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Saturday, 9 July 2011

Hungary - exemplar or threat?

I make no apologies for featuring Hungary yet again; right now, it's the most interesting nation in Europe. Those of you familiar with previous threads will know that whilst my heart resonates to a new national will based on 'home, family, work, health and order' my head is ringing warning bells. Hence the post below. The BBC is parroting the calls for a new national media regulator 'with teeth' to replace the PCC on the basis that it would control Murdoch; they don't seem to have considered it could equally well control the BBC. Hungary's new constitution protects the rights of the foetus from the moment of conception, reserves marriage for a union between a man and a woman, does not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and permits imprisonment for whole natural-life terms without parole. But it's in the Preamble to the new constitution that Hungary's new 'national will' is most clearly expressed. I'll let you make your own minds up as I reproduce it below (my brief comments in italics).

National Credo

We, members of the Hungarian nation at the beginning of the new Millennium, bearing responsibility for all Hungarians hereby declare that:

We are proud that our King St. Stephen established the Hungarian state on firm foundations a thousand years ago and made our country a part of Christian Europe.

We are proud of our forefathers who struggled for the survival, freedom and independence of our country.

We are proud of the magnificent intellectual creations of Hungarian people.

We are proud that our people have battled for centuries to protect Europe (from the Moslem East) and have, with their talent and diligence enriched her common values.

We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving our nationhood. Likewise we appreciate the different religious traditions of our country (The Jews).

We promise to preserve the spiritual and intellectual unity of our nation battered by the storms of the past century. We consider the nationalities and ethnic groups living in Hungary as parts of our Hungarian nation.

We undertake to preserve and nurture our legacy, the Hungarian culture, our unique language, the man-made and natural treasures of the Carpathian-basin. We bear responsibility for our children; therefore we will prudently use our material, intellectual and natural resources, so as protect the essentials of life for future generations.

We believe that our national culture provides a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity.

We respect the freedom and cultures of other people; we aspire to cooperate will all nations of the world

We profess that the basis of human existence is human dignity.

We profess that individual freedom can develop fully only in cooperation with others.

We profess that the most important frameworks for our coexistence are the family and the nation, and the fundamental values binding us together are loyalty, faith and love

We profess that the strength of every community and the honour of every person is rooted in work and intellectual performance

We profess the obligation to help the poor

We profess that the common objective of the citizen and the state is the achievement of a good life, security, order, justice and freedom.

We profess that true rule by the people can only exist when the state serves its citizens and manages their affairs in an equitable manner without abuse or bias

[then 5 paras essentially negating everything constitutionally that happened between 1939 and 1990]

We declare that after decades of events in the twentieth century that led to moral decline we have an eminent need of spiritual and intellectual renewal

We have trust in the future we jointly build, the commitment of the young generations. We believe our children and grandchildren will use their talent, perseverance and emotional strength to make Hungary great again

Our Basic Law is the foundation of our legal system; it is a contract between Hungarians of the past, present and future. It is a dynamic framework which articulates the will of the nation, the framework within which we wish to live

We, the citizens of Hungary, are ready to base the order of our country on the cooperation of the nation (this doesn't seem to make sense until you realize that 'nation' is being used in the terms of 'indian nation' i.e. a discrete ethnic group with a common identity)

Friday, 8 July 2011

Would you trust Cameron to regulate the press?

