McCarthy & Stone Stopped

There’s already a good write-up from The News of last night’s Planning Committee meeting at which the Savoy Buildings development was discussed again, after the previous deferral which, we thought, was going to be used by the developer to ‘have a rethink’. In the event, the same plan came back again, still in the same shape that it has been since McCarthy & Stone first took on the site.

The meeting opened with a bit of a farce when it came to the usual declaration of interests by councillors. The rules governing councillors removing themselves from decisions in which they may have a prejudicial interest are strong, rightly. But in this case they seem to have been relied upon by the Lib Dem group as a cop-out from taking a controversial decision.

Cllr Will Purvis works for McCarthy & Stone, has always been open about it, and has had no part in the process (he is not a member of the Planning Committee). In advance of the meeting, Cllr Vernon-Jackson told The News that none of the Lib Dem group on the Committee would take part in the discussion, to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest. This point is getting stretched; knowing someone who has a clear conflict of interest is not necessarily a conflict for you (unless they are your partner).

Despite telling the press, Cllr Vernon-Jackson seems not to have told Cllr Stevens, who said he didn’t feel he would be open to any accusation of prejudicial interest. A legal discussion ensued, involving General Augusto Pinochet and Lord Justice Hoffmann. Hoffmann was a director of an offshoot of Amnesty International, his wife worked for AI, AI had long been an enemy of Pinochet, Hoffmann heard one of the cases Pinochet was involved in while he was in the UK and found against him. Pinochet’s lawyers appealed when they became aware of the Hoffmann/AI link, it ended up at the House of Lords, and they ruled that Hoffmann had a prejudicial interest and should have not heard the case.

It is a leap from saying that a judge who is a director of a human rights charity has an interest to saying that another judge who works with him might have, which was the reason offered as one justification by the legal officer for a Lib Dem withdrawal in this case. It is a different case where one’s wife works for McCarthy & Stone (and would be understood to be a prejucidial interest straight away), but nothing like that is involved here. I think this was a politically-motivated cop-out. On the one hand the Lib Dems don’t want the scheme any more than the rest of us, and would like to oppose it; on the other, they want the luxury of attacking the other parties for throwing it out if it goes to appeal and ends up costing PCC money in legal costs. If it had been passed, they could say “Well, we wanted to oppose it, but you see we couldn’t vote”.

We already have a list of expensive mistakes involving planning in recent years, but of course these all fell within the Lib Dem period of office. The sudden concern for procedural propriety is quite funny, in that respect. If the Lib Dems are now going to start declaring as interests any old thing, then we are in for an awful lot of withdrawals from PCC business in future. I can think of a few decisions that, under this stringent new interpretation, Lib Dem councillors might have withdrawn from in the past.

But after that, we got down to business with a deputation from Mr Pead, who as well as a resident is a planning consultant. He drew attention to several objections based on changes in policy and circumstance since the original planning application was passed on appeal which are relevant to the current application. There were some practical problems relating to contamination of the site that he felt should be considered too. Mr Halloran of the Portsmouth Society made the sort of architectural criticisms you would expect from that body. The News didn’t report Cllr Hunt’s excellent criticism that the impact of the block is like a “denture” filling a gap. It has function, but not organic form.

The representative from McCarthy & Stone, Mr Child, explained the plan again and the revisions that have been made since its original first presentation. That didn’t take long, and so it was over to the councillors to examine.

Cllr Ellcome did most of the examination, first of Simon Barnett of the planning department on what his views of the quality of design are. Was it a “good enough” development which met the minimum standard but no more, or genuinely a “good” design? Mr Barnett felt that “in my opinion it is more than good enough to approve” but added the qualification that design is subjective. This was a slightly awkward passage for the officials because nobody else in the room, apart from the McCarthy & Stone representative shared that view.

Design is subjective, true. The original plans had been passed on to two Design Review Panels, which assess design in planning and give an expert and impartial view on submissions. The Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport and Havant panel saw the initial version and felt that the scheme even as modified wasn’t worthy of support. As this is a major site, the original proposal was put before the Hampshire county panel too, and they felt it was only capable of being supported with considerable modification. However, they were not asked to give an opinion on the modified scheme because the planning officers “didn’t feel they could ask them twice”!

Below is a before and after picture of the design as modified by McCarthy & Stone for your subjective judgment, and perhaps conjecture on what the Hampshire panel might make of the scale of modifications. The original is on top, and the resubmitted below it.

old new

Cllr Hastings said he was in “rare agreement” with Cllr Hunt and that the design is a “monolithic ice cream block”. Cllr Jonas said that it had “come back to us in exactly the same form”.

Cllrs Ellcome and Jonas both referred to the “pressure” exerted in The News report. Cllr Gray observed that he had recently been to Berlin, where great care had been taken in rebuilding the city after the Second World War to rebuild the city sensitively, and with many destroyed buildings being replaced like-for-like. He felt that the views of the council and residents had been “completely ignored in a way that is contemptible”.

Things drew to a close with Cllr Ellcome proposing rejection, Cllr Hastings seconding. The motion was passed unanimously on the grounds that it is an unacceptable development in a conservation area.

Well done to the committee for making this stand. While the surrounding area is a mess at present, it is important in the rush to improve it that we do not abandon good design and the integrity of the conservation area. That the site is passing from commercial use into sheltered housing is a loss of opportunity on the seafront to restore it as a tourist destination or amenity for residents – there is nothing we can do about that now that the land has been sold. But at least we can put pressure on the developer and the planning system to come up with something better than a “denture” or an “ice cream block”.

Posted in Portsmouth City Council, Southsea | Comments Off on McCarthy & Stone Stopped

Ched Evans and Football as a Market Economy

I am not going to delve into the legal arguments around Ched Evans’ conviction – that is under review already and the review will proceed regardless of the shouting.

The argument of his supporters goes that he has served his time and should be free to resume his job as a footballer without interference by anyone else. True, it is a principle of a healthy society that someone convicted of a crime after a fair process serves their sentence, is rehabilitated, and returns to society as fully as possible.

Even so, there is a long list of professions in which a convicted sex offender would never be allowed to work again, for obvious safeguarding reasons. Footballers may well come into limited contact with minors, or vulnerable people in the course of charitable work that many of them do. Safeguarding at a club is not an overwhelming argument on its own, but football clubs work with many other bodies which do have a duty of care to people they look after, and all concerned have to consider their responsibilities. That argument goes against Evans, but on its own it’s not decisive.

“But in other trades, someone could go back to work” is the next argument. And it’s true that someone convicted of rape in many cases could go back to their old profession. They might find it hard to get back into a particular trade, because of DBS checks in some places, or because potential employers don’t trust rapists easily.

If anything, with the backing the PFA lends, and a father in law prepared to make good commercial losses, Evans has been in a privileged position compared to the average rapist, and was obviously a hair’s breadth away from a contract. It was really very strange of Oldham Athletic, after spending days trying all sorts of backstairs methods to sign Evans, to come out with a statement blaming abusive comments for not signing him. If you think it’s a matter of principle to sign Evans, you do it. What you don’t do is exhaust every furtive means of trying to sign Evans, and then try to take the moral high ground in not signing him at the end of it. I don’t know who does PR for Oldham and Evans, but they are absolutely hopeless. Oldham fans deserve a lot better than they have had from their club’s board this week. Evans doesn’t score an equaliser with this argument, if anything it’s an Oldham own goal.

