Boris Johnson; not offensive, just wrong – and foolish

You’d think experienced politicians would know that you don’t use analogies involving Hitler or the Nazis to make a political point unless you’ve got a clear, relevant and closely argued line of reasoning. Even in those cases the consequences of going nuclear by pressing the Hitler button can backfire badly. The debate can switch away from the controversy in question as the media focus on the Nazi jibe. Usually it’s a simple choice. You can keep some measure of control over the debate, or you can invoke the Nazis.

Ken Livingstone blundered into this particular rhetorical mantrap the other week with his assertion that Hitler was at one point a Zionist. The left’s rather uncomfortable history regarding Israel, Zionism and Jews isn’t my concern here, however. That is just one of the issues Labour needs to sort out on its long march back to power.

What prompted this blog was Boris Johnson’s much trumpeted comparison between Hitler’s ambitions for Europe and the 21st century European Union. In fairness to Johnson he wasn’t saying the EU is in any way similar to the Nazi regime, merely that the EU’s vision of Europe is consistent with a long and sorry history of failed attempts to recreate a European state.

“The whole thing began with the Roman Empire,” he says. “I wrote a book on this subject, and I think it’s probably right. The truth is that the history of the last couple of thousand years has been broadly repeated attempts by various people or institutions – in a Freudian way – to rediscover the lost childhood of Europe, this golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans, by trying to unify it. Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he says.

Well, so far so reckless. It’s a point of view with which I’d disagree, but I don’t find it offensive, just silly. Dragging Hitler into the debate over our EU membership is rather like flinging a decomposing rat onto the table during a meeting. Whatever point is being made is rather lost while people recoil. Debate ends and disgust takes over.

Aside from the obvious objection that the EU’s vision of a closer Europe isn’t merely a difference in tone, but is a radically different vision of the destination, Johnson’s analogy disintegrates when it is picked apart in the context of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. That becomes clear when you consider Johnson’s follow up to the quote above.

While Mr Johnson is not arguing that the bureaucrats of Brussels are Nazis attempting to bring back Hitler’s Reich, his comparison is startling. Clearly, he sees parallels between the choices that confronted his beloved Churchill, and Britain, during the Second World War and the decision facing voters next month.

“This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control,” he says.

“It is time for someone – it’s almost always the British in European history – to say, ‘we think a different approach is called for’.”

Johnson sees the Brexit campaign as analogous to the UK fighting for the soul of civilised Europe in the Second World War. I can see why he thinks that is an attractive picture, but he has got the argument exactly the wrong way round.

Hitler’s vision for Europe wasn’t a superstate running from the Hebrides to the Urals in which Britain was a western province. Hitler looked east, and he expected Britain to remain a maritime nation, with its non-European empire. Hitler’s navy was a tiny force compared to the Royal Navy and, pre-war, was never seriously intended to challenge Britain. Hitler’s admired the British Empire and, uncomfortably for modern Britons, saw it as a model for German rule of eastern Europe. German would dominate mainland Europe, and Britain would withdraw from any involvement, or interference in that German sphere of influence.

It was only Britain’s determination to remain involved in mainland Europe by declaring war in 1939 then refusing to negotiate peace in 1940 that turned the war into a fight to the finish and persuaded Hitler that Britain must be invaded and crushed. The comparison between the Nazis’ European vision and that of the EU fails most obviously because invasion and mass murder are fundamentally different from peaceful union and co-operation, rather than alternative means to the same end, as argued by Johnson. But the comparison fails even on its own narrow terms; the vision of the Brexit campaigners would result in a Britain detached from mainland Europe, lacking influence in a structure increasingly dominated by Germany. Such a Europe, with Britain isolated and irrelevant to the big events on the mainland, has more in common with the Nazis’ European vision than the current EU of which Britain is a member with considerable, if erratic, influence.

The British Empire is long gone, thank goodness. This is not the 18th century. A Britain outside the EU and isolated from the European mainstream wouldn’t be a maritime nation swashbuckling around the high seas. Britain would be a confused, more insular place, unsure of its role in the world, having antagonised and irritated its friends and erstwhile partners, while the USA is increasingly looking to its west, across the Pacific.

The Brexiters have no clear and credible vision for the future, only a yearning for a past that can never return. Does Johnson know this? I’m not sure he cares. His vision for the future is one that will enrich and empower one Boris Johnson. Everything is subordinate to that vision. His invocation of the Nazis was politically inept and, I fervently hope, will fatally undermine his personal and political campaign. I want to see a Britain committed to Europe. That is our future, and it is consistent with our past to a far greater extent than Boris Johnson is prepared to concede.


Are Rangers a new club?

When Rangers were liquidated in 2012 there were two nagging questions left unresolved that prompted endless arguments amongst football supporters. Were the Rangers club that kicked off in July 2012 a new club (as Dundee skipper Gary Harkins has suggested)? And should titles be stripped from Rangers because their use of Employee Benefit Trusts, which attracted the ire of HM Revenue & Customs, amounted to cheating?

The second question is a genuinely difficult and complex issue that requires consideration of tax law, Scottish FA regulations, and the rather vague notion of sporting integrity. I’m not going to touch on it here. It’s too big a topic for a short blog.

The first question, on the other hand, is deceptively simple. It can be answered easily and persuasively, without recourse to liquidation legislation or SFA regulations. It has appeared complex only because Rangers supporters are reluctant to concede any ground whatsoever, and their opponents are happy to pick up any stick with which they can whack the fallen giant.

In summary, the Rangers fans are right, but for the wrong reasons. The anti-Rangers faction are also right, but for reasons that don’t matter, or really should not matter to football fans. It might be more apt to say the Rangers’ enemies are wrong but for the right reasons.

