punished.
  • The Prevention of Corruption Act (1906) means it is illegal to bribe a Crown agent (Police Officers and other Government employees are classed as Crown agents) in order to obtain confidential information.
  • The Computer Misuse Act (1990) amended by Part 5 of the Police and Justice Act (2006) forbids unauthorised access to computer material. This Act forbids hacking an individual’s email account for instance.
  • The Data Protection Act (1998) made it illegal to gain unauthorised access to confidential databases, such as telephone records and bank accounts.
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) makes intercepting someone’s voicemail (unless you are the Police or Security Service with a warrant) illegal.
While there is a possible public interest defence if journalists violate the Data Protection Act, there is not a public interest defence if the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act, or the Computer Misuse Act are broken.

Granted, none of these laws specifically target the press – but journalists are bound by them like the rest of society.

The question has to be asked – do we need further legislation? I would argue no. Further legislation risks the press not being able to be an ‘essential check on all aspects of public life’ and may seriously hamper investigative journalism.

The UK is only twenty-eighth on the Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) Press Freedom Index – behind countries such as Namibia, Mali, and Costa Rica. The UK is so low on the list in part due to our anarchic libel laws which allow rich ‘libel tourists’, both individuals and corporations, to sue for damages in the UK, even if comparatively miniscule number of people read the ‘offending’ article in the UK.

The UK is also low on that list because of the number of ‘super-injunctions’ issued by our courts. Most of these are the consequence of the rather generous interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private life, his home and his correspondence”.
When drafted in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War, its intention was so that your children could not be co-opted into a Hitler Youth type organisation, or that you would not be dragged out of your bed by a Gestapo-like entity. Article 8 was not drafted to protect people who have a predilection for sex with someone other than their established partner.
What if a newspaper is wrong? Lord Leveson could set-up a reconciliation service to quickly resolve disputes with a back-up of penalties if either side acts unreasonably.
Rather than punishing newspapers financially, the service should punish errant newspapers in column inches. An apology should be published in the same font as the incorrect article and on the same page, even if that happens to be on the front page, and damages should be paid. If the article is true, newspapers should be able to publish it all over again.
Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock

UK film industry needs our support as audiences fall and Harry Potter departs

Jack Blackburn 6.00am

The UK Film industry contributed £3.3 billion to our GDP in 2010. In these tough times it needs and deserves our support.

Box office figures for the UK in 2010 are something of a paradox. Admissions are up. Receipts are up. Explanation? 3D.

But one of the reasons I despise 3D is that it costs more to see a 3D film than a 2D film. And for no reason, as far as the consumer is concerned. There is no difference in quality. Consumers see no reason why we should pay more for one film over another.

Nevertheless, it was the success of films such as Toy Story 3 that led to the upturn at the box office, as 3D films contributed 24 per cent of total revenue for the UK and Ireland.

However, the most important figure is also the most depressing: less people are going to the cinema.

This could turn out to be one of the most turbulent weeks on global financial markets in my lifetime. The crises afflicting economies worldwide are entering a second stage of turmoil. With cuts being employed as medicine, people have less money to spend and for cinemas this means fewer admissions. The industry needs to brace itself for a contraction in the coming years.

As far as concerns British films, a British Film Institute (BFI) report is keen to highlight the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, but that is a franchise that as of this summer has been and gone. Once the revenue from Part Two has been counted (with the expected 3D bonus), the nation’s film industry has a vacuum that may not be filled. British productions may need supporting in the future.

The other thing the report highlights is the value of big films being made in Britain by outsiders, including Hollywood and Bollywood. This remains British film’s strong point. Directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and films like X-Men: First Class and Captain America, have all had an involvement in the UK in the last year. The appeal of filming in Britain persists but film-makers can go elsewhere if the UK becomes economically unviable.

Only the biggest optimist would say that the BFI’s report is encouraging. Tough times lie ahead, even if the current state of our film industry is strong. They key to success in the coming difficult years is to continue to support it.

For more on this subject read: 'The King's Speech its last hurrah, is the UK Film Council a cut too far?' by Jack Blackburn (23 February 2011)

You can read more of Jack’s work at the Reel 6 blog, and follow him on Twitter @BlackburnJA

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The new Creative Industries Council is good mood music but can it deliver?

Sahar Rezazadeh 6.44am

The launch of the Creative Industries Council has received a good reception from leading heads of industry, such as the Music Industries Association, the Design Council, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors and UK Music.

Chairing the new council are the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable. It is anticipated that it will comprise representation from across the creative industries such as music, film, gaming, design and TV production. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has said that the purpose of the council is to ‘provide a voice for the sector with the financial community and coordinate action on barriers to growth…as well as access to finance, the CIC will look at other issues in the sector, which may include skills, export markets, regulation, IP and infrastructure.’

The UK’s creative industries face a host of challenges. Foremost is a lack of investment, which has handed an advantage to global competitors, mostly in the United States. Despite the fact that the music industry alone contributes nearly £5 billion annually to the UK economy and employs over 130,000 people, the growth potentials for creative industries go unrecognised.

The Chancellor and the Treasury recognise that investment possibilities are regularly misunderstood and financiers are ‘more likely to turn down a request for funding from a creative industry player than a company from another sector with a similar risk profile.’

Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of The Undertones and now the head of UK Music, has pointed out that talent needs time and patience to develop over five years or more, but the eventual returns can be very beneficial to all stakeholders and the wider economy. Instead even when artists do attract investment their work can be compromised in the search for higher returns. Musical themes of sex and violence are invested in for quick profitable returns. Other themes and genres might be more narrowly appreciated but that shouldn’t mean they can’t be profitable long-term. In any case, the creative industries will be more successful when appreciated for their artistic worth as opposed to short-term financial gain.

Sharkey has outlined three key areas of attention for the UK music industry:

Help the creative sectors gain access to the financial and investment communities; develop the necessary education, skills and training; and enforce tougher copyright protection.

Given that almost 85 per cent of businesses in the creative and cultural sectors employ less than five people, independently focused measures will go a long way to supporting talented designers, artists and producers who are unable to get exposure for their work. Independent artists are squeezed out by the four major record labels.

Businesses in the creative sector play huge social and cultural roles. Music and film have massive influence. Creative industries also have enormous economic potential. For the next decade, we must ensure that British entertainment and design gets the investment it needs to showcase all our best talent to the world. Most industries have their own vested interests and the creative industries are no exception. It is important that we do not shut out the next generation of talented artists, producers, designers and innovators. The new Creative Industries Council is apposite mood music. Now it has to deliver.

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