Let’s all learn to love the Eurovision Song Contest

Matthew Plummer 9.55am

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. Tragically for me it isn’t some sort of ironic interest based on poking fun at the funny hats, weird beards and implausible busts – I actually have the wretched thing in my diary and look forward to it each year, although up until now it’s been something of a secret shame.

The Swedes are to blame. In 2006 I lived in Stockholm, and they take Eurovision rather more seriously over there. Melodifestivalen is the country’s annual talent show that selects their Eurovision entry, and I was horrified to find my friends, who previously exuded Scandinavian cool, staying in to watch it with unnerving enthusiasm. Carola was the eventual winner: her act was typical schlager, a wonderful Swedish word that sums up all the craziness of Eurovision-esque power ballads, cheesy dance music and lengthy hair billowing with wind machines running at full tilt. Carola’s song reached #1 in the domestic charts, was promoted around Europe and finished a very credible fifth in the year Finnish monster rock act Lordi swept away all before them.

But I think the whole Eurovision business neatly sums up some of the failings we have in understanding our European partners. Our entries – recently more towards the nul points end of the spectrum – mean we’ve become accustomed to sneering at the madness on stage each year, and consoling ourselves with just how good the British music industry really is. The red tops do their best to drum up interest in whatever act the BBC has strong-armed onto a plane, but inevitably singing in Eurovision is seen as a hospital pass, with the contest joining siestas, eating horses, long road trips Eastwards and all the other clichés we like to belittle Europe with. We’re just too cool for Eurovision.

So when it comes to the actual contest finals the unfortunate performer we’ve dispatched invariably doesn’t stand a chance against acts who are rather more established, and who see Eurovision as an opportunity to build their profiles as commercial recording artists. I had no idea who Bonnie Tyler is, so I asked my cousin, who described her thus: ‘I think she’s a… something from the… I’m not entirely sure actually’. The Sun charitably called her a veteran. Either way her Eurovision song won’t be gaining much airtime in the bars and clubs around London, whereas the opposite is true in Stockholm.

We did actually choose someone decent a few years ago – Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for Jade Ewen in 2009, took her on tour around the Eurovision nations and ended up delivering our best result in years. Casting my mind back I seem to remember Britain being genuinely excited about the 2009 competition because Jade actually had a chance of winning. Her career progressed as a result, showing that Eurovision is worthwhile if you actually engage in it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a stitch-up by scheming foreigners.

Likewise griping about bloc voting (when all the Nordic countries vote for each other, etc.) betrays another misunderstanding about Europe. In the democratic voting-by-text era people still stubbornly dish out high points for their neighbours – just as we do with Ireland. But this primarily reflects the degree of cultural integration across the regions of Europe, which makes sense when you put it in context with UK voting – many of the German acts feel like something we might actually hear on the radio, whereas Latvian music just sounds weird. As a result Germany and the UK regularly (indeed reliably) vote for each other. Just don’t call it an Anglo-German voting pact – it’s just another one of Europe’s many little cliques built on proximity and interaction.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mwyp

I can see no circumstances by which this blog can be regulated by the government’s attempt at press regulation

Nik Darlington

So the lacklustre rigmarole of a Royal Charter takes another turn. The House of Lords has been debating whether to exempt small blogs from the new cross-party press regulations.

The Government is considering its own response to the quandary posed by Internet blogs like Guido Fawkes that are based overseas.

It can be argued that a result of the Internet age is faster, better connected, more nimble scrutiny of the holders of power. Politicians and press barons have been in each other’s pockets for decades, and to suppose this is a new phenomenon is naïve.

Yet political bloggers are beholden to no greater power (at least that is what they claim - and most ought to be believed). Unlike newspapers with their failing business model, most bloggers have no paying market of consumers to chase.

How does a Government get to grips with curtailing them in the manner it is attempting to curtail the mainstream press? To murder a phrase, qui regulates ipsos regulatiem?

It can’t. Which is why ministers, shadow ministers and advisers are hurriedly trying to patch up this particular hole (of several) in the new regulations.

For our part, I am not entirely aware yet whether as de facto digital lessees of Tumblr, the Egremont blog falls into the same category as Guido Fawkes - i.e. an offshore concern.

That small print aside, there are no circumstances under which I can see our being subject to this attempt at regulation. Zero funding, zero revenue, and a relatively small but of course highly influential and intelligent band of readers.

So for Egremont at least, it is business as usual.

4G spectrum failure hardly surprising, but what is Ofcom playing at?

Nik Darlington 9.58am

When George Osborne said the Treasury would raise several billion pounds from the upcoming 4G auction, I along with many others feared (or even expected) that wouldn’t be the case. Some technical and financial reasons for why, but largely an informed hunch.

So it has come to pass. ‘Only’ £2.34 billion has been raised by Ofcom, despite the OBR’s forecast of £3.5 billion.

A couple of observations about the reporting of all this: first, £2.34 billion is still a useful fillip not to be sniffed at; and second, this mini embarrassment has given journalists a perfect excuse to ignore the good employment figures also released today.