The legal opinion on whether Rangers are a new club hangs on the question of whether the club and the limited company are distinct legal entities. The legal opinion is complex and irrelevant. No Rangers supporters would change their minds if a judge issued an awkward verdict. The Rangers support has been fighting the wrong battle in arguing that the limited company and the club are legally separate, and that the club can therefore survive the death of the company. That seems arguable as a point of law, and the opponents of Rangers have been revelling in their opportunity to pose as legal experts in order to wind up the establishment club. However, if you backed any true football supporter into a corner, they would acknowledge that a club is not defined by its articles of association as a company.

Limited companies are a lousy model for forming football clubs. They concentrate power in the hands of a few, who are barely accountable to the community they should represent. A football club can be bought and sold in absurd haste, with no adequate scrutiny of new owners. By their nature football clubs attract dreadful owners. Rangers are a classic example, stumbling into liquidation under Craig Whyte, then being resurrected by the dodgy Charles Green’s consortium. I doubt if any Rangers supporter believes that either Whyte or Green were fitting custodians of the club and its traditions.

What defines a club is the community it represents, its supporter base along with all the nebulous but vital memories, beliefs and myths that add up to tradition. They’re summed up beautifully by this anonymous writer.

The soul of a club is the product of its history, and the history of a club is a product of those who toil in its cause, with their hearts on their sleeve as well as the badge on their chest, who play with an awareness of where they are, and in whose footsteps they tread.

These words matter because we believe them, because we believe they matter far more than any legal document. They are used to great effect in this video, nakedly emotional and heart-tugging but deeply stirring for supporters of my football club.

It is this sense of continuity and tradition that validates Rangers as a continuing club, and this is what their support should be citing, not legal opinion.

The legal arguments are a smokescreen that have obscured the essential points. As far as I’m concerned Rangers are the same club, for better or worse, because I see the same community with a strong and continuing sense of identity and tradition, only part of which is that they’re playing at the same ground in the same colours.

The legal nit-picking has let the Scottish FA off the hook. Instead of trying to justify their actions, and justify the notion that company and club are currently legally separate, they should be admitting that their governance of the game has been badly flawed and that they had to try and achieve the right outcome by means that weren’t always strictly constitutional or legally rational. The SFA’s squirming to try and reconcile the law, their regulations and the reality of Rangers’ continuing existence has been cringeworthy.

Rangers have won their battle to be recognised as the same club, but there is still a widespread, sullen refusal to accept that, and an understandable belief that the SFA’s twisting and turning reflects a refusal to apply the regulations honestly. The wider battle for competent and responsible governance is nowhere near being won. Just one feature of that struggle is the need for an honest acceptance of what a football club truly means and an acknowledgement that forming clubs as limited companies has serious disadvantages; in particular limited companies are easy meat for chancers like Whyte and Green. Supporters deserve better.

Ruth Davidson & party loyalty

Last week Ruth Davidson criticised Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, and Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, for being weak because they will allow candidates to stand for their parties even if they believe in independence.

Either Ruth Davidson is taking an indirect swipe at David Cameron or she has no idea how ridiculous she looks. If Dugdale and Rennie are weak for allowing candidates to disagree with party policy where does that leave Cameron who is allowing cabinet ministers to campaign against government policy? We are watching the astonishing sight of UK government ministers publicly fighting the Prime Minister whilst remaining in the cabinet. Is Ruth Davidson unaware how absurd her party appears? Or is she distancing herself from her boss by implying that David Cameron is a weak leader of a bitterly divided party?

Has there ever been a time when the two main UK parties were as fundamentally divided? Many Labour MPs seem increasingly detached from their own leader and from the party activists. The Tories, meanwhile, look in danger of repeating the trauma suffered by Labour in the aftermath of the last EU referendum when an equally divided party saw the SDP split off in 1981.

It’s four years till the next UK General Election. By the time 2020 arrives UK politics might be utterly unrecognisable.

Vile trolls and eminently respectable trolls

In addition to this blog I have one for professional purposes and I use Twitter for work. Both are vital for my public image. Potential clients will search for me and decide whether to hire me based on what they see. Before I post any tweets I always think “what will this look like, what will clients think?”. I try not to go to the extreme of bland dullness on Twitter. I want my personality to be visible. I do allow politics to stray onto Twitter but I keep most of my political opinions away from that Twitter account. This blog, however, is for personal statements that I wish to keep separate from my work.

I cringe when I see other people using social media in a way that makes them look stupid, offensive or vindictive. It baffles me that they either don’t know or don’t care how they appear to the world. In some cases the reason is simple stupidity. In others it is arrogance. It is always unattractive. I despise trolling. It goes against my nature and upbringing. It is the height of bad manners. Yes, it really is that bad!

There has been endless discussion and condemnation of trolling in Scottish politics over the last couple of years. Most of the concern has been about Yes campaigners and SNP supporters, the famed “vile cybernats”. I have no time for the idiots who fling around epithets like “traitor” and “quisling”. The same applies to those on the other side who cheerfully smear with “fascist”, “Nazi” and “Stalinist”, or draw inane comparisons with North Korea and Zimbabwe.

There may be no significant moral difference between the two groups, but there is a significant practical distinction. The cybernats are angry, bitter outsiders. The unionist trolls may be angry and bitter, but there is a smug and arrogant complacency about them. The reason is simple. They have been taking their lead from the establishment. Prominent journalists and politicians have been able to insult and abuse in the comfortable knowledge that they will not be held to account.

The rule is that cybernats troll, but the bold unionists exercise free speech in a admirably trenchant manner. Well, I don’t buy it. Trolls troll, and offensive idiocy isn’t any more acceptable because it comes from the well connected and influential.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There really is a problem with offensive SNP supporters, but the problem will never be solved if the press and establishment pretends that the problem is confined to the SNP and the successors to the Yes campaign.

That was why I am concerned that the distinguished composer James MacMillan has been given a knighthood. MacMillan, by any reasonable standard, has been an offensive troll over the last couple of years, but a troll in defence of the Union.