There has been a reference from the club to death threats, though I understand these have not been reported to the Police. Death threats have become a kind of default accompaniment to any modern heated public argument – easily made anonymously, and it’s potentially impossible to identify the culprit or their motives. Sock puppetry and false flag operations are easily run. If you think it’s a serious threat, report it, or else ignore it. As indicators of the overall moral value of either side of an argument, death threats are worthless. Death threats, comparisons to the Nazis, all the other stuff – it’s just noise on the channel.

But back to Evans: there’s no legal impediment to him returning to football and I wouldn’t argue that there should be. Should there be a regulatory one in the way football is run? Is football a special class of business in which players are role models, capable of influencing large numbers of spectators by their actions? I think football has some social responsibility just like any other business, and that the influence in this case would be more bad than good. But again, it’s not decisive.

Footballers clearly do have influence. The crisis in grass-roots football of abusing referees is acknowledged by those who have experienced it to be a phenomenon which has leached down from the professional game. It was propagated by TV and the media, and enabled by weakness in punishing dissent and abuse by the authorities at the highest level. But despite all that, I don’t think regulation by the FA is appropriate. It is a matter for the clubs to determine themselves in consultation with stakeholders, and on the merits of each case.

I find unconvincing the argument from Labour spokesman Clive Efford that the authorities should bar Evans and others like him from a place in the game in the interests of furthering equality. It is argued that football has been dominated by sexist and racist attitudes, and that the authorities must take positive action against them. Accordingly, rapists (and other criminals, though Efford doesn’t specify which) must be banned to protect the feelings of others. This to me reads like a belated and cobbled-together justification for banning Evans, rather than a sincere attempt to improve the game’s governance.

Another reason not to support Efford is that he should realise that the FA, Premier League, and Football League are already totally incapable of following and enforcing rules they already have. It would be silly to expect them to cope with any additional burden, unless you first impose statutory reform on them to make those bodies more effective. They will never reform themselves and they have their own equality problems to start with!

So we are in the last minutes of the game, with Evans being narrowly behind but by no means out it. It is now that his opponents grab a late goal and secure the points.

The last argument is about what James Delingpole has called a “lynch mob” in his piece on Breitbart London. His argument goes that the online mob is determined to impose politically-correct values on society and unfairly limit Evans’ exercise of his liberties. I like Delingpole, and I often agree with what he has to say, but on this he has misread where the opposition is coming from. It is not some lefty cabal, and this is not a battle in the “culture war” we are embroiled in elsewhere for the soul of a free society. What you actually see in this case is just a manifestation of market activity: the buyers are sending a clear message to the sellers.

A market, after all, is made up of two mobs: buyers and sellers. If you ever saw the trading floor of an old-fashioned financial exchange, it would sometimes look to the inexperienced eye like a riot. Football is a market economy operating within the law of the land. If a club does something the customers don’t like, eventually they won’t buy. Cardiff supporters boycotted the FA Cup 3rd round tie against Colchester just last week. It is a regular event in the antagonistic relationships between many club ownerships and their supporters, and nothing out of the ordinary at all. If a club tries to sign a rapist and supporters protest, then a club’s sponsors will make commercial decisions of their own to protect their brand. It’s not mob rule: it is market economics.

Many of the game’s supporters, customers, call them what you like, feel the game represents very poor value for money at the moment. They pay a fortune for their tickets, or even just for Sky and BT television, and feel unhappy with the overall satisfaction they derive from their spending. Players they watch want for few luxuries in life during their career and enjoy opportunities the supporters can only dream of. It was only hero-worship that allowed supporters to justify the economic imbalance between them and players, and that has just about vanished because of the banal stupidity of the players and the governing bodies. Many of the game’s supporters have had enough of the product they buy being devalued, and require higher standards in return for their money and loyalty.

A player’s off-pitch responsibilities have been understood for a long time now: clubs and the game have a brand to protect, like any other business operating in a market economy. Clubs and the authorities try to educate players about the vulnerability of their career and the brand carnage they can cause, but it seems that enough ignore it to end up in positions like Evans.

Evans is not alone, after all. The names of Lee Hughes and Luke McCormick have been raised by Evans’ supporters, because both came back to the game after killing people while driving stupidly. “Where was the fuss then?” is the question. Well, the answer to that is that the world has moved on since they were coming out of jail. The rest of the world is now more tired of the appalling behaviour of players, and we didn’t have social media to make ourselves heard in the way that we do now. That’s not Ched Evans’ bad luck, it’s McCormick’s and Hughes’ good fortune. A lot of us were unhappy when they came back into the game.

Evans’ misfortunes are entirely of his own making. Nobody owes him anything, the game certainly doesn’t owe him a living. The people he has surrounded himself with since he left prison are doing his cause far more harm than good. His crime was disgusting and outrageous, and even now there is a real mob running around in his name harassing his victim. It has taken him until today to give any indication, and even then it is mealy-mouthed, that he has any sympathy for her.

The simple truth is that Ched Evans as a brand is so toxic that he has no value at all in the marketplace as a convicted rapist. He is a victim only of his own stupidity, and repeated stupidity at that. And as Margaret Thatcher said in 1989, “You can’t buck the market”.

Posted in Football | Comments Off on Ched Evans and Football as a Market Economy

The UKIP Fox-hunter, or, “How nothing much has changed in British politics in 300 years”

UKIP MP Douglas Carswell has an excellent piece in the Daily Mail on the folly of xenophobia. I was very disappointed that he felt the need to leave the Tory Party and join up with UKIP, so many of whose members apparently do dislike foreigners for no particular reason. This is the second time in a few days that Carswell has taken to the press and probably upset many in the UKIP grass-roots.

Carswell seems to have repeated the mistake David Owen made, of getting into an alliance with people with whom he fundamentally disagrees or misunderstands, and I hope he does not suffer the same frustrations in the end. Will Carswell change UKIP? Will Carswell end up leaving UKIP? Will UKIP change Carswell? He was just about the last of the list of potential defectors who I thought would actually jump across to them. His defection and that of Reckless has not produced an apocalypse, or even a swell that yet looks anything like the birth of the SDP.

I’ve reproduced a piece of satire by Joseph Addison below, written in 1715 for the Free-trader paper and entitled “The Tory Fox-hunter”, in which Addison satirises the Tory mistrust of imported monarchs and novel religious systems. As political circumstances have changed since Addison wrote it, you could replace “Tory” with “UKIP”  with our modern political tribalism. The piece is long out of copyright and I was surprised when it came to mind that one of the founders of modern political writing should be so poorly represented online. Various anthologies have been digitised and scanned, but as his pieces are generally quite short, it is a faff to track them down in that way.

There are a couple of other reasons to dig out the piece. Addison lived in a time of riotous political pamphleteering; sharp repression of printers and writers in response; a golden age of satire, commentary, and what we would now call “spin”, from which our modern journalism springs (although notions of balanced news reporting are an awful lot newer and shakier than the newspaper trade).

We find ourselves in a similar state of flux as social media erupt, vested media and political interests are challenged, our rights to expression seem uncertain, and legal repression again hangs over us. Many of the people who howl, whine, and phone the Police over things said on Twitter today wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the age of the London mob and the Grub Street pamphleteers. What we see now in social media is not some modern trend to anarchy, it is a continuation of a mindset which we have had for centuries, and the expression of which is the ultimate cause and guarantor of our liberties.

