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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Media"

James Frayne: Public opinion is solidly behind the Government – for the time being, at least.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

There are two main groups of critics of the Government’s strategy to contain the Coronavirus: those that say the Government is wrongly curtailing our civil liberties; and those that say the Government risks wrecking the economy with the lockdown. Both groups are currently politically weak; and only the second group has any realistic chance of changing Government policy.

As it stands, the Government is seen to be doing a very good job. It has overwhelming support for the lockdown – and clear majorities are in favour of a greater police presence, and even an army presence, on the streets to enforce it (although the police are doing their best to undermine this support with some extraordinary behaviour).

This seems to be for three main reasons: most importantly and obviously, because people are worried about their old and vulnerable family members getting it, as well as themselves; because, now we’ve gone down this route, we should at least do it properly, so we’re not stuck in a sort of semi-lockdown forever; and, in terms of tougher enforcement, because people can’t stand some people ignoring the rules that the rest of us are playing by.

People are aware that their civil liberties are being curtailed, but they’re currently content with this; only a very small minority believe their civil liberties are being wrongly infringed. For the most part, people are essentially volunteering to stay at home. The vast majority of people don’t want to go out and don’t want others to go out either.

To date, the conversation in politics and the media has been understandably primarily focused on the public health aspect of the virus, rather than the existing and potential economic impact. As such, while polls suggest the public expect a serious economic downturn, they also suggest that most people aren’t yet obsessing about the potential impact on their lives.

Of course, immediate fears are very audible from the self-employed above all, and from business owners, but they’re not audible from the public at large. Again, this mainly reflects the fact that people are overwhelmingly worried about public health at this point. But it likely also reflects the success the Government has had in communicating its worker support programme; people feel like they will be looked after. The Government rightly judged that people, perfectly reasonably, will think first of all, and overwhelmingly, about their own wages.

It seems impossible that this relative quiet about the economy will continue for long. For while the Government has reassured the mass of people in the private sector on PAYE about their salaries, many businesses will have to lay off staff regardless of the help the Government is offering if they have no money coming in; and the Government is offering support to keep staff on, they are obviously not banning firms from laying people off.

Even though the Government’s support for employees’ wages is welcome, plummeting revenue will wipe this benefit out and more. If businesses have no money – and yet still have to pay for everything from renting premises to accountancy support to daily expenses – then they just have no money.

Many will start laying people off, and many will go bust. Even the most prudent firms generally only keep three months operating costs in their bank account; a long lockdown eats into this very fast. In such a climate, a comprehensive lockdown of the scale we’re now seeing isn’t sustainable.

There is another issue, of course, that hasn’t yet been discussed. This is the extent to which social problems emerge because of people being kept in isolation. Again, the polling suggests that people don’t view this as a problem at this point and say they’re feeling positive about isolation, but the media are beginning to report some of the darker things that are going on behind all those closed doors. Related to this, we will likely start to see a rise in general health problems as the NHS focuses on the impact of the virus. This will also add to pressure for change.

Public opinion is solidly behind the Government and the strategy it has laid out but, in the environment of a lockdown, where days feel like weeks, and weeks feel like months, things could change quickly. People will always put health first, but they will start to call for serious mitigating action to protect the economy when the first signs of high-profile business closures are seen. There were suggestions this week that the lockdown could continue for six months. Very few businesses could survive a lockdown of the type we’re currently in for that period of time. A sustained lockdown will have to be more focused.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Daniel Hannan: Alarmism, doom-mongering, panic – and the coronavirus. We are nowhere near a 1919-style catastrophe.

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

“Hospitals prepare for epidemic to sweep Britain” was the Sunday Times headline. The article beneath informed us that “up to 50 per cent of Britons could be affected” by the coronavirus. The Sunday Telegraph’s lead was “Millions told to stay at home if coronavirus spreads”.

Well, maybe. But I’m going to stick my neck out here. You’re unlikely to be killed by the coronavirus. Yes, the disease is unpleasant; and, yes, in some circumstances, it can cause complications that lead to fatalities. But it is unlikely to be as lethal as the more common forms of influenza that we take for granted, let alone as lethal as, say, stroke or heart disease. We are nowhere near a 1919-style global catastrophe.

Let me put on the record right up front that I am not an epidemiologist, an immunologist or a pathologist. Indeed, I have no medical qualifications whatever. I know nothing about virology beyond the brilliant insight offered by the Nobel Prizewinning biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, that a virus is “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news”.

But I do know a bit about how incentives work in government and in the media. Politicians, like most people, are bad at calculating risk, and almost every Minister would rather be accused of over-reacting to a threat than of having done too little. There is a similar bias, albeit a less pronounced one, among the various medical advisory bodies: epidemics are what they exist for, and they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t have a subliminal desire to talk them up.

When it comes to the media, the déformation professionelle is more obvious. I have worked under nine editors, and I can’t remember any of them ever saying: “Let’s run a front-page lead suggesting that, all in all, things aren’t so bad”. Finally – and I am sorry to be blunt – companies that manufacture ’flu vaccines have every reason to exaggerate the danger.

We have been here before. Fifteen years ago, the headlines were every bit as panicky as today. There was, we were told a “deadly new strain” of bird ’flu. Hundreds of millions were at risk. New cases were reported in gruesome detail. Maps showed the relentless spread of the virus. One article likened migratory birds to inter-continental ballistic missiles.

As today, those newspaper reports were based on genuine briefings. In November 2005, Dr Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared: “It is only a matter of time before an avian ’flu virus—most likely H5N1—acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza.”

The technical definition of a pandemic is a disease that has broken out across many parts of the world: it doesn’t have to be an especially serious disease. But, in the case of bird ’flu, the experts were genuinely worried.