Well would you? Riding on the wave of public loathing for scum journos, down there at the bottom of our 'human being' scales along with estate agents and, er, politicians, it must seem a very attractive idea for Cameron to muzzle the media's  ability to dig and reveal political dirt. And don't think this isn't happening in Europe already. Fidesz, the Hungarian populist party with a majority of over two-thirds in Parliament, and therefore with the power to alter the constitution, has already enacted a savage media law under which a five-member Media Council (all five are Fidesz party members) has sweeping power to determine mergers and acquisitions, investigate journalists and even bloggers as a judicial authority, seize evidence and require absolute disclosure of sources and documents. I can't even begin to describe how far-reaching the powers are; this extract takes a cross-section;
Finally, but most importantly: empowering the President (of the Media Council) to take decisions personally allocates even more power to the already too strong presidential position. (She is president of the Media and Telecommunication Authority and of the Media Council, responsible for appointing the head of the Public Service Media and Property Fund, and the Media Commissioner). The change further concentrates the power in the hands of one person – a person who is directly and solely appointed by the Prime Minister for nine years.The reply of the Media Council was published by the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) which now operates as the single concentrated newsroom for public service television in Hungary. The publication said that the Media Council follows the laws in all cases and decides as a body in all cases. It held that this resolution did not rewrite the media law, it did not give new rights or competences to the President of the Council, and that the „measurement made in the interest of the faster decision-making does not affect the jurisdiction of the Media Council”. It just makes the procedure easier and faster – it said, – because the media law provides very short deadlines (20 days in this case) therefore, in order to keep the deadline, speeding up the procedure and amending the Code of Procedure was necessary.
However, since the Council has wide powers of investigation, even procedural issues can decide the outcome of a case and affect constitutional rights. Among others, procedural rights of the Council – and since this decision, of an appointed Coordinator – are: extending the procedure to another illegal action (Section 149. Act on Media and Mass Communication); officially cite a person and order that he or she is apprehended by the police (Section 48. Act on Administrative Procedures); allow another administrative body to learn about documents treated confidentially (Section 153. Act on Media and Mass Communication); examine, copy or excerpt any document or tool relating to media services, publication or distribution – even if it contains secrets protected by law (Section 155 Act on Media and Mass Communication); oblige the client, other participants of the procedure, their commissioners, employees, or anyone else who has any legal relationship to the client or other participant of the procedure – in exceptional cases any other person or organisation – to provide data orally or in writing, in a format defined by the authority (or the Coordinator) that is suitable for comparison, or any other information (Section 155 Act on Media and Mass Communication); and oblige the client to make a declaration or provide data, under threat of a fine (up to EUR 92 000 or HUF 25 million for organisations, and EUR 3700 or HUF 1 million for natural persons).
If you imagine that Cameron won't be reading this and thinking it a useful template, you've got a damn site more trust in venal politicos than I have.  

Badger-watchers heave sigh of relief

MPs fond of a spot of nocturnal badger-watching on Hampstead Heath, soccer players who prefer their fowl spatchcocked and soap stars with rotten nasal septa must be heaving a sigh of relief this morning, and at Clarence House there's probably champers for brekkie, but I fear it will all be short lived. The 'Screws' didn't exist in a vacuum; it was popular and successful because it chimed exactly with our nation's sense of prurience. We lapped up every coyly salacious description, revelled in the archaic Screws-speak and owed ourselves a pint every time a reporter 'made his excuses and left'. 

"Now I remember! It was your name of course
In the News of the World with the blonde and the horse
All dressed up in gymslips, I say what a lark!"

Tesco and CABE eat dirt

The idiots who were at CABE, now facing merger with the Design Council, will not have gone away. It was CABE, The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, who opined favourably on the buildings that people hate. The US-based Project for Public Spaces has condemned many of the structures praised by CABE; every time you endure a walk past a blank monolithic windswept ground floor elevation, it's probably a building loved by CABE and loathed by PPS. The difference is that CABE values the abstract aesthetics of modernist design, whilst PPS values spaces that people find joy in using. Frequently the two are irreconcilable. Here's how PPS described Exchange Square in Manchester, a public space much loved and vaunted by CABE:
Like Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam, Exchange Square is known as an "event space." The problem is that it only works when events are taking place. Its fancy paving, sweeping design statements and hidden water feature dress the square up, but leave the user with no place to go. Over-designed, inflexible, and dominated by rows of awkward sitwalls that impede pedestrian flow and gathering, this square should be exchanged for a place that actually displays a rudimentaty understanding of how people use public space. It masquerades as a civic square, but actually prevents this space from really evolving to celebrate the true richness and diversity of Manchester.
So it was no surprise that CABE strongly supported the construction of a hideous and massive Tesco store in the heart of one of Suffolk's most congruent little market towns, praising it's bullying and domineering design. CABE hate anything like a 600-year old high street that has grown organically, and without the intervention of some fashionable Hamburg architect. 