The last connection is hunting itself. Whether or not fox-hunting is a liberty which has been stolen from us is not something I have strong views about. I didn’t agree with the original ban, but at the same time I think it unwise to make it a matter of Conservative Party policy to attempt to overturn it, even if we promise to leave it to a free vote. It was silly to let someone brief the press with the Boxing Day hunts going on that we would consider overturning the ban. There are far higher priorities for the next Tory government and it would expend a lot of political energy and capital to push repeal through both Houses. The first thing we have to get done after 2015 is the repeal of that disgusting abomination, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and to reinstate the prerogative right of dissolution. On this I speak in the same voice as my Tory predecessor of 1715 against the Whig knavery of constitutional innovators! The fundamental battle lines in politics are still drawn in the same places they were three hundred years ago.

Addison here has the last laugh, but let it be noted that he died just before the collapse of the South Sea Company, and so never saw our fox-hunter’s suspicions about Whig stock-jobbery proven right. We are still paying off the debt of the South Sea Company, which was an early example of a PFI deal gone horribly wrong. Ironically, Carswell is also dead against the fox-hunters. I see the Whig Party are reforming; perhaps that’s where Carswell will eventually end up, unless we have a reconciliation with him later on, which I would certainly welcome despite his often Roundhead approach to things.

 

“The Free-Holder No. 22.

MONDAY, MARCH 5.

For the honour of his Majesty, and the safety of his government, we cannot but observe, that those who have appeared the greatest enemies to both, are of that rank of men, who are commonly distinguished by the title of Fox-hunters. As several of these have had no part of their education in cities, camps, or courts, it is doubtful whether they are of greater ornament or use to the nation in which they live. It would be an ever lasting reproach to politics, should such men be able to overturn an establishment which has been formed by the wisest laws, and is supported by the ablest heads. The wrong notions and prejudices which cleave to many of these country gentlemen, who have always lived out of the way of being better informed, are not easy to be conceived by a person who has never conversed with them.

That I may give my readers an image of these rural statesmen, I shall, without farther preface, set down an account of a discourse I chanced to have with one of them some time ago. I was travelling towards one of the remote parts of England, when about three o’clock in the afternoon, seeing a country gentleman trotting before me with a spaniel by his horse’s side, I made up to him. Our conversation opened, as usual, upon the weather; in which we were very unanimous; having both agreed that it was too dry for the season of the year.

My fellow-traveller, upon this, observed to me, that there had been no good weather since the revolution. I was a little startled at so extraordinary a remark, but would not interrupt him till he proceeded to tell me of the fine weather they used to have in King Charles the Second’s reign. I only answered that I did not see how the badness of the weather could be the king’s fault; and, without waiting for his reply, asked him whose house it was we saw upon a rising ground at a little distance from us. He told me it belonged to an old fanatical cur, Mr. Such-a-one, ‘You must have heard of him,’ says he, ‘he’s one of the Rump.’ I knew the gentleman’s character upon hearing his name, but assured him, that to my knowledge he was a good churchman: ‘Ay!’ says he, with a kind of surprise, ‘We were told in the country, that he spoke twice, in the Queen’s time, against taking off the duties upon French claret.’

This naturally led us in the proceedings of late parliaments, upon which occasion he affirmed roundly, that there had not been one good law passed since King William’s accession to the throne, except the act for preserving the game. I had a mind to see him out, and therefore did not care for contradicting him. ‘Is it not hard,’ says he, ‘that honest gentlemen should be taken into custody of messengers to prevent them from acting according to their consciences? But,’ says he, ‘what can we expect when a parcel of factions sons of whores-’   He was going on in great passion, but chanced to miss his dog, who was amusing himself about a bush, that grew at some distance behind us.

We stood still till he had whistled him up; when he fell into a long panegyric upon his spaniel, who seemed, indeed, excellent in his kind: but I found the most remarkable adventure of his life was, that he had once like to have worried a dissenting-teacher. The master could hardly sit on his horse for laughing all the while he was giving me the particulars of this story, which I found had mightily endeared his dog to him, and as he himself told me, had made him a great favourite among all the honest gentlemen of the country. We were at length diverted from this piece of mirth by a post-boy, who winding his horn at us, my companion gave him two or three curses, and left the way clear. for him. ‘I fancy,’ said I, ‘that post brings news from Scotland. I shall long to see the next Gazette.’ ‘Sir,’ says he, ‘I make it a rule never to believe any of your printed news. We never see, sir, how things go, except now and then in Dyer’s Letter, and I read that more for the style than the news. The man has a clever pen, it must be owned. But is it not strange that we should be making war upon Church of England men, with Dutch and Swiss soldiers, men of antimonarchical principles? These foreigners will never be loved in England, sir; they have not that wit and good-breeding that we have.’

I must confess I did not expect to hear my new acquaintance value himself upon these qualifications, but finding him such a critic upon foreigners, I asked him if he had ever travelled; he told me, he did not know what travelling was good for, but to teach a man to ride the great horse, to jabber French, and to talk against passive obedience: to which he added, that he scarce ever knew a traveller in his life who had not forsook his principles, and lost his hunting-seat. ‘For my part,’ says he, ‘ I and my father before me have always been for passive obedience, and shall be always for opposing a prince who makes use of ministers that are of another opinion. But where do you intend to inn to-night? (for we were now come in sight of the next town) I can help you to a very good landlord if you will go along with me. He is a lusty jolly fellow, that lives well, at least three yards in the girth, and the best Church of England man upon the road.’

I had a curiosity to see this high-church inn keeper, as well as to enjoy more of the conversation of my fellow-traveller, and therefore readily consented to set our horses together for that night. As we rode side by side through the town, I was let into the characters of all the principal inhabitants whom we met in our way. One was a dog, another a whelp, another a cur, and another the son of a bitch, under which several denominations were comprehended all that voted on the Whig side in the last election of burgesses.

As for those of his own party, he distinguished them by a nod of his head, and asking them how they did by their christian names. Upon our arrival at the inn, my companion fetched out the jolly landlord, who knew him by his whistle. Many endearments and private whispers passed between them; though it was easy to see, by the landlord’s scratching his head, that things did not go to their wishes. The landlord had swelled his body to a prodigious size, and worked up his complexion to a standing crimson by his zeal for the prosperity of the church, which he expressed every hour of the day, as his customers dropt in, by repeated bumpers. He had not time to go to church himself, but, as my friend told me in my ear, had headed a mob at the pulling down of two or three meeting-houses.

While supper was pre paring, he enlarged upon the happiness of the neighbouring shire; ‘ For,’ says he, ‘there is scarce a Presbyterian in the whole county, except the bishop.’ In short, I found by his discourse that he had learned a great deal of politics, but not one word of religion, from the parson of his parish; and, indeed, that he had scarce any other notion of religion, but that it consisted in hating Presbyterians. I had a remarkable instance of his notions in this particular. Upon seeing a poor decrepit old woman pass under the window where we sat, he desired me to take notice of her; and afterwards informed me, that she was generally reputed a witch by the country people, but that, for his part, he was apt to believe she was a Presbyterian.