David Nabbaro, a World Health Organization official, claimed that the H5N1 virus was “like a combination of global warming and HIV/Aids”, and predicted that as many as 150 million people might die. The US announced an avian flu response plan that foresaw the deaths of up to two million Americans. The actual number of confirmed H5N1 fatalities? Less than 500 worldwide.

You might think that that experience would have chastened the headline writers. But when the swine ’flu outbreak came three years later, it was reported in exactly the same apocalyptic tone.

“Killer swine flu, UK on alert” was the Sunday Times lead on 26 April 2009. Three days later, the Daily Mail’s front page announced: “Hundreds will be ill in weeks and a swine flu pandemic could strike 40 per cent of us”.

Again, these headlines were based on real warnings. The then Chief Medical Officer for England suggested that, in a worst-case scenario, 30 per cent of the UK population could be infected by the A/H1N1 virus, resulting 65,000 fatalities. Even in his best-case scenario (which the newspapers naturally ignored) five per cent of would contract the virus, resulting in 3,100 deaths.

How many confirmed deaths were there in England in the event? One hundred and thirty eight. Each of those deaths, of course, was a tragedy. We just need to be clear about scale: fewer people have died from swine ’flu than succumb annually to seasonal ’flu.

Of course, no one likes to point these things out. When the first reports of swine ’flu came out in 2009, I wrote a Daily Telegraph blog which referred back to the earlier bird ’flu panic, and argued that the menace was exaggerated. I don’t think I have ever had so much abuse from readers – not even in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. I was, they told me, irresponsible, complacent and ignorant. I would have millions of deaths on my hands. Those responses (which I think fairly reflected public opinion during those fraught early days) are why politicians and journalists err on the side of extreme caution.

How does the coronavirus compare with the two previous scares? Its symptoms, generally, are those of a heavy cold. As a rule, viruses that are transmitted by casual contact can’t be too virulent, for solid evolutionary reasons. If they incapacitate their hosts, they make it hard for those hosts to infect others. The successful strategy for a rhinovirus, an adenovirus or a coronavirus is to therefore let their human carriers stay active, so that they continue to interact with other people. Indeed, those viruses are widespread in the human population: we generally call them “colds”. The really nasty diseases are, by and large, spread in ways that don’t limit their virulence – malaria, for example, is transmitted by insects.

Does that mean that we have nothing to fear? No. Any new disease is a potential danger. Occasionally, a pathogen jumps the species barrier with lethal effect: smallpox and measles resulted from this process (“zoonosis”), and both were deadly. Because the Chinese authorities have been opaque in their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, we have less to go on than we would like. Nothing I have written should be taken as a suggestion that we drop our guard or stop taking precautions. But, assuming we do that, there is no reason to panic. Cheer up.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: The BBC’s growing problem isn’t public hostility. It’s apathy. Fewer people see the point of it.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

My first focus group was in Watford in 2000. In those days, virtually every other group seemed to take place there. Partly because it was seen as a bell weather seat. But also because it was the nearest vaguely normal place to London that could be reached in an evening.

In those days, people were stuffed full of sandwiches and crisps, beer and wine – unlike now when it’s generally more austere. And every focus group tended to begin with the same ice-breaker: tell us where you get your news from.

The news question provoked a bunch of different answers, depending on the make-up of the group or its location. Older people read the Daily Mail, working class people read The Sun or sometimes the The Daily Mirror, middle class people read The Times or The Daily Telegraph – and yes teachers read The Guardian. Most people in the Midlands and North read a local paper.

But everyone – almost without exception – relied primarily on the BBC1 nightly news bulletins for their daily news. And most supplemented this by dipping into other BBC news sources such as Today, Newsnight or On the Record (the main Sunday interview show, as it then was). For the English, the BBC was ubiquitous.

Over the years that followed, I was often asked to test public trust in the corporation – usually for campaigns that complained bitterly about the BBC’s attitudes towards their cause – on everything from Europe to economic policy. These campaigns hoped that people would share their concerns about BBC bias.

They never did; people almost always said they trusted BBC News in absolute terms, and relatively far more than most political parties and campaigns. Trying to make people question BBC News’ values and motives was a pointless exercise.

It was always hard to say, but the trust the public had in BBC News seemed partly to derive from their wider trust and affection for the BBC as a whole. When you asked people what they thought was so good about the BBC, they generally said wildlife and factual programmes, local programmes (including news) and the fact that there were no ads. Some would talk about the blockbuster shows like Only Fools & Horses. The BBC was interwoven through the lives of ordinary working class and lower middle class life.

Broadly speaking, in my experience, I’d say this was the reality consistently until a couple of years ago. Now, when you ask where people get their news from, it’s almost always Facebook and other social media channels – in turn, directing them to an array of sites (by no means usually the BBC).

Hardly anyone says they make time to watch the main BBC1 news bulletins, and fewer and fewer people say they watch or listen to the main news analysis shows. Furthermore, when you ask people about the shows they watch, they generally reply with an answer about the platform, not the shows themselves. So, they’ll say “Netflix” or “Amazon Prime” or whatever. They never say they “put the telly on” like they did even a decade ago.

Again, in my experience, I have not found that trust has fallen per se – although post the referendum and two brutal election campaigns, there is now a larger minority of people who moan about “BBC bias”. But “trust” has become become less relevant people as the BBC has become less relevant.

By that I mean that they don’t view trust as a negating factor in their views on the decreasing relevance of the institution. This is the big problem that the BBC has: it could always fall back on the trust argument, even as it was getting a kicking from usually right-leaning activists about its output. Now, trust doesn’t cut it because, increasingly, people are saying “so what?”

