24 July 2009

A different sort of school examination

An interesting story in the press this week about children's authors being vetted before appearing in schools (story here). Apparently the likes of Philip Pullman and Anne Fine feel "demeaned" by having to submit to the new, more extensive safeguarding checks before working in a class of children, hinting darkly it is either a revenue raising exercise or reminiscent of the notorious Clause 28 legislation in the 1980s.

A short way of summarising their arguments would be: "don't you know who I am?" Pullman seems to regard it as insulting that anyone would even think to ask someone working in a school for a background check. "You ought to be able to trust people, so to say to a child that you're having someone to talk to you but don't worry, we've checked him out and he's not a paedophile, implies that everybody who isn't checked is."

I can't quite understand why Pullman's knickers are quite so tightly twisted, but it seems to be cutting off the circulation to his brain. How is asking for a background check on someone working in a school, no matter how briefly, the same as announcing to the children that their visitor is not a rapist? Yes you ought to be able to trust people, and the sun should shine in summer and England should win the World Cup every four years. I wonder how he'd feel if he found out his local GP wasn't registered with the General Medical Council? No doubt it wouldn't be a problem, after all, you've got to be able to trust people.

And as for the comparison with Clause 28, that is a really cheap shot; clause 28 was about what children did or didn't get taught. Safeguarding is about what happens before you even get to the classroom. After the years spent trying to get authorities to take protection of children from sex offenders seriously, and the high-profile failures to protect some children, it seems either extraordinarily naive or pompous, or both. After all, why would a child sex offender try to get work in a school?

Perhaps the most revealing remark was by children's author Adele Geras, who called the scheme "lunatic". "They ought to be able to refine this legislation to make exceptions for people who see huge groups together". For a professional writer her subtext here is not that subtle: "they ought to make an exception for authors" - they are artists, after all. Just like Gary Glitter.

21 July 2009

Chew on this

One of the ironies of the modern age is, as the number of communications channels widens, the number of different sources of news actually narrows. Cutthroat competition to produce the latest, quickest, hottest stories at the lowest cost has created the concept of "churnalism", and those feeding the rapacious news beast are as complicit as those who buy the papers and download the podcasts. One of the upshots of this is the constant need to produce new information, facts and opinions no matter how useful they are to an audience. It is the news equivalent of making chewing gum.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a government press release. And to make it easier to understand - to give the gum some flavour - it has any contextualising background removed, and is presented as naked truth to a scared world. This week gave birth to a "fact" that I can see becoming burnished across the popular consciousness, and accepted without question. "65,000 people could die of swine flu" was the headline that everyone grabbed from an announcement by Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer. That sounds like a lot of people, the sort of number that is clearly designed to make me panic, hide under the bed, or buy multiple copies of the Daily Mail to await their special feature on how swine flu will impact house prices.

Just suppose I want to accept that the government is trying to tell me something useful. How do I use this information in my assessment of likely risks and understand the consequences? There are some things I need to know to do this:

  • What's the baseline? What would be a normal number of deaths we could anticipate from seasonal flu, and how many swine flu deaths will offset those who would have died from regular flu anyway?

  • This is a worst case scenario, though no doubt it will be talked into fact imperceptibly over the coming weeks, though it is little more than a back-of-an-envelope calculation. How likely is a worst case scenario? Governments need to plan for those, but they also need not only to tell us the probability of it happening but how they worked it out so we can do the sums ourselves.

  • 65,000 people represents 0.1% of the population. So 99.9% of us will live in fear of something that will, in all likelihood, mildly inconvenience us. This is not to deny it is important, but we need to bear it in mind. In Botswana, half the adult population is HIV-positive or has AIDS. That clearly is something that affects a whole host of decisions on a daily basis. But I don't think we're quite there yet.

What I would like is a reasoned statement of the facts and to understand the conclusions that have been drawn from the data. We cannot eliminate risk from our lives, but I would like to understand what it actually is. Maybe we are a victim of our innumerate society that governments don't bother trying to give people the tools to make informed decisions, because there is too much other media noise to distract our interest.

16 July 2009

Bonus balls

Last week the oldest advertising agency in the UK, and rival to my present employer, went bust. It had survived nearly two hundred years of wars, umpteen changes of government, recessions and even the Great Depression, but this was a crisis too far, and the company went into adminstration. One more tale among thousands from this recession, and unremarkable for all that.

Being closer to home, the winding up of Barkers seemed telling to me somehow, as at head of the queue to stake a claim over the assets were a number of banks, as the number one creditors. Once they have stripped the fittings and raided the safes, there will be nothing left for the 150 or so ex-employees who were laid off a few days before, despite promises made to the contrary. This may be normal practice, but I was interested to see that this doesn't seem to work in reverse.