Supper was no sooner served in, than he took occasion, from a shoulder of mutton that lay before us, to cry up the plenty of England, which would be the happiest country in the world, provided we would live within ourselves. Upon which, he expatiated on the inconveniencies of trade, that carried from us the commodities of our country, and made a parcel of upstarts as rich as men of the most ancient families of England. He then declared frankly, that he had always been against all treaties and alliances with foreigners; ‘Our wooden walls,’ says he, ‘are our security, and we may bid defiance to the whole world, especially if they should attack us when the militia is out.’ I ventured to reply, that I had as great an opinion of the English fleet as he had; but I could not see how they could be paid, and manned, and fitted out, unless we encouraged trade and navigation. He replied, with some vehemence, that he would undertake to prove, trade would be the ruin of the English nation. I would fain have put him upon it; but he contented himself with affirming it more eagerly, to which he added two or three curses upon the London merchants, not forgetting the directors of the bank.

After supper he asked me if I was an admirer of punch: and immediately called for a sneaker. I took this occasion to insinuate the advantages of trade, by observing to him, that water was the only native of England that could be made use of on this occasion: but that the lemons, the brandy, the sugar, and the nutmeg, were all foreigners. This put him into some confusion; but the landlord, who over heard me, brought him off by affirming, that for constant use, there was no liquor like a cup of English water, provided it had malt enough in it. My squire laughed heartily at the conceit, and made the landlord sit down with us.

We sat pretty late over our punch; and, amidst a great deal of improving discourse, drank the healths of several persons in the country, whom I had never heard of, that they both assured me were the ablest statesmen in the nation: and of some Londoners, whom they extolled to the skies for their wit, and who, I knew, passed in town for silly fellows. It being now midnight, and my friend perceiving by his almanac that the moon was up, he called for his horse, and took a sudden resolution to go to his house, which was at three miles distance from the town, after having bethought himself that he never slept well out of his own bed. He shook me very heartily by the hand at parting, and discovered a great air of satisfaction in his looks, that he had met with an opportunity of shewing his parts, and left me a much wiser man than he found me.

Posted in History, Politics | Comments Off on The UKIP Fox-hunter, or, “How nothing much has changed in British politics in 300 years”

The Perils of Flogging Football Shirts

The partnership between Sondico and Pompey FC has become a subject of great controversy. I am not going to say anything here in the way of “trade secrets”. Nothing I say here is intended as criticism of the club; on the contrary, those in charge were right to sign the deal with Sondico based on what everyone knew at the time.

I worked in two stints on PFC’s retail and kit operation, from 2007-10 (when Canterbury supplied the kit) and again from 2011 to the spring of 2013 (when it was Kappa). I had worked in retail ever since I left university, starting out as a picker in a warehouse and eventually becoming a product manager. I had a fateful phone call from someone I knew who was working at Pompey asking if I wanted to apply for a job. I stupidly said “yes”.

The team I joined inherited a huge overstock problem to deal with, a lousy kit deal which meant we were buying shirts in for more than we should have been, and an inefficient online retailing partnership with a third party. We got on with turning things round, and given the chaos that was in the air generally, I think we can be proud of our efforts. But when I started there was still a sense of great opportunity in the air if a buyer for the club could be found. Stadium plans were still being worked on and there was talk of a World Cup bid.

As soon as we start to examine how the business works, we encounter the First Law of Football Shirts: “a football club will never have the right quantity of football shirts”. You may well have too few, because you are too timid with your order; because someone in your Marketing Dept gives them away knowing they don’t have to pay for them; because the players give them away and the kit man has to “borrow” your stock; because the team unexpectedly flies off with the title and you can’t get them from the factory as quickly as people are snaffling them up; because the team is in administration and you can’t buy them anyhow; because the supplier is in administration and creditors are arguing over your stock; or because your supplier is hideously incompetent and is operating out of a lock-up in Swansea.

More likely, you will have too many, because even though you have been prudent with your order, an idiot will overrule you and order more without telling you; because they will arrive late or without sponsor’s logos and the lost time sorting it means lost sales; because the team plunges towards relegation so nobody buys it; because a container of stock you didn’t know about turns up;  because the retail price is high and someone else doesn’t want to accept lower margins; or because your supplier is hideously incompetent and is operating out of a lock-up in Darlington.

All of these things have happened in the history of Pompey, and more I haven’t got room for here. Pompey are by no means unique in the game, or in retailing, in having episodes of bad luck or incompetence. However, the container story is a classic. At one time, when the club shop was based in the former Pompey pub, a load of stock was ordered at the start of the season, the team had one of our unexceptional years in the second tier, the club had its Xmas sale, stock seemed to have cleared through, and that was that. Then someone got a phone call from a freight forwarder in Middlesbrough asking when the club wanted their other container delivered. There had been a change in management of the club shop at some point in the season, nobody was sure what stock was left, and nobody seemed to know why there was another container of stuff on Teesside, but there it was, bought and paid for out of Mr Mandaric’s millions. It had to be sold on.

I was working at Hargreaves Sports at the time, and we used to sell Pompey shirts and other bits and pieces in our stores around Portsmouth. The call was to find out if I was interested in splitting a container of Pompey Chambray shirts (they were nice, I bought one) and chinos with PFC crests on the pocket. In the end, we passed it up and the last of it was cleared for a pittance in a special clearance sale in the Victory Suite a year or so later. Mandaric then brought in Barry Pierpoint, who actually did know his stuff, but who then got sacked in a power struggle which would, in the Twitter era, “rock the club to its foundations”. For all his complaints about inheriting a “Mom and Pop shop” when he took over Pompey, in most respects Mandaric was pretty hopeless himself.

But I digress…the First Law of Football Shirts means that it is very difficult to say how much (if any) money you are going to make out of the operation. There are things you can do to maximise the possibility of profit:

– Plan to get the kit in as early as possible ahead of the new season to allow for logistical problems

– Sell as much of it as early as possible, before the team starts to slide towards relegation and nobody wants to buy it

– Pay attention to design and quality, because not even ardent supporters will buy shoddy tat for long

– Make sure you tap up your supporters in the far-flung corners of the Empire with online sales (a sizeable percentage of Pompey’s online sales in my time there were to expats and emigrés, and a surprising percentage were to people who can only have had exposure to us on TV in the Premiership)

– Don’t just sell them shirts, sell them lots of other accessories and bits which (and here is, perhaps, a bit of a trade secret) tend to make you much more profit

Sondico don’t seem to understand the First Law very well. The Second Law of Football Shirts is “you can please some of the people none of the time, or none of the people all of the time”, even if you follow the points I make above. This is where the commercial realities meet the sometimes idealistic beliefs of fans. Fans often have it in their heads that flogging football shirts is a lucrative business, and that profit margins for clubs or shirt manufacturers are enormous. Consequently, they will assume from the outset that you are incompetent or a crook if in any way you fail to satisfy them.

And you will fail to satisfy them, because no two fans agree about “what the shirt should look like” beyond it “not being red and white stripes”. Some fans prefer a collar, so it can be worn like a polo shirt. Some fans prefer a v-neck. Some fans prefer a crew-neck. Every supporter has a favourite shirt from the past they want to re-create, every supporter has an idea for a new design. Some of the people are going to be pleased none of the time, even if you are actually quite good at what you do. That’s life.

