Monday, 30 May 2016

And why are they paid so much?

Further to my rant about the BBC, I was gobsmacked a while back when I learned that Radio 4's Eddie Mair, hardly the biggest household name at the BBC, is paid £425k a year.  More than double the PM's earnings, including the rent he gets for his house while he camps in no. 10 (so I count that as part of his package).

Most of the media get their knickers in a twist about the pay of Lineker or Norton. In the old days it would be Jonathan Ross. Me, I can see why they pay Lineker, but Shearer? I suppose he isn't quite as dull as he was but it's still work in progress at best.

The Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb has given us a fascinating family insight into this issue. Justin, bless him, told Radio Times magazine that he had been challenged by one of his childen about why he earns more than the PM (his salary is rumoured to be a comparatively modest £150k). "But you don't do anything" his daughter said. He protested that he got up very early, only to be put down with "But you just read things out. Literally, Daddy, you read for a living. And you pick me up every day." Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!

Actually, though Mair's wedge seems disproportionate to his audience size, I get less agitated about most of these folk than the faceless managers. How many in the BBC backroom get more than the PM? I hate to think. I hesitate to look at their accounts as what it reveals on executive pay would give me blood pressure. Impossible to justify.

As for the presenters, I get more agitated about why on earth the Inland Revenue allow people who only work for one end company to operate as freelances, paying themselves through a company to evade (word used deliberately) income tax.

Of course, the BBC aren't the only institution who pay over the top. Another stat it might be best I don't research is how many public sector employees (in the broadest context of wholly paid by taxpayer, including agencies, etc) are paid more than the PM. Of course, the PM's pay is artificially low because of the political impossibility of paying ministers a fair rate. But I still find it hard to accept that Chief Execs of councils and NHS trusts are worth that much. (I'm not letting retail banks and utilities off here, they are also overpaid, but this is a rant about taxpayers' money, or more precisely BBC licence payers' money).

I believe executive pay at the BBC is the most egregious example of excessive remuneration, as the licence fee is a regressive, non-means tested, tax. If these execs want a market rate of pay, their corporation should join the market. If they want to pay their star presenters a market rate, they should join the market. This means funding by subscription, not licence fee. Until then their pay should be controlled as public sector pay used to be.

I think this would soon make them change the tune we hear every time the licence fee is up for renewal.

I think it's a disgrace the Tories have let them off the hook again. I suspect reform of the BBC is too politically difficult for the Tories to tackle, in lack of a Maggie type leader with balls.

So the BBC pay stories will trickle out for quite a few years yet. I'd better not hold my breath.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Why is the BBC so irritating?

I was listening to Anna Foster and Tony Livesey on Radio Bloke (aka 5 Live) the other day. In the wake of the well publicised court case on taking children out of school for holidays, which the parents won on appeal, the angle they were pursuing was the higher cost of going away in the school holidays. They had a travel industry expert on, who was frustrating them as they plugged away about how inequitable it was that holidays cost less in term time. He patiently explained about supply and demand, driven not just by school dates but also normal weather patterns and habits. The presenters twice suggested this was "unfair" and that the agents and hotels should not charge more in the school summer holidays, which brought the riposte that, if Brits didn't want to pay the going rate, the hotels could get their price from selling more beds to Germans. He also pointed out that the lowest prices, at unnattractive times, were loss making and the industry needed the higher summer rates to earn their living. At this point Anna Foster used the phrase "rip off", lost patience with the poor expert and cut him off as he clearly wasn't going along with her preconceived ideas and moved on to the next item. Meanwhile I was screaming at my car radio about people who haven't got a clue about how the world actually works.

I have these screaming fits at the BBC with an uncomfortable frequency. The problem I have is that these idealistic but unrealistic attitudes permeate the BBC. Presenters on opinion forming programmes - and news readers, albeit by tone of voice and twitch of eyebrow - routinely see the world as a conspiracy against consumers by business, in which established phenomena such as the law of supply and demand are some kind of capitalist plot.

