Boris “Trumps Himself out of a Political Future”

MoSI’ve never liked his politics, but I’ve always thought Boris Johnson had a high level of native wit and no little intelligence. His attacks on Barack Obama’s intervention in the Euro Referendum debate seem to suggest both have “gone south”.

This seems to be having been a building crescendo over the past week. The US position is “paradoxical”. “Boris Rage at “Ridiculous, Weird Obama” blasted the Mail on Sunday on its front page. It is “hypocritical”  says Johnson because the President wants the UK to  give up  sovereignty, something inconceivable in the US, and, because of his part-Kenyan heritage, Obama has a historic dislike of the British empire – a remark which caused outrage (though  more for it’s arguable racism than it’s stupidity). All things considered “for the US it is do as I say not do as I do

For a clever man, Johnson has lost the plot – irrespective of how/if you intend to vote on 23 June.

Put simply, Boris has his history wrong. Yes, it is hard to imagine the US “giving up sovereignty” but this is the wrong standpoint. US states (50 of them) have already done what Johnson says the US would not.  They formed the USA. They fought an exceptionally bloody (and in Europe, rather overshadowed) civil war to test the boundary between state and supra-state powers. It is still a big issue – look at the apparent contradiction between the US constitution and discrimination against the transgender community in North Carolina. Look how hard it is to move on health care or gun control. But there is an overarching structure that each state has ceded power to. Goodness, the USA even has a common currency.

With justification therefore, Obama can offer a view on the UK/EU relationship from a nation that has eaten the pie, worn the t-shirt, and still arguing about the self-same issues.

And of course, Britain likes Barack. Most of know what a big deal a black President is given the level of racism still in the US. He has huge credibility and charisma.

And although countries naturally don’t like others poking their noses into their business, he is entitled to a view:   “They are voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do; I figured you might want to hear from the president of the United States what I think the United States is going to do

Let’s not be dewy-eyed about the notion of a US foreign policy free of self-interest. But we all have a right to be treated with more respect than we are currently getting in the EU debate. In the wise words of eminent newspaper man Stig Abell, Johnson has just “trumped himself out of a political future

Whittingdale Saga Proves Nothing About Press Self-regulation



Have you ever seen such a tawdry display?  The outpouring of indignation, vilification, justification, obfuscation that the now open story of the personal life of  John Whittingdale (above)  life has generated.

Let’s look at the arguments.

“This shows self-regulation works” say sections of the newspaper industry.  “There was no story here so we didn’t print it.”

Really?  So how come it feels like we have no end of stories exposing things that are private (private mind, not secret) on what seem too many very flimsy pretexts.   You would expect this story to make it into print 99 times out of a hundred. There may be nothing more newsworthy about it than the fact that sex sells papers. So why no coverage?

“There was no possible justification for intrusion into his private life” said a former senior editor of the News of the World. And we can ask “Really?”  a second time.  Because even though Mr Whittingdale was not a cabinet minister at the time, he was still a mighty influential figure as the chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Culture Media and Sport. Could this relationship cause his judgement to be questioned?

Morality seems often close to the lips (or letters) of this government’s members (of which Mr Whittingdale is of course one), from tax havens to welfare reforms. So might this matter raise ethical issues that could be considered newsworthy?

Is not the most likely reality  of the situation  that  this story was spiked when usually  it  would have gone to  press because  John Whittingdale, in political and  philosophical terms,  was perceived as a kindred spirit of  some newspaper proprietors or editors?  Whether it was an act of solidarity or because they feared the prospect of losing him, this issue was cursed with silence.

But even if certain newspapers have done the possibly right thing for almost certainly wrong reasons, critics of self-regulation need to be wary.

In timing that could  not have been more perfect,  self-regulatory body IPSO  hosted a “Reality Regulation”  review of their progress over the last two years  the evening  before  the Whittingdale story finally broke cover.  Many of the things critics said would not be possible have come to pass.  IPSO boss Alan Moses has had a notable success in ensuring reliable funding for the next three years.  The Editors’ Code – supervised by the Code Committee (which is distinct form IPSO)   has toughened the rules which newspapers have to live by in some important respects – especially relating to the role of headlines.  IPSOs standards work is, in my view, under-developed, but newspapers are now building compliance into their structures and having to have that scrutinised. If you  measure the progress  against  Martin Moore’s checklist, drawn  up  two years ago,  you  can  see why  the title IPSO picked for their lecture  was apposite.

We are a long way from perfection, or even satisfaction on press standards and press regulation. What distinguishes the non-appearance of the Whittingdale story is that many feel it is the exception and not the rule. That is the challenge for IPSO and the industry. Whether the current Secretary of State will be around to pass judgement on them is another matter.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the  Press Complaints Commission, IPSO’s predecessor, from 2008-2014

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post (UK) at

The moral case for saving steel


Despite being clearly cited by Carwyn Jones (and others) I do not think the moral case for significant state intervention in UK steel industry has been fully fleshed out.

‘Cause morals matter, right? They matter because without a sense of fundamental fairness and a doing-of-the-right-thing, the basis of society becomes seriously eroded – as does the authority of those in government.

The moral dimension here is not just about the industry itself – not about a depersonalised economic asset or transaction. Steel has a deep, long history which I believe accounts for the resonance of this issue.

It is the people most directly connected with the industry who create this resonance – steel is woven into the lives, economy, and folklore of many communities. And nationally it is almost a touchstone – a standard or criterion by which Britain is judged or recognized.

And if the steel industry dies, what happens (and what has happened) to the people who are those communities?

The prospects for steel towns are worse than stark. 50 % of all employment in Scunthorpe is at risk as this excellent video explains. Port Talbot and the surrounding area fear an economic catastrophe if the plant closes. Even the Daily Telegraph raised fears about already-high local poverty. Redcar’s decline, brief regeneration and closure as been described as “disastrous” for Tees-side

We can probably agree with 20/20 hindsight that it was unfortunate that certain towns become so dependent on one employer. But that doesn’t help find a solution.

And a solution is needed, because the alternative is to push already poor, struggling, barely-keeping-heads-above-water people under a blanket of hopelessness.

You may ask, how can we make special case for steel, when we didn’t for coal? Or manufacturing? Well, it is the steel industry is what we are dealing with right now. Maybe steel makes us realise that perhaps we should have done something different for other industries. Maybe we should point to the state aid given to RBS. Maybe we just take each case on its merits.

As groups like We Own It make clear, state involvement is not an irrevocably bad news story, nor a visa to the land of incompetence and complacency. State intervention, nationalisation even, is no blank cheque, no open-ended subsidy for loss making.

Instead, as steel unions and the TUC have collectively said – it is a chance, a hope.

So far, so ethical (unless, as some seem to, you believe that it is immoral to intervene in such circumstances, that the market must be allowed to prevail, that the state should not act as subsidiser of last resort, that the case against steel is overwhelming). But there is an economic justification too. Put simply, saving steel has significant financial plus-points.

That argument rolls across the issue of huge pension liabilities. But we should engage with this challenge, not run away from it. As financial online journal Citywire makes clear, there are options here for those who chose to seek them.

It also makes no sense to destroy the integrity of historic pension arrangements and depress the spending power of those in retirement – possibly even creating poverty for pensioners as well as for people of working age. All contributions to the economy are important.

There are many genuine practical questions and concerns. But we seem plagued by shades of grey in a fairly black-and-white scenario. The government should take the morally right decision, calling on strong supporting arguments of economics and strategic national interest.

Intervention – renationalisation – if you like – will save so much more than the UK steel industry, important as that is in its own right. It will reconnect an increasingly distant government with the peole it has an obligation to protect and serve.