This week, Goldman Sachs announced it was setting aside about £4bn for bonuses after a very health 2nd quarter of 2009. I thought it interesting that, when a bank goes bust (as all those who took government financing effectively did last autumn, including Goldman Sachs), first in the queue for payment is those bankers who caused the mess in the first place. The reasoning for this is that GS has paid back the money it borrowed, so is now entitled to do what it likes with the spoils. I realise that Goldman Sachs is a US bank that borrowed American government money, but where they lead British banks will surely follow, despite the promises this week of tough new reforms for the banking sector.

I guess my first question would be about how much interest Goldman Sachs paid on the £6.1bn it borrowed from the Fed? I'm guessing not very much (but have you tried to secure an interest-free loan recently from anyone, neve mind a bank?). So Sachs may have paid back the Principal, but it certainly has not remunerated the American taxpayer for the opportunity cost of bailing them out. In other words, what the government might have done with that money instead of loaning it to corporate incompetents - such as building schools, job creation schemes etc.

Second, even if it had, I wouldn't want the bank to pay it back at 2%, 10% or even 100%. I'd demand it paid back at 1000%, or more, like punitive damages for the tobacco industry. I'd demand the repayment terms be so personally painful for those running the bank that they would be totally focused upon ensuring that it NEVER happened again. Front of mind, top of the agenda - nothing so important as going back to the days of loans secured against assets, not bundles of other people's debt.

As the debate about bonuses hots up in the UK, and banking industry heads start to bleat about the need to properly incentivise its employees, I couldn't agree more.

Hearing but not listening

Kingston-upon-Thames Starbucks, 17 July 2009, 9.30am. The following conversation takes place:

Me: One black Cafe Americano please

Starbucks Employee: Is that black or white

Me: Er, black please

(30 seconds pass)

Starbucks employee: Do you want the milk cold or heated?

Me: No milk please - black.

Two minutes later I am enjoying a steaming hot mug of white coffee. And left to muse on the prospects facing the UK economy, post recession. If we can no longer make money from Ponzi-style financial services "products" - and we have long forgotten how to manufacture anything - our only salvation lies in our continued ability to sell solutions to each other for problems we didn't realise we had.

If the service economy really is to ride to the rescue, I hope my experience today is not an omen of bad times ahead. Or else I should set up a consultancy that teaches listening skills to the service sector.

11 July 2009

Making mountains out of moguls

Regular readers of Hofflimits will be aware of my bafflement with Italy - its many, many wonderful points as a place to visit in contrast with its inadequacies as a place to live. The UK is hardly Avalon, but, in general, our politicians are closely scrutinised for personal probity, and when something doesn't happen as it should - be that late train, closed office or underperforming sports team - some sort of acknowledgement is made, along with an apology.

But have I been too hasty? The recent hosting of the G8 in the mountains of L'Aquila, Italy, has, ironically, caused me to think we may have more in common with our southern European neighbours than I once thought. It goes without saying that the policing of the, by now de rigeur, protests has been shambolic, but then again I defy anyone to show me a country that has handled large scale street protests to popular acclaim.

But who would have a political system run by a septuagenarian who owns half the country's media, and who controls the political process beyond ordinary accountability, ridiculed for his pursuit of women young enough to be his granddaughter? I was considering this today as a story about a former News International editor withered and died in the face of too many cowardly, self-interested politicians, journalists and assorted hacks and hangers-on.

The police effectively surpressed the story of illegal phone-tapping of major UK public figures, and the Murdoch press, of course, do not want to touch it. The political party likely to form the next British government is heavily influenced by the ex-editor at the very heart of the story, and distorted media bias prevent anyone asking the really awkward questions. If anything does come to be published to suggest wrongdoing, of course, our draconian libel laws are on hand to price people out of court - and make us more of a laughing stock than they are presently, in the face of wanton systemic abuses through "libel tourism" cases brought by overseas plaintiffs.

At least Berlusconi (a) is Italian and (b) does occasionally stand for popular election. But in the murky world of Rupert Murdoch, it's much easier to corner the market and pull the strings behind the scene.

Returning to my original perceptions, I contrast my recent 3-hour delay at Verona airport with my recent 3-hour delay at the hands of National Express trains. In Italy nobody even pretended to explain the delay, offer an apology or consider it to be worthy of serious consideration - it's what you expect. By contrast, National Express will update you about their incompetence with irritating regularity, offering mea culpas worth less than their current share price - they are the living definition of the expression "talk is cheap". Ultimately, the outcome in both cases was the same - I was late getting home. The difference was that the Italians didn't pretend to give a toss. Maybe the difference between us, in reality, is really one of pretence.

09 July 2009

The real thing?

As part of my lunch "meal deal" today, I picked up a bottle of 'VitaminWater', manufactured by a company called Glaceau, that writes its label copy in the style of a 16-year-old scally: cheeky gags and irreverent reworkings of standard disclaimers, thumbing a nose to punctuation. In fact, everything that Innocent drinks were doing about 5 years ago, but without the wit.