And it's not just me. In this week's Sunday Times, Sarah Baxter wrote:
"Given the assumption shared by the BBC and ITV that 'unbiased' means centre-left"
- this in the context of ITV appointing a Marxist, Noreena Hertz, as economics editor - if they want a different view they go further left since, she observes, they only ever have right leaning economists as guests. We know Hertz is a Marxist, because she says so herself (albeit talking to Jeremy Clarkson).

And it's not just Baxter, either, as Howard Davies, former head of the London School of Economics summarised the No Logo/Occupy/anti-corporatist movement Hertz comes from as "globaloney" in his review of her book, The Silent Takeover.

I don't believe the BBC is deliberately biased, though institutionally biased it undoubtedly is (a university study some time back showed an 80% correlation between the BBC choice of lead news items and the Guardian's). I just think that, like many organisations they recruit people of their own ilk, with a strong politically correct, metropolitan ethos. Basically an inherently "public sector good/private bad", soft/pink left, Tory sceptic (let alone, God forbid, UKIP) bunch of well-meaning, but impractical, hand-wringing do-gooders.

It left me thinking that the government missed an opportunity for reform in the recent BBC review. The licence fee system is clearly unsustainable in the long term given the viewing habits of younger generations but, sweeping away anything controversial in their attempt to get a remain vote in the referendum, this can was kicked firmly down the road.

About which I have mixed feelings, as I watch the BBC news, listen to R2 and R5 and use the BBC website a lot, always returning after trying other outlets. I would be more than happy to pay the equivalent of the licence fee as a subscription. But some wouldn't, so the service would  be cut. This would probably be a good thing, as there's no doubt that the BBC squeezes out competition in TV, radio and online, but it might compromise my general enjoyment (despite all I've said) of the service.

But it must be the way to go, if only because more than 10% of court cases are TV licence evasion!  Actually, it was an amazing 13% of people proceeded against in magistrates courts in 2012 - but apparently that's ok because they are dealt with in blocks and don't take up anything like that proportion of court time - so says a fascinating website I found called Full Fact, which is the "UK’s independent fact checking charity" and aims to "provide free tools, information and advice so that anyone can check the claims we hear from politicians and the media" (see this story at

I'll leave for another argument whether ITV should even attempt to be unbiased (Ofcom insists on it for all TV news) when it isn't taxpayer funded, perhaps just closing by noting that this requirement, which in my view is palpably unmet and possibly impracticable, means that we don't get the balance we do naturally in the market for newspapers.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Nature's dance

I blogged recently in praise of blackthorn but, of course, that's the prelude and it's with the hawthorn and horse chestnut blooming now that the year's floral symphony reaches full volume. I think it's the best time of year for driving around the country, with the fresh lime green leaves on the trees looking gorgeous. But, if you had to describe mother nature's "show" as a dance, which one would it be?

Well, my favourite musician/poet Roy Harper has thought about this for us, in a lyric I also mentioned in passing but which I didn't really get for several decades: "buying rides on Mother Nature's funny belly dance".  But when I gave this some thought a while back, the penny started to drop.

I guess the obvious choice of dance analogy might be the salsa - as Len Goodman says, it's got a bit of everything. But does even a saucy salsa convey nature's range - from a glorious sunny day and sunset, to a crisp frost, a blanket of snow, a hailstorm, a tornado, an earthquake, a volcano, a tsunami? Even a salsa is far too tame. And Nature's show is a solo dance, no partner needed.

A pole dance? Saucy, yes but it doesn't really convey the range from a coy woodland glade to the eye popping display of wild thistles with beautiful spiky blue flower heads I've just seen. The more I think of it, belly dance is spot on: get an eyeful of this! And funny in the sense of peculiarly extraordinary. Some ride, some dance.

The line comes from one of his poppier songs, with a band, when his record company were still on at him to give them a hit single, which he generally didn't co-operate with. Cop a listen on youtube: search for Roy Harper One of those days in England and select the first item. It's got some wonderful lyrics, including the whimsical "Sunday's joint is cooking in my tree" (by no means the only reference to weed in his material).

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sweet enough? A quiz!