To please none of the people all of the time, fans or club, you need Sondico. The first shirt they did for us, that fantastic “royal shirt with a bespoke white wave to reflect our naval history”, was in fact the previous season’s “Dagenham shirt with a bespoke white squiggle to commemorate the flowing lines of the Mk III Ford Cortina”. I don’t know why they made up the bit about the wave. Trust issues at the start of a relationship are a bad sign. Most of us would have been happy, but for the fib, to give them credit for getting a shirt done at all in the gap between the takeover of the club starting and the beginning of the season.

Then we had the fiasco of this season’s shirt, with poor and late availability, quality issues, and a general feeling that the club isn’t getting the service it deserves. There is a very good piece from Stand fanzine by Carl Paddon and Bob Beech which goes into more detail on the problems the club have had as a result. Some fans have questioned Sports Direct’s policy of sticking RRPs on products in order to show a discount. In the case of a club’s football shirt made by a business in the Sports Direct family and where the club franchises the retail operation to the same business, there is no sense in which the club “recommends” the price at all. It is a bogus discount, but one which doesn’t quite fall foul of trading standards legislation.

I have every sympathy for the club management, who have done as much as they can to nag Sondico into behaving like a competent supplier. The club has done as much as it can to engage with fans on the issue. It offered supporters a vote between different options of kits. But when two of Sondico’s options are very average, and a third is hideous and blatantly uncommercial, it might have been better if PFC had taken the decision “in house”.

Sondico had for years made shirts badged as Vandanel and done well enough with a number of teams in the league. While one or two things I heard were mildly discouraging, Sondico were prepared to pay a “minimum guarantee” as part of the deal. At the time the deal was done, there wasn’t much (if any) guaranteed revenue. You can’t fault the club for that, or for doing a deal in which the risk of running the shop is left to someone else. At that time, I don’t suppose PFC would have been in a position to take over the lease on the Megastore, or Sports Direct (Fratton) branch as it has now become.

Retail is a risky business, and we should balance fans’ expectations against commercial reality. Many fans forget that whatever profit you make on a shirt has to cover a huge number of costs over and above that of the shirt itself. Let’s take the last Canterbury home shirt as an example:

Retail Price £40.00    Cost Price £18.50  Profit ex-VAT =(40/1.2)-18.50=£14.83

Out of that £14.83 you have to pay the rent on the shop, all your bills, business rates, staff wages, the window-cleaner, credit card transaction charges, your EPOS support service charge, and so on. The running costs of a “bricks and mortar” retail operation are enormous. And of course, over the course of a season, your actual average retail price is not £40, because you reduce the last “X” quantity to clear at a tenner or whatever. The final nett profit on a shirt is nothing like the notional gross profit (i.e. the £14.83) because of all the other costs that feed into your overall P&L and the markdown that inevitably has to be applied to clear “terminal stock”.

There’s also the general grumbling about the price of football shirts. As I’ve shown, at £40 you aren’t necessarily making a lot to start with. And a shirt at £40 is costing about the same as it did almost twenty years ago. I think the Pompey shirt hit £40 when it changed from Asics to Admiral in 1997. £40 sounds like a lot, but take any other part of the “experience” as a supporter, and it will have gone up a lot more in that period of time.

The logistics of football kits are complex, but they work to a predictable pattern. If you are having your shirt made in the Far East, the earlier you get your order in during the previous season, the sooner you’ll have the kit. Get it signed off in October, and you should have it in plenty of time, maybe even right at the end of the current season. This season’s “Pompey Pals” commemorative kit was signed off in Autumn 2013, but sadly it only appeared at the beginning of August 2014, already a month (and arguably more) late, and, as Mike Fulcher protested at the Pompey Supporters’ Trust AGM, was not available in smaller kids’ sizes.

Having the names of the Pompey Pals on the shirt makes the production process a bit more complex, but not much. Other teams have done it before and got their shirt launched on time. We nearly did it once before at Pompey when CSI were desperate to raise some cash and sell the spaces on the shirt (we managed to stall that one). There have been reports – as Neil Allen details in this piece in The News – of similar delays to Sondico kits at other clubs. Everyone in the business should understand the timescales and production logistics. There are none of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”.

Sometimes fans succumb to “grass is greener” reasoning, especially when our kit is made by Sondico and there are brands like Nike and Adidas in the marketplace. The problem with a larger brand is you have little or no input into the design process. We all laughed at a side in Hampshire who have never own back-to-back League titles a couple of seasons ago when they started turning up in what was basically the same Adidas shirt design as Bristol City. The days when brands would shell out hefty sums to football clubs in sponsorship deals have gone for all but successful higher division clubs. You might get a deal that gives you a basic shirt at minimal cost but they won’t do much else for you. You’re not a major concern. And Bristol City weren’t laughing when Adidas screwed up delivery of their shirts this season.

Fans care about football shirts not just because they want to buy and wear them, but because of pride in their club. “Brand” is a dirty word in football, but that is what it is all about. Your brand is not what you tell customers (or supporters) it is, it is what they tell each other it is. When you’ve got problems such as those Sondico have caused, they affect the club, and not just Sondico. Sometimes the supporters’ expectations are on the idealistic side, but you just have to live with it, and make the points about “commercial reality” to them when the atmosphere permits.

For a football club in Pompey’s position, selling football shirts is really a marketing operation. It isn’t going to generate enough profit to have a transformational effect on the club as a whole, but it is a key part of marketing the club. Sometimes bad luck strikes and it costs you money (Canterbury going bust in one week in July 2009 rather than three weeks later cost PFC around £200k in the end, when it needed every penny) and you can’t do anything. But it looks to me as if the situation Sondico have dumped Pompey in is not bad luck, just bad management on their part. They will still have to pay up, but no money in the world can buy back lost goodwill if they have damaged the club’s reputation.

Finally, Merry Xmas. Especially to Hereford United fans, who have had the same miserable, but sadly usual, lack of support from the FA. Hopefully 2015 will be the year that flaccid and rotten organisation is finally exposed to a bit of “revolutionary justice”.

Posted in Football | Comments Off on The Perils of Flogging Football Shirts

South Parade Pier Repairs Order Issued

Portsmouth City Council announced a few weeks ago that the owners of South Parade Pier, Fred Nash and Dawn Randall, would be served with a repairs order for what The News accurately described as “the derelict attraction”. After years of inaction under Gerald Vernon-Jackson’s leadership, as criticised so often on this blog, the new regime at Portsmouth City Council has confirmed the detail of work required in a 40-page document. The full text has been published by the South Parade Trust:

 

repnot1

 

The notice is issued to “The People’s Pier (Southsea) Limited” – the company owned by Fred Nash and Dawn Randall. This order applies to whoever owns the Pier, should it eventually be sold. At the date of issue the Pier has still not been purchased by the consortium, which has been telling us they are about to buy the Pier since the turn of the year. The latest update from them was that their intended November purchase would not now happen, and it would be December. On that basis, I think we all look forward to them completing the deal in the next few days and continuing with the work. The survey which provides most of the content of the order dates from 2011, reinforcing my previous suggestion that this order is something which should have been issued a long time ago. The Lib Dems owe us all an apology for letting the Pier fall into such a terrible state through their negligence.

We also know the Lib Dems proposed to squander at least £100k of our money in subsidies so that the prospective new owners can do up what they have reportedly been telling people is their “pension pot”. There is no justification for public money going into a business of that kind.