MacMillan has consistently smeared the SNP, and its supporters, as fascist. He has accused them of being Stalinist, compared the SNP with North Korean and Zimbabwean politicians, and claimed Islamic State supporters would probably join the SNP. The pro-independence artists group National Collective was dismissed as “Mussolini’s cheerleaders”. MacMillan has also hounded the playwright Alan Bissett for having alleged fascist tendencies. It would be insulting to Bissett to say that the evidence was even thin. The journalist Joyce McMillan complained about patronising and rude comments made about her on Twitter and that she would never be so hurtful to him. James MacMillan simply replied “tae see oorsels as others see us”. Well, it’s all robust, free speech I suppose, but it is cheap and unpleasant behaviour that diminishes public debate about important issues. It is trolling.

I therefore found it deeply dispiriting to see a man who has behaved in such an irresponsible fashion rewarded by the establishment. I don’t accept the theory that he has been rewarded for supporting the Union. That’s nonsense. He’s an eminent figure in the arts, perhaps the pre-eminent Scottish musical figure. In ordinary circumstance he would be well qualified for a knighthood. However, these are not ordinary times in Scotland. The country is finding its place again in the United Kingdom, and it may not be possible to accommodate Scotland in the Union in the long term. People are hyper-sensitive and hurting. Whatever route Scotland takes people will feel genuine pain.

We do need to be sensitive to the views and needs of others, and we need to isolate the extremists and trolls, making it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable. Knighting James MacMillan sends out the clearest, unambiguous message that the establishment, and those who back it, can play to different rules from the rabble, from the outsiders. Any public figure backing independence who had behaved as offensively as MacMillan would have put themselves well beyond the pale, and rightly so. SNP politicians would have been challenged to condemn the culprit and distance themselves. The narrative sold by Better Together and most of the print media during the referendum campaign was that in the absence of evidence one way or the other, Yes supporting trolls could be safely assumed to be under the control of the SNP.

“Cybernat” trolls will interpret rewards being given to their unionist counterparts as compelling evidence of double standards, proof that the establishment hates not trolling, but threats to its position. It is hard to disagree with them. When they see confirmation of their long-standing belief that the establishment is cynical and hypocritical they will feel absolved of any moral responsibility to exercise restraint themselves. It is a depressing prospect, and it is made even worse by the knowledge that the establishment really has shown itself to be cynical and hypocritical. Those on the side of the establishment can do no wrong, because they can decide what is right and wrong.

So the spiral will continue downwards. The nationalist trolls will get worse. The professionally outraged hypocrites in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph will be outraged and respond in kind. Both sides will seethe in righteous fury. In the middle ordinary citizens will shudder and turn away from the mess. We will all be a little bit poorer in spirit, and we will know that the establishment and populist press care not one jot.

Dundee FC’s accounts & the press – a sorry mess

On Friday 27th February Dundee released their annual accounts for the year to 31st May 2014 (PDF, opens in a new tab). The club placed a statement on the club website at the same time. The result was a row and considerable confusion that perfectly illustrates how inadequate conventional financial accounts are for football supporters, and how ill-equipped the press is to deal with them.

The highlights of Dundee FC’s statement were;

“In our 2013/14 Championship winning season, the club reported a loss for the full year to 31 May 2014 of £820,000, which was a significant reduction from the previous year’s profit. That profit was earned during season 2012/13 when DFC were unexpectedly promoted to the SPL as runners-up in the previous year’s Championship. Notwithstanding this loss, after taking account of the capital injected in the business during the year, the net worth of the company improved by £100,000.”

And later.

“We continue to make steady progress as a club and are working hard within a totally debt-free environment to reduce our net balance sheet liabilities and to build our club again on a firm financial footing for the future.”

That was all any journalist needed for a quick story. There was a loss in difficult circumstances, but capital was pumped in. There isn’t any debt.

Unfortunately, the Courier tried to be clever. They followed the link in the statement to the accounts, plunged in and got lost. They got horribly, embarrassingly lost. Ignoring, or just failing to see “Loss for the year… £820,909” they focused on “Accumulated loss carried forward… £3,166,718”.

This was enough for them to write a story entitled ”Dundee FC post £3 million loss”. I didn’t capture it before they changed it, but that is an archived version. In it they wrote.

“The Dens Park side’s annual accounts up until May 31, 2014 show a loss of just over £3.1m. The figure was £2.3m the previous year.”

The only sensible reading of that is that Dundee lost £2.3m in 2012/13 and £3.1m in 2013/14. They actually made a profit in 2012/13 of £214,000 – a figure that was readily visible in the accounts. Over the two years Dundee FC lost £616,000 as opposed to the Courier’s story of £5.4m.

I’m not sure why the accounts were laid out in such a way, or why the accumulated loss was given that name. It’s accurate, but the figure is just about the least interesting number in any football club’s accounts. The accumulated figures aren’t of any more significance than the points a football club accumulates over several seasons. It’s really just a technical device to make sure everything balances, and it’s of no interest in itself. Basically it’s the figure you get if you add up all the profits and losses from the past.

Dundee FC's annual and accumulated profits/losses since 2006

Dundee FC’s annual and accumulated profits/losses since 2006

In Dundee’s case accumulated losses include the massive losses and paper profits surrounding the club’s two spells in administration. By the way, the profit in 2008 was a result of restructuring to move debt off the club’s books, and certainly wasn’t the product of a brilliant trading performance. The resulting total accumulated loss is a big “so what?”. The figure that matters is the change in the total from year to year. Yes, the profit or loss for the year, and that’s a headline figure elsewhere in the accounts, so the accumulated loss shouldn’t be anywhere near a high level press story

I tweeted to the Sports Editor, who had written the story, and the Digital Content Producer who had drawn my attention to the story via Twitter.

