Month: August 2011

Let them fail

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If you listen to the business news on the Today programme or read the inside pages of the Financial Times, you may have spotted something called "LIBOR".

LIBOR is the interest rate banks charge to each other. Because banks are big and have vaults stuffed with money, it's a low-risk deal to lend money to other banks and the rates are therefore only slightly more than the base rate of the central bank in question. A few years ago the rate rose significantly as the risk of the money a European bank was lending would go to an insolvent US bank increased. It wasn't possible to say with confidence which US bank was insolvent. If I presented you with a bowl of strawberries and said "one of these is rotten but the rest are fine", you'd likely reject the entire bowl. The markets did the same: they stopped lending money to the US banks because one of them was rotten. We called it the "credit crunch", and ultimately it brought down a number of banks and then the economy itself.

This rate has started to rise again, this time propelled from the other direction: the US banks are frightened that a European bank is secretly insolvent. There are a number to pick from: many large multi-purpose banks in France and Germany have heavy investments in Spain, Greece and Italy. If any of those countries defaults or if any banks in those country go bankrupt, there will be a domino effect that eventually will hit the US banks. So the liquidity in the markets starts to dry up again.

Last time round we pumped money into the system. We underwrote the losses of the banks, encouraged weak banks to merge into strong banks, even bought capital in the failing banks to keep them afloat. The reason was stark: the crisis wasn't anticipated. If allowed to play out, the next morning that cash machines would empty and not be refilled. Shops would not get a float delivery from Securicor. People paid in cash would go unpaid. People paid by BACS would be unable to access the money. The world as we knew it would've stopped.

This time, I suggest, things are different. If we see this happen again, we must let the banks fail.

Not, of course, an undisciplined collapse — more like controlled demolition. It should be easy, with forewarning, to protect the money of ordinary savers and the loans of ordinary mortgage payers. It should be easy to transfer these assets and liabilities to one of the state-owned banks we got last time round. If governments move quickly, they can take the ordinary accounts, the current and mortgage accounts, the savings accounts, the stuff people in the street like us have and move them to a safer place. The remaining sick bank left behind should be allowed to fail and take the bad debts with it.

To a degree we did this last time, especially with Northern Rock, but we made the startling error of taking on the bad debts with the good and leaving that badness on the government's books. We even facilitated Northern Rock taking the most profitable part of its business and moving it off-shore, out of the reach of the government. Last time we paid for the banks' mistakes. This time we must seek to profit from them in some way.

It's odd to hear such words coming from the keyboard of an old-fashioned socialist like me. But as long as the savings and houses of the ordinary people are protected, I don't give a stuff what happens next. The banks and the markets are not the real enemy anyway: the real enemy is and always has been unemployment. Rescuing the banks ruined the economy. This increased unemployment. I'm willing to bet that letting them fail won't be as bad. If it costs nothing to the government and sweeps away a lot of unsound debt, the increase in unemployment should be less than what it would've been with another rescue. It'll also be quicker to bounce back from.

Why is unemployment the enemy? Because unemployment, any unemployment, is a very bad thing. It's bad for the unemployed person, left almost penniless and subject the humiliation of claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. It's bad for the unemployed person's spouse, left working harder or scrimping further. It's bad for the unemployed person's children, left hungry and uncertain. It's bad for the unemployed person's community, as ordinary transactions dry up and more businesses fail leading to more unemployment. It's bad for the unemployed person's region, struggling to get investment as potential employers would rather invest were there is less??depravation. It's bad for the the unemployed person's country, because high unemployment goes hand in hand with rich people getting richer and poor people getting poorer; eventually, you have riots and looting.

In a land with total employment, the workers have power. You're difficult to replace; the company wants to keep you and will invest in your skills and raise your wages and generally try to be seen as benevolent to keep you in your job.