With the America’s Cup Series races taking place off Southsea next Summer, there is every incentive to the owners, whoever they are, to keep moving so that they can capitalise on this great money-spinning opportunity. We are now well out of marine engineering season as far as the Pier is concerned, and the race will be on in the New Year for whoever owns the Pier at that point to get as much of it as possible ready for visitors. Having lost almost a whole summer’s worth of working time this year while the consortium failed to complete, everyone just has to hope that last winter’s storms were a “once in a generation” kind of event. Otherwise the repair bill will go up, and bits of the Pier will keep dropping into the sea.

 

 

Posted in Portsmouth City Council, South Parade Pier, Southsea | Comments Off on South Parade Pier Repairs Order Issued

Irony and the Internet

There has been a dispute running for some time now between the Fire Brigade Union and the government over the issue of pensions, culminating in a bit of low-profile strike action but a lot of social media indignation. I am not concerned here with the rights and wrongs of the dispute, in any case.

But the lightning conductor for FBU outrage is Penny Mordaunt, who has it on her list of things to do at the Department for Communities and Local Government.  There was the recent minor flurry over Penny intervening in a general end-of-term adjournment debate in the Commons over poultry husbandry and welfare. That story is not our concern, either. However, I would observe that when we were kids, we believed in our dabbles with the occult that if you recited the Lord’s Prayer backwards, Satan would appear. These days it seems if you say “cock” six times, you summon Paul Dacre instead. Or do you say something else? How do you pronounce “c**k”, as the Mail insists it be rendered? Strange that they objected to this speech, when their Parliamentary  sketch-writer was full of praise for Penny’s Queen’s Speech debate contribution, which was similarly ribald. But that is not the unintentional irony I am dealing with here.

A friend of mine in the north forwarded me a link to a Sheffield United fans’ message board, because she had spotted a petition being got up to “sack Penny Mordaunt” over this FBU row, and wondered if I’d seen it. I had already, because while the Left these days are pretty hopeless at connecting with ordinary voters, drivers of white vans, and Welsh NHS patients, there is a hard core of sparts who are adept at starting hashtags and petitions online. The formula is that you start a petition or a hashtag, get X number of signatures/tweets, and then complain that the BBC or other media (because ALL media are on the right, including The Guardian, Mirror, and Independent, apparently) aren’t reporting this vast internet phenomenon. It’s crap, but it’s what passes for political activism in some people’s minds these days.

Anyway, this was the site I ended up on, the “Blades Mad” message board:

SU1Now, everyone who has ever heard or met Penny will know that there is nobody in Parliament who is less guilty of an excess of self-regard. The speech bit we’ve already debunked, so this is just the standard “sign up on 38 Degrees and convince yourself you’re politically involved and informed”. Only you can’t do that in this case, because he forgot to link to the petition in his post.

I clicked on his profile link on the site to see if he had linked to the petition in another post, and to see if it was the same petition I’d spotted. Entirely by accident couple of posts before the one above, I arrived at this gem instead:

SU2I am not concerned here with the rights or wrongs of the Ched Evans case. The behaviour of a tiny minority of Sheffield United supporters has been outrageous, but let’s be honest, it could have happened at any club he could have played for. The vast majority of fans of any club would condemn Evans and this sort of criticism of Evans’ victim.

However, the sharp-eyed will notice that the same user who doesn’t think it’s right that anyone should petition to get convicted rapist Ched Evans sacked is quite happy to promote a petition to get Penny Mordaunt sacked for saying “cock” six times.

Welcome to the internet, where irony reigns supreme, and hopefully the likes of John Mann never do.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Irony and the Internet

UKIP Holocaust Row Looms As Mr Denny Disappears

I have long had doubts about the suitability of UKIP’s newly-binned prospective Parliamentary candidate for Porstmouth South, Douglas Denny. When I first heard he had been selected by the local party, a quick bit of Googling soon revealed something of a horror story for a party keen to distance itself from allegations of bigotry and extremism. The Sunday Mirror ran a story on UKIP in January 2013 which quoted Mr Denny from a party members’ forum:

“Another member, Douglas Denny from the Bognor Regis branch in West Sussex, used the forum to attack gay sex as “disgusting”. He wrote: “What irritates me is they (sic) way they and their leftie, neo-Commie followers seem to want to force the rest of us to consider them as normal. I just wish they would keep their ­homosexual nature and practices to ­themselves and stop trying to ram it down my throat telling me they are ‘normal’ when they are not.”

Yesterday Denny said: “Private forums and private posts should stay private. I have no further comment to make and don’t wish to discuss it with a newspaper.”

The News eventually cottoned on to the story and asked Mr Denny if he had any comment to make:

“Mr Denny told The News he considered gay people to be ‘abnormal’ because they were a minority of the population.

He said: ‘I wish that they wouldn’t try to keep ramming it down my throat that they are normal in their sexual practices.’”

Of course he has a right to his opinion, nobody would dispute that. But we are entitled to judge it as we see fit, and in my view it is a repugnant, bigoted and extreme opinion which disqualifies him from representing a community as diverse as ours in Portsmouth. So I am delighted that he is no longer UKIP’s PPC. What on Earth Mrs Denny, who is a Portsmouth UKIP councillor herself, will do remains to be seen. Denny himself has started raving about his deselection being “immoral” and “deeply corrupt”.

What puzzles me are the internal operations of UKIP, locally and nationally. I first heard rumours in January this year that, having only recently voted him in as candidate, the local party might force Denny out:

About a week after that, Mike Hancock was in crisis after the breakdown of the “deal” he and Gerald Vernon-Jackson struck with Nick Clegg, and a frenzy of speculation erupted that there would be a by-election, that Farage would stand in it, and all sorts of other empty-headed nonsense. In the light of what happened at Clacton and Rochester, we now know that UKIP have no problem at all kicking a democratically-selected candidate out of the way if it suits the party, so perhaps Farage might have stood in place of Denny.

Then in May, the rumour emerged that Portsmouth South is on a list of UKIP ‘target seats’. I’m told by an unhappy Kipper that isn’t quite true; the party does have a list of primary targets, but Portsmouth South isn’t on it. The party will target resources here if Hancock stands, but otherwise they are scrapping with Labour for 3rd and 4th place. It was when this list was confirmed (and immediately leaked) that the decision was taken to remove Denny by the party HQ.

Confirmation that Denny was being removed only came on Wednesday, and it immediately split the local party, with chairman Cllr Stuart Potter saying he is “not happy” about the decision. It’s amazing that Denny himself seems to have been the last to know, and that the local party wasn’t even warned or consulted until the row had already broken on Twitter.

I’d caution Cllr Potter against being too public in his unhappiness, given Farage’s track record of punishing dissent. It is just as likely that Doug Denny was kicked out for daring to question the Supreme Leader as because the party has any pangs of conscience about bigotry. Have a look at this Youtube video and you will see the red mist descend as Farage responds:

Clearly, the antagonism between Denny and Farage goes back some way; Denny  some years ago compared Farage to a “soggy sheep”. The News quotes Farage as saying, rather arrogantly, “As party leader, I don’t respond to people like Mr Denny.” But the evidence is that he clearly does listen to people like Mr Denny when they dare to question him, and that he sacks them.