OK, 4 questions  for you:
1. Since 1992 has overall sugar consumption in Britain a) gone up by 16%, b) stayed about the same or c) gone down by 16%?
2. Over the last 10 years has the number of overweight children a) gone up, b) stayed the same or c) gone down?
3. Over the last 10 years has the average number of calories consumed daily a) gone up, b) stayed about the same or c) gone down?
4. Over the last 5 years, have admissions to hospital where obesity is the primary cause a) gone up, b) stayed about the same or c) gone down?

I was surprised when I read Luke Johnson's Sunday Times column this week and I've turned his facts below into a quiz. He was querying the logic for a sugar tax, cautioning that health zealots will spoil things for us, potentially threatening jobs in the process and arguing that knee jerk, unwise legislation is not the answer to ill health and obesity.

According to Luke, the anwers are:
1. c, sugar consumption is down by 16%, according to DEFRA
2. b, the number of overweight children hasn't risen in 10 years, says Luke
3. c, UK average calories consumed daily (I assume per person) has gone down according to Goldman Sachs, citing government data
4. c, admissions to hospital with obesity as prime cause peaked 5 years ago, says Luke.

I like reading Luke's entrepreneurs view, with its pro-business stance. But these facts don't correlate with the evidence of my own eyes. And he has made his living in the food and drink industry for 25 years, so there may be some selective quoting of the facts here. However, since sugary drinks provide just 3% of the nation's calorie intake, it's hard to argue that a sugar tax will make much difference. And it does open the door to other taxes by the nanny state, as the tobacco industry is warning us.

So what will this or a future chancellor tax next? After all, there's a lot of sugar and fat containing foods to go for. I fear for the price of my cream tea treats!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Trees of Life

No, I haven't gone all biblical on you! I read last week (Sunday Times 1 May) about a Woodland Trust plan to plant 64 million trees to restore woodlands, starting in the areas of Suffolk and Essex most affected by ash dieback, breaking up huge "prairies" and providing green pathways for species such as bats, butterflies and pine martens, as well as creating forests.

Planting of new woodland last year was less than half the government target of 12,355 acres exacerbated by death of species such as ash, sweet chestnut, juniper and oaks from pests and diseases.

Trees chosen include maple, beech and alder in Suffolk, aspen, cherry, beech and apple in Hertfordshire and sycamore, maple and beech in Yorkshire. Now sycamore is a weed for me - and not just me - the site, a blog for a business which creates woodland - says sycamore is fast growing and regarded by some as a ‘weed’. They also say it is not a native tree but was introduced from central and south east Europe. ( However, I think this thing about native species is a bit artificial - how far back do you go?  After all chickens were brought here in the iron age and the Romans introduced rabbits. Also the species we think of as part of our natural landscape - like oak - became dominant for commercial reasons. A University of East Anglia professor of landscape history (hmm, another subject I didn't know you could be a professor in) says the long dominance of oak, elm and ash in our country was all down to economics. The three species accounted for 85-100% of the trees growing four counties - Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire - before disease hit. Ash was prized for fencing and firewood, elm was good for planks and water pipes and oak for building.

So what we look at and regard as a classic and natural British landscape is, of course, man made and artificial. But beautifully artificial. As Bill Bryson has written 'nothing, and I mean nothing' can compare with the beauty of the English countryside. As a result of planting trees and hedgerows, many species are repopulating or returning, including birds and owls. But the type of tree matters.

Trees are home to many forms of life, especially insects. The most hospitable is oak, which homes 284 species of insects. After that we have willow (266), birch (229) and hawthorn (219). In comparison, as is clear when walking through different types of forest, conifers are almost uninhabitable for insects: spruce hosts 37 and fir 16. Surprisingly they are still more insect friendly than one of my favourites, the horse chestnut, just coming into glorious bloom, but host to only 4 species of insect - and a 16th century immigrant from Turkey, to boot.

Mind, while there is a clear issue for wildlife habitats, it's easy to think that the country is being progressively deforested, which is not true. Today, only 10% of England's area is covered by trees, compared with the EU average of 37%. But in 1870 it was 5%. Even at the time of the Domesday Book it was only 15%. It was the farmers of the pre-Roman era who scraped the landscape bare of trees, not Tudor shipbuilders or post war barley barons. To find a time when the tree cover in England was 37%, one might have to go back to the Bronze Age!