They’re increasingly saying “so what?” about everything regarding the BBC. When so many people are forking out for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Sky and other niche content on their phones and tablets, more people (but not all, see below) are starting to view the BBC as “just another service” that’s competing for their attention. In my experience, this is particularly true amongst younger audiences – they just don’t see the point of it, and they don’t even share the nostalgia to “better times”.

This is my experience from the focus groups, but what of the polling? The polling bears this out to a significant extent. My agency Public First polled directly on the question as to whether the licence fee should exist, which got a bit of attention at Christmas.

It showed a clear majority overall favouring its abolition – by 74 per cent to 14 per cent overall – and this was true across all the key demographics. And the poll also showed that people favour decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.

But it also showed that people were unsure about how the BBC should be funded in the future. Younger people were quite positive about the idea of the BBC being funded like Netflix, through subscriptions, but older people were hostile. More people liked the idea, they said, of the BBC being funded commercially, like ITV. Interestingly, the poll also showed that more people disagreed that the BBC was “neutral”, than agreed with it. Either way, the lesson is clear: very few people support the status quo.

The BBC’s perfectly reasonable pushback to this poll was that it didn’t give sufficient context – that it didn’t present enough alternatives, essentially. Their view is that the BBC always looks better when people are confronted with the alternatives or with the prospect of no BBC at all.

We had never intended this to be any sort of detailed look at public attitudes to the BBC; we ran it because one of our staff was being interviewed about the future of the BBC, and we wanted to have something to say about it. But the problem with the BBC’s pushback is that it almost acknowledges that the status quo is, at best, just the least worst option. They seem to be waiting for the future to make them entirely irrelevant.

So what does all this mean for Number Ten’s future combat with the BBC? My sense is that the BBC is extremely vulnerable to massive change if Downing Street simply and narrowly questions whether its relevance to people’s lives justifies the licence fee. This is where people are. On the other hand, if Number Ten tries to turn change into an ideological battle, it would leave most people cold but probably light up metropolitan lefties in ways that would be problematic.

Which takes us back to the BBC. As I note above, the it was interwoven in the lives of the English working class and lower middle class. This is no longer true – practically or culturally – and the Corporation will struggle to mobilise these people.

All the BBC has probably got left is the hope that at some point the public will view this Government as “just another set of politicians” who mess everything up. And of course the Corporation should seek to mobilise metropolitan lefties who aren’t terribly influential in Number Ten’s thinking. You have to start somewhere. 

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

David Gauke: Javid, Smith, Cox. Three fine Ministers fired – so that Number Ten could take back even more control.

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

It is sometimes said of a reshuffle that it lacks coherence; that there is no pattern to the various Ministerial appointments; that, to quote Churchill, ‘there is no theme to this pudding’. Such a charge cannot be laid against this week’s announcements.

There is a theme – and it is a familiar one. “Take back control”. Or, perhaps it would be better put as “take back even more control”.

Three departures illustrate the nature of the reshuffle – Sajid Javid, Julian Smith and Geoffrey Cox. I worked closely with all three at various stages of our careers and had my differences with each of them on occasions, but I like and respect all three.

Much of the news coverage has rightly focused on the resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In truth, he was constructively dismissed. As Sajid rightly said, no ‘self-respecting minister’ would accept the conditions that the Prime Minister attempted to impose upon him to dismiss his Special Advisers.

Given the briefing from sources within Number 10 about him being a Chancellor In Name Only (‘CHINO’), this was surely a humiliation too far. Sajid was bound to walk, even if some in Number 10 thought otherwise. A good man pushed too far.

His resignation did, at least, distract attention from the criticism of the dismissal of Julian Smith. Julian had, in a few short months, impressed all sides in his understanding of the complexities of Northern Ireland, established trusting relationships with all the key players and demonstrated an inexhaustible capacity for hard work. Following the British general election, he recognised that both the DUP and Sinn Fein were under pressure to compromise. He seized that opportunity with courage and imagination and forced through a deal that restored the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was briefed in advance of the reshuffle that he faced dismissal because he had blindsided Number 10 as to the provisions of the agreement in respect of investigations into British soldiers. However, the evidence suggests that Number 10 was kept fully in the loop.

It is possible that the Government has been taken aback by backbench objections to this aspect of the deal, but that does not justify hanging the Secretary of State out to dry. And if that is the reason, what now for the deal that restored Stormont? Jeopardizing the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland would be reckless in the extreme.

The more likely explanation is that Julian had been too outspoken last year about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. He described it as being ‘very, very bad’ for Northern Ireland. Although this was a statement of the bleeding obvious, this went further than any other Cabinet minister had done. Perhaps taking his responsibilities seriously and wanting to avoid something very bad happening to Northern Ireland contributed to his subsequent triumph in restoring Stormont.

Anyway, he had to go. At least his replacement – Brandon Lewis – deserves promotion.

The third significant departure is Geoffrey Cox. Geoffrey emerged as a political star in 2018 when he became a high profile Attorney-General and the Prime Minister’s warm-up act. We worked closely on justice matters, although I always felt somewhat like a junior solicitor instructing senior counsel. However, he was a generous and considerate colleague whose contributions at the Cabinet table were eloquent and influential.

A criticism that was made of Geoffrey was that he was a lawyer first and politician second. I suspect he would plead guilty to the charge. He would always refuse to put at risk his legal reputation in the interests of political expediency.
There are plenty who believe that, had he shown more flexibility in his legal advice, the second meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal may have succeeded. Geoffrey was aware of what was at stake, but the greatest imperative was to state accurately the law as he saw it. Maybe that doesn’t make him a team player – but the Attorney-General should not be just another member of the team.