Their raspberry-apple drink is called "defence" because its vitamin-boosted contents guard the drinker against illness. So, naturally, its label says:

"if you've had to use sick days because you've actually been sick, then you're seriously missing out my friend. The trick is to stay perky and use sick days to just, erm, not go in. don't overdo it on the coughing front the day before you want to take a 'sickie' though. big giveaway. just stick with the ever-elusive "24-hour bug" - no one can prove a thing. just remember not to answer the mobile while shopping when you're supposed to be a spluttering, bedridden wreck. please note: taking a 'sickie' is very, very naughty.

I'm surprised they didn't write the last line as "taking a 'sickie' is proper nawty".

Glaceau is owned by the Coca-Cola Company, an organisation maybe not noted for its enlightened employment policies in the past, but this would seem to be good news for everyone who works for Coke. Apparently your employer has just given you carte blanche not to turn up to work tomorrow. Unless (surely not), it is a cynical marketing ploy to make their new fruit-and-sugar-water seem cool.

According to its label, Glaceau is "the center for responsible hydration" (whatever that means). As opposed to its HR advice.

07 July 2009

Going public

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling, has moved quickly to scotch rumours of public sector pay freeze. Once again the scent of Moral Hazard is surrounding events, as unions beat the populist drum about not punishing public servants for the follies of the super-rich bankers. If you can find £300bn for The City, what's 3% for the hard-working nurse? Brendan Barber, the TUC General Secretary, said that there would be a “very strong reaction” if the Government attempted to “punish” public sector workers for the private sector’s problems.

I like the "Animal Farm" logic of the argument: Public sector good, private sector bad. Mr Barber may be surprised to learn that the private sector, as a whole, did not create the financial crisis, but it is already being "punished" for it, picking up the bill in redundancies. None of my friends who have been laid off had ever been near a Credit Default Swap or Sub-prime Mortgage. But it's part of a bigger perception issue, caused by that timeless political fall-back: creating a false opposition, in this case public vs. private.

In the future, the movement towards the blurring of the lines between public and private sectors will continue even more rapidly. Previously this was seen as the public sector learning from the private: competitive tendering for contracts, commissioning models for public services, privatisation. But this will now have to work the other way: given the Biblical proportions of the present economic calamity, the banking industry will have to accept greater regulation.

I would go further and suggest that, actually, the banking system will need to swallow a thoroughly unpalatable truth: that they are, in fact, a part of the public sector. If the government underwrites your operation and prevents you going bust, you are a public sector organisation, ipso facto. You may not be wearing corduroy, and the lifts in your building may actually work, but as the engine of the UK economy, you are an extension of the government.

The system of international capital flow means we can't go back to a system of little banks. The taxpayer is the lender of last resort, just like it is for Essex County Council. Further proof of this truth is the way the same local government unions, who criticise bail-outs of private banks, were clamouring not so long ago for a similar bail-out when their Icelandic investments went south. There is a total interdependency that may render terms like "public" and "private" sectors meaningless in a few years.

Instead of hoping for short term pay rises, the TUC should accept a freeze on the condition of a share in future banking profits in the form of bonuses. And those bankers who always complain of working 80-hour weeks for their measly six-figure income should take the chance to turn up to work at 9.30 and leave at 3. I think the whole country would feel better for it.

05 July 2009

Conspiracy theorists of the world unite.

As the Michael Jackson circus rolls on, a debate has been sparked as to exactly who created the famous 'moonwalk', a dance move closely associated with the deceased King of Pop.

I think I can clear that one up - it never happened. It was faked at a TV studio in Los Angeles.

03 July 2009

Pop goes the king

It would be far too easy to make a cheap joke at the demise of Michael Jackson (but then I never claimed to be expensive), but I think all those had made the rounds, via SMS, within about 5 minutes of his death being announced. Instead I prefer to concentrate on one of the unchallenged facts in the examination of his life - the King of Pop.

It's a curious nickname, but one repeated without question by all sections of the media (The Times's main headline the day after read: "Michael Jackson, King of Pop, dead at 50"). Not really a thing that sounds like it was born of affection - "The King", "The Boss", "The Godfather of Soul". A bit too much of a PR ring to it you might say. I'm also not sure it's really much of a moniker to strive for - who would want to be the king of "pop", a byword for artifice, superficiality, throwaway bubble-gum nonsense? It's not Soul, Jazz or The Blues.

That's probably because it was a PR fiction dreamed up by Jackson's cronies. Back in the day when journos and the public would hang on his every word, before he lost it completely, somewhere between "Bad" and "Dangerous", Jackson's PR team insisted the press referred to him as The King of Pop as the price for granting access. Every interview had a stipulated number of times it had to use this nickname - it was a deliberate ploy to implant the term in the public consciousness. To me this seems one of the more desperate acts of attention-seeking (even more than becoming a pop star in the first place), so insecure in your status, so needing of affirmation that you have to make up a nickname and demand people use it of you. That's even before you get to the fake noses, fake marriages and unsired children. It makes you wonder what lengths he would have gone to if he didn't have any talent.