Coniferous trees proliferated after the 2nd world war, the area in England trebling to nearly a million acres between 1947 and 1980. But since then broad-leaved tree planting has more than reversed the trend. Conifer acreage has been shrinking and broadleaf has more than plugged the gap: up from 1.45m acres in 1998 to 2.23m by 2015. Interestingly, the low price of imported timber made conifer planting less attractive; government grants for broadleaf also made an impact. Over Britain as a whole, broadleaf is now more prevalent than conifer by 3.3m acres to 3.23m, with the gap widening.

The coalition government had a policy to increase tree cover in England to 12% by 2060. As noted above, they haven't been going at the target rate, but things seem to be going in the right direction. The most numerous and fastest spreading species in England is now not spruce, but oak.

So, while there is clearly much to do to preserve and improve our beautiful, if artificial, British environment, as our 'slowly changing seasons' (a Roy Harper lyric, of course) move from spring towards summer, let's enjoy and respect what we have:

"One of those days in England that you just could not forget
From the mists of secret morning to the golden red sunset.
And though the time fast slips away, it's long enough to laugh and play
Around the fireside making hay, dreaming of tomorrow, oh you know there's no today".
Roy Harper, One of Those Days In England parts 2-10 from 'Bullinamingvase' 1977.

"The Blackcap sings and the forest rings
The nettles tall around me
With shafts of sun and moving things
And poems fast and slowly.....
Two silver greenflies to flicker the back-dropping lush
Of the emerald springtime
To lust for a moment in love of another
As dust on a dragonfly's wing".
Roy Harper, Commune, from Valentine, 1974.

As you can tell, both of these songs are as much about communing in nature as communing with nature, but that would be a consistent theme with Roy!

Facts on tree cover and the wild life trees can sustain from a fascinating Richard Girling article, 'History, homes and comfort for the soul from little acorns grows', Sunday Times, 3 May 2015.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Colin Harvey agrees with us - Everton are boring

I met a grand old Evertonian yesterday, Colin Harvey. I introduced him to another, my father-in-law, who is old enough to have seen Dixie Dean play. Colin was at the pub where we were celebrating his 95th birthday. It turned out they had something else in common - the first team my father-in-law supported was New Brighton FC. Colin's brother played for New Brighton, which disbanded in 1983.

"We could have done with you yesterday", I said, referring to the Everton game against Bournemouth, which we had won to make it 5 home league wins, at the 18th attempt. It turns out Colin is a very modest, self-effacing sort of chap. "I'm not sure about that" he said, adding "I only go these days because I take my grandson". We chatted about how slow the build up play had been and agreed that, by the time the goalkeeper had passed it to the full back, who had passed it inside to the centre back and then to Darron Gibson, playing in a kind of withdrawn quarterback role between the centre backs, the other team were all back in position, waiting and watching. "I'm not asking them to just knock it long" I said. "No, pass it forward" said Colin. He didn't mind the goalie throwing it out - after all Gordon West often did, partly because he struggled with a thigh injury for some time which stopped him kicking it long. "Mind, he could throw it to the half way line" said Colin. I remember! And the full back then looked to play the ball forward.

The clear implication was that Colin finds Everton's play these days just as mind numbingly boring as the rest of us.

The puzzling thing is that, earlier in the Martinez reign, Everton had handled transitions well, breaking quickly to destroy Manchester United, for example, when Moyes brought them to Goodison Park. Barkley was free to play, whereas now he looks to me as if he is over-thinking everything. He seems to want too many touches and ends up surrounded by opponents. I expect this is because his mind has been filled with so many words from Martinez around the subject of decision making.

Transitions are dangerous - for both teams. When you win the ball, if you lose it again straight away - especially in the last third, it's very dangerous. Hence Pep Guardiola's 6 second rule for winning the ball back after losing it (see

Probably because Everton were leaking so many goals, they've become cautious when they win the ball. They consolidate possession rather than looking to break quickly. I'm sure the record shows we've tightened up over the last few months. but the scoring has dried up as a result.

One couldn't imagine Harvey, Bally or Peter Reid being happy playing at Everton's current tempo.