Friday, 26 April 2013

Positive role of 'new media'

When asked, people who have not already made-up their minds on how they will vote in next year’s independence referendum say they want more information.  Understandably, undecided voters want to make an informed decision, which is why they are looking for facts, as opposed to political propaganda.

Sadly, much of what is reported by the mainstream media provides more heat than light. 

Producers of political programmes on television apparently believe viewers have an attention–span of around 30-seconds.  If an interviewee takes more than this to begin explaining a point, the interviewer butts-in with another question or even an opinion of their own.  This does nothing for informed debate and frequently results in no-one being able to fully articulate their case, which leaves viewers still looking for answers.

BBC Scotland’s flagship political programme Newsnight Scotland is particularly guilty of short-changing the viewing public by allowing regular presenter Gordon Brewer to take 3-minutes to ask a rambling question, only to then cut-off an answer before it is fully-formed.  Scottish Television’s Scotland Tonight at least allows views to be expressed and exchanged.

Newspapers published in Scotland are partisan: virtually all are owned outwith Scotland and take their political position from boardrooms normally based in London.  The Sunday Herald has declared itself ‘open to persuasion’ regarding independence for Scotland, but most other papers support the British Union.  Scotland is a country with just one Tory MP, yet most of the daily national newspapers (Scottish versions) back the Tories – Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Sun.  The Daily Record and its sister paper the Daily Mirror support the Labour Party.

The Guardian and the Independent (and its abridged version, the ‘i’) are good newspapers but essentially English.  They tend to report Scottish issues in the same way they deal with news from other countries, often from a detached and less well-informed position, and usually expressed in the form of an explanation for readers based in England.

Even just ten-years ago, this was the extent of news media in Scotland.  Television, radio and ‘traditional’ newspapers were how we received our news, with content slanted to suit the political agendas of owners and publishers in London.  Broadcasters are supposed to be impartial but even the publicly-funded BBC makes clear in its Editorial Guidelines that impartiality “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue”.

Today, technology and the internet have moved news-reporting into cyberspace, with more and more of us using computers and mobile devices to receive news updates.  So-called ‘traditional’ newspapers are dying: readership and advertising are falling, while profit-driven owners slash jobs in newsrooms, resulting in poorer-quality publications.

This ‘Opinion’ column is written for the3towns, an online local newspaper just about to enter its seventh-year of publication and with a readership continuing to grow.  On the internet there are also sites covering national news and politics, many of which carry regular columns by some of the same journalists and commentators you will see in paid-for ‘traditional’ newspapers.

There are serious questions over how to make online publications profitable – if we want quality journalism we should be prepared to pay the journalists who produce it – but there can be no doubt that the internet and ‘new media’ are the future for news.

Of course, some working in the older mediums of news gathering and dissemination defend their positions by asserting that readers cannot have the same level of trust in online publications.  They argue digital media don’t have to meet the same standards as ‘traditional’ newspapers, a line that is completely untrue.  Scotland’s defamation and data protection laws apply just as much to online newspapers as they do to print and broadcast journalism.

It is also the case that much of the investigative journalism being done in Scotland is carried out by reporters working for online publications.  Locally, the3towns has revealed a number of stories that would not have come to light if the publication had not existed, such as the scandal surrounding claims for public money made by some, predominantly Labour, North Ayrshire councillors.  Likewise, with regard to national politics and Scottish independence, stories are being broken by websites such as the National Collective, Newsnet Scotland and Wings Over Scotland, all of which had a hand in bringing to the public’s notice the fact that the largest donor to the pro-British Union campaign – Better Together – is resident in England, does not have a vote in next year’s independence referendum, and is chief executive of an oil company that gave $1m to Serbian war-criminal Arkan.  The ‘traditional’ media – print and broadcast – subsequently carried the story, but only after the three websites named above had researched and published the information, and had faced-down threatening letters from lawyers representing Mr Ian Taylor, the donor in question.

Just in case you missed the story, London-based Ian Taylor, a long-standing donor to the Tory Party, has given £500,000 to the Better Together campaign, which represents almost half of its entire funding.  Better Together – the anti-independence organisation that sees the Labour Party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tories and Liberal Democrats – has refused to return Mr Taylor’s money, despite the fact Vitol, the company of which he is chief executive, has in the past done deals with the regimes of countries such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and, as previously mentioned, the warlord Arkan in Serbia.  Vitol admits such involvement but states it did nothing illegal.

However, in 2007, Vitol pled guilty to grand larceny in a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney in New York after the company admitted paying ‘surcharges’ to Iraqi officials in Saddam Hussein's regime under the United Nations oil-for-food scheme.  The District Attorney’s Office described the payments as ‘kickbacks’, which in this country would be known as bribes.  Then, in 2010, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fined two Vitol subsidiaries $6m for “wilfully failing to disclose material facts” to the New York Mercantile Exchange for almost two years.  Vitol neither admitted nor denied the CFTC’s findings, but subsequently put in place new compliance measures.

