Did liberalism really die? And more Johnsonian nonsense…

Politics comes in different-sized packages, big and small. In the larger package, you will find President Putin saying today that western liberalism is obsolete. In the small package, you will find Boris Johnson speaking cod Churchillian bollocks about “do or die”.

Johnson is filling the small package of British politics now, crowding out all good sense. As for that Brexit Halloween deadline he swears he will stick to, the quote is from the Tennyson poem The Charge of the Light Brigade and should be “do and die”.

Whether a poem written in honour of a famous British defeat in the Crimean War is quite the image Johnson was reaching for is debatable.

And pardon me for this, but our modern political echo of the Tennyson poem seems to be The Charge of the Shite Brigade, only with willy-waving rather than swords.

Boris Johnson is pictured on the front of The Times today, standing in front of the union flag, doing the double thumbs-up. The headline above that disturbingly inane gesture reads: “Stamp duty slashed in Johnson no-deal budget.”

Before looking in the bigger package, let’s consider that headline. It’s written in the past tense, suggesting this is something Johnson has done. Rather, it is another of the blathering promises, bribes and blandishments he dangles before the huddle of Tory members who get to pick our next prime minister.

It’s not happened, it’s a shifty aspiration – another sweetie in the goodie bag of magic money promises being passed round by Johnson and his opponent, Jeremy Hunt.

In that small package, overshadowed by everything else, you also will find Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failing once again to get a grip on the antisemitism row damaging his party. An opinion poll is only ever a snapshot, but in YouGov’s latest poll Corbyn only wins the endorsement of 26% of those asked. Hardly encouraging when the Tory Party has abandoned governing at a time of crisis to indulge in a self-loving beauty parade.

The Russian leader is filling the larger package today, thanks to an interview in the Financial Times, ahead of the G20 summit in Japan. President Putin says that Liberals “cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

That Putin is an illiberal, totalitarian leader shouldn’t surprise anyone. Neither should his dubious claim that having Donald Trump as US President signalled the death of liberal policies in the west.

The pally relationship between that pair is the world’s scariest bromance – next only to Trump’s no-off bro-fest with his North Korean mate Kim Jong-Un.

Trump likes to hang out with the totalitarian gang, jealous perhaps he isn’t yet the supreme leader of the US.

Putin cherry-picks his evidence for the death of liberalism, overlooking for instance Trump having the lowest popularity rating of any US president – evah, as the man himself might say. Doesn’t mean he can’t win again, sadly.

Donald Tusk, the European council president, is often portrayed as a bogeyman by our more Eurosceptic newspapers, but he speaks good sense today, dismissing the idea that liberalism is obsolete.

“Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete, also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete,” Tusk said.

Liberal values remain “essential and vibrant” in Europe, he said, adding: “What I find really obsolete are: authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective.”

Yup, Tusk nails that one.


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Are novels really being pushed aside by box-sets?

Today let’s wrench our eyes from the slow-motion train crash of British politics. Let’s avert our gaze from Boris Johnson’s made-up hobby of painting model buses. And let’s talk instead about the future of books.

As an occasional reviewer for the Press Association, I always have at least one book one the go. Often the book being read for pleasure is put aside for one to review.

My favourite two reviewing reads lately have been Big Sky, the long-awaited new Jackson Brodie novel by Kate Atkinson, and Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s astonishing mix of travel writing, thinking and what you might call eco-philosophy, wrapped in a deep exploration what lies beneath our feet.

New to my eyes is Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, a few chapters in but already enthralling.

Favourite non-reviewing reads have been Transcription, by Kate Atkinson again, and the first two books in Ali Smith’s planned quartet, Winter and Autumn. Spring awaits my eye but keeps being pushed back by other books.

As a published but hardly successful author, I always have a book on the boil, too. A new crime novel has been started lately, with 10,000 or so words written, only to be then puzzled over.

Some writers are sensible and spend ages with charts and bits of paper, maybe even pins, string and a corkboard, mapping out the narrative angles. Others think, oh let’s just get this book started.