Well, both Tesco and CABE can now eat dirt. Planning consent for the Tesco invasion has been refused. Hadleigh is breathing a sigh of relief today, and another nail has just been driven in the coffin of these useless metrolingual design aesthetes. 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Public order learning curve

This Greek chap isn't wearing sunblock but Maalox. Rhone-Poulenc's antacid remedy has become the must-have demo accessory of the year and sales are booming. For why? It neutralises tear gas - not actually a gas at all but a powder (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile) that reacts with moisture on the skin, and which the aluminium hydroxide and magnesium hydroxide in Maalox very effectively stops irritating the eyes and mucous membranes. 

It reminds me of that old saw about the Swiss and cuckoo clocks; conflict rapidly brings in its wake an accelerated development of both offensive and defensive solutions. But fails to answer why the Maalox solution was not discovered in Northern Ireland, often once clouded with CS gas ....

Construction booming offshore but gloom in UK

Construction is booming in the BRICs - but there's no good news here in the UK. A decade ago or so the specialist construction support partnerships - quantity surveyors, CDM planners, project managers, construction law specialists and the like - began to agglomerate into multi-skilled LLPs that could offer clients a whole raft of skills with one appointment, and the old structures, in which the specialist partners were personally and individually liable, disappeared. I can't think when last I saw a site board with the old purple RICS lion and the legend 'Quantity Surveyors'. 2008 hit these firms hard in the UK - most froze salaries and laid off staff, and many of the bigger ones started hoarding cash. Lots of cash. 

Well, now they've started spending - but not in the UK. There has recently been a flurry of acquisitions and mergers and investments in similar firms offshore - not in the Gulf (a spent force) but in the BRICs. This is not however good news for UK construction support professionals. With university education and booming middle classes, they can recruit locally all the talent they need at a fraction of the cost of transferring a UK professional out. First class Quantity Surveyors from the Mumbai office can service a construction project in Guangzhou on salaries of £10k. 

And of course there's increasing nervousness in the UK offices of such firms; only immigration controls prevent those same Mumbai-based QSs from servicing the live construction projects in the UK. It's all part of the rebalancing of the economy away from services and back to manufacturing; just as we're losing our competitive advantage in construction support, those same growing middle classes in the BRICs have created a new consumer market for quality and niche goods. Exports of Scotch are a good indicator. Forget the value of exports - as the £ devalues, the value will increase - but look instead at volume. Although this seems steady, with no dramatic increase, something fundamental is happening. Exports to the US, France and Germany, traditional stalwarts, have nosedived. But exports to Russia are up 60%, India up 50% and China up 20%. 

So here's a message to the gloomy burghers of Merthyr Tydfil; stop whinging and pestering for handouts, and start making stuff that a 30-something professional in Rio wants to buy as a lifestyle defining product. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Rebekah Wade facing trial?

Rebekah Wade as was, Brooks as is, who hit the headlines when she allegedly beat the crap out of her hard-man ex husband Ross Kemp (earning her Private Eye's nick of 'The Slapper'), ex-chum of Cherry Blair, is deep in the doo-doo. Of course the 'Screws' paid cash to corrupt coppers for story leads and inside details; everyone knows the score. Rebekah's sin was to lie to a Parliamentary committee about it. As lowly as one rates individual MPs, as sleazy and corrupt a collective body as they are, we must preserve the rights of Parliament to be told the absolute truth. 

As NOTW hacks and ex-hacks indulge in an orgy of back-stabbing and getting their retaliation in first as they dob each other for the Milly Dowler obscenity, we risk losing sight of the important story - Wade and some bent senior coppers lied to a Parliamentary committee. They must all be tried for this and serve time in jail if convicted. And Cameron is tarred by association - and this too will stick. 

Smoking bans get silly

With Dick Puddlecote organising a smoke-in for Saturday at Stony Stratford (I'd like to be there but probably won't be), and Iceland proposing a total ban on the sale of cigarettes (I've always said the Nordics made the most enthusiastic Nazis) we need to look to Australia for how the truly absurd could arrive at a street near you soon.

This is King Street, in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney undergoing 'gentrification'. The local council responsible for the pavement on the left of the pic has just banned all outdoor smoking, but the pavement on the right, within the City of Sydney area, still permits smokers to sit at the outside tables. Cafe owners on the left side are up in arms; all their trade has crossed the street. Most absurd is that it's a busy four-lane road, and that particulates, smoke, and carcinogenic PAHs from vehicles are probably many thousands of times the levels produced if every smoker in Newtown was puffing away at the tables. This isn't about health at all; it's all just spite and bigotry. At times of economic stress people used to immolate elderly women; today's witches are we smokers.   