I didn’t get a response, but the story was quickly changed to ”Dundee FC’s debt rises”. my first tweet to the CourierSadly the Courier had blundered further into the swamp by confusing losses and debts. They assumed that the accumulated loss on the profit and loss account was debt. That is an appalling level of ignorance. I had some sympathy for their first mistake because of the layout of the accounts. There was no excuse this time. I tweeted again, but still didn’t get a second tweet to the Courier

Losses can be covered in various ways. Debt is only one of them. Other possibilities are drawing on reserves (i.e. savings) and pumping more capital into the company by selling shares. What makes the Courier’s mistake worse is that the club’s press release explicitly drew attention to the new owners putting in more capital to cover the losses. The consortium had also given a pledge that they would not load debt onto the club. The Courier’s story was therefore an implicit attack on their integrity.

The club complained, but nothing happened till Monday, when they put out a strongly worded statement, which reflected their exasperation that the Courier’s website was still carrying a story that the paper must have known was false. Eventually the story was removed, after more than three days.

Jim Spence of the BBC also picked up on the same story and wrote that the club had run up a big debt, but he quickly corrected his error. Unfortunately the corrected version focuses misleadingly on the accumulated loss in the profit and loss account.
The result of the shambles is that it’s now widely believed that Dundee have either racked up unsustainable debt, or a multi-million pound loss in one year.

What is the debt anyway?

A few people asked me how much debt Dundee have if it’s not £3.1m. That’s an awkward question to answer because it depends what you mean by debt. We’re not financed by debt in the sense of loans from banks or directors or whoever. That’s what’s usually meant by debt.

However, we do have creditors as does every company. These provide funding to some extent because they’re letting the club hang on to money for longer. The money we owe is obviously a debt. The closing position in the 2013/14 accounts for creditors was £887k. Current assets (ie cash plus debts that are owed to us) were £673k. So the net current liabilities were £214k.

There’s no point quoting the £887k as debt without looking further. Even the impeccably prudent St Johnstone had creditors of £695k in their latest accounts, but that’s meaningless without considering the other side of the equation. In Saints case that is dwarfed by a stonking £1.256m cash and £572k owed to them. So Saints have net current assets of £1.167m, which is admirably sensible.

Dundee’s net current liabilities of £214k isn’t a good position, but it seems that it’s being managed. The club said in their initial statement that they are working hard to reduce these net liabilities. Also, the current owners have put in more investment than was lost, so the balance sheet has been strengthened (or isn’t as weak). I’d prefer it to be much stronger. I’d certainly want us to have positive net current assets and to be breaking even, sooner rather than later, but the situation is far better than the Courier and BBC reported.

I am slightly hesitant in trying to explain the net current liabilities, because what I’ve just written is an over-simplification. Sure, it’s better to have positive net current assets than a negative figure, but it’s theoretically possible to go bust with a positive figure for net current assets while also making a profit. Cash flow is king. Profit is just paper. Look at the paper profit in the 2010/11 accounts (see above) at a time when we were nearly liquidated because the cash wasn’t coming in to pay debts when they fell due.

Of far greater importance than a simple total of the net current liabilities is what they’re made up of and when the money is due. Money owed to HMRC for VAT/PAYE is very different from advance season ticket sales or bonds bought by supporters, but they’re all lumped in together under creditors. If you buy your season ticket before the end of May then you’re a creditor in the annual accounts for the year ending 31st May because your money can be treated as income only in the following season. The club owes you entry to 19 games, so that’s a debt of sorts. That’s totally different from owing HMRC money.

Seriously, how many people want to wade through a full analysis of all that? In Dundee’s case the “accruals and deferred income” is £468k, more than half of the creditors figure. That’s up from £130k the previous year, which is intriguing but not worrying. Presumably that money will mostly be treated as revenue in 2014/15, but we’ve already got the cash.

So strictly speaking it’s inaccurate that there’s no debt, but most football supporters think of debt as being money owed to the bank or formal loans made to the club. It’s perfectly reasonable that the board said the club is debt free because that’s consistent with most people’s understanding of the term, and it’s certainly consistent with the promises they made in 2013.

What do the accounts tell us?

The accounts tell us nothing about how money was spent in running up £3.2m of expenses. It’s surprising that the figure is up from £2.6m the previous season when we were in the top division. Clearly an important factor was paying up the contracts of employees who left. The board have said that the club was committed to most of the costs by contracts that were in place before the new owners were on the scene. That’s worrying. It casts serious doubt on the realism of the budget for 2013/14 if capital injection was required to cover a shortfall. It’s also an implied criticism of the financial management of the club before they arrived.

We’ll see where we are when the new regime has had a full year doing it their way with their budgets. As so often in the past the supporters are basically keeping their fingers crossed. We have to trust that the new owners will get a grip on the management of the finances, because we can’t expect them to keep covering losses by purchasing shares. That isn’t a sustainable strategy, and the board do seem to appreciate that. It is their money after all.

Dundee FC’s board gave their interpretation of the accounts and that was consistent with the pledge the new owners gave in the summer of 2013; they would not load any debt onto the club. When the Courier wrote that they’d run up debts of £3.2m it wasn’t only factually incorrect, it was also an attack on the integrity of the board. It’s hardly surprising that the club was furious. The Courier were as good as accusing the board of lying in 2013 and lying again now.

Accountancy isn’t arithmetic

Preparing company accounts isn’t a simple arithmetical exercise. It’s not a matter of adding up cans of beans and saying “there are exactly 943”. There are all sorts of assumptions, judgements and nuances. It’s a bit more like mapping. A map isn’t the same as the territory it describes; it conveys information about the territory. Drawing up a map requires an understanding of conventions, assumptions, compromises, and above all a clear idea of the story you’re wanting to tell and the audience you are talking to. A map for a motorist is different from one that a hill walker needs. It’s the same with accounts. It all depends what narrative you’re trying to sell and who your target is. Unfortunately conventional financial accounts are totally useless to the average football supporter.

You can place all sorts of spin on company accounts with varying degrees of justification. The spin that the Courier used was well beyond the limits of reasonable justification. They were trying to sell a story, and it wasn’t intended to be one that showed the Dundee FC board in a good light. The Courier were either utterly incompetent in the way they did it, or dishonest. The episode leaves them looking stupid at best. Their failure to correct a false story for more than three days casts doubt on more than their competence. Let’s hope Dundee FC’s board are more competent. That’s setting the bar rather low though!