My newest novel is too embryonic to discuss, and God knows if I’ll ever see it or anything else published again. As suggested, it is being written in the free-form way, setting off with only a shape and a vague sense of direction. This approach can work well, although there is a risk of winding up in a plot cul-de-sac, where you stand and scratch your head, wondering how this bit fits with that. That’s where my writing feet are at right now.

A report on the front of The Times today has the alarming headline, “TV’s golden age is closing the chapter on novels.” The gist of the story is that “Britons are shunning novels in favour of box sets.”

A reporter looking for an angle will sift through the ashes and find what they seek. The ashes being sifted here are the latest sales figures from the UK publishing industry.

Over in the Guardian, these figures are referred to as the UK publishing industry being “hit by a surprise fall of £168m (5.4%) in sales of physical books last year, ending a period of growth stretching back to at least 2014”.

The picture is complicated and lends itself to interpretation. The Times chooses the box-set angle, while Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, points to a rise in audiobook sales, adding: “There is some substitution away from print, audio has surged, but there was also always going to be a point where print sales couldn’t continue rising every year.”

Printed books still account for more than 80% of the combined print and digital book market of £3.6bn, so readers are not exactly giving up on paper and ink yet.

Audiobooks are a great idea, not that I listen to them yet. A box set can be satisfying, as occasionally can a Netflix binge (the US adult comedy Easy is my tip of the moment).

But nothing beats reading a book, a book held in your hand. Yes, I have a Kindle but its flame hasn’t been lit in nearly two years now. I was reading my way through Dickens on there, but real books keep asking to be read instead.

Anyway, must go. There’s a cul-de-sac waiting for me.


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No shit Sherlock: privately educated still rising higher than anyone else

Survey finds out something we knew already shock. Here’s the latest no-shit-Sherlock discovery: the privately educated are still hugely over-represented in our national life.

If only there was someone easily to hand. You know, an example of a man propelled by little more than entitlement; a man who has connived his way to the top sitting on a cushion of privilege and a spot of posh-boy buffoonery.

Ah, yes. Boris Johnson. How had he slipped my mind like that?

Boris Johnson is shaped by a lifetime of privilege and the spoiled assumption he’s doing the world a favour. Haven’t we learned anything about prime ministers who went on that Eton and Oxford job creation scheme?

Look where David Cameron got us. And now Johnson is likely to follow his old schoolmate into Downing Street.

In Johnson’s case, that costly education left a smattering of cod Latin and a breezy confidence to make everything up on the hoof. Is that prime minister material?

Plenty of people worry Johnson is not up to the job, but this doesn’t alarm Brexit-blinkered Tory MPs, who see him as their saviour, even while holding their noses.

Perhaps they should listen to someone who knows him. Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Johnson’s onetime boss, writes in today’s Guardian that Johnson is “utterly unfit to be prime minister”. He admires Johnson as a “brilliant entertainer” but says he is unfit for office “because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”.

But I am feeling Boris-ed out again.

Let’s return to that survey. The Elitist Britain 2019 survey by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission finds what it calls a “pipeline” from fee-paying schools through Oxbridge and into the top jobs.

The study reveals that members of Britain’s elite are five times more likely to have been to private school than the general populace.

And they’re five times more likely to hold the top jobs across the board: politics, the judiciary, media and business.

In these top jobs, 39% of people went to private school, a paying privilege available to only 7% of the general population. And seven shouldn’t go into 39 like that.

In a sense this isn’t surprising. After all, why would people shell out a fortune on educating their offspring unless it bought an advantage? That’s basically what they are paying for: the right for their children to rise higher in life.

This seems to be an insoluble problem for society. Without scrapping private education, there are two possible solutions.

ONE: Make state education so good that no one would want to spend money on going private (an aspiration undone by austerity).

TWO: Make it easier for state school pupils to get into Oxbridge (this is happening to an extent, but does it just elevate a few state school pupils to the same higher level of privilege?).

This old grammar schoolboy has spotted that private schools claim they save money for the country. The Independent Schools Council told The Times in April private schools saved the taxpayer £20bn a year. It seems creative accounting is now taught alongside Latin.