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

This is one battle we should lose

We baby boomers, that is. We who have enjoyed free higher education, sustained high standards of living, the rewards of daft house-price inflation, full employment and all the rewards of a liberal social democratic post-war roll. Now, as John Redwood points out, we want to use our political muscle to get the State to pay for our care in old age so we can pass on our wealth intact to our children. The postman, the school cleaner, the Polish fruit-picker and the working young couple trapped in rented accommodation must pay taxes so our kids can keep their inheritance intact.  

I'm sorry, but this stinks. Unlike Socialists who believe in equality of outcome, I believe only in equality of opportunity - a 'fair go' in antipodean terms. Call it equity. And it's not just intragenerational equity that's important but intergenerational equity. For my generation to take from the younguns for our own old-age care when we have wealth intact is simply not equitable. If I can't find extended family members to embrace my well-being in my decrepitude, then I must dig into my capital for it. And despite our political clout, this is one battle that my generation would be well advised to lose. 

Mechanics Institute

The current hand-wringing over council library closures conveniently manages to ignore the remarkable survival of the very first lending libraries in England - the Mechanics Institutes. Not the sort of places to be known to the like of Lady Toynbee, what with all those screws, nipples and shafts (sorry Mr Arthur, journals) these were founded in the early nineteenth century before even the rotten boroughs were abolished and our first round of democratic reforms. 

Tavern Street in Ipswich has remarkably few taverns, but is home to a Mechanics Institute founded by Dr James Birkbeck in 1824; the one he founded in London went on to become Birkbeck College, but Ipswich just went on doing what it had always done - providing a reading source and meeting place for the artisans of Ipswich. Anyone who knows Ipswich will recognise the doorway, but I'll guess few have actually been inside. It's a sort of secret. And MIs owe their name to a more ancient usage of the word than now applies; Shakespeare's mechanicals you will recall were a tinker, a tailor, a weaver, a bellows-mender and a joiner. 

Just as the 1911 National Insurance Act crowded-out the flourishing private provision of insurance, savings, mutuals and co-operatives, so the well-meaning State and its library-building benefactors such as Mr Andrew Carnegie crowded-out many flourishing private Mechanics Institutes.  

So what's the point of this post, apart from a puff for Ipswich? Well, there's a hugely resilient technical and vocational streak amongst us, one that I'm pleased to say feels very strongly about itself. The comments to a post below, which was actually about unskilled site labour, angrily upbraided me for seeming to suggest that foreign engineers were better than native ones. The MIs in the early and mid nineteenth century played an important part in nurturing the skills and innovation that was to place the country at the world's industrial forefront in the latter half of the century, and did so not as the result of central economic planning by the State but by ordinary 'technicals' banding together. Could the answer to Britain's competitive advantage in the twenty-first century again lie with the grass roots?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Johann Hari and the Orwell Prize

I must admit I don't read Johann Hari and I've only vaguely heard of the Orwell Prize, but of course I shalln't allow either of these facts prevent me from venturing an opinion on the matter. Orwell of course consummately catalogued with great insight the deceptions, frauds, deceits, mendacities and outright dishonesty of the totalitarian Left. Given what this shit Hari has done, I can actually think of no-one more deserving of a prize in Orwell's name.

Alastair Campbell should have got one for 'Most Idiotic Plagiarism 2003', Gordon Brown for 'Best self-deception' in 2008 and 2009 and for 'Most bigoted stereotyping' in 2010 for that campaign trail description of Gillian Duffy, and of course Polly Toynbee should get an Orwell lifetime achievement award for 'Omission, distortion and misrepresentation above the call of duty'.  

BBC Fat Cat salaries

For a reasonably sized firm, one with a turnover from the tens of millions up to £100m or so, I would be surprised if the CE were paid more than about twelve times the clerical / admin salary. If this were £14k, it gives a ceiling of £168k for the CE's wedge. In between it gives all the room you need for an efficient, flat hierarchy based on a maximum span-of-control of eight and all with decent salary differentials. Of course, if profits are good and sustained, boards will tend to reward the top team over and above this.