In addition, financial statements filed in Luxembourg last month by Vitol Holding II SA, part of the main Vitol organisation, revealed multiple operations in tax havens.  Covering the year to December 31 2011, when Vitol Holding II SA recorded a pre-tax profit of $2 billion, the Consolidated Financial Statements list 90 companies and 100%-owned subsidiaries which form the ‘Vitol Group’.  Of these, 23 were in tax havens: sixteen in Bermuda, five in the British Virgin Islands, one in Panama, and one (90% owned), in the Arab Emirate of Fujairah. 

All of which means that the pro-British Union campaign in Scotland has received almost half of its total funding from a man who doesn’t live in Scotland, can’t vote in Scotland, and whose company has dealt with some very dubious characters in pursuit of multi-billion-dollar oil profits, and apparently uses off-shore financial tax havens to help minimise the tax it pays in Britain.

We wouldn’t know these facts if it were not for the investigative journalism of reporters working for online news publications.

Scots want to make an informed decision on independence when they enter the voting booth on September 18 next year, but ‘traditional’ print and broadcast outlets are currently failing to deliver.  More and more, informative and accurate news is being sourced via online newspapers and blogs.  As we decide our country’s future, it is appropriate that technologies of the future are playing an increasingly important role in informing the debate.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Thatcher is gone...but Thatcherism remains

The power and control of the British establishment was there for everyone to see last Wednesday (April 17), as the state went into overdrove for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

The woman who destroyed thousands of lives and turned entire communities into wastelands of poverty and deprivation was afforded a send-off befitting a national hero.  It was entirely inappropriate and completely over the top, not to mention obscenely expensive, costing the public purse around £10m.

What we saw last Wednesday was nothing more than propaganda for a British state to which very few of us has any real connection.  The pomp and pageantry, the military personnel in dress uniforms, the silencing of Big Ben, the reverential coverage across the media – all to illustrate how the establishment can put on a show for one of its own.

The closest broadcasters came to recognising the real Thatcher and her toxic legacy were references to her having been, and remaining in death, a “divisive” figure, which represents a classic piece of understatement.

Thatcher is gone...but Thatcherism lives on.  The ideology of naked greed and class warfare remains the cornerstone of today’s Tory-Lib Dem government policies, as it was under the New Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  It’s said that Thatcher considered her greatest achievement was the creation of New Labour, a political party that abandoned every principle ever held dear by an organisation that had originally been created to give a parliamentary voice to the working class.  In that assertion, she was probably correct.

Today, the Labour Party shares the beliefs on which Thatcher built her ‘greed is good’ philosophy.  Her Tory Government smashed working class representation and strength by introducing some of the most draconian anti-trade union laws anywhere in the free world, and New Labour retained them. 

Today’s Labour Party is now as much a pro-capitalist organisation as the Tories, fully embracing the free-market economy that virtually bankrupted the country in 2008.  The party led by Ed Miliband backs Tory-Lib Dem policies to slash benefits paid to the most vulnerable people in society and has refused to commit itself to repealing the grossly unfair Bedroom Tax.

Tory, Lib Dem and Labour all now stand on the side of the bosses against the workers, while vilifying the ‘undeserving scroungers and skivers’ on the dole.

The Labour Party also now supports a new generation of nuclear missiles of mass destruction, at a total cost estimated in the region of £120bn.

Margaret Thatcher was very proud of what the Labour Party had become.

The Thatcherite agenda drove-down wages and conditions for workers, while slashing the rate of tax paid by the richest people in the country and removing regulations that had restrained boardroom greed.  The current Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, and the loyal Labour opposition, fully embraces the same philosophy.

Since Thatcher, through Blair, Brown and now Cameron the rich have got richer while the poor have got poorer, resulting in Britain having one of the most unequal societies in the world.

In the same week of Thatcher’s hugely expensive and inappropriate ‘state’ funeral, an increase to the national minimum wage was announced.  Workers over the age of 21 will receive an extra 12p an hour.  Let’s hope there is no massed stampede to spend the new largesse in the same shop.

From October, with the extra 12p, workers will be paid a minimum wage of £6.31 an hour.  Those aged between 18 and 21 will see their rate increase by 5p an hour, to £5.03. Workers aged 16 and 17 are to get an additional 4p an hour, taking their rate to £3.72.  The increase for Modern Apprentices is 3p, meaning they can legally be paid just £2.68 an hour.

As all of the increases listed above are below the rate of inflation, they actually represent pay-cuts for the poorest workers in the country.  Despite this, representatives of Britain’s bosses queued up to condemn them as unaffordable.

Mike Cherry, National Policy Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said, “The increase in the national minimum wage is unwelcome in today’s economic climate.  There will be businesses that operate on thin margins, who will struggle with any increase to the minimum wage.”

The British Chambers of Commerce’s Director of Policy, Adam Marshall, added, “While the pressures of inflation are affecting many people, including the lowest-paid, the scale of this rise adds significantly to business costs, most of all by contributing to broader pay inflation. It will also make some employers less inclined to hire additional members of staff.”

Meanwhile, Mark Littlewood, Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said any rise to the minimum wage was “illogical”.