Is all this just envy – and, had life been different, would we have sent our three to private schools? I can’t swear we wouldn’t, but they’ve all turned out fine. And a fond memory is of our daughter being elated after her state school thrashed the posh girls at sport (netball, I think).

The survey found a preponderance of privately educated people in the media, with 44% of newspaper columnists having gone to fee-paying schools. That doesn’t make them bad columnists, but perhaps different sorts of columnists could be found (and not just old grammar schoolboys a bit on their uppers).

Political commentator Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer went to went to Rugby and Cambridge, and I don’t enjoy reading any less for that. He’s an acute, smart and interesting writer.

But the findings of this survey should still alarm anyone who thinks society should be fairer.


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If you think Boris Johnson will pull us out of this morass, you’ve not been paying attention

The story of the overheard row between Boris Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, is the obsession of the media moment. As you will know, unless you’ve sensibly kept your head in a biscuit tin all weekend, the altercation is said to have been so loud it could be heard in surrounding properties.

A concerned neighbour phoned the police and recorded the argument, sending a copy to the Guardian (which broke the story but has not at the time of writing released the recording).

The story took over Twitter, where both sides of the divide threw things at each other all day long. And, yes, we are looking at you Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph (slavishly pro-Boris, naturally) and Jay Rayner of the Observer (anti-Boris and virulently anti-Allison).

Twitter broadly split in two…

ONE: This was a private affair and the Guardian was a nasty left-wing sneak (as too were those nosy neighbours).

TWO: This was a matter of character suitability to high office and, importantly, a sober reminder that a woman heard screaming from inside a flat could be a victim of domestic violence.

The Sun went in hard against the neighbours and the Guardian, dismissing the story as a left-wing plot or some such flapdoodle. And then devoted its front page today to a story about how the couple have been arguing for weeks ­– “BORIS & CARRIE 4 ROWS IN 6WKS”. An inelegant headline and a hypocritical one, as the story leans on the Guardian report the Sun had previously disdained and rubbished.

Over the weekend, Johnson faced the first hustings of the leadership contest in front of party members in Birmingham. Interviewed by the Tory-supporting broadcaster Iain Dale, he refused to answer questions about the reported row, preferring to indulge in self-important blather…

Then again, he didn’t get where he is today without self-important blather, and sometimes you can see the scum around his feet, like that left by a departing tide; but I digress.

The often-repeated cliché about Boris Johnson is the line about how the only person who can stop Boris is Boris himself. The overheard row, reportedly including shouting, swearing and the sound of breaking glass, supports the self-sabotage theory. If he’d not had that row, he wouldn’t have been overheard, the police wouldn’t have been summoned and he’d have gone to Birmingham without trailing a new scandal.

Johnson is a journalist/politician, like his defeated rival Michael Gove, so he should be aware of newspaper games. After all, he is still playing those games over at the Telegraph, where he is the Brexit-cake-and-eat-it-correspondent, with crumbs on his trousers and jam on his tie as proof.

I am beginning to feel Boris-ed out. But then I am Jeremy-ed out times two (sneaky and sly Tory weasel one; beardy, fence-sitting Labour one).

This whole Boris shouts story seems to reflect the main headline in the Observer of Sunday June 16 – “Divided, pessimistic, angry: survey reveals bleak mood of Pre-Brexit UK.”

Polarised and pessimistic – yup, that BritainThinks survey hits the pointed finger right on the chewed nail.

And if you think Boris Johnson is the man to pull us out of that morass, you haven’t been paying attention at all.

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Biased Brazen Contemptible? Oh, that’s just this Tory beauty contest…

DISTANT cousins in perpetual outrage, the Mail and the Express are fuming today about the BBC leadership debate (Our Next Prime Minister, presumably because That’s What I Call A Shitshow Shower was too long – yesterday’s Ledge).

Both papers, along with the Sun and the Boris Bulletin (previously known as the Daily Telegraph), accuse the BBC of having run a biased, anti-Tory debate. I will take a deep breath before trying to navigate that one.