As firms get bigger, with turnovers in the hundreds or even thousands of millions, so the hierarchy expands - you need more layers of management to maintain your span-of-control. You'll probably split the thing into business divisions, but then you'll need a separate Finance Division and HR Division to keep the centre in control and hold everything together. But even in the largest firm, I can't see the need to pay the CE more than twenty times the clerical / admin salary - a ceiling of £280k using the figure above. But then other factors come into play; there's the prestige of the firm, enhanced by having an unreasonably highly paid CE. Then there's the risk of poaching and all the other factors that HR Consultants will roll out to justify vast additions to the CE's wedge. But for a boring, steady company making normal profits, 20x the base salary is a sufficient gap to allow all the hierarchy you need. 

And indeed when the profligacy of BBC top salaries was first in the press, and Mark Thompson's £850k package, I'm quite certain that a cap of "twenty times the lowest paid" was talked of. The Telegraph this morning even repeats it;
Lord (Chris) Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong and a former Conservative Party chairman, hailed research by Will Hutton of the Work Foundation into a Government proposal to limit top public servants' pay to no more than 20 times that of their lowest paid staff.
This must have terrified the gilded dags in the executive suites who must have been pushing the little calculator buttons on their Blackberries like a school of monkeys with new typewriters. And lo and behold, for the same Marr show interview, the Guardian is putting out a completely different story, and one in which the lowest pay has magically (in an Orwellian sort of way) become median pay;
Patten said he was particularly interested in the "very good ideas" in Hutton's report on public sector pay, which rejected a suggestion that top pay in public sector bodies should be capped at 20 times median pay in the organisation.
The median salary is the figure below which half the BBC's employees are paid and above which half the BBC's employees are paid. My guess is that the figure's about £35k or so - giving a ceiling of £700k or so. Oh, how convenient! The base salary (excluding all the extras) of all the following are suddenly therefore fine and no change will be needed;

£647,000 Mark Thompson, Director General

£459,000 Mark Byford, Deputy Director General

£406,000 Jana Bennett, Director BBC Vision

£380,000 Jon Smith, Chief Executive BBC Worldwide

£370,000-£400,000 Peter Salamon, Director BBC North

£329,000 Zarin Patel, Chief Financial Officer

£328,000 Caroline Thompson, Chief Operating Officer

£314,000 Timothy Davie, Director Audio & Music

£310,000-£340,000 Alex Yentob, Creative Director BBC Finance; Erik Hughes, Director Future Media and Technology; Helen Boaden, Director BBC News; Sharon Baylay, Director Marketing, Communications and Audiences

£280,000-£310,000 Balraj Samara, Director Vision Operations; Pat Longhrey, Director Nation and Regions; Richard Sambrook, Director Global News

£250,000-£280,000 Dominic Coles, Chief Operating Officer Journalism; Jay Hunt, Controller BBC One; Roland Keating, Director of Archive Content (TV)

£220,000-£250,000 Daniel Cohen, Controller, BBC Three; Ed Williams, Director of Communications, Marketing; Janice Hadlow, Controller BBC Two; John Linwood, Chief Technology Officer, Future Media & Technology; John Yorke, Controller television drama production; Julie Gardner; Head of Independent Drama Commissioning; Nicholas Kroll, Director BBC Trust; Richard Deverell, Controller children’s television; Roger Mosey, Director sport

£190,000-£220,000 Andrew Parfitt, Controller RI/IXtra/Asian Network, Audio & Music; Andy Griffee, Editorial Director Project 1, Operations; Anne Morrison, Controller Network Production; Chris Day, Group Financial Controller; Chris Kane, Head of Corporate Real Estate; Dorothy Prior, Controller Production Resource; Emma Swan, Head of In-House Commissioning, BBC Vision; Graham Ellis, Controller Production, Audio and Music; John Vickerman, HR Shared Services Director; Liam Keelan, Controller daytime television; Marka Damazer, Controller Radio 4 and Radio 7; Mike Goodie, Director Employee Relations; Nicholas Eldred, Group General Counsel and Secretary; Peter Horrocks, Director World Service; Peter White, Chief Executive, BBC Digital UK; Richard Klein, Controller BBC Four; Robert Shennan, Controller Radio 2 and 6 Music; Roger Wright; Controller R3; Stephen Mitchell, Head of multimedia news programmes; Tom Archer, Controller factual production, BBC Vision

(Source HERE 2009 figures)