Contrast the real-terms pay-cut for the poorest workers with the rewards received by those who say even an extra 12p an hour is unaffordable.  In 2011 the pay for the directors of the UK's top businesses rose by 50%, taking the average pay for a director of a FTSE 100 company to just short of £2.7m.

In 2012 the total median earnings of 100 chief executives worked out at £3.2m, while the average was £4m.

This is the situation Thatcher created and which remains in place today. 

No-one who destroyed so many lives and who created such an unfair and unequal society should have been afforded the praise, reverence, hero-worship and lavish publicly-funded funeral she received.

Thatcher is gone....but Thatcherism remains and the fight against the evil ideology continues. 

Monday, 8 April 2013


Supposedly, if you have nothing good to say about someone, you should say nothing.  I have nothing good to say about Margaret Thatcher, but to say nothing would leave the field clear to the right-wing revisionists who are already cramming the airwaves and opinion columns to portray her as a great leader for whom we, as a people, should be eternally grateful.

I believe Margaret Thatcher to have been evil.  She wilfully destroyed the lives of thousands of people in pursuit of an elitist political ideology, where financial profit for the few was all that mattered.  People, communities, whole industries were laid to waste as Thatcherism tore-up the previous political consensus that sought to achieve full employment in Britain.

To Thatcher, unemployment in Scotland, the north of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was a price worth paying for economic prosperity in the south-east of England, particularly in the financial markets of the City of London.  The fact that unemployment threw millions of decent people onto the scrap-heap, in many cases for the rest of their lives, meant nothing to Margaret Thatcher.  Quite simply, she didn’t care.

Scotland never voted for Thatcher, but because our country is part of the British Union we had her, and her policies, imposed on us.  Under Thatcher, virtually every industry that had once employed thousands of men and women was destroyed – the docks, mining, steel-making, manufacturing of all kinds.  British entrepreneurs were lauded as success stories when they closed factories in this country and moved manufacturing to sweat-shop economies in the far-east.  All that mattered was for the rich to get richer.

While the exploitation of workers in developing countries was presented as British industry expanding abroad and ‘good news’ for our economy, the unemployed back home were branded as free-loading wasters.  Thatcher’s government blamed the unemployed for being unemployed, despite the fact they had lost their jobs as a result of her scorched-industry policies.  It was Thatcher who first sought to turn people against those less fortunate than themselves, a strategy still being carried out today by her ideological heirs in the current UK Government.

It was Thatcher, too, who branded decent hard-working men in the mining industry as ‘the enemy within’ when they did nothing more than try to save their jobs.  The Thatcher Government’s all-out assault on British mines and the men who worked them was also the first time in modern history that the police were politicised.  Anyone who witnessed the 1984-85 Miners Strike will never forget mounted police riding into groups of miners and lashing out with extended batons.  Nor will it ever be forgotten how Maggie’s Stormtroopers waved their paypackets at strikers, goading the men with their bulging overtime payments as the families of miners went hungry.

Today, former coalmining communities are like ghost-towns.  Entire areas were left to rot, people’s lives destroyed, while Britain now imports coal from Columbia where child-labour is much more ‘cost-effective’ and small things like health and safety concerns are overlooked.  This was Thatcher’s vision.

Had it not been for Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher would have been thrown out of office after just one term.  As it turned out, though, the Argentines were persuaded to go ahead with an invasion after Britain appeared to be not interested in defending the islands.  The UK’s professional military subsequently re-took the Falklands, against relatively untrained Argentine conscripts, and Thatcher, amid a media blaze of jingoistic patriotism, sailed to electoral victory as a ‘war leader’ prime minister.  Surely even Thatcher would not have been so cynical as to put at risk the lives of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in a war that, ultimately, Britain was always going to win, just to turn around her flagging political fortunes at the time?  You better believe she would!

Then there was the Poll Tax, which Scotland got one year ahead of the rest of the UK.  Thatcher believed it was perfectly fair for ordinary workers to pay the same rate of local government tax as a multi-millionaire.  She saw nothing wrong with her butler having to pay the same tax as her, despite the massive disparity in their respective incomes.

Ultimately, direct action – and riots – by the public forced the Tory Government to back down over the Poll Tax, but Thatcher still believed it was right.  Her total disregard for the negative impact her policies had on ordinary men and women led to her downfall.  She simply did not care.  Fearing for their own political futures, senior Tories ousted her. 

This was a woman who hurt millions.  She did so with policies that moved the burden of taxation from the rich onto the poor; she did so by throwing people on the dole, removing their ability to support their families, removing even their dignity.  She couldn’t have cared less.

The ideology behind today’s attacks on the poor and vulnerable is Thatcherism.  The economic problems caused by profit-driven spivs and speculators in the City of London had at its root the Thatcherite belief that ‘greed is good’ and making ‘loads-a-money’ is all that matters.  Ultimately, Thatcher believed that people did not matter, ordinary men and women were expendable as a super-rich elite amassed ever greater profits.  She even sold-off public assets that belonged to us, sold them at knock-down prices to her friends in the City.

Margaret Thatcher was evil, and that is how history should remember her.