The credibility that comes with Geoffrey’s experience has helped calm concerns about the Government’s intentions as to the independence of the judiciary. There is a legitimate debate about how the law has extended into areas that best belong to Parliament and the Executive.

However, there is a concern that the Government is seeking vengeance on a troublesome judiciary. I have tended to think those concerns were overblown, that nothing too foolish would happen because neither the Attorney-General nor the Lord Chancellor would put up with any nonsense. A lot rests on Robert Buckland’s shoulders now.

This brings me back to the theme of this reshuffle – indeed the theme of this Government. Imagine, for a moment, that you are Prime Minister (or, perhaps, more to the point, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser). You worry that you are not as powerful as you would like. There are lots you want to do, but there are all these impediments. You managed to deal with a few already (Parliament? Not a problem with an 80 seat majority; EU rules? Done; The media? Just ignore them). What is left?

First, you don’t have much of a machine in Number 10. The answer? Commandeer the Treasury. This deals with the second problem – the most powerful government department, which has a tendency to stand in the way of Prime Ministers doing what they want on the tiresome grounds of affordability and value-for-money.

Third, Cabinet might kick-off – so get rid of the potential troublemakers even if (or should that be, ‘especially if’) they have a reputation for being good Ministers.

Fourth, the courts. Not quite sure how to do that yet, but make sure that the judiciary doesn’t have any cheerleaders round the Cabinet table.

At one level, I cannot help admiring the ambition and execution. Politics is about acquiring and using power and, when it comes to acquiring power, the Johnson/Cummings axis is formidable. Most successful politicians seek to increase their power; it is not a shameful objective. Control is well and truly being taken back (although I am sceptical that the Treasury really will be neutered).

But is a system of government whereby all power is concentrated in Number 10 likely to result in that power being well used? Bothersome though the reasons why some apparently bright idea cannot be pursued might be (“we can’t afford it”, “the law doesn’t allow it”, “we won’t get it past Parliament”, “the Cabinet won’t put up with it”), the process of government should test robustly any proposal. After this reshuffle, these processes are likely to be less robust.

In a world where policy decisions may have complex and far-reaching consequences, dismantling the checks and balances that exist within our governmental system runs the risk of bad policy being pursued. And with power being concentrated, so will responsibility. Number 10 will have no one else to blame.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

The “Tory press” are keen to show they will provide the real opposition to the Government

Pontius Pilate asked:

“What is truth?” 

There is always plenty of speculation in the media before a cabinet reshuffle and before a Budget. With the reshuffle expected on Friday, and the Budget due to be delivered on March 11th, we are presently overloaded. Sometimes the reports are contradictory and so, by definition, they can not all materialise. Happily for the correspondents whose predictions prove array, such stories are soon forgotten. Once the announcements are made, then the hard news is the focus of attention. Private Eye occasionally provides a disobliging “hack watch” recounting past claims – but everyone else quickly moves on.

However, sometimes, even if an item of speculation does not materialise, it does not mean that it was untrue. It is more complicated than that. Prime Ministers and Chancellors can change their minds. Fleet Street subeditors can make a headline “stronger” than the caveats in the article below it might justify.

The Daily Mail reports this morning:

“Andrea Leadsom is facing the axe in this week’s reshuffle after ‘lecturing’ Boris Johnson on the dangers of a male-dominated Cabinet.

“The Business Secretary, whose position was already under threat, sparked irritation in Downing Street at the weekend by insisting in a newspaper article that gender equality should be ‘the absolute norm’.”

Let us suppose that she is not sacked. Does it mean the story was pure invention? Not necessarily. The “irritation” might well be genuine. The Prime Minister might be “minded” to sack her. But then he might be persuaded at some meeting tomorrow, or Wednesday, that it would be better for her to stay. In other words, the truth can change. What might be true on Monday might no longer be true on Thursday.

I suspect most Conservatives will have been more concerned by the Budget speculation. The Sunday Telegraph yesterday splashed with the headline:

“Tories eye mansion tax and raid on pensions”

Its report said:

“Boris Johnson has been weighing up shock plans to impose a ‘mansion tax’ on owners of expensive homes, in a move which will infuriate the Conservative Party’s grassroots and stun MPs. Severe cuts to pension tax relief enjoyed by millions of voters are also being considered by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for the Budget next month in an effort to pay for a huge increase in public spending. Two separate sources told The Telegraph that ideas to raise more tax from better-off homeowners had been discussed on separate occasions in the past few weeks at the highest levels of the Treasury and No 10. Some Treasury officials are understood to be keen on introducing what has been described as a “recurring” wealth tax that would primarily affect London and the South East, possibly as a quid pro quo for cutting stamp duty. It is not clear exactly what form the tax would take if it were included in the March 11 Budget, but options range from a levy – first mooted by Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader – to an additional higher band of council tax.”

It added;

“Two separate sources told The Telegraph that ideas to raise more tax from better-off homeowners had been discussed on separate occasions in the past few weeks at the highest levels of the Treasury and No 10.”

The paper followed up today with various people attacking the proposals – one response being that they are “half baked”, another warned against an “act of fiscal hooliganism”.

For many Conservatives, that story will have caused rather more concern than the game of musical chairs around the Cabinet table. As Tony Benn used to remind us:

“It’s not about personalities. It’s about issshues.”

Even if the measures are not introduced it does not mean that the Telegraph story is false. It could be that someone thought it would be a good idea to “float” the idea in the media to test reaction. If so, then the staunchly negative response will have been noted. Expectation management is sometimes regarded as a cunning wheeze. Perhaps by threatening us with really severe tax increases, the notion is that we will all be grateful and relieved if only mild tax rises are imposed.

