A child’s verdict on Osborne and Balls? “Like kids. Actually, worse than kids”

The chicklet likes to watch the news.  It’s one of his deft tactics to avoid the start of the long, and ever so slow, march to bedtime.

He was transfixed watching the scenes from the House of Commons on Channel 4 on Thursday, as Osborne and Balls slugged it out over the Libor-Barclays scandal.  As they exchanged verbal jabs and hooks, they were by turns spurred on and jeered at by the braying mobs sitting behind and opposite them.  The chicklet was agog.

I sought his opinion.  “Like kids.  Actually, worse than kids.  Much worse than anything we’d be allowed to do in the playground.  They made a lot of noise, it scared me a bit.  What was it about?”

Where to start?

Another banking scandal – the mother of all banking scandals – has at last achieved what none of the other outrages of the last five years could manage.  An inquiry will be held into the state, culture and practices of the industry and all that remained to be determined was the type:  the Eton toffs wanted a parliamentary one, the opportunists opposite demanded a judicial one.  At the start of the week, the Conservatives decided that offence was the best defence to any claims that their world was too closely entwined with the banks, claims which had been made in several Sunday papers.

To divert attention from them not wanting to do anything much, they focused attention on the previous Labour government.  Briefings culminated in Osborne giving a J’accuse interview to the Spectator.  Ed Balls, the current Shadow Chancellor who was a pivotal member of Labour’s Treasury team, was the man in their sights, requiring him to find a way off the ropes.  The result was the unedifying scenes in the UK Parliament on Thursday.

Both protagonists should be ashamed of themselves:  they would be, if they had a shred of decency between them.  This issue, one which yet again has found our financial institutions wanting, where the greed of a few threatens – continuously – the well-being of the many, should be a sober topic requiring our politicians’ fullest attention.  Yet, these boys treated it like a game: if they could have used conkers, they would.

What the main UK political parties have forgotten is that this is not about them, but about us.  None of us cares anymore who is to blame for the mess we are in.  We all know that both are culpable:  neither party seriously questioned the wisdom of removing the regulatory framework at the turn of the century, nor have they seriously suggested clamping down since.  Promises from the banks and their advocates to behave better when they came down off the naughty step have proven shallow.

Still, they – and their pals in Parliament – resist the need for greater regulation.  At the same time as the Tories were doing the rounds dissing Ed Balls, familiar calls were being made on the back of LIBOR and interest rate swap mis-selling not to rush to temper the excesses of the banks, on the now spurious grounds of turning away the talent and turning off the profit.  Osborne himself has been at it this weekend, preparing to “fight for bankers’ bonuses in Europe” (the European Parliament votes on bonus-curbing measures this week).  Hasn’t he had enough of the bare-knuckle stuff, for we certainly have?

MEPs – somewhat bizarrely – appear to be more in touch with the mood of the people(s). If limiting bonuses results in higher wage costs and removes some of the gamblers from European markets altogether, so be it.  Yet, the bankers have mounted a ferocious rearguard action, and even if the Parliament votes for the move, it is unlikely to be ratified by all member states.  The UK will be at the front of that queue.

If we needed reminding of Labour’s unreadiness to govern, their willingness to fold on the type of inquiry provided it.  Bob Diamond’s outing before the Treasury Select committee showed just how useless and pointless an exercise this is going to be.  Politicians might spend much of their career applying spin and gloss but when it comes to telling porkies with a straight face and trembling voice, no one can compete with bankers.  Lying to Parliament holds no fear, only lying to judges might.

Today, Ed Miliband is trailing a speech setting out his strategy for putting the banks in order.  Break them up and simplify it all hardly amounts to a Nobel prize winning approach and it’s all a little, well too little, too late.  These are things his own government could have set in train before it was shown the door and they are changes already much called for by the Lib Dems.  Where was Ed when Vince Cable was looking for political support for similar?  A potent Labour leader would have ignored partisan politics on the basis that this is a crisis that needs sorting,  one we are all in together and which we must all work together to fix.  Backing Vince Cable would have been seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

No, this is about posturing and gesturing in the run up to the next General Election:  Miliband’s interview is in the Mail on Sunday which speaks volumes.  In truth, none of them actually wants to take responsibility for doing anything about it.  The banks reign over all of us and politicians and parties – still – are in thrall to them.  Consequently, they fiddle, we burn.

Others have already commented on all this – Marina Hyde, Charles Moore and Kevin McKenna especially wrote articles that made the burd cheer.

And here in Scotland, does any of it matter?  As McKenna suggests, as long as the current state of things continue, “the SNP doesn’t need a strategy for independence“.

He is half right.

The do nothing and letting it all play out tactics seem attractive.  But like the chicklet, many of us were wondering what this week’s playground antics in Westminster were all about.  Some of us need it spelled out and reminded – regularly – that this is them, not us.  And that we can do something different if we take charge of our own affairs.