The party in Portsmouth was already splitting over support for a motion, to be debated at the next full meeting of the City Council next Tuesday. Cllr Galloway, the UKIP group leader, is the seconder:

Galloway

Cllr Galloway should be congratulated for taking a stand against the sordid activities of his party’s MEPs. Whether he survives for very long, having challenged Farage, only time will tell. Whether he survives at all, having split his own party, is another matter. There is a lot of unhappiness:

SwanCllr Swan has explained that she thinks the motion is “playing politics” with the Holocaust. I can think of circumstances and wordings of motions where that would be a fair objection, but I think she’s wrong in this specific case.

She later deleted the above tweet, no doubt not wanting to make the split in the local party any worse. The press have dubbed her a leading contender to take over from Denny, but Cllr Swan would need to be on the approved list of candidates to be eligible when the new selection process happens on December 12th. We know that another self-declared candidate, John Thompson, isn’t even a member of UKIP yet, but defectors seem to get preferential treatment. Mr Thompson’s candidacy is extraordinary, having been a Lib Dem councillor in Fareham some years ago and seems to be motivated by a desire to beat Mike Hancock. We don’t even know yet if Hancock will stand in 2015. I suspect he will, as he has become much more active at Westminster lately, and looks in better health than he has done for a long time.

Whoever is chosen to replace Mr Denny is going to have very little time to get going in the constituency, and they will be at the head of a divided party. Whoever is chosen will be selected by the same people who saw fit to select the homophobic Mr Denny. The way the whole affair has been handled reduces UKIP in Portsmouth to the same level of incoherence as city’s civil war-stricken Lib Dems.

 

Posted in Politics, Portsmouth City Council | Comments Off on UKIP Holocaust Row Looms As Mr Denny Disappears

MPs and the Internet

The Labour MP John Mann secured an adjournment debate in the Commons on Tuesday night, taking as his topic “Internet Abuse of Members of Parliament”. Last week, on Wednesday, he had a series of points of order after PMQs foreshadowing what he would say in the debate:

“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the most violent and vitriolic abuse, using Twitter, of my hon. Friend [Luciana Berger], an individual was jailed for four weeks. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the abuse has worsened and deepened on precisely the same issue in the same violent way. If the medium used were a newspaper, I am quite certain that the House would demand that the editor be dragged to the Bar of the House and forced to explain himself or herself. What advice would you give, Mr Speaker, on how to handle the internet, and specifically Twitter, which is the medium by which this abuse against one of the Members of this House is continuing on a most violent and daily basis?”

It is quite true that Luciana Berger has suffered some appalling abuse, much of it anti-semitic in character, online. But it is also true that the Police have responded to it, and as Mr Mann says, an abuser has been jailed.

There now follows a substantial digression, because I’m intrigued by the idea that a paper editor or anyone else would today be summoned to the Bar of the House; it is a nonsensical idea. If you want to skip it, click here to get to the rest of this post which deals solely with the immediate consequences of Mr Mann.

The last time anyone was summoned to the Bar was in 1957 when John Junor was editing the Sunday Express and he published this comment on the position of politicians during petrol rationing (enforced as a result of the Suez Crisis):

Tomorrow a time of hardship starts for everyone. For everyone? Include the politicians out of that. Petrol rationing will pass them by. They are to get prodigious supplementary allowances. Isn’t it fantastic? The small baker, unable to carry out his rounds, may be pushed out of business. The one-man taxi company may founder. The parent who lives in the country may plead in vain for petrol to drive the kids to schools. But everywhere the tanks of the politicians will be brimming over. What are M.P.s doing about this monstrous injustice? Are they clamouring for Fuel Minister Mr. Aubrey Jones to treat politicians like the rest of the community? If it were a question of company directors getting special preference you may be sure that the howls in Westminster would soon be heard from John o’Groats to Ebbw Vale . [The constituency of a usual target of the Tory press, Aneurin Bevan] But now there is not a squeak of protest. If politicians are more interested in privileges for themselves than in fair shares for all, let it swiftly be made plain to them that the public do not propose to tolerate it. And let Mr. Aubrey Jones know that, if he is so incapable of judging public feeling, he is not fit to hold political office for a moment longer.

The MP Sir Charles Taylor complained in the Commons that this was a contempt of Parliament and a breach of privilege. Mr Speaker Morrison took the view that “I do not feel that every attack of this silly nature should be regarded by the House as a breach of Privilege”, and that the House would do better to turn the other cheek to it. However, MPs from all parties roared their fury, the matter was referred to the Committee of Privilege, and after Junor had appeared before it and failed to grovel enough to satisfy the House, he was summoned to appear at the Bar and apologise on pain of the almost unlimited punishment available to the Commons.

The problem with this course of action, and a reason Mr Mann was unwise to bring it up, is that Junor was mostly telling the truth in his original piece. He was a victim of what we would regard now as a gross abuse of power by the Commons, although the point is invariably missed when the case is mentioned these days. Junor did not specifically accuse MPs of dodging petrol rationing – he said politicians were to get prodigious supplementary allowances” – and in the course of his examination by the Committee of Privileges the scandal emerged that MPs’ constituency workers and others – including prospective Parliamentary candidates – were receiving a top-up ration for ‘political work’. This turned out to be a variation on the modern theme of allowing one’s relatives to benefit from an MPs expenses.

By referring Junor to the Committee of Privileges, the Commons created a storm of further criticism. In 1957, MPs saw themselves as being perhaps “at the top of society” (remember that phrase for later), entitled to a wide range of privilege, and didn’t care. Junor was summoned to the Bar of the House, was reprimanded, and was allowed to go on his way. The episode did rebound on the Commons, because public opinion was becoming less likely to listen patiently to the lectures of MPs than it once was, and the press were keen to exact revenge.

The Spectator archive has an interesting piece on the fall-out of the fiasco, and speaking in the Commons, Richard Crossman gave a very prescient journalist’s view of the issue (and what a fabulous phrase he came up with: “Outrageous attacks, suitably answered, are the essence of democracy”). Scandal upon scandal broke upon politicians thereafter, culminating in the Profumo affair (which Crossman had a part in unveiling in the Commons under privilege). The position of MPs in the eyes of the public eventually reduced to the low state it is now.

After that digression, back to Mr Mann. By modern standards, Junor would not be summoned to the Bar for what he wrote, even if it were untrue. Mr Mann continued from the point of order I referred to above:

“The issue of criminality is well understood and is a matter for the police, not the House, but this is about the medium of communication. If it were a newspaper, then the newspaper would not be committing criminality by allowing itself to be used as the vehicle, and the House would want to have a view on how that newspaper should be held to account. There is precedent from 1956, with John Junor, on how that was done. How can the House hold Twitter to account for its failure to act to stop its platform being used for this abuse?”

It is stretching things greatly to link the Junor case to modern criminality. It is anyway established that Twitter is a “platform” for users and not a “publisher” of their content in the way that a newspaper is. Mr Mann may well wish to change the law, but as it stands it is against his understanding of the media. Mr Speaker Bercow reminded him that criminal matters are for the Police and prosecuting authorities, and recommened he seek an adjournment debate to air his views.

And that leads us to Tuesday night’s event. Adjournment debates never result in a vote on an issue, they are an opportunity for MPs to say whatever they like at the end of a day’s proceedings in a usually-empty chamber. A government minister replies, and everyone goes home after half an hour. That was pretty much what happened in this case, but it is still worth examining. The full Hansard report is here, but I shall extract some bits below.