Officially sourced stories are pretty reliable. “It will be announced later today….” or “The Prime Minister is expected to say to this afternoon in a speech in Bolton…” Those with unofficial sources have a greater risk of unravelling.

So are we merely in a busy season for a most traditional media sport?

Not quite. The tone and substance of the “Tory press” is markedly lacking in deference for the Conservative Government. The initiative by Downing Street to disrupt the established “lobby” arrangements for reporting may have been – as Andrew Gimson wrote last week – handled in a “cack handed” manner. Or it could be an overdue move to open up a smug closed shop and adapt to the age of transparency and social media. It might be both. At any rate, it won’t have helped relations with the press.

There is also a point of pride that newspapers have to assert their independence, most particularly when a Government is strong. We had a big Conservative majority returned in December – since then the polling suggests that Conservative popularity has risen further. We have vacancies for the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships. This is a time when the media’s instinct is that it must “hold the Government to account”. Who else will offer “real opposition”? That instinct is noble. For the Daily Telegraph it is a particular point of honour. That is because its association with the Prime Minister is so well known. He wrote for them for decades. The paper is not shy about it – it features an archive of his work prominently on its website. But nor does it wish to be regarded as his poodle.

That is not to suggest that we should be complacent about threats of tax increases. How can we be, after the last decade? With the economy already groaning under the weight of the burdens imposed by Gordon Brown we have seen Conservative Chancellors in subsequent years piling on yet more damaging tax rises – sometimes proving counter productive in terms of yield.

It is just worth noting that when the Telegraph catches a whiff of such stories, its inclination, at this stage in the political cycle, will be to offer pretty robust coverage.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Hamish McFall: Downing Street would be misguided to rely on Social Media to get across its message

Hamish McFall is a public relations and marketing consultant, and is a former Parliamentary candidate.

Andrew Gimson, Boswell for our new Johnson, has written about Number 10’s attitude towards the Lobby. How many of our supporters would understand that opening sentence? I am not being patronising, like Remoaners were, about people being too “thick” to understand the issues. I am, however, trying to draw attention to the fact that people in the Westminster bubble use terms and language that has no resonance with the vast majority of the Electorate.

I am lucky enough to live in a constituency where 33,346 people voted Conservative at the last General Election. I doubt that more than 3,000 of them were influenced by “Social Media”. Number 10 and others within the Party seem to think that getting the message only to those that engage with Social Media is both necessary and sufficient. If you conducted an internet poll then you would probably be able to confirm the interest of the self-selecting audience. This, of course, misses the point that most people are not engaged with Social Media.

You will most likely only be able to read this article if you are online. You are therefore part of the Silo mentality that rules how we get news. The Internet is a marvellous thing but that doesn’t mean that anything that happens on the internet is good. Just because a method of communication is available, for example, Facebook or Twitter, doesn’t mean that you have to use it. Journalists employed by the BBC should be spending their time on the day job. Why do people like Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg constantly tweet? They are both excellent journalists who have plenty of air-time. Why do they feel it necessary to bombard us with their Tweet views? Alastair Stewart might agree that it would be better if broadcast journalists restrained from tweeting.

The danger of the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, is that people within the Silo are just talking to themselves and other like-minded people. At the same time, they think that they are talking to the whole universe.

I would bet a large amount of money that the majority of Conservative voters, and indeed all voters, would have liked to see and hear the message from the Prime Minister on Brexit night. The church bells rang in my local church and people let off fireworks but neither the BBC nor ITN broadcast a word from the Prime Minister. Number 10 thought that they were being terribly clever by releasing the statement on-line. They don’t realise that 95 per cent of the population lives outside the Westminster bubble. We don’t engage in social media. Why should we? If we wanted to do so it would be difficult. We have slow Broadband connections. Downloading a video of the Prime Minister’s speech would be time-consuming and why should we have to do so when a national broadcaster could and should do it for us.

The essential point about all political communications is the message. It is not about the media. The current trend of thinking that Social Media is the most important thing ignores the fact that anyone over the age of 65 is unlikely to engage in the sort of minute by minute Love island social media that its exponents promote.

We have a great opportunity to make a real difference for all of the United Kingdom. Let’s not pretend that London-centric social media is the answer.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Damian Green: Enough of this BBC-bashing. A weaker corporation would mean a weaker culture. And no Tory should want that.

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

We have clearly entered another season of BBC-bashing, and this one seems particularly ill-timed. If we are going to make a reality of Global Britain we need to capitalise on the things about our country that the world likes and admires. However unpalatable it may be to some Conservatives, the BBC is high on that list.

If Conservatives are to be held as a truly One Nation party, an essential part of that is a belief in the enduring value of Britain’s national institutions. The BBC is unquestionably a cherished one of those, as the Prime Minister rightly said last week. It is so uniquely British that it helps define our national character, and shape our shared national identity. It remains the place that brings the country together for everything from the Olympics, Remembrance Sunday and election nights, to Gavin and Stacey, Line of Duty and Planet Earth.

Of course from time to time, (well, perhaps a bit more often than that…) as Conservatives we all shout from our sofas at the inevitably left-wing comedian on the Question Time panel. But when you consider BBC news in the round, it provides the backbone of broadcast reporting in our thankfully robust political culture. That’s an essential part of a democracy. And we should remember that, for all the debate swirling around Westminster, the BBC is still the news source that the country uses and trusts the most.

During the last week, the Government has indicated that they will review the licence fee, since the funding mechanism for the BBC Charter is next up for renewal in 2027. That’s sensible, and what a Charter Review every ten years or so is there for.