How, when the BBC news is wall-to-wall Tories, when every bulletin comes loaded and larded with Boris Johnson, can the BBC be accused of anti-Tory bias – or what the Mail’s headline writer sums up as “Biased Brazen Contemptible”?

Well, one of the guest members of the public was questionable, another turned out to be a Labour supporter. Unless the BBC debate was intended to be a total Tory love-in, I don’t see a problem with having a Labour supporter ask questions. As for the anti-Israeli imam, he probably wasn’t a wise choice of questioner, although his inclusion seems more cock-up than conspiracy.

Look at is this way. This is a Tory leadership contest in which 160,000 party members are deciding who should be prime minister – without the involvement of the rest of us. And if that sounds like a democracy deficit, that’s what it is.

Three years ago, when the Tories last had a leadership ding-dong, the thorny crown was passed to Theresa May without opposition when her rivals withdrew.

This time round, with the ejected Mrs Maybe still hanging just out of view, the Conservatives are entertaining themselves by again anointing a new prime minister without anyone else being involved. To hear the self-congratulatory chorus, you’d have thought the candidates represented a party that had unified the country and was supremely in power, rather than a Brexit-battered and riven mess of a minority government that has failed to govern itself, let alone anything else.

Nope, just the usual Tory pass-the-baton sense of entitlement, with another epitome of privilege being slotted into Number Ten.

Viewed in that light, the BBC debate was a Tory orgy the rest of us were invited to watch as weary, unexcited voyeurs; wasn’t it?

All very undemocratic, I’d have thought. And with Brexit remaining an immovable problem, all this tawdry Tory contest is doing is allowing assorted would-be prime ministers to claim they have a magic spell – just chant “Brexit-cadabra!” and all the problems disappear.

Easily the most sensible comments about Brexit to be heard anywhere came this morning from the Dutch prime minister. Speaking on the BBC Today programme, Mark Rutte said that the UK would not be “big enough” to play a role on the world stage outside of the EU. He also pointed out the EU was reshaping along exactly the lines Britain demanded – so why was Britain leaving?

A good point, only answered by the question really asked in that referendum: are you vaguely pissed off about everything and feel the EU is to blame for all your ills?

That implied question gave us Brexit – the Brexit that “must be delivered”, even though defining exactly what Brexit is, how long it will take, what it will stir up, has got no easier at all.


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That new version of Pointless was rubbish…

I didn’t think much of the BBC’s new version of Pointless last night. The format seemed different as the contestants sat on tall stools while engaging in mansplaining and shouting, often at the same time.

There was only one presenter instead of the usual two and she had trouble controlling the five men taking part. And she wasn’t half as funny as Richard Osman, but few people are.

The original is a quiz in which contestants try to score as few points as possible by, according to the BBC, “plumbing the depths of their general knowledge to come up with the answers no one else can think of”.

In this new version, the contestants simplified the rules by just plumbing the depths.

The debate was called Our Next Prime Minister, presumably because That’s What I Call A Shitshow Shower was too long.

The Fab Five were Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart. According to the front-page review in the Daily Telegraph, this was the Boris and Rory Show (hopefully a pilot that will sink without trace).

The Telegraph is also known as the Boris Bulletin. That newspaper is devoted to blindly supporting Johnson while also paying him £270,000 for writing the same column every week; some of us would happily write the same column every week for a lot less than that.

This leadership debate seemed entirely pointless, but at least Boris Johnson showed up for this one. He skipped the Channel 4 version and was represented by an empty lectern (which just happens to be the perfect Boris metaphor).

Johnson puffed, piffled and wiffle-waffled his way through, providing evasive answers to viewers who were kept a safe distance away on a large screen.

It’s easy to see why Johnson’s agent advised against the Channel 4 gig – a revival of Deal Or No Deal. Keeping Johnson out of the limelight had been the tactic adopted by his keepers until last night – not easy as that man can’t seen the limelight without hogging it, quoting cod Latin or telling porkies.

Anyone looking at the new version of Pointless will have been taken aback by that sub-title: Our Next Prime Minister? Oh, surely not. Has there been a scheduling mistake here; was Theresa ‘Blankety Blank’ May as bad as all that? Sadly, yes – but would you look at this shifty bunch.

