Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lord Leveson

Lord Leveson and I have something in common, besides both having the same Christian name of Brian , we share the same hairdresser. Well hairdresser is stretching it a bit as the more traditional term of "Barber" covers it, particularly as neither his Lordship nor I have much hair left .

 The publication of the much anticipated Leveson Report has laid out a blue print for the future conduct of the media and it is still to be seen if the Politicians accept the recommendation. Clearly no change is no option as there have been far too many innocent people ranging from the family of Milly Dowler to Chris Jefferies, the man wrongly accused of his tenants murder whose lives have been damaged by the activities of less than scrupulous journalists . My view is that the Leveson report should be accepted in whole and that the Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband are more in tune with the public than the Prime Minister on this matter  and that statutory regulation is necessary and is needed now.

My personal run in with the unlamented "News of the World" happened about six years ago when about 6pm one evening as I was changing to go out to a public event my front door bell rang and a young man who identified himself as a reporter from the "News of the World" asked me if suggestions that were apparently "being discussed at North London Dinner Parties" that I was, or had been, involved in a relationship with a well know International pop star were true. I was somewhat mystified as frankly I do not attend, nor indeed get invited to "North London Dinner Parties". At the time I got rid of the journalist from my doorstep by ringing a friend who had a senior role on the "News of the World" who spoke to the guy who promptly disappeared and no more was heard of this story again.

At the time I was extremely puzzled as to how the newspaper got hold of any supposed details of my  private life, something I do not discuss with anybody and certainly not journalists and frankly could not think of an answer. Five years later the answer became obvious.

Likewise it was always a mystery to me how various stories appeared in the media during the 2002/3 Fire Brigade pay dispute. Several media figures are now facing criminal charges which involve alleged phone hacking of Mr Andrew Gilchrist , who at the time was General Secretary of the Fire Brigade's Union so no doubt matters may well become clearer during that criminal trial .

The Leveson report however does not in my opinion go far enough.

I cannot see why journalists should not be forced to belong an individuals to a professional body along the lines of the Law Society or the British Medical Association and be disciplined or struck off for unprofessional conduct. These days anybody running a dodgy website  can buy a digital recording devise, pay a subscription to the National Union of Journalists and waddle into Town Hall claiming to be a "professional journalist ".

Likewise as my former Assembly colleague pointed out in her intervention in the House of Commons this afternoon after the Prime Minister's statement that something had to be done about the digital media .

I do not mean the obsessive bloggers and tweeters, although post Lord McAlpine I suspect many tweeters will rightly be far more circumspect in what they tweet, I mean those journalists who think it is right to post a story when only half the job is done . I have lost count of the times the "Hendon Times" which years ago under the Editorship of the  late Denis Signey, had a high reputation in the Community, has published a story on its' website without even bothering to check the facts or seek a comment from individuals mentioned in the story and has later been forced to take the story down or amend it .

Likewise a right to privacy is long overdue in this Country, it is already against the doomed Press Complaints Commission code to publish photographs and some stories about the children of public figures and that should be extended to all relatives . Furthermore just as the Local Government Code of Conduct recognises that complaints cannot be made against Councillors when they are off duty, the media regime should be extended to the media being forbidden to harass Politicians and their families when not fulfilling public duties .Likewise there needs to be protection against the media publishing the private addresses of Politicians or details of their children's schools .

Lord Leveson has started the process of cleaning up the cesspit of current tabloid journalism, we need to go much further.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

As you know I am all in favour of preserving traditions in relation to Barnet Council . One such tradition enshrined in Town Hall legend, if not in Standing Orders, is that the private Conservative Party Group meetings leak like a sieve. Indeed the Conservative Group stopped producing minutes for its members back in the early 1990s after these inexplicably always ended up in the hands of the then Labour Leader Alan Williams and these days any Conservative Councillor who wants to see what the Group actually decided (as opposed to what some members think it decided) have to ask to go and physically inspect the minutes. Sometimes details of the top secret discussions have appeared on newspaper web sites before the meeting has even finished.