I declare an interest as someone who has worked on BBC Charters both in Number Ten and briefly for the BBC. From about the late 1970s, every Charter has been seen as the “last one for the licence fee”. So I wait with baited breath for the alternative funding mechanism to emerge, and find widespread public support, that can deliver a universal service offering iPlayer, Sounds, nine national TV Channels, including Cbeebies and CBBC, BBC Radio,  BBC Local Radio (quick plug here for BBC Radio Kent), Regional TV and most of the World Service, independent of Government for the same price of around 40p a day.

I think comparisons with Netflix don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. It is not trying to be, nor would I think they want to be, a universally available public service broadcaster – though it’s worth noting that Netflix themselves say that the BBC’s iPlayer blazed the trail in terms of on-demand viewing in the UK. More importantly, it may be the case today that Netflix is investing in some UK content, but there is no guarantee that this will continue. And no evidence that they would ever want to replace the role the BBC plays in backing British ideas and talent; a role that does so much to support the UK’s creative and cultural strength worldwide.

But, as the Government has said, all this is for the future. At the moment, as Nigel Adams said in the House, we are looking at the very narrow issue of the decriminalisation of the licence fee.

There were a few claims about this in Harry Phibb’s piece on this site yesterday that warrant further scrutiny. For a start, the number of TV licences has not been falling by ‘a million a year’ – there are still over 21 million paid-for licence households.

Neither is the TV set being consigned to history – we may view things on it differently but the number of homes with a TV set has actually gone up over the last five years, and the biggest proportion of those are watching TV via an aerial.

Which leads me  to the final point here, which is: as a very high percentage of TV viewing is through this route – and likely to be so for many years to come – if someone is not paying their fair share through the licence fee, there is no way, unlike with other utilities or services, of turning off the service.

There are a few other myths that have been doing the rounds among some of my colleagues , but the one that caught my eye was the idea that TV licence prosecutions were in some way‘ clogging up the courts’.

Thanks in part to reforms we as a Government  brought forward in the last Parliament, the amount of court  time taken up is only about 0.3 per cent. Indeed, the Magistrates Association has said in terms of court time saved “it would be an insignificant difference. We would hardly notice it”. And then if you went down a civil route, the system would be less efficient, probably lead to higher and less affordable  fines, and more people having CCJs on their credit records.

You can find the BBC at times enraging, arrogant and extravagant. But a weaker BBC would mean a weaker British culture – and no Conservative can seriously want that.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Strife between Johnson and the press is a good thing

“I’m a journalist, I love journalism,” Boris Johnson told the Commons on Wednesday, after Jeremy Corbyn had accused him of “shutting newspapers out of Number Ten”.

Corbyn was referring to a cack-handed attempt on Monday by Downing Street to bar some media organisations from a Brexit briefing.

The reporters who were going to be admitted quite rightly refused to attend the briefing, and instead showed solidarity with their excluded colleagues.

This and other skirmishes indicate that some in Number Ten, far from loving journalism, hold it in contempt, and wish to see what they can get away with.

They reckon they do not need the parliamentary lobby, or the traditional broadcasters, and can communicate direct with the public via social media.

In some ways, their hostility is to be welcomed. The iconoclasts in Number Ten who take their cue from Dominic Cummings, and admire their own boldness in defying the established media, are actually expressing the traditional hostility of those in power towards those who seek to hold them to account.

It is normal for Prime Ministers and their staff to consider themselves misrepresented and persecuted by the press: a story told by Lance Price in his account of the battles between Downing Street and the media since Lloyd George came to power in 1916.

Stanley Baldwin loathed the press barons, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, of whom he said in an interview in 1924, in words he did not intend to see quoted: “They are both men I would not have in my house.”

Baldwin gave no more interviews after that indiscretion, and refused to speak to the parliamentary lobby journalists as a group either on or off the record, though he did have certain favoured individuals through whom he got his story out.

And he became a master of a new medium, radio, by which he could talk in a reasonable and affable tone directly to millions of people.

So too Johnson, with his mastery of social media, by which he speaks directly to millions of people without the press getting in the way.

Just now, Johnson is in the ascendant. He has confounded his critics and won a solid majority. At Prime Minister’s Questions, one sees him relaxing into his role and proclaiming his love of every good cause, even journalism.

This could all become too cosy. The public interest requires a press prepared to speak out in ways which infuriate those in authority.

No Prime Minister should take what the press says too much to heart, but all should treat it is a valuable early warning system, directing attention to grievances which if ignored and allowed to fester will do mortal damage.

As Churchill remarked: “Criticism in the body politic is like pain in the human body. It is not pleasant, but where would the body be without it?”

Parliamentary journalists are right to protest when jacks in office try to block or restrict useful channels of communication.

But some of the best journalists make scant use of those channels anyhow. One thinks of the late Tony Bevins, first political editor of The Independent, who turned his back on the lobby system.

Johnson benefited, during his rise to power, from the exaggerated criticism he received from parts of the press. This struck many voters as unfair, concealed from his opponents the threat he posed, and encouraged low expectations which he was able to exceed.

But now that he is ensconced in Number Ten, he deserves as fierce (though also, in its way, admiring) a scrutiny as he himself directed 30 years ago at Jacques Delors while working as a correspondent in Brussels.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

As Virus Spreads, Anger Floods Chinese Social Media

Westlake Legal Group 27china-social01-facebookJumbo As Virus Spreads, Anger Floods Chinese Social Media Wuhan (China) Wang Huning (1955- ) Social Media Polls and Public Opinion Politics and Government Media Epidemics Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Computers and the Internet China Censorship

SHANGHAI — Recently, someone following the coronavirus crisis through China’s official news media would see lots of footage, often set to stirring music, praising the heroism and sacrifice of health workers marching off to stricken places.

