Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Doing it all again: why I'm striking tomorrow

Today I was told by a friend that, as a public sector worker, I'm part of a 'bloated, inefficient mess'. I thought hard, but struggled to see the relevance of his point, when considering the record performance of the small but high-profile part of the civil service I work for. Despite only having a workforce of about 415, and having shed around 40 or so jobs over the past year as a result of funding cuts, its staff are dedicated to what they do. All this is against a background of continuing redundancies, a government-wide recruitment freeze and a two-year pay cut.

We're confident that what we do is worth more than that though. Public sector workers – and yes, there are a heck of a lot of 'em – do vital jobs that are often unnoticed and yet are very noticeable in their absence. At the end of December, I'm leaving the civil service after eight years (with a few gaps) to pursue my career in journalism – I won't be a public sector worker for much longer. But I'll nonetheless withdraw my labour on 30 November 2011 as I would not be prepared to lose nearly £90 a month extra from my salary in protest as a result of the government's proposed 3.5% rise in employee contributions. I'll also have to work up to eight years longer for it. When the cost of living has increased so rapidly and living standards have in fact gone down, something has to give.

The truth is that public sector pensions are entirely affordable, and that public sector workers are a victim of short-sighted political choices, rather than remaining the beneficiary of the entirely reasonable status quo. Lord Hutton, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and even the Office for Budget Responsibility all agree. Yet, the proposed changes to pensions amount to nothing more than a levy that will raise more from public servants than the levy on banks in order to pay off the deficit.

To me, it is grossly unfair to shoulder even part of the blame for the deficit on teachers, ambulance staff, nurses, midwives, doctors, firefighters and civil servants. We didn't crash the stock market, wipe out banks, take billions in bonuses or dodge tax. In protest at this attack on our current pensions arrangements, it's all to play for and is worth fighting for tomorrow.

My Top Charity: Shelter

It all started with an attractive bearded man with a clipboard on London’s Regent Street one cold, dark November afternoon about five years ago. I normally make my excuses when I’m approached by charity fund-raisers on the street, but unlike a lot of  ‘chuggers’, he made a compelling case as to why I should give away my bank details there and then; among the heaving mass of shopping tourists. I hope he now works somewhere important in Shelter or another charity because my direct debit has been going out ever since. And quite unlike many other causes I’ve flirted with in the past, I have never wavered in my support.

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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Guarding radio's sacred flame: Gwyneth Williams in conversation with Gillian Reynolds

Meddle with the BBC, and you meddle with the psychology of a nation. Or, more specifically, should Radio 4 Controllers meddle with the fundamental cornerstones of the nation's best loved spoken word radio station, they will be told in no short shrift what listeners think of their decisions. If you have read the excellent potted history of the station, And Now on Radio 4, you will get a slightly more detached, yet sentimental view of this national treasure – much is written of the trials and tribulations faced by various controllers over the years. Radio 4 is, quite simply, the station with the most vocal and critical audience of any on the airwaves.

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The PCC is dead: Does television hold the key to better press regulation?

Timing is everything. The Leveson Inquiry, which began on Monday to look into the culture, practices and ethics of the media, will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance. But what about the freedom of the press - that politicians constantly tell us they support - in that drive towards the highest ethical and professional standards? 

Many in the media – particularly journalists – are somewhat aggrieved at what they see as an overly critical spotlight on their profession in the light of “the most important reputational issue the press has to face up to” - the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

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Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday, 11 November 2011

Rethinking the unthinkable - are the Conservatives the new party of gay equality?

Remember David Cameron’s cringe-inducing interview just before the 2010 General Election with GT? The then Leader of the Opposition got so flustered that he had to ask his press officer to halt the interview because he couldn’t present a convincing line on equality to the interviewer. With these images in the collective consciousness of gay voters, and without the convenience of the Tories being in government to dispel them, it was still easy to badge them as the nasty party, as Theresa May had once said.

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Does 'big society' spell the end of charity as we know it?

With charities providing more public services, some feel like small government departments.

When is a charity not a charity? We are seeing the end of the clear dividing line between what government does and what the voluntary sector does. The government at all levels has made it clear that it is uninterested in directly providing public services, leaving it to charities, social enterprises and ethical companies to battle it out. The Victorian notion of a charity – giving money, goods or time to others – is becoming unfamiliar to the British public in the age of the big society. Are we, therefore, seeing the end of charities as we've known them?

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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Them and Us: A Special Relationship?