I am delighted that this tradition is one that continues as last Thursday night at Hendon Town Hall an extraordinary meeting of the Conservative Group took place . This private meeting was addressed by Council Officers who briefed the Councillors present (and I am told there were 7 absent) , several diplomatically I understand, on the "One Barnet" process and the recommendation to Cabinet to accept the Capita bid for the back office functions.

The Officers then withdrew and a long and arduous debate then ensued.

First a former leadership contender complained that Councillors had been given an 18 page document and no time to read it, then a succession of Councillors got up to attack One Barnet , the concept and the implementation until a total of 12 had voiced concerns . By this time the Leader's blood pressure was rising until he finally jumped up "red in the face" and said unless the Conservative Group supported this " all the Libraries would have to be closed and social services would be reduced to a crisis only mode "

Several members objected to this blackmail but were swept aside as Group Chairman (still ambitious at 72 !) Councillor John Marshall called a vote asking "that if the Cabinet endorsed the Officers recommendations then the Group would support them" . There were only 7 abstentions. I would suggest that decision rather fetters Conservative Members ability when it comes to the Scrutiny process in the next fortnight and no doubt Councillors will declare what "whip " they are under at the start of the Scrutiny meetings as Standing orders dictate.

Obviously the whole Cabinet, or" the boys" as they are increasingly known due to their youth and inexperience, voted in favour . Apologies to those Cabinet Members not part of the boys gang whose silence is no doubt due to awaiting developments during the next Conservative Group Leadership campaign next April .

One long serving Conservative Councillor put the phone down on a very young Cabinet Member who phoned him up because he felt his colleague did not understand "One Barnet" and needed it explaining. As the Councillor told me he felt like punching the patronising little git !

Having attended the meeting at the Greek Brotherhood the other week I am well aware of the strength of feeling of many residents and although there was a great deal of left wing hot air spouted which was not relevant to much at all , it is clear that the war is frankly lost. The only hope for Richard Cornelius is that Labour had little alternative to offer and the Lib Dems Jack Cohen just played blatantly to the gallery knowing he will never have to implement any policy on Barnet Council. Whilst I doubt there was more than a handful of Tory voters at the meeting what there were was a phalanx of residents who will be moved to get off their backsides and campaign against those who seem committed to destroying the fabric of the Council's operations. I am increasingly being stopped in Tesco or the Coffee Shop or even in Church by Conservative voters, activists and Party members wondering why their own Party Councillor want to damage the Borough especially as it seems to go against much of what their own Government is proposing .

What has worried me and increasingly loyal Conservatives, is that the current Leadership of the Council has failed to offer any vision and sadly increasingly much competence to Barnet affairs, one Cabinet member told me the current Friern Barnet Library Squatter fiasco was our own fault "as we left the keys in the lock" . Whether you agreed with Mike Freer or not he had vision and understood strategy , he also understood how to maintain firm Political control of Barnet Council Officers to make sure policy was delivered  .

Quite how you defend the Green Belt when planning officers are based in Mumbai I do not know . Several Councillors had no idea where Darwen in Lancashire was and were reassured it was not proposed to relocate services to Darwin in Australia !

There is a  Conservative, clear blue water alternative to the current New Labour nonsense and that is to asses individual services and decide where and how they are best delivered. Some belong in the private sector, some in the voluntary sector, some in joint operation with other Boroughs or public bodies and some we should cease performing at all. Occasionally some should just be left alone in house to get on with the job!

To outsource as Barnet are proposing, just preserves  certain services in aspic for ten years and is as wrong as the left wingers who argue that not one Council  job should be cut or changed .

Roy Hattersley reportedly said that the 1983 Labour manifesto was the longest suicide note in history , I suspect he had not seen the Capita contract.

In the 1964  United States Presidential Election the Democrats attacked the Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, whom they considered a right wing "war monger" with the phrase "In your cuts you know he's nuts"

True Conservatives in Barnet know "In their guts, this One Barnet scheme is nuts ". Many even get the feeling that the usually sensible, mild mannered and traditional Conservative Leader of the Council feels the same but has backed himself into a corner .

It is still not to late to change tack and salvage the 2014 election and allow true Conservative philosophy to win through .