If you don’t support or like the Tories, it’s hard to say who you want to win. Rory Stewart strikes me as the least unlikable and the most honest. Even if he is at heart just as much of a Tory posh boy as Boris the Blather.

Should you wish to cheer yourself up, just consider this: while BBC1 was running its new version of Pointless, over in the US Donald Trump was launching his bid for re-election in 2020 with a rally in Florida.

Trump carried on as expected, throwing out lies, exaggeration and bluster (just another day in Trump-land, then).

One section is worthy of repeating…

“Just imagine what this angry left-wing mob would do if they were in charge of this country. Imagine if we had a Democrat president and Democrat Congress in 2020. They would shut down your free speech, use the power of the law to punish their opponents, which they are trying to do now anyway.”

Trump often projects his own fears and failings on to others. Here, he was essentially talking about himself, the media-hating president who would love to shut down free speech. The law-bending president who makes sure the law is on his side.

I reckon the American version of Pointless is even worse than ours. God save them and us.


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How not to make bread crumbs…

Other methods are available, but here is my proof-fool way with bread crumbs.

First spend nearly thirty quid on the Tartine Bread book by Chad Robertson. Don’t worry about all those other bread books on the shelves, as such matters needn’t detain us here.

Next mess up a batch of his French country bread. This takes dedication as making that bread is spread over two or three days.

Marvel at bread that is tasty but heavy. When a batch sticks to the tea towels in the proving basket, feel free to swear like you never usually swear.

Keep one flat loaf out to have an argument with your teeth and pop the other in the freezer. Defrost the frozen flat loaf later, despair at its density, and decide to make bread crumbs instead, having abandoned all hope of eating that bread any other way.

Cut the rubbery bread into cubes, toss in olive oil, sprinkle on sea-salt and place on a tray in a hot oven. Bake for 15 minutes or so, shaking halfway through.

Place the golden cubes of bread/concrete in a food processor, blitzing until you have a mixture of crumbs and blitz-resistant chunks of toast. Tip on the worksurface and assault with a rolling pin, making sure to send crumbs and bready scraps onto the floor. Admire bread with the crust of all crusts, the body-builder crust of crusts.

Mop your brow and put the shatterproof bread back into the food mixer for another blitz. Continue until you have enough to fill two containers. Place in the freezer, possibly to be forgotten until defrosting day when you may well say: “What on earth’s this? Ah, those bread crumbs.”

If you don’t want to mess up, just use any old bread you have lying around. But where’s the fun in that?

On Instagram you will discover, should you wish, endless photographs of perfectly executed loaves, some decorated with a latticework of cuts. I stare at that show-offy bread in nerdy, kneady awe. None of my creations are good enough for such floury selfies, although various loaves have been left out to cool on Facebook in the past.

When you bake, things go wrong, and the trick is working out why. All that insta-perfection can be daunting, so that’s why I pass on this how-not-to recipe.

Final hint: make sure to vacuum the floor before you wife sees the mess you’ve made.

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Cycle lane, bus fares and northern newspapers acting in useful unison…

Cycle lanes might not seem exciting, but they are important to cyclists, even if often they are nothing more than green paint on a pothole-pocked strip of crumbling road, accessorised with swept-up broken glass, blocked by inconsiderate parking, and invaded by the wing-mirrors of cars passing too close for comfort.

Two stories about cycle lanes have pedalled into the headlines in the past few days.

Last week, reports from Birmingham said that motorists were complaining that a new 2.5-mile cycle highway was causing “traffic chaos” on the roads after the local council spent nearly £10m on it.

It is a rule of life that any money spent on improving cycling facilities will nearly always raise a grumbling chorus from motorists. In Brum, the complaints were typical: cyclists go on the pavement anyway, no one’s using it, that lane has made the traffic much worse – “It’s an absolute nightmare,” according to one fuming motorist.

Well, motorists habitually fume about cyclists and other ‘impediments’ to driving everywhere; it goes with spending too much time sitting in cars. Too much driving to work isn’t good for anyone (sadly, I know this to be true).