Telling stories – the press, prisons & porkies

A couple of weeks ago I discussed a couple of depressingly negative stories in the Dundee Courier about meals in prison. I also criticised populist reporting of complex issues that aims for emotional triggers rather than trying to promote understanding and debate. Of course I didn’t expect anything to improve.

While these issues were fresh in my mind the Daily Mail, in its usual style, waded in with a “soft touch scandal” story about prisoners at the Castle Huntly open prison being allowed to pay for fly fishing classes given by an external charity. The scheme is part of the rehabilitation programme and doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. Nevertheless, the Mail chose to introduce the story with the dishonest headline, “sentenced… to a day’s fishing”. Sorry, but where is the evidence that the lessons were part of the judicial sentence, or even compulsory? The article isn’t on-line, so here’s a picture of the story. Click on the image if you want to see it in a larger size.

Castle Huntly prisoners fly fishing - Daily Mail story

Castle Huntly prisoners fly fishing – Daily Mail story

Doubtless the Mail would defend their headline by saying they didn’t mean the words to be taken literally, and that it highlighted valid public concerns. Well, that’s a characteristically weasely way of claiming that lying is fine to make a point, and that the means justify the end.

How the popular press works – a case study

A worrying aspect of the Mail’s behaviour, and that of the popular press as a whole, is their enthusiasm for selecting and distorting “facts” to suit the story they want to tell. I’ve been meaning to write about this in a slightly different context on my work blog for a couple of years. That followed some stories in the press about irresponsible and time-wasting use of the internet at the Scottish Parliament and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The stories had their origins in articles in the Mail on Sunday, which in turn were based on Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the parliamentary authorities in Edinburgh and London.

My suspicion was aroused by the implausibly large numbers claimed for website visits, and by cavalier and arbitrary switching between different technical terms that are most definitely not synonyms. One of the beauties of the internet is that it is often possible to head off into cyberspace and explore the original sources of stories, then compare them with the published version.

I searched out the FoI requests on which the articles were based. In each case the Mail had requested a list of the most visited websites. Both Holyrood and Westminster had responded constructively, if perhaps naively. They did not hold records of website visits, but they did track the data passing to and fro between web servers. And so they provided informations on those sites that had passed most data, and the server requests, or hits. Each time the FoI response stated that the information requested was unavailable and explained what was provided in response.

Regardless, the journalist on each occasion ignored the warnings and treated server requests as being a synonym for website visits. They are not simply different units of measurement for the same thing, like metres and kilometres. Nor are they different measures that can be converted for comparison, like kilometres and miles. They are quite different, like grapes and apples. There is no basis for conversion or comparison.

The journalist duly wrote articles screaming about the appalling number of times that staff in the parliamentary buildings visited websites unrelated to their work. What he did was equivalent to you asking how many apples I have for lunch. I reply “I don’t have any oranges, but I have a bunch of 30 grapes”. You then scream “Christie’s got 30 apples, that’s so greedy!” Is that responsible? Is it even honest?

This is the story about the Scottish Parliament. It’s no longer available online, so here’s a PDF copy (opens in a new tab). Here is the story about the Houses of Parliament.

The analogy of apples and grapes is apt. If anything it understates the difference between visits and hits. Hits will be bigger by maybe two orders of magnitude. One of the main concerns of the articles was the number of visits to Facebook, which is a real data hog and is designed to build pages with many server requests. Loading a single page can trigger scores of requests. You can see them at the bottom of the browser window; a bewildering sequence of apparent gibberish flashing by as the browser assembles the page from many different servers. Facebook also refreshes pages, even if the user doesn’t click. Boom! There’s another skipload of hits… and another… and another.

The Westminster story made great play of huge numbers of visits to a website for people who are looking for extramarital affairs. This website received up to “289 Westminster hits a day”. So that sounds like one person with a problem. Sorry, that’s a feeble story. The assertion that the dodgy website “had more hits in December from parliamentary computers than the official websites for the Treasury, Ministry of Justice and Department for Education” is quite meaningless. You can’t compare numbers of hits for different sites without knowing an awful lot more aout how the sites are built. It’s like saying 100x is bigger than 10y when you don’t know the values of x or y.

Anyway, I checked the server requests for the page on the Mail’s website with this story and got hilarious results. A single click produced 852 hits, as all the separate tiny components were loaded. Here is the proof. A Mail journalist would have spun that into “Perth blogger visited Mail website 852 times in just one day!”. Unlike a Mail journalist I’ll provide some proof of that claim. Here’s a PDF copy of the test I ran using Note that the report is 29 pages long. All that junk has to be loaded by the browser when you access the web page. That’s why it can take so long.

So instead of parliamentary staff spending all their time playing on the internet, a more plausible story would have been that they showed worrying little interest in engaging with the modern world via the internet.

a bit of fun

a bit of fun

do you understand the data?

do you understand the data?

Did the journalist know that he was writing misleading rubbish? Well, the FoI responses explained what he was getting. If he didn’t understand the warnings he only needed to do a simple internet search for an explanation of the differences between the terms.

However, that would have spoilt the fun? Fun? Yes. On Twitter he said that the story had been “a bit of fun”. I asked the journalist via Twitter if he was comfortable with his analyses and that he understood the data. He replied that he was confident he understood them. He invited me to email him if I had further questions. One of the Mail articles was reposted on his blog, so I provided a comment there explaining what was wrong. He deleted the comment without responding, and that was the end of the discussion.

Journalism – a tough profession

I do have a good deal of sympathy for that journalist, a young guy trying to make his way in the profession. He wrote this interesting piece about the difficulty of getting started into journalism. There is fierce competition, papers expect young people to work unpaid to get experience, and they prefer them to be trained even before they come to work for free as an intern. It’s brutally tough.