Yet a mini embarrassment it is. Perhaps Mr Osborne should not have brandished an outcome ahead of time, but auctioneers tend to set target prices with little impact on bidding behaviour other than to focus it around said target. It isn’t a patch on Gordon Brown selling our gold reserves having already announced to the world his intention to do so.

On the subject of auctioneers, however, something odd happened on BBC Breakfast earlier today. Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive and unsuccessful candidate for BBC director-general (despite being the bookies’ favourite), was on talking about the auction. Mr Richards stated that Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was straightforwardly to hold a fair and proper auction and “ensure that a valuable economic resource was brought into productive commercial use”. Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was certainly not to maximise revenue.

Whether or not this was on instruction from the Government doesn’t matter. It is still odd. Tell auctioneers at Christie’s that the whole point is just to shift stuff and not to maximise revenues, you’ll be laughed out of the room. These are, as Mr Richards also said, “very different times” compared to the 3G spectrum auction, which raised £22 billion in 2000. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least have a go at it.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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?

Nick Boles must combine planning with social justice, like the Victorian preservationists before him

Nik Darlington 10.26am

Nick Boles, the planning minister, would appear to have spent most of his time in office irritating conservationists, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph about his plans to concrete over England’s green and pleasant land with suburban semis.

The truth, as always, is more nuanced than that. As Mr Boles demonstrated when delivering last year’s Macmillan Lecture, he has an eye for the grand idea and an even keener eye for the headlines. There’s more than an element of the young politician on the make about him, wanting to ruffle feathers and knock heads, something Paul Goodman mentions over at ConHome.

It is a controversial tactic, not least on two subjects this country holds close to its heart: house prices and the countryside. We are obsessed with house prices, to the extent that subliminally we quite like a housing shortage, because it perpetuates the conversation about ever-rising house prices (in honeypots and catchment areas, of course). Even if on the surface we are (rightly) outraged by the tall task of getting on the property ladder.

Yet it is a visceral fear of verdant fields falling into greedy developers’ hands that most stirs our little (and big) platoons.

So we should be fearful. This country is genuinely world-class at fewer and fewer things these days, but one of them remains our intricate rural tapestry, formed by centuries of attentive husbandry and preserved by decades of largely sensitive planning policies (even allowing for the monstrosities in post-war town centres). Nowhere on Earth can lay claim to a miniature idyll so ravishing.

Nevertheless, Mr Boles is correct. We do need to build more houses; and it is not about property economics or wholly about conservationist aims (however important), it is about social justice.

That was the goal of Victorian social reformers such as Octavia Hill, who strove to move London’s workers out of their slums and into pretty suburban dwellings, with trees and clean air, served by the new transport arteries of the Underground. Those social reformers were among the first modern preservationists too. The likes of Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter founded the National Trust to preserve our heritage and rural splendour.

The story of the preservation of the view from Richmond Hill, for instance, in which the nascent National Trust played a small role, contains a poignant message about combining preservation and progress. The view was secured by an Act of Parliament only because nearly 200 hundred acres of protected common land was permitted to be illegally acquired for new suburban housing.

Those pioneering Victorian reformers believed in a compromise because it gave greater public access and allowed the building of extra homes for London’s mushrooming population. It also, for good measure, put the preservation of Richmond Hill beyond reasonable doubt.

Planning is a messy compromise. It always has been. Yet we have muddled along in the past and managed to maintain much of this country’s natural beauty. I do not doubt that Mr Boles’ intentions are in the right place, however he must follow this course in the footsteps of others with good intentions who have gone before him.

And he must tread carefully.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Lessons to be learned about the police, the press and a wrong politician

Giles Marshall 10.55am

At the time of Andrew Mitchell’s regrettable outburst of temper, I commented on the distinctly dubious behaviour of the police themselves. My concerns were that - once again - police records had allegedly been leaked to newspapers with impunity, and that the Police Federation was engaged in an unedifying witch-hunt against Mr Mitchell. It turns out that the affair may have been rather more sinister.

Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ programme reported that a key witness to the altercation had not in fact been present and was, moreover, a serving police officer rather than an ordinary member of the public.

The fact that this ghost witness’s version of events matched the report contained in the police logs - which was fully leaked to the Daily Telegraph - implies a conspiracy between more than one officer. The Police Federation’s iniquitous involvement, and their partial account of a meeting held between Mr Mitchell and West Midlands police officers, has further added to the sense of conspiracy.

The Met is now conducting its own investigation into what seems a thoroughly sordid affair. It is worth remembering that some of the sympathy for the police came because in the same week two police officers had been shot and killed in Manchester, reminding us of the perilous situation many dedicated policemen and women put themselves in on the public need.

It is also worth remembering that, but for the Manchester tragedy, we might have been a bit more focused on an earlier display of police cover-up and malicious leaking after Hillsborough.