In a land with high unemployment, the companies have power. You're easy to replace; the company doesn't care if you leave and can hire someone with skills rather than training you. The company knows you won't ask for high wages because you fear replacement by someone cheaper. They don't have to appear to be benevolent — they can act like bastards to extract more work from you. If you don't like it: go and be unemployed instead.

Of course, there was a flip-side to this. Full employment in Britain brought real power to the workers and we misused it. We tried to use it to bring down governments (succeeding twice). We tried to use it to screw fantasy money and non-productive jobs out of employers who then went bankrupt. We tried to use it to force the government to buy the failed businesses to keep us in work (and succeeded: think British Leyland). But the answer to this was not what Thatcher did — deliberately create unemployment, foster it to destroy the workers' power and then stigmatise the unemployed to keep the fear of unemployment high. There were many, many other ways that wouldn't've destroyed so much of urbanised Britain without creating a permanent hard-core of unemployable people, whose children and grandchildren are now on our streets, equally unemployable.

But the idea is still in the minds of economists and politicians. If unemployment is over 2 million, the workers will remain powerless and the corporations will make more money faster. They rescued the banks last time knowing that it would push unemployment up. Next time, they should let the banks fail gracefully, otherwise we're going to keep rescuing them again and again and each time we'll push unemployment up more.

Once Upon a Time

I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this. I assumed I had, but a search suggests I haven’t. Must’ve posted it to Facebook or somewhere equally obscure instead.

Anyway, this is the title sequence to Once Upon A Time… Man, a French 1970s 26-part cartoon series (shown revoiced into English on various ITV regions at various times) that charted the history of the human race from, as the video shows, our climbing out of the sea all the way to… well, the near future when we divide into two tribes and wipe each other — and the planet — out completely. Yeah, not a cheerful ending particularly.

Still, the titles have everything I could ever want: the theorem of evolution, the history of the human race, JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with the boring middle bit edited out, and a parade of logos of European state broadcasters, many now gone or reorganised. What stands out from the logos is that the funding countries were mostly Catholic (including the very Catholic KRO from the otherwise protestant Netherlands – yer actual Katholieke Radio Omroep and everything). I suspect this shows that the so-called ‘debate’ on Darwinism has moved backward (there’s an appropriate word) as Christian groups have proposed the preposterous ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to the theorem of evolution. The KRO would sadly be less likely to openly support a cartoon showing a good version of how we evolved now, given that ‘intelligent design’ could be proposed instead.

Rickets for everyone!

As I continue to need distracting whilst I work towards my annual deadline, coming up on iTunes quite regularly are the two songs I have from Gracie Fields. 1,468 to chose from and “The Thing-ummy-bob” and “Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)” are the ones iTunes has decided to play twice in the last hour.

I can stand a bit of Gracie Fields, based on the wartime connection (when her husband spirited her and her money out of the country) and the general campness that clings to her. But really, I can’t quite see the attraction. She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t act, she was no oil painting, she fell for bastards who treated her like crap and she insisted on being paid in precious dollars when performing “to her people” at the Festival of Britain on a brief visit back from Capri. No, as far as I am concerned, you can keep “Our Gracie” and all her works.

If you’ve never sat down and watched one — and why would you? — then her 1930s films can be summarised as follows: Plutocratic mill owner announces that he is closing the mill/shutting down the hospital/demolishing the sanatorium/being generally wicked in a 1930s way. The workers think things are hopeless, so turn to fellow-but-oddly-better-dressed-worker Gracie for help. She sings a song at them, then goes to see plutocratic mill owner’s son. She convinces him to join her campaign, gets on a train to that London, sees plutocratic mill owner himself, there’s a mysterious gap in the narrative as to what she said or did at this point*, she gets a train back to Grimsfield or Stonyborough or whatever Rochdale is pretending to be in this film, announces that the mill/hospital/sanatorium has been reprieved, links arms with the plutocratic mill owner’s son and sings another song at the assembled crowd.