But someone following the crisis through social media would see something else entirely: vitriolic comments and mocking memes about government officials, harrowing descriptions of untreated family members and images of hospital corridors loaded with patients, some of whom appear to be dead.

The contrast is almost never so stark in China. The government usually keeps a tight grip on what is said, seen and heard about it. But the sheer amount of criticism — and the often clever ways in which critics dodge censors, such as by referring to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, as “Trump” or by comparing the outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe — have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message.

In recent days, critics have pounced when officials in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, wore their protective masks incorrectly. They have heaped scorn upon stumbling pronouncements. When Wuhan’s mayor spoke to official media on Monday, one commenter responded, “If the virus is fair, then please don’t spare this useless person.”

The condemnations stand as a rare direct challenge to the Communist Party, which brooks no dissent in the way it runs China. In some cases, Chinese leaders appear to be acknowledging people’s fear, anger and other all-too-human reactions to the crisis, showing how the party can move dramatically, if sometimes belatedly, to mollify the public.

Such criticism can go only so far, however. Some of China’s more commercially minded media outlets have covered the disease and the response thoroughly if not critically. But articles and comments about the virus continue to be deleted, and the government and internet platforms have issued fresh warnings against spreading what they call “rumors.”

“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. “It is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative.”

When China’s leaders battled the SARS virus in the early 2000s, social media was only just beginning to blossom in the country. The government covered up the disease’s spread, and it was left to journalists and other critics to shame the authorities into acknowledging the scale of the problem.

Today, smartphones and social media make it harder for mass public health crises to stay buried. But internet platforms in China are just as easily polluted with false and fast-moving information as they are everywhere else. During outbreaks of disease, Beijing’s leaders have legitimate reason to be on alert for quack remedies and scaremongering fabrications, which can cause panic and do damage.

In recent days, though, Beijing seems to be reasserting its primacy over information in ways that go beyond mere rumor control. At a meeting this past weekend between Mr. Xi and other senior leaders, one of the measures they resolved to take against the virus was to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion.”

Wang Huning, the head of the Communist Party’s publicity department and an influential party ideologue, was also recently named deputy head of the team in charge of containing the epidemic, behind only China’s premier, Li Keqiang.

Chinese officials seem to recognize that social media can be a useful tool for feeling out public opinion in times of crisis. WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging platform, over the weekend said that it would crack down hard on rumors about the virus. But it also created a tool for users to report tips and information about the disease and the response.

Internet backlash may already have caused one local government in China to change course on its virus-fighting policies. The southern city of Shantou announced on Sunday that it was stopping cars, ships and people from entering the city, in a policy that echoed ones in Wuhan. But then word went around that the decision had led people to panic-buy food, and by the afternoon, the order had been rescinded.

Nowhere has the local government been the target of more internet vitriol than in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital.

After the Hubei governor, Wang Xiaodong, and other officials there gave a news briefing on Sunday, web users mocked Mr. Wang for misstating, twice, the number of face masks that the province could produce. They circulated a photo from the briefing of him and two other officials, pointing out that one of them did not cover his nose with his mask, another wore his mask upside down and Mr. Wang did not wear a mask at all.

On Monday, social media users were similarly unrelenting toward Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang.

During an interview Mr. Zhou gave to state television, commenters in live streams unloaded on him, with one writing: “Stop talking. We just want to know when you will resign.”

Top authorities may be deliberately directing public anger toward officials in Hubei and Wuhan as a prelude to their resigning and being replaced. Many other targets within the Chinese leadership seem to remain off limits.

This month, as news of the coronavirus emerged but Mr. Xi did not make public appearances to address it, people on the social platform Weibo began venting their frustration in veiled ways, asking “Where’s that person?”

But even those comments were deleted. So some users started replacing Mr. Xi’s name with “Trump.” As in, “I don’t want to go through another minute of this year, my heart is filled with pain, I hope Trump dies.”

Other people hungering to express frustration have taken to the Chinese social platform Douban, which has been flooded recently by user reviews for “Chernobyl,” the hit television series about the Soviet nuclear disaster.

“In any era, any country, it’s the same. Cover everything up,” one reviewer wrote on Monday.

“That’s socialism,” wrote another.

Some Chinese news outlets have been able to report incisively on the coronavirus. The influential newsmagazine Caixin has put out rigorous reporting and analysis. The Paper, a digital news outlet that is overseen by Shanghai’s Communist Party Committee, published a chilling video about a Wuhan resident who couldn’t find a hospital that would treat him and ended up wandering the streets.

Mr. Xiao, the Chinese internet expert, said the central authorities long gave such outlets special leeway to cover certain topics in ways that official media cannot. But the outlets should not be viewed as independent of the government, he said, calling their coverage “planned and controlled publicity” from the authorities.

Even outside the digital realm, it is not hard to find people in China who remain unsure of whether to trust what their government is telling them about the epidemic.

Chen Pulin, a 78-year-old retiree, was waiting outside a Shanghai hospital recently while his daughter was inside being tested for the virus. When word of the disease first began trickling out, he immediately had doubts about whether officials were being forthcoming about it.

“Even now, the government seems to be thinking about the economy and social stability,” Mr. Chen said. “Those things are important, but when it comes to these infectious diseases, stopping the disease should come first.”

Li Yuan contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Claire Fu, Lin Qiqing and Wang Yiwei contributed research.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

As Virus Spreads, Anger Floods Chinese Social Media

Westlake Legal Group 27china-social01-facebookJumbo As Virus Spreads, Anger Floods Chinese Social Media Wuhan (China) Wang Huning (1955- ) Social Media Polls and Public Opinion Politics and Government Media Epidemics Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Computers and the Internet China Censorship

SHANGHAI — Recently, someone following the coronavirus crisis through China’s official news media would see lots of footage, often set to stirring music, praising the heroism and sacrifice of health workers marching off to stricken places.