Which would require resolution of the tensions in a referendum strategy aiming to persuade the populace that independence means we won’t have to change much and can also keep our British culture.  It might also require setting out different how.  All of which requires another blogpost to explore.


Salmond is right to seek to turn all the screws of the news

The SNP Government kept pretty schtum as the News of the World story broke and grew mid-week.  The lack of reaction and intervention was intriguing, not least because the SNP had been endorsed by both the Scottish Sun and the News of the World in the recent Scottish elections.  Had Salmond supped with the devil and therefore, needed to keep his head down (as the Sunday Herald seemed to suggest today)?  Was there a big scandal waiting in the wings?  You could almost hear the sharpening of pencils at media outlets around Scotland.

But just as the silence was becoming deafening, Alex Salmond broke his cover and issued a statement on Friday, responding to the Prime Minister’s announcement of a public inquiry into phone hacking.   The First Minister may have arrived late but his tack is spot on.  Quoting the Motorman list and the What Price Privacy Now? reports compiled by the Information Commissioner in 2006, he urged the inquiry to cast the widest possible net.  (And in acknowledging that I too have come rather late to this party, it is gratifying to know that two intrepid bloggers, Love and Garbage and Iain Hepburn were hot on the trail of this scandal months ago, but no one paid attention.  Sadly.)

In doing so, the First Minister played an all-too familiar reserved-devolved card, calling for the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be consulted on the scope of the inquiry, citing the diverse range of media outlets across the UK as the necessary driver for this.  He’s right, of course, but it does make for a rather wearisome, easy hit.

In focusing on the obvious London axis, the First Minister has missed a more important one, one that was outlined by the Information Commissioner in Scotland on Newsnight Scotland earlier this week.  In an otherwise turgid interview, Mr Macdonald dropped a wee bomb into the discourse.  He advised that the Assistant Commissioner for Scotland has no powers to refer breaches of data protection to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration of prosecution.  Those powers rest solely with the UK office, one presumes as a result of the law establishing the role of the Information Commissioner.  So even if wrongdoing was uncovered by the Commissioner or any other body in relation to data protection laws in Scotland, no prosecution could follow, in either a devolved area – say breach of the law by a health board – or on a reserved one – perhaps by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Is the issue such that the “local” office in Scotland cannot make referrals but that the parent office at UK level can?  If yes, this means that any data breaches uncovered by an inquiry into the conduct of the press could be referred to the Procurator Fiscal, albeit by the UK Information Commissioner (assuming, of course he is not swamped by workload in his own patch).  Or is it that there is no locus at all in Scotland for prosecution of data protection breaches, requiring them all to be handled by courts south of the border?  One hopes that someone is researching the matter and preparing to brief the First Minister expeditiously – and I’d be mighty grateful if the likes of Love and Garbage or Lallands Peat Worrier could step in and rescue me from my rather rusty knowledge of the law.

Whatever the ins and outs of the precise situation, you can see how this rather astonishing situation gives the First Minister a much bigger goalmouth to aim at, particularly given the current miasma enveloping the media.  The recent stushie over the UK Supreme Court might well pale into insignificance if we find that there have been privacy breaches by Scottish newspapers that we can do very little about.  At least two were cited by the Motorman report.

As if this wasn’t enough, all weekend, we’ve had earnest, passionately written articles from journalists downplaying the need for tighter regulation, both here in Scotland and elsewhere.  There is a risk that the focus of our attention following the demise of the News of the World becomes far too narrow.  If the ding-dong now becomes about self or government or some form of independent regulation of the press in the UK, then we will have been led down a cul-de-sac.  The case – or otherwise – for an end to press self-regulation is only one part of the equation, and is largely, at this stage, a red herring.

But focusing on this serves the other press barons and scribes well.  Ditto it all being about Murdoch.  Which is not to say this is not well-deserved and not before time.  But there are more miscreants and lawbreakers at large than Murdoch and his minions.  Alex Salmond is right to call for all of them to be investigated, and for the whole culture to be examined thoroughly.  It is unlikely to be edifying but it is necessary if our press is to have a fighting chance of survival.

We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up the worst excesses of journalistic practice, to determine a new ownership regime that is accountable and transparent, and to ensure that we have newspapers that are fit for purpose in the 21st Century.  The inquiry will be painful but it has to be.  And it will only succeed without the kind of political partisanship that was on display this weekend from the other parties in Scotland.  Moreover, it must involve the public – we what buys these blatts for our titillation – taking a long hard look at itself and its own morals.  Without demand, there is no supply, though admittedly the relationship between newspaper and audience is more complex than that.

In short, we need, as the man said, an inquiry into “the ethics and conduct of the press” and everything that goes with it.  It’s the only way that in the future, we’ll have all the news that’s fit to print.