Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Leveson Inquiry Salmond e-mails

Someone has very kindly sent me the link to the Leveson Inquiry e-mails that mention Alex Salmond.
The relevant pages of the PDF are 20, 26, 80 and 102 and you can find them here:


Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Titanic and the birth of modern newspapers

I must admit I didn't read much more than a few words about about the SS Titanic commemoration until last week when the Daily Mirror cleverly reprinted a facsimile of their brilliant edition of April 16th 1912.

For anyone with an incidental interest in the disaster, or anyone mildly interested in the nature of news reporting, the rush of wire copy in  the century old paper captures the immensity of the story and the journalistic adrenalin of covering a mid-Atlantic catastrophe.

The clipped writing style, the sub-deck headlines, the fierce editorial attacking the Board of Trade - it all does what newspapers ought to do - place their readers in the story. (The West Highland Free Press is the only place you find that kind of haughty, old-fashioned righteousness in leader columns these days.)

Despite what the modern eye would see as as acres of close typeprint it all makes for absorbing reading. But The Mirror also had part of the story wrong. The paper reported the "suicide" of Captain Smith, who history later recorded as a calm hero of the Atlantic who went down with the ship.

Some aspects of the coverage are remarkably modern -  the picture spread particularly. There are photos of the Street of Widows in Southampton, with the names of the bereaved marked against a panorama of the houses - high impact without being intrusive. There are photos from New York of posted lists of survivors, amended to take in the latest information, very reminiscent of the "lost" posts that appeared around Manhattan after 9/11.

All the news was relayed by Twitter of course, or the groundbreaking early 20th century version of it, the wireless telegraph. It cost something like £6 to send ten words across the wire, so you understand where the 140 character limit of our modern telegram system  gets its provenance.

Also, a bit like Microsoft operating system, you couldn't send any telegram without sending it through a Marconi set. There were two Marconi wireless operators, and their equipment, aboard the Titanic and all other ships. The two operators on The Carpathia, which picked up survivors, were exhausted by days of continuously wiring details from ship to shore.

As the story developed the world was following. Having done the personal survivor stories, and the arrivals in New York, the Mirror faced the challenge of how to keep refreshing their coverage of the event with a picture splash as the days wore on.

Their edition from the Saturday after the disaster is a piece of newspaper design genius. Everyone knew by then that the band in the First Class saloon had reassembled on the deck and played  "Nearer My God To Thee" as the ship slipped below the waves. The survivors' accounts told of hearing the music drifting across the calm, ice cold ocean.

But no pictures, of the band, the ship, or the damned iceberg. So what did The Mirror do to evoke the image of the musicians playing on the doomed ship? It simply printed the sheet music for the hymn, words, scales and all, across its front page on its Saturday 20th April edition.

The Daily Mail famously got the story wrong in - crowbarring a reference into its Monday edition : "Titanic in collision with iceberg - no loss of life." To be fair that was true for the first few hours after the collison.

The Belfast  Evening Telegraph reported the news the same way on Monday and has been making up for the error with Titanic stories ever since.

The Press and Journal did not report the disaster as "Aberdeen man lost at sea" - that is a myth. The paper gave the disaster extensive coverage over several days but a random newsbill outside a shop declaring "Titanic latest: NE man dead" may have been the source of one the oldest newspaper jokes in the world.  There endeth the Titanic commemorations - not another word for 100 years please.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Fergus Ewing's big, big oil fund dream

That was a bit of a nightmare session for Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing in the Commons yesterday. But it won't be as excoriating as his next meeting with Alex Salmond.

It is one thing to have your boast that an independent Scotland could quickly build up a multi-billion pound oil fund attacked as a fantasy by the opposition - quite another to have it undermined by your own Energy Minister.

Ewing's admission that the Norway-style oil fund for the future of an independent nation could not be done without cutting public services came under duress, it has to be said. He was the subject of hostile, and well briefed, questioning from the MPs on the Commons Energy Select Committee.

Under hard scrutiny from MPs Ewing had to say that the much-trumpeted Salmond oil fund could only be started when “it was financially appropriate to do”.

He wasn't helped by the evidence beforehand of Professor Jo Armstrong, of Glasgow University, who told MPs that an £1 billion a year oil fund was possible but “would lead to cuts elsewhere.”

Armstrong, a respected public policy expert, told the committee: “The current numbers suggest that if you put £1 billion of North Sea oil finds into a separate oil fund then you will have to cut £1 billion of spending somewhere else.”

Labour MP Albert Owen asked Ewing how the SNP could invest £1 billion each year in a fund when public service budgets were being cut.