But someone following the crisis through social media would see something else entirely: vitriolic comments and mocking memes about government officials, harrowing descriptions of untreated family members and images of hospital corridors loaded with patients, some of whom appear to be dead.

The contrast is almost never so stark in China. The government usually keeps a tight grip on what is said, seen and heard about it. But the sheer amount of criticism — and the often clever ways in which critics dodge censors, such as by referring to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, as “Trump” or by comparing the outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe — have made it difficult for Beijing to control the message.

In recent days, critics have pounced when officials in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, wore their protective masks incorrectly. They have heaped scorn upon stumbling pronouncements. When Wuhan’s mayor spoke to official media on Monday, one commenter responded, “If the virus is fair, then please don’t spare this useless person.”

The condemnations stand as a rare direct challenge to the Communist Party, which brooks no dissent in the way it runs China. In some cases, Chinese leaders appear to be acknowledging people’s fear, anger and other all-too-human reactions to the crisis, showing how the party can move dramatically, if sometimes belatedly, to mollify the public.

Such criticism can go only so far, however. Some of China’s more commercially minded media outlets have covered the disease and the response thoroughly if not critically. But articles and comments about the virus continue to be deleted, and the government and internet platforms have issued fresh warnings against spreading what they call “rumors.”

“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. “It is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative.”

When China’s leaders battled the SARS virus in the early 2000s, social media was only just beginning to blossom in the country. The government covered up the disease’s spread, and it was left to journalists and other critics to shame the authorities into acknowledging the scale of the problem.

Today, smartphones and social media make it harder for mass public health crises to stay buried. But internet platforms in China are just as easily polluted with false and fast-moving information as they are everywhere else. During outbreaks of disease, Beijing’s leaders have legitimate reason to be on alert for quack remedies and scaremongering fabrications, which can cause panic and do damage.

In recent days, though, Beijing seems to be reasserting its primacy over information in ways that go beyond mere rumor control. At a meeting this past weekend between Mr. Xi and other senior leaders, one of the measures they resolved to take against the virus was to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion.”

Wang Huning, the head of the Communist Party’s publicity department and an influential party ideologue, was also recently named deputy head of the team in charge of containing the epidemic, behind only China’s premier, Li Keqiang.

Chinese officials seem to recognize that social media can be a useful tool for feeling out public opinion in times of crisis. WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging platform, over the weekend said that it would crack down hard on rumors about the virus. But it also created a tool for users to report tips and information about the disease and the response.

Internet backlash may already have caused one local government in China to change course on its virus-fighting policies. The southern city of Shantou announced on Sunday that it was stopping cars, ships and people from entering the city, in a policy that echoed ones in Wuhan. But then word went around that the decision had led people to panic-buy food, and by the afternoon, the order had been rescinded.

Nowhere has the local government been the target of more internet vitriol than in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital.

After the Hubei governor, Wang Xiaodong, and other officials there gave a news briefing on Sunday, web users mocked Mr. Wang for misstating, twice, the number of face masks that the province could produce. They circulated a photo from the briefing of him and two other officials, pointing out that one of them did not cover his nose with his mask, another wore his mask upside down and Mr. Wang did not wear a mask at all.

On Monday, social media users were similarly unrelenting toward Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang.

During an interview Mr. Zhou gave to state television, commenters in live streams unloaded on him, with one writing: “Stop talking. We just want to know when you will resign.”

Top authorities may be deliberately directing public anger toward officials in Hubei and Wuhan as a prelude to their resigning and being replaced. Many other targets within the Chinese leadership seem to remain off limits.

This month, as news of the coronavirus emerged but Mr. Xi did not make public appearances to address it, people on the social platform Weibo began venting their frustration in veiled ways, asking “Where’s that person?”

But even those comments were deleted. So some users started replacing Mr. Xi’s name with “Trump.” As in, “I don’t want to go through another minute of this year, my heart is filled with pain, I hope Trump dies.”

Other people hungering to express frustration have taken to the Chinese social platform Douban, which has been flooded recently by user reviews for “Chernobyl,” the hit television series about the Soviet nuclear disaster.

“In any era, any country, it’s the same. Cover everything up,” one reviewer wrote on Monday.

“That’s socialism,” wrote another.

Some Chinese news outlets have been able to report incisively on the coronavirus. The influential newsmagazine Caixin has put out rigorous reporting and analysis. The Paper, a digital news outlet that is overseen by Shanghai’s Communist Party Committee, published a chilling video about a Wuhan resident who couldn’t find a hospital that would treat him and ended up wandering the streets.

Mr. Xiao, the Chinese internet expert, said the central authorities long gave such outlets special leeway to cover certain topics in ways that official media cannot. But the outlets should not be viewed as independent of the government, he said, calling their coverage “planned and controlled publicity” from the authorities.

Even outside the digital realm, it is not hard to find people in China who remain unsure of whether to trust what their government is telling them about the epidemic.

Chen Pulin, a 78-year-old retiree, was waiting outside a Shanghai hospital recently while his daughter was inside being tested for the virus. When word of the disease first began trickling out, he immediately had doubts about whether officials were being forthcoming about it.

“Even now, the government seems to be thinking about the economy and social stability,” Mr. Chen said. “Those things are important, but when it comes to these infectious diseases, stopping the disease should come first.”

Li Yuan contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Claire Fu, Lin Qiqing and Wang Yiwei contributed research.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com