One thing I’ve learnt so far about journalism is that opportunities are few and far between, so when they come along you have to jump at them, grab them by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them to the ground until they’re yours.

The only way journalists are going to get ahead, or even keep their jobs, is to come up with stories that fit; ones that fit the paper’s idea of its readership’s attitudes, and fit the tone the paper wants to set. Journalists have to toe the editorial line. That’s the way it is in all but a few quality papers, and these are read by only a small minority.

So the press will continue to churn out these populist, slanted and essentially dishonest stories. Populist politicians and popular newspapers like to feed off each other. One provokes concern and outrage, which the other exploits. It’s a symbiotic relationship and the roles are inter-changeable.

Scottish Labour and populist politics

I was musing on this when I saw a news item that persuades me things will only get worse in Scotland. Jim Murphy, the new Scottish Labour leader, has appointed John McTernan as his chief of staff. McTernan is a political fixer, an aggressive and populist media manipulator. It’s his style to play to win, and if that means playing dirty then so be it. He was on Tony Blair’s staff, and was widely thought to be the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker, the appalling spin doctor in “The Thick of It”.

McTernan then went to Australia as communications director for Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister at the time. Australian journalists and politicians are hardly delicate wallflowers, but McTernan’s bruising behaviour startled the locals. This clip from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is darkly amusing.

McTernan’s back in Scotland now, and it’s hard to see Scottish Labour adopting a thoughtful and constructive approach while McTernan is dabbling in the black arts of media spin and manipulation. His style is to create and exploit populist concerns. What about prisons? Any sign of a more considered approach than “lock ’em up” is an open goal for McTernan. “Open goal”? That’s not my choice of words. It was the phrase McTernan used when calling on Labour to attack the Westminster coalition government for being soft on crime.

The Conservatives have no shortage of rent-a-quote MSPs willing to give the press ill-informed quotes on anything to do with Laura Norder. Expect competition from Labour for that patch of low ground. The SNP? Will they go for the high ground while the press and opposition are savaging them for being soft on criminals? I’m not confident.

So don’t expect mature and considered discussion of justice issues, or of any other topic which lacks easy and comfortable answers. It will be more “soft touch scandal” stories, more cynical attempts by politicians to cosy up to the populist press, and more cynical attempts by the press to keep populist politicians in line. The journalists will just do what they believe they have to.

As Humbert Wolfe put it;

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed,
there’s no occasion to.”

I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story

Introduction – December 14th 2017

It’s Christmas, so it’s time for the traditional, festive, cheap shot at an easy target. Yet again a newspaper trots out the usual guff about lavish Christmas fare for prisoners. Depressingly, but equally predictably, a Conservative politician dived in, eager to burnish his populist credentials. Three years ago I wrote this.

The original blog – from January 2015

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, by an article in the Dundee Courier on 16th December 2014. We were invited to be shocked at the lavish fare on offer to prisoners in local jails. The headline and first sentence set the tone.

“Christmas feast for prisoners doing porridge”

Criminals doing porridge in prisons across Tayside will be treated to lavish Christmas meals with all the trimmings.”

Feast? Lavish? All the trimmings? That is not reporting. It is a verdict, that the prisoners are receiving high quality meals, by implication meals of the standard one would expect in a good restaurant and certainly of a higher standard than they deserve. The article is opinion masquerading as reporting.

The choice of the first word of the article is interesting. Criminals. Yes, prisoners have, by definition, committed a crime. But when should we use that word? While they are engaged in a criminal career? While they are in prison? For the rest of their lives? For the period specified by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 until the conviction is considered “spent” and the offender is deemed to be rehabilitated? If the latter applies then prisoners serving a sentence exceeding 2.5 years would be labelled as criminals for the rest of their lives.

Labelling “criminals”

So what is the right time to call someone a “criminal”, and is it even a constructive term at any time? Colin McConnell, the head of the Scottish Prison Service said in August 2014 that it is unhelpful to refer to offenders and prisoners as criminals. He argues that such labelling makes rehabilitation harder.

McConnell was speaking at the International Futures Forum, whose website states that “the invitation to visiting speakers is simply to ‘make us think’ about an issue of importance”. Here is how the Herald reported the story.

The Herald’s story is disappointingly slanted and superficial for a quality newspaper. However, what is interesting is the tone of the comments under the story. McConnell is an expert in his field. Right or wrong, he made a serious and thoughtful point that deserves to be treated with respect.

The commenters are pretty well unanimous that McConnell is an idiot, unfit for his job. On the basis of skim-reading a newspaper article, a lifetime of prejudice, and ignorance of the subject, they are utterly convinced that they know better than McConnell. They do not merely hold a balanced opinion. They know beyond doubt that they are right.

Experts and ignorance

Experts are not necessarily right, and they do have to be challenged. But this should be on the basis of evidence, analysis and reasoned argument, not an instinctive reaction based on emotion and ignorance.

The Courier journalist, Jamie Buchan, seemed blissfully unaware of the difficulties and nuances that McConnell has to wrestle with; difficult issues that are hinted at in the title of McConnell’s talk, “21st Century Prison Policy: Humanity, Humility, Forgiveness and Redemption”. Buchan simply launched straight into his piece with the phrase “criminals doing porridge”.

Journalists and politicians should try to provide the analysis and reasoning that an informed debate requires. They should not be searching for populist, emotional triggers that will provoke an angry reaction. At least, that is not what they should be doing if they wish to be responsible. The Courier failed lamentably with that story.

Informed debate and cheap populism

The Courier failed badly again with their follow up on January 2nd 2015.

This is just the sort of story that makes me shake my head in despair at the irresponsibility of the press and populist politicians. Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP in the Scottish Parliament, is concerned that more is spent on prisoners’ meals than those of hospital patients.

Are prisoners getting better food than they should? Is the budget for their food out of control? Are the conditions for producing food comparable in prisons and hospitals? Do patients recovering in bed need as much as healthy prisoners? Fraser and the Courier address none of these issues. Fraser admits he doesn’t even know whether or not patients are getting enough nutrition. His concern is merely that the cost of hospital meals is too low. What is his measure for that? Prison meals cost more. NHS suppliers must be delighted. The problem, as he frames it, could be solved simply by the suppliers jacking up their prices.