Every Gracie Fields film is the same, except one, where she wasn’t from Rochdale, she was from Glasgow — but she was unable to maintain the accent so the producers dropped in a line about her being from both Rochdale and Glasgow, thus usefully covering the wandering diphthongs.

This video is an excellent piss-take of the standard ending of a Gracie Field film. The plot: plutocratic mill owner has unilaterally cancelled Sludgetown’s annual Rickets Fair. Sadly missing is an earlier scene, where she turns up in said plutocrat’s office to plead for the fair to go ahead; Josie Lawrence sings a song that starts “You’ll never know/What rickets/Have done for me!” whilst exposing comically bowed legs. You had to be there.

*There’s a possibility that she presented him with the Lancashire speciality of tripe and chips to change his mind. It’s more likely she put out. It was 1930s — they didn’t say.

The dirtiest shelter in town

It's deadline week at work, so I'm doing extra hours and working extra hard. My back and wrists ache and my eyes alternate between so-dry-I-can't-blink and so-watery-I-can't-see. But it's only once a year, so I can't complain too loudly.

To keep myself going and to provide the right degree of distraction (enough to stop me going mad but not enough to prevent me from actually writing) I've had iTunes on a loop with 1,486 songs (2.7 days of music) playing. Oddly, iTunes DJ gets obsessed with certain songs, so about 1,400 songs are sitting ignored while it churns round the other 86. For some reason, the song iTunes DJ loves most is the theme to the BBC's 'Kick Start'. It seems to play every 10 songs and the next time it comes up, I'm fucking deleting the bugger.

The song I love most at the moment (it has only come up once this week) is the one above, seeing as it combines my two favourite things — World War II and smut.

A victory of sorts

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I case you don't remember, a couple of months ago I took issue with the BBC over something very minor – the way they were displaying the telephone number for people wanting to take part in John Barrowman's godawful variety show. I know it sounds petty, but why show numbers wrongly when it's so easy to show them correctly?

The BBC replied to me with an out-and-out lie. They said that they displayed numbers in an easy-to-remember format, even though this meant the numbers were actually wrong. If that were true, there would've been research to prove it: hand it over. They ignored me, so I submitted a freedom of information request to get the research. After much searching, the BBC came back: there is no research (surprise!). So I complained to the BBC Trust.

At last I feel the BBC has listened to me. The reply shows that, for once, the BBC read my complaint rather than scanning it and assuming the contents. They admit that BBC Complaints isn't up to the job at the moment and needs reform. I suspect the problem is that most complaints are from out-and-our ranting nutjobs with an agenda to push or an axe to grind. Actual complaints from the relatively sane are getting buried under these mad ones and BBC Complaints is treating all comments like they're coming from Scientologists, internet conspiracy theorists and members of the Tory right. So reform is due and it probably needs them to step back from giving personalised but wrong replies and instead go back to the old system they used in the 1970s — pre-printed cards reading "Dear ______ Thank you for your comment, which the Director General was pleased to receive. Yours sincerely, <BBC manager>" — for the nutters, since no reply will satisfy a nutter, and personal responses for those asking serious questions or for general information.

My faith in the BBC is thus restored to a degree. I still don't like that the knee-jerk, gut reaction was to tell a lie. But I'm willing to trust the Trust to work on that. I'll still keep an eye open for the BBC telling lies in its editorial output — these things don't happen in isolation, they get into the culture — but I'm pleased that a bit of the BBC, of my??BBC, our BBC, the best broadcaster in the world, is on the case.

Lightning tree and other symbols

Follyfoot is too early for me to have seen it, although it was repeated several times. I still didn't see it because drama series about horses have never appealed to me (they're for girls). For that matter, much of the made-on-film children's drama of my childhood didn't appeal to me. It was usually stultifyingly dull, worthy and often ended with a message, sometimes quite divorced from the plot, a message that we should be nice to each other or look both ways before crossing the road or obey our teachers or not leave your grandfather's house to go live with Fr??ulein Rottenmeier or the like. Fuck that: I wanted adult drama, where the message, if there was one, was a bit more subtle. Often.