If there's one thing that politicians and journalists really don't agree on, it's the so-called Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. It deserves capitalisation not just because of the absurd way in which it is exploited, but arguably because it's often to the benefit of the Americans rather than the Brits. What makes it special is, as they might say, the Million Dollar Question. Like many long-standing marriages, it often appears somewhat dysfunctional and you're never sure whether the two sides really do love each other. American presidents come and go, while successive British Prime Ministers do all they can to rekindle the passion. Is it something that simply exists in the imagination of the British political establishment?

The Today programme anchor and long-standing BBC man Justin Webb is well placed to speak about the political and cultural differences between the United States and the UK. With his new book, Notes on Them and Us, he's taken the time to reflect on what stands us apart from our cousins across the Atlantic – as well as the bonds that tie us together. Webb returned to his alma mater, the London School of Economics, at the invitation of the Media Society and Polis to discuss his own reflections on the subject.

We didn't have an academic interest in the US – we moved for the sunshine” opens Webb, in conversation with the New York Times's London correspondent and author of The Anglofiles, Sarah Lyall. With a young, energetic family and a career-defining opportunity offered by the BBC, you can't blame him. In fact, he's done the return journey twice.

But the culture shock was soon apparent, recalls Webb, when the unthinkable happened. “We knew a guy who worked at CNN . And we went to his party at which there was no booze at all”. And, horror upon horror, “they were drinking cherryade”. This might have been fine for the school tuck shop, but for a party of east coast media types? To a Brit, this was unthinkable.

It was occasions like this, as Webb jokes that are “a misunderestimation [sic] of the cultural differences between you and us”. Indeed, it's clear that Webb's affection for the country is unmistakeable. Something about community ties and a can-do spirit seem to have sparked his enthusiasm for this country. It's because “Americans are generous, not just to strangers but to themselves”. The first thing that comes to mind is a calorie-laden hamburger with fries, but there's more to it than that. Webb talks about an “ideal of attachment”, with references to religion and of pride in geographical roots. Americans are proud to be from Wyoming, or Maryland or wherever, but there is no corresponding sense of belonging from the citizens of Somerset, for example.

What's more, Webb concedes that the influence of religion on American politics is somewhat overstated, referring to Karl Rove's dismissal of evangelical Christians as “not terribly reliable”. The British, after all, have an established church, arguably wedded to our political institutions far more than Fox News is in the US. Nontheless, Webb is critical of the standard of broadcast journalism there. “American broadcasters don't get real players. They get proxies who just lay into each other”. That leads him to comparison with the UK parliamentary system. “It may look messy but at least we can do things". Lyall retorted: “at least our constitution is written down!"

While organs such as Fox bleat about America's supposed terminal decline, Webb sees it as somewhat relative “compared to the rest of the world”. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. Yes, there's persistent unemployment, and the ever-present threat of terrorism. But Americans have always been exceptionalist in their outlook, and Webb puts it into historical context: Barack Obama is clearly not the first President to be blamed for economic woes that pre-dated his term of office.

There's plenty to learn about the ways in which the US can teach Brits a thing or two: questions about philanthropy for example are sparking “an interesting debate”. For example, the European way of increasing funds for the public good was through higher taxes, while Webb's observations in the US convinced him that it was not necessarily higher taxes that encouraged benefactors, but rather easy ways of giving large sums of money.

Webb's overall view is that there is a fundamental divide in the special relationship. But it is no more than a cultural split between the two nations, maybe in part due to a British uneasiness with American self-gratitude and an audacious, unapologetic embracing of religion. But with a more honest recognition of it – possibly even a celebration – a more mutually beneficial collaboration is possible.

Originally posted on the Media Society website.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Blast from the past: cartoon competition

I don't really do restaurant reviews, but I do love the Gay Hussar. This Soho institution was opened in 1953, named in honour of the elite of the Hungarian army rather than marketed at the LGBT community as its location - and name - might suggest. Popping in there on a weeknight with a group of university friends, as I did last week, to devour platefuls of yummy Eastern European comfort food is one of life's pleasures.

It's probably not the most fashionable of eateries, which probably explains why it is particularly popular with backbench Labour MPs. Many of them have been immortalised in portrait form, drawn by the Guardian and Tribune cartoonist, Martin Rowson, and adorn the walls of the ground floor and stairs. Whether they're flattering or not is open to question, but I was reminded last week by one of my friends that Rowson had in fact drawn me. The occasion was the relaunch of Tribune back in 2005. (It recently announced its closure, only to be reformed as a co-operative venture).

So here it is. Rowson himself very kindly sent this on to me, and the first person to spot me (alas, not how I currently look) wins a copy of the West Wing Season 1 on DVD. It's a little bit biased towards people who actually know who I am, but I never said the competition was fair did I?

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