The Police Federation launched an overtly political campaign to discredit a serving Cabinet minister because they disagree with the policies being pursued by that minister’s elected government. The Metropolitan Police failed to investigate why a police log was leaked to two newspapers, even though the Leveson Inquiry had already established an undue cosiness in the relationship between the police force and the press to the detriment of appropriate police confidentiality.

Channel 4’s programme - produced, by the way, in a statutorily regulated broadcast media - has raised serious questions for both the Met and the Police Federation.

If it is true that members of the Diplomatic Protection Squad have engaged in a slanderous conspiracy to remove a Cabinet minister, then heads absolutely must roll.

Mr Mitchell eventually resigned for his outburst, while denying consistently the alleged content of his outburst. He appears to have been a wronged and maligned man. More than one police officer should now be under threat of dismissal, with likely court actions as well, if we are to regain any sense that police integrity might be able to be restored.

As for the Police Federation, its appalling behaviour should render it redundant altogether. But there are questions too for the unregulated print media, who slavishly published the police version of events and gave little credence to Mr Mitchell’s. Not much sense there that a free media is engaging in the fearless investigative reporting that we are so constantly hearing about from bleating editors. Apparently, it takes the regulated broadcast media to do that job.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Leveson and the Left, or how Ed Miliband got it wrong

Andrew Thorpe-Apps 9.02am

Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published last month, called for a new press regulatory body with “statutory underpinning”.

Lord Leveson’s proposals, if fully implemented, would remove journalists’ protection from the rigours of the Data Protection Act. They would make it near-impossible for the press to expose corruption and wrongdoing. And without a free press, we would never have heard about MPs’ expenses.

Many on the Left argued that David Cameron should follow Lord Leveson’s recommendations to the letter. After all, they exclaimed, what is the point in calling an inquiry, then ignoring its findings?

That argument is flawed. If Parliament’s job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of the judiciary, then what use is there in having an elected legislature? All legislative functions may as well be handed over to the chaps in wigs.

Labour’s championing of statutory regulation was nothing to do with moral principles. Nor was it for the protection of ‘ordinary people’. More than anything else, it was about retribution. Many on the Left still blame the Sun for Labour’s 1992 election defeat. The Left wants the press to feel some heat – similar to that which Labour politicians feel when they are under scrutiny. Lord Leveson has provided a golden opportunity.

During the Blair years, Labour cultivated a close relationship with the press. Alastair Campbell developed a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks. Mr Blair frequently met Rupert Murdoch and even became godfather to one of his daughters. The upshot of this was that the press focused on attacking the Conservatives. It was simply not in the Left’s interest to regulate the press.

Yet when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, newspapers switched allegiance. Mr Brown was not a winner. Labour began to get a taste of their own medicine, and the Left’s hatred of the free press boiled to the surface.

So Ed Miliband’s demand that Leveson’s recommendations be implemented ‘in full’ can now be better understood. Mr Miliband could not possibly have read the 2,000-page report from cover to cover, yet his call for full implementation suggested he agreed with every word. In reality, Mr Miliband was pandering to the majority view in his party, something we should be well used to by now.

But the Labour leader then made a U-turn in the form of a draft Bill. Suddenly, Labour was no longer in favour of ‘full implementation’ with Ofcom regulating the press. Were we finally going to hear Miliband’s own views, even if they should conflict with party big-wigs? Not a bit of it.

Labour’s draft Bill, which lacks detail, calls for the Lord Chief Justice to oversee a new regulator called the Press Standards Trust, checking every three years that it is working effectively. Publications that refuse to sign up to the regulator would have higher damages awarded against them should they lose court cases.

The draft Bill, which was discussed in cross-party talks yesterday, represents ‘statutory underpinning’ by stealth. It is a fudge, designed to keep all sides happy, and it speaks volumes of Mr Miliband’s inability to nail his colours to the mast.

The Conservatives want a system of independent self-regulation with severe penalties for wrongdoing but without statutory regulation. David Cameron rightly argues that regulation is a screw that will only get tightened:

"Once you start drafting a law that is a statutory underpinning, you find you have effectively created a Press Bill. It may not have that much which is frightening in it. But it becomes a very easily amendable piece of work, which is why we should try and avoid it."

Labour’s draft Bill does offer a ‘guarantee’ of press freedom, but it is difficult to see how this is feasible with even limited statutory regulation. The press is either free or it isn’t – there is no ‘third way’.

Mr Miliband has blindly followed the Left’s predictable response to the Leveson Report. The press is viewed as a rabid hound that must be tethered. It is of course  Mr Miliband’s prerogative to follow advice and even to change his mind; but it reflects poorly on his leadership. It backs up what we have learnt about Ed – he is a follower, not a leader. He frequently calls for inquiries, and when the results are in, is prepared to support all recommendations without hesitation.

The Left have had the press in their sights for some time. Lord Leveson’s report was labelled a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity long before it was even published. It has exposed the Left’s resentment and fear of a press that is free to scrutinise. It has also shown why Ed Miliband must never be given the keys to Number 10.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AG_ThorpeApps

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