But I may have missed out. The theme tune, by The Settlers, is a jaunty, folky number that I really like, albeit sadly not anything whatsoever to do with the plot of the show as far as I can see (the show was about horses, not exciting fires in fields). Also, Steve Hodson, the male romantic lead, is very cute by 1970s standards. Probably less so now. Also also, it had Desmond Llewelyn in it! Q! I now think I'd quite liked to have seen him read out words in Follyfoot, having seen him read out words in a number of other things.

Best of all: the above video has the YTV frontcap left on. I loved frontcaps — you always knew what you were getting next. Silver man-horse-flag combo: something shot on cheap video. Big white star/cross thing: something shot on film in the countryside/near the sea/both.??Ilk lee-moor bah-taaaat!: something more worthy than it should be by rights. Big gold ship (amazingly rare): programme on film involving Plymouth in some way. Silent pointy G: something even more worthy than Yorkshire was putting out.

Them were the days.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you

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A fortnight ago, I??escalated??a complaint from BBC Complaints to the BBC Trust??when BBC Complaints appeared to have told me a bare-faced lie. So far, no reply from them. But evidence has emerged that BBC Complaints do indeed, as I feared, lie to people who complain as a matter of routine.

During the recent riots, the BBC helped themselves to images and videos they found online. These were then credited on-screen to a website, not the original cameraperson. Andy Mabbett challenged BBC??Complaints??about this — rightly believing that broadcasters should credit the person behind the lens rather than the method of hosting the file. After all, if you show someone a photo and they ask you who took it, you don't reply "The Family Album volume 7" or "the photo belongs to iPhone 4", do you? (And if you do, seek help).

Worse, the BBC credited the photos to Twitter, who didn't at that time even host images. The images were hosted on sites like twitpic and yfrog — they were just found using Twitter. "Who took this photograph? Oh, it was ICI, because the plastic sheeting covering them in the album was made by them".

Broadcasters should be doing a little extra research — and it's honestly just two clicks, not a punt up the Amazon. Now: the churnalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, crediting Twitter. In future: the journalist in question is sat at a PC. They see a retweet of an interesting photo and download it, noting the @username of the person who posted it on twitpic or yfrog or the like. It's not brain surgery, it's basic journalism and the @username is in huge type at the top of the page. It's not like they need a giant calculator and Fred Harris on hand to interpret the results.

Now here's the rub. Mabbett complains in strident tones. BBC Complaints reply, having only skimmed what he said (they say he was calling on them to stop using Twitter as a source. He wasn't). The person replying says:

Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain.

This is not true. Not one part of this is true. Not, even for a moment, is any of it true. Yes: BBC Complaints have lied to another stakeholder to try to make them go away. The BBC have been caught red-handed at a practice that all journalistic organisations have fallen into because it's cheap and quick and lazy. But we hold the BBC to a higher standard, whether they like it or not, because we all, collectively as a nation, own our BBC.

And the BBC does have some really good arguments instantly at hand for using the images with a correct credit: "fair dealing", prior publication, expectation of reuse, the host's terms and conditions… lots of arguments. But they, again, resorted to telling an out-and-out lie instead.

I know this is how society now works. Big organisations now regularly, as a default, lie to us. 'Dave' Cameron can hardly open his mouth without letting a lie slip out. Gideon Osborne runs with them from both ends. Nick Clegg sleeps with a blankie made out of lies sewn together. British Gas has just stopped door-to-door selling because of the lies their representatives spew on the doorstep. Even the Co-operative has lied to me in the last 6 months, as a reflex, without a qualm. Lying is now normal.

Nevertheless, I say again: I love the BBC and I'd happily pay double the licence fee (it'd still be great value compared to Sky). But the lying has to stop. Now.