He said: “Would you be setting £1 billion aside at a time when budgets are being cut right across the board? Would you be setting aside a one billion per annum in an independent Scotland?”

Ewing pointed out in his reply that Norway had set up its oil fund in 1990 but not started investing in it until 1996. That wasn't the answer Owen wanted, so he pressed again on whether an oil fund would start in "year one" of independence.

Ewing gave a lawerly reply: "The desire is to proceed as quickly as possible depending on the financial circumstances at the time."

Now, I think Finance Secretary John Swinney has made the same kind of noises previously but the Ewing confession that the oil fund could not be up and running immediately after independence does take the edge of Alex Salmond's bluster on the subject.

In his speech at the London School of Economics earlier this year the First Minister claimed that over 20 years an oil fund would generate £30 billion that would become the economic motor for an independent Scotland.

No mention though of when that fund would begin, or that these kind of returns depend on an interest rate of over four per cent, a whole lot more than the 2.9 per cent interest the real-life Norwegian oil fund currently generates.

Glasgow MP John Robertson, a member of the Energy committee, said he was flabbergasted by the Ewing's performance.

Speaking after the meeting Robertson said: “This is yet more proof that the SNP and Alex Salmond live in a fantasy world, and dream up ideas for an independent Scotland without thinking them through first.”

“This is a £1 billion unfunded spending commitment that now respected economists are saying it would lead to a £1 billion cut to public spending.”

He called on Salmond to come to the committee to demonstrate where the savings in public spending could be made.

Ewing also said that in an independent Scotland the SNP would refuse to pay the £30 billion clean up bill for North Sea oil rigs.

He told MPs that Westminster had a “moral obligation” to foot the massive North Sea clean-up costs that have been predicted for 2040.

Ewing said: “In principle, given that the UK has received substantial revenue from these rigs, it seems correct that the UK has a moral and certainly a legal obligation to be responsible for decommissioning.”

Cue the chins of Robertson and the usually mild mannered Lib Dem Sir Robert Smith, Mr Oil to you and me, clanging to the floor.

Pressed further, and probably realisng the hostage to headlines he'd created, Ewing said it was possible there could be some form of proposal to share some of the costs. An echo there of Salmond's own assertion he would not take on that Scotland's share of the bill for the massive bail out of RBS and the Bank of Scotland - we didn't create the mess and we're not paying for the clean up.

All in all, not a great day to be Scottish Energy Minister. And when Fergus wakes up today it won't all have been a bad dream, unlike the oil fund which he so effectivly punctured.

Monday, 16 April 2012

First day of term, no signs of panic

Everyone back to school today. The Westminster term starts with Cameron, Clegg and looking as if they should be in trouble, but remaining remarkably untroubled.

Pasty tax, Granny Tax, Charity tax, you name it the government are still all over the shop after the car crash budget. The press is hostile, even the right wing press, backbenchers are restive, but the polls don't really show Ed Miliband capitalising on the Coalition woes.

The last poll I saw on the weekend had Labour on 39 per cent, when the opposition should be in the mid to high 40s to have any prospect of being taken seriously as an alternative government.

The latest Yougov poll in key constituencies (in the Sun) shows that the Lib Dems would be left without a single mainland seat in Scotland.

I can't quite believe that Charles Kennedy, the only vocal Lib Dem resistance to the Coalition, would suffer the same fate that Danny Alexander seems to have all but accepted, but them's the figures.

Question is, which party is best placing itself to benefit from the decline of the Lib Dems in rural Scotland?

Highlight of the day on a sunny but chilly Thames will not be the SNP's attempt to stop the Budget in its tracks with an amendment refusing a second reading of the bill on the grounds that the Budget did nothing to help tackle high fuel costs.

That has as much chance of success as Labour's amendments on 50p tax rate later in the week, although an amendment on the charities tax will generate heat if not light.

A moment of colour will come after departmental questions when new MP George Galloway takes his oath of allegiance. Nothing is ever simple with Mr Galloway but he seems to have wrangled the father of the House, Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell, into being one of his sponsors. The two go back some way, but I hear Galloway was having trouble finding an opposition sponsor.

Some left-wingers were on standby but Galloway approached former Labour whip Nick Brown with the conundrum. Only slightly more politically astute than Galloway himself, Brown sidestepped the invitation and said it would be far more politic for another Bradford MP to be at Galloway's side.

Step forward Labour MP for Bradford South Gerry Sutcliffe to do the honours, letting Nick Brown off the hook and making the symbolic gesture that Labour would not deny Bradford West a voice in parliament (and what a voice it is).