This is just a cheap and populist attempt to exploit public antipathy towards prisoners and the idea of prisons as a place of rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. Such articles reinforce prejudice and make us more comfortable with our ignorance. Rather than challenging complacency and ignorance by promoting informed debate they close down discussion of the issues by pushing populist conclusions and painting those who expect a more thoughtful approach as naïve fools, politically correct “do gooders”.

Fraser comes out with the classic, populist politician’s justification. This “will not sit well with the public”. Instead of using weaselly phrases like that he should address the issues, acknowledge complexity where it exists, and explain to the public what an appropriate solution might be. That’s your job Murdo! You are paid a good salary and it is not to act like an ill-informed bore pontificating in a golf club bar.

A message for Christmas?

These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.

What a pity that a paper like the Courier can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words (Matthew 25, verses 35-36):

“I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.”

Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?

The Green Fields of France

It’s coming up to Remembrance Day, a day that always moves me. I won’t delve into the reasons here. They’re nothing unusual or special. I’m typical of my generation, brought up at a time when my parents, and those of all my friends, had experienced the Second World War.

I support the British Legion and the Poppy Appeal. I have always made a point of donating, and I do wear my poppy with pride. This year, however, the Legion has saddened me with a crass error of judgement.

The official Poppy Appeal Single is by Joss Stone. It is a rendition of Eric Bogle’s painfully poignant “Green Fields of France”. I remember the first time I heard the original. I was driving and reached my destination before the song finished. I didn’t get out, but listened, transfixed by the beautiful music and the heartbreaking lyrics, delivered with quiet anger by Bogle. At the end I was nearly in tears. I love the song, but I still find it difficult to listen to.

Joss Stone’s version is also far from easy listening, but in a very different way. Where Bogle’s treatment of his song was simple, restrained and devastatingly effective, Stone’s is histrionic and over-produced; rather than conveying an overwhelming sense of tragedy it is simply an overwrought travesty. The mess is compounded by a clumsy, entirely inappropriate rock guitar solo by Jeff Beck.

This would be bad enough, but the truly dreadful aspect of the single is the decision to use only the first one and a half verses out of Bogle’s four (as marked in the illustration of the lyrics). That frees up space for Beck’s self-indulgence, but it guts the song of its message. GFoF

Bogle moves from musing on the fate of the individual, teenage soldier to the millions more who died in the same war, and the millions more who died in the following wars.

For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Cutting the last half of the song is a dreadful artistic and political mistake. I hesitate to use the word “political”, but Bogle’s song is unquestionably political, in a quiet sense. Removing its message does not just turn a powerful piece of art into a disposable trinket; it implicitly offers a counter message, that Bogle was wrong, that the deaths were not in vain.

That is a valid argument, though it is not one with which I have much truck. I am prepared to concede that the First World War had to be won once it started, but I also believe that the politicians were negligent in their indifference to the likelihood of war and its consequences. The British politicians were far from being the most culpable and they did want to avoid war. It’s just that they didn’t want that badly enough to ensure that Willie McBride and his contemporaries wouldn’t have to die.

Quiet anger is entirely appropriate, along with respect and gratitude to those who served and fell. Bogle’s song is in accord with that sentiment. If Joss Stone and the British Legion did not believe that the last two verses of The Green Fields of France matched their vision of Remembrance Day then they should have chosen another song, rather than bowdlerising the original.

Stripping Bogle’s song of its final two verses is like performing Romeo and Juliet without the last act, on the grounds that its a downer of a conclusion to a great love story.

Perhaps Bogle’s Green Fields of France isn’t art on the same level as Shakespeare, but it is an important work of genuine quality, with the ability to stir deep emotion. It deserves better than Joss Stone’s dreadful treatment. The British Legion should know better.

A soldier’s letter home – with a difference

Today I received this remarkable clip from Dundee’s Evening Telegraph in 1945. It came from a writer who is working on a book about my father’s regiment. It is based on a letter from my father to his parents describing his visit to the Royal Palace in Oslo. 15 ordinary servicemen were selected from the Allied forces in Norway and my 21 year old father was picked.

I can just picture my grandmother rushing down to the newspaper offices with the letter! She must have been bursting with pride.

It’s not easy to read the image, so I’ve transcribed the article below.

Dad in the Tully

There are a couple of minor mistakes in the article. Firstly, Dad arrived in Norway on VE Day itself, when there was considerable nervousness about whether they would meet opposition from the German forces. The second mistake is the article saying that Dad volunteered for Airborne duty on his return from the Italian front. He joined a glider artillery regiment after finishing his training and served with them in North Africa and Italy.

The letter home is fascinating and it gives a glimpse of a very assured, mature and articulate young man, which is probably why he was chosen for this honour.

Had tea with King Haakon – Dundee soldier describes his visit to Norway’s Royal Palace

A Dundee lad has had tea with King Haakon in the Palace.

He is Lance Bombardier RK Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, elder son of Mr and Mrs RK Christie, 41 Waverley Terrace, Dundee.

He went to Norway two days after VE Day and the description of his palace visit was contained in a letter home this week in which he writes:-

“757 Christie, RK, Ma Christie’s boy was invited to tea with His Majesty King Haakon the Seventh of Norway.

I had flown back from Oslo late Monday night. Next morning I was in the MT class when a detail came from the office telling me that I was to be presented to King Haakon the next day, Wednesday. I fell out, pressed my best suit, packed my kit and was whisked off to the airport at Sola.

There my authority of air travel awaited me, and off I bowled in a Dakota to Oslo. The trip was the fastest I have done to Oslo so far.