Cycling to work, on the other pedal, is a liberating pleasure. It is even better if you arrive in one piece.

I have never cycled in Birmingham and feel I never will. But well done to Birmingham City Council for attempting to think of cyclists. If more people cycled instead of driving, the world would be a better and cleaner place. Cycling isn’t an option for everyone, but usually it is the best way to get around a city. This is certainly true in York, a city that is cycle friendly up to a point, but not as cycle friendly as it likes to pretend.

Many of the cycle lanes in York would fall under those criticised in a Guardian story today by Helen Pidd (northern editor and keen cyclist around Manchester).

In her story, Pidd reports suggestions that the government has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds painting pointless white lines on busy roads and calling them cycle lanes.

Those making this allegation are Britain’s cyclist and walking commissioners. These champions of pedal and foot have written a letter to transport secretary Chris Grayling – to which the only possible response must be, good luck with that. That man sure knows how to frustrate and infuriate.

Chris Boardman, who speaks up for Greater Manchester, has joined his fellow commissioners Dame Sarah Storey (Sheffield City region) and Will Norman (London) to complain that painted cycle lanes are little more than a gesture. They also argue such lanes don’t make cyclists feel safer – and may even make them feel less safe.

At the same time, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Great Manchester, has called for northern bus fares to receive the same subsidies as fares in London. He argues, basically, that there can be no such thing as a ‘northern powerhouse’ without increased fairness in the way transport subsidies are managed.

This is obvious and true – and further proof that England needs to be less London-centric, as pointed out last week when 33 northern newspapers ran the same front page as part of a joint campaign to “Power Up the North”.

This is a fine idea. Once newspapers only ever saw each other as rivals to be spat at. Now they are happy to act in useful unison. Newspapers joining together, in this case to speak up for the north, shows they still have a combined force.

Better cycle lanes and cheaper buses won’t transform the world. But both would be an encouraging start.

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How a throwaway joke from Jo Brand was magnified into outrage…

Thank heavens for Jo Brand. At least she deflects attention away from Boris and Brexit for a moment. Sadly, this sorry does contain Nigel Farage, but only in a walk-on part with puffing.

The other day I heard a strange sound in the kitchen. The radio was on. But there was another noise. It was me shouting at the radio.

Iain Duncan Smith was expressing his admiration for Boris Johnson, and suddenly everything – this endless Brexit stalemate, the gruesome Tory beauty parade, Jeremy Corbyn’s ducking and dithering – was too much. I turned the radio off, took a deep breath and wondered the previously unthinkable: was Brexit putting me off the news?

It’s been a lifelong addiction and I started sniffing stories long before Michael Gove started putting white powder up his nose. I won’t be able to stay away for long. Just now I was scanning the headlines again.

Anyway, thanks Jo. Unlike many of the commentators rushing to condemn the comedian over her battery acid joke, I start from a position unhelpful to outrage: I like Jo Brand, she’s funny and smart, and has moved from being a funny and smart feminist rant merchant to being a funny and smart naughty old auntie (I can say old as we are about the same age).

The row over one line from a BBC Radio 4 comedy shows us just how silly these bursts of outrage can become. In the 6.30pm comedy Heresy, in case you are not up to speed, Brand told presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell that she reckoned people who threw milkshakes at politicians were “pathetic”. She said: “Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?”

This was throwaway line in a comedy panel show based around saying heretical things. It’s wasn’t a manifesto or anything. And Brand made clear that she meant no such thing.

But Nigel Farage, UKIP ranter and shit-stirrer turned Brexit Party ranter and shit-stirrer, spotted an opening and another chance to promote himself.

This was a disgrace, he thunder-clapped, the police should investigate her for inciting hatred, and so on. This from a man who said he would pick up a rifle in defence of Brexit, a proposition that was both sinister and a little bit Dad’s Army the Brexit Brigade as paid for by shadowy right-wing millionaires and a raggle-taggle of deluded patriotic punters.