For the first time the weather was good enough to take the direct route over the mountains. Bleak, bare and snow-flecked they offered little chance on a forced landing. But an hour and a quarter saw us safely at Fornebu, the Oslo airport. A jeep was waiting to take me to Allied HQ where they provided me with a a billet and instructed me to report back at 0900 next morning.

By this time it was 8pm so when I got to the billet I cleaned up and had supper at the Allied Forces Club, a large restaurant requisitioned by the Norwegian Government for us and our girls.

Next morning I was told I was free until 4:30pm when I had to be ready to go up to the Royal Palace. So I buzzed off to see some more of Oslo, a town that I like very much.”

Party of 15

“Four-thirty came and I reported back to HQ and found that I was one of a party of 15 Allied servicemen being presented to the King. Three Airborne, two RN, two RAF, one USN and seven US Army. We were to have tea there too. Eyes lit up! The big scoff.

All very informal. Our orders were to get into the staff cars provided, drive up to the front door and ask for the King. We did so. On the way I discovered I had put my eating irons (knife, fork and spoon to you) in my hip pocket as usual.

The King’s British ADC took us in and we clumped up stairs at the head of which King Haakon and the Crown Prince Olaf were waiting. We shook hands with each in turn. When the last had been introduced the King grinned and said “Let’s have a cup of tea”. The motion was passed unanimously.

We adjourned to a room the size of the Morgan gym. And there it was, da grub. The King waved his hand, said words amounting to “dig in” and I was there first; yes, as usual!

There were smørrebrød (sandwiches without a lid, unlike NAAFI which have no centre), buns, tarts, slab cake, cream cake, pastries and sponges. Neither the occasion nor the location blunted my appetite. I had a darn good meal.

The conversation went very easily, in fact we were very much at our ease the whole time.

After tea the Royal cigarettes were produced, complete with the Royal cipher. Very nice too. We sat and talked for some time after that until an equerry got up and went round to the King. He spoke to him and then the King got up. We followed suit and the Crown Prince and he came round and shook hands again. And that was that.

We breezed out after an hour and three quarters in the Palace.

That’s it Mom, and the date was Wednesday 11th. There is one thing more. When I went to Buckingham Palace you chewed me up because I didn’t notice what the Queen was wearing. This time I did remember. The King wore naval uniform and the Crown Prince, service dress.”

Was at Arnhem

The tone of his letter suggests that this episode will stand out in the memory of Robbie (as he is known at home). But it will have for company other interesting experiences.

A Morgan former pupil, Robbie was a student librarian in Edinburgh Public Library for a year before being called up to the Royal Artillery in November 1942. He served in Africa and Italy and on returning home volunteered for Airborne. He was one of those who took part at Arnhem and was in the Arnhem parade at Buckingham Palace.

Although not amongst those officially presented to the King, he did not go unnoticed. He and three others at the back of the hall sneaked forward when their friends were being presented with medals, and when walking around afterwards the Queen told Robbie and his pals that she had seen their dodge.

Robbie’s father served in the Dundee Field Artillery in the last war and from its formation until 1939 was Company Sergeant Major in Searchlight Company, Royal Engineers (Territorial). He served with the same battery in this war until discharged unfit.

His mother is probably best known as Mrs Dorothy Christie of the Dundee School of Music.

The guide and the waiters – anger and intransigence in Israel

When violence erupts in Israel and Palestine, and especially when Hamas is mentioned, I always think back to 1995 when I spent a couple of weeks there. For part of the trip we had a local guide, a very pleasant and friendly Jewish woman. However, she lost her temper with me once, in a revealing way. She was very angry that I was using a guide book with a map that portrayed the West Bank as occupied territory, rather than an integral part of Israel. It wasn’t just a terse passing comment. She was furious at a book that she regarded as being anti-Israel. In her eyes my choice of book wasn’t just political, it was also a highly offensive gesture.

Another episode I won’t forget took place in a hotel in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city. I went down for a beer before dinner. The bar was shut, but there was a group of hotel staff sitting drinking tea. They cheerfully called me over. They said they couldn’t be bothered opening the bar, but I was welcome to join them and have a cup of tea. Their English was excellent and they couldn’t have been friendlier. It was very enjoyable.

The conversation gradually turned to politics. I was teased about the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinians’ problems were ultimately all Britain’s fault for promising the Jews their own homeland in Palestine. It was good natured and there was much laughter as they ribbed me. I shrugged and explained that there wasn’t much I could do about it since it had happened 80 years before.

All of them were Hamas supporters. “We’re all Hamas”. I asked why Hamas and not Fatah. The atmosphere instantly became serious. One said, “because Hamas kill Jews”. The others nodded and agreed. “Yes, they’ll kill Jews. Lots.”

It was a wonderful trip at a time when the country was peaceful, in between the 1st and 2nd Intifadas, shortly after the second of the Oslo Accords that set up the Palestinian Authority. There was a constant, awkward, nagging tension between the optimism of the peace process and the depressing knowledge that huge long term issues, i.e. Jerusalem’s future and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, were no nearer to being resolved. The incidents with the guide and the waiters made a deep impression on me. These people were a joy to be with, but there was a level of intransigence and underlying anger that left me pessimistic about the future and reluctant to take sides in the conflict.

My neutrality doesn’t mean I can’t be judgemental. Who is at fault? Everyone; every party that inflicts violence and panders to those who tolerate it; everyone who makes a decision to kill civilians, launch a rocket and bomb a school; anyone who says that it is all the fault of one side, anyone who tries to dodge moral responsibility by responding to criticism of their own side’s crimes by saying “what about the crimes that the others have committed?”.

Some might think this stance effectively absolves the real villains (insert faction of your choice) from blame. Perhaps, but the criticism I hear of each side is largely valid. It’s the justifications for violence, murder and oppression that are self-serving and unconvincing.

Is there hope? There’s always hope, but that won’t amount to anything while people are trapped into thinking one side is entirely in the right and the other in the wrong. The guide will have to accept my book, and the hotel staff will have to be as friendly to all those who share their land as they were to me. It might happen one day, but I doubt if I will ever see it.