The comedian Tom Walker was a smart choice of talking head for Sky News. This is the man behind Jonathan Pie, the perpetually outraged TV news reporter.

In person, Walker is a toned-down version of his shouty alter-ego: less despairing bellow, the same underlying good sense. He said we should consider two things: context and intent. The context was a comedy panel show; you can hear people laughing, Walker said of the offending clip; it is a comedian telling a joke on a comedy show. As for intent, he said: “Do we honestly think Jo Brand wants us to throw acid on politicians’ faces?”

Er, no obviously – although the BBC has now removed the joke from catch-up versions of Heresy.

Even Richard Littlejohn, that rider of any passing right-wing wind, sticks up for Brand in the Daily Mail, of all the unlikely places. Well, he doesn’t stick up for her exactly, as he clearly can’t stand Brand, and calls her a hypocrite and all sorts. But he does defend her right to make jokes on a comedy panel show.

In one sense, this story shows how a media furore can be built from a small incident plucked out of context and shoved under the magnifying glass of outrage. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.


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BBC licence fee move is a government cut in disguise…

The row over the BBC’s decision to scrap the free TV licence for the over-75s has riled Piers Morgan, but then that man is perpetually affronted about something or other.

There is a story beneath the one we are seeing here, and it is a story about how cuts work. But let’s stay on the choppy surface for now.

Morgan’s co-presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Susanna Reid, joined in the whipped-up anguish. Her broadcast comments are splashed across the front of the Daily Express. “My heart breaks for you,” is the larger statement, above the words: “Susanna Reid’s tears at distress caused by axing of free TV licences…”

That’s the same Susanna Reid, by the way, who was paid handsomely from the BBC licence fund when she co-hosted BBC Breakfast, and no doubt picked up a penny or two from appearing on Strictly Come Dancing. Nothing wrong with that at all, although if you spot a few sequins of hypocrisy here, you are not alone.

The Express uses Reid’s quote as part of a campaign on the BBC’s decision to end free TV licences for most over-75s. This age-related perk was introduced by Gordon Brown in 1999 when he was chancellor, and the government paid the bill.

Another chancellor, George Osborne, did a bit of sly political footwork in 2015, convincing the BBC to pick up the tab for this state benefit as part of the negotiations of the corporation’s new charter.

As the cutter in chief and the architect of austerity, Osborne calculated that by passing on this government cut, he would land the BBC in the shit at some time in the future He planted a poisoned seed. And that seed has now sprouted.

It is not morally stimulating to refer to the Tory candidates two days in a row, but most have jumped on this BBC-bashing bandwagon. Former broadcaster Esther McVey said the BBC had forgotten the public it was supposed to serve, adding: “My aim is to make sure that the BBC do not benefit financially from breaking their promise and I would want to do everything we can to ensure that all over-75s get the free TV licences they deserve.”

This wasn’t a ‘promise’ from the BBC: it was a present from one chancellor later sabotaged by another. Also, the poorest pensioners will still receive free TV licences, according to the BBC.

While tearful pensioners were rooted out by Morgan and Reid on Good Morning Britain, plenty of other pensioners receive a perk they do not need. This is always the difficulty with such things, and it is likely that when some of us finally roll into threadbare retirement, many of those benefits will have disappeared altogether.

George Osborne and David Cameron gave us modern austerity – a political choice and not the fault of Gordon Brown, as many Tories like to say (unless you believe the banking crisis was Brown’s fault).

Osborne was the Freddy Kruger of Downing Street, unleashing financial nightmares all round. But cuts take time, and that makes them harder to oppose. Cuts are announced and ritually condemned by the opposition. And then nothing much happens, so people assume cuts can’t be that bad. Until years later everything starts to fray and come apart at the seams.

That’s why councils are struggling, having faced years of cuts deflected onto them by the government. And that’s why there are reports today of a primary school in east London asking for money from the BBC Children in Need fund to make up for cuts to its budget.

Piers Morgan hasn’t mentioned that as far as I know. Cuts don’t get much of a look in either generally. Unless they’re pushed onto the BBC, always a whipping boy in such matters.


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