Mr Mann got underway by referring to the abuse Yaya Toure has received recently on Twitter – unacceptable and clearly actionable under the law as it stands, and that suffered in the past by Stella Creasy – also unacceptable and actionable. He quoted Creasy on the role of the Police and prosecutors:

“the authorities didn’t even know how to begin investigating whether one person was sending these messages — the abusive, hateful and violent messages she was receiving — or many individuals”.

The problem here is that the authorities already have powers to act, but as Creasy suggests, are technically incompetent. It’s a widespread problem in the public service, and it extends to the great majority of the House of Commons.

“A whole range internet providers—Google, Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, Facebook”

PayPal aren’t a form of social media.

“—have agreed five procedures for internet providers:”

Not quite. The Anti-Defamation League have published a code of best practice, having met some of the platforms. It would be useful if the platforms signed up to something like a code of practice, but the ADL is after all a political pressure group and the platforms are unlikely to just adopt their recommendations. It’s no good Mr Mann decrying “anti-Moslem bigotry” while expecting platforms to do the ADL’s bidding.

“Providers should take reports about cyberhate seriously, mindful of the fundamental principles of free expression, human dignity, personal safety and respect for the rule of law.”

What’s “cyberhate”? Seriously, what is it? It is not a crime to hate, and in only particular circumstances is it against the law to express hatred. The law is written carefully to prescribe what they are; why should some vague term be invented by a couple of working parties and a pressure group to make “hatred” in general illegal merely because it is expressed online? A problem encountered almost every time an MP talks about the internet is that they want to impose a different standard upon it to that which one’s conduct “in real life” would be judged against. It’s no good talking about the rule of law if you make such a fundamental error of understanding of what it means. We are all equal before the rule of law and it applies in all fields equally.

There is also the issue that laws are not all the same in different states. The protections of free speech in the US go way beyond those we enjoy in the UK. There is the related problem of jurisdiction, whereby someone outside the UK may effectively say what they like and dare the authorities to come after them. Even an establishment poodle like Paul Staines/Guido Fawkes has done that in the past from the distant fastness of the Republic of Ireland and wherever in the Caribbean he hosted his server at the time.

“Providers that feature user-generated content should offer users a clear explanation of their approach to evaluating and resolving reports of hateful content, highlighting their relevant terms of service.” Having had this happen against me and seeing it against others, I have no idea what those terms are. They are not upfront. They are not available for people to see. No one has a clue what the internet companies claim to be doing about it.”

I think Mr Mann is advertising his inability to use a computer here, rather than highlighting some desperate defect in the policy of social media platforms. If you see an offensive tweet, it takes two clicks to open the “Block or Report” form. If you go down that route, a fourth click takes you to Twitter’s “rules” (as they straightforwardly label their terms of service), which you can also access in one click from your profile page. You are never more than five clicks away from initiating a complaint process. Now, you might well argue (and I would join you) that Twitter is poor when it comes to following up complaints; but it is daft to complain that the process is not “upfront” or “available for people to see”. You can get into the ‘Report’ menu on Facebook in two clicks from seeing something you wish to report.

The problem is not that “the platforms aren’t upfront“, it is that users are just not well-enough educated about online life in general, that they take no time to acquaint themselves with systems and platforms they use before they dive in, that parents are often hopeless at explaining risks online, and that platforms are swamped with a huge number of frivolous and vexatious complaints, as well as the justified ones. Politicians in general think the internet should be some kind of nanny state, where everything is regulated to a high degree and nobody has to take any responsibility for their self-care.

“Providers should offer user-friendly mechanisms and procedures for reporting hateful content.” I would advise anyone to take as an example Twitter. To know how to use Twitter’s response one has to be something of a computer expert. It is not user-friendly and it is not immediately available for those being harassed on the internet by others, sometimes in a criminal way.”

This is nonsense, as we’ve seen, but it’s typical of the sort of thing we hear spouted time after time in the Commons chamber.

“The fourth guideline states: “Providers should respond to user reports in a timely manner.” Even when the police use RIPA requests for Twitter, Facebook and others, they go to the United States, or even Europe where the companies have their headquarters, rather than have them agreed in this country. This delays hugely the ability of the police to gain the information even to contemplate prosecuting.”

Well for a start, RIPA is abused constantly by the state, and it has been ever since it was passed. But it is true that the platforms are mostly domiciled overseas. How is Mr Mann going to compel anyone to domicile themselves in the UK to suit the authorities here? What powers has Parliament to do that? He could always make the UK a sort-of Chinese ‘walled garden’ and only allow UK internet users to access “acceptable” UK-domiciled channels, I guess….

“I am not suggesting, and nobody else is, a hierarchy of victims or any special privileged treatment for MPs…”

Mr Mann was suggesting ‘offenders’ should be summoned to the Bar of the House in his point of order. That sounds like a different process to that available to Joe Public.

“…but the fact is that Members of Parliament are receiving the most grotesque and criminal hate abuse on the internet. If that can be done to Members of Parliament, can we imagine what is being done to people out in the community? I am now hearing countless examples of the most extraordinary abuse even of tiny children and of victims being abused when the victim complains. Businesses are another example, with people’s businesses torn apart by abuse on the internet.”

Mr Mann clearly means “most” in the sense of quality, not quantity. But people in the wider community generally do little to draw attention to themselves and only rarely take controversial public positions. They are not subjected to deluges of abuse. Surely Mr Mann isn’t trying to pretend that “cyberhate” is a far bigger problem than it really is, in order to justify censorship and further legislation?

“A system that would work for a Member of Parliament at the top of society—as, in reality, we are—should and must also work for anybody in society.”

I’m not sure many outside Parliament would regard MPs as being “at the top of society”. The reason they are held in such enormous contempt by the public is precisely that kind of attitude from MPs. I nearly fell over laughing when he said that.

“In law, there is an ability to ban or block individuals on social media in relation to sexual offences. This needs to be widened to all bullying and harassment on the internet where it can be shown in a detailed way that individuals have taken a considered and determined view in advance to exploit the networks to harm others. These rules should apply in all forms of harassment and abuse.”

I’m amazed that anyone would equate people who misuse the internet in potentially quite minor ways with sex offenders, but again we have an MP seeing scary monsters in every corner of the internet. Don’t forget, Mr Mann hasn’t offered any definition of what constitutes a crime except this Brass Eye-esque “cyberhate”.

“Why are we not using internet banning orders, ASBO equivalents for social media? If we can ban people from going to a certain pub or a certain football match, or any football match…”

Football banning orders are routinely ignored, and are not policed by clubs because they have few resources to enforce them. The analogy with life on the internet is exactly the opposite of what Mr Mann supposes it to be. The aspect of football banning orders that requires offenders to report to Police stations and surrender passports is more effective, but there is no equivalent online. There is also the issue that football banning orders for a long time were abused widely by the state and do themselves represent an excessive punishment in many cases where they have been obtained.

“The powers exist in law but if the police were to ask for such powers and if those powers were to be implemented by the courts as part of prosecutions, there would be more ability to close down those who refuse to be tolerant and decent and who are criminal abusers of the existing law.”

I doubt very much there “would be more ability to close down” anyone’s internet activity. Are you going to make people log onto the internet via retina recognistion systems? There is no law requiring us to be “tolerant”, however valuable a social commodity tolerance is.

“We do not need new law. We need the current law to be used imaginatively to remove profiles from the internet, to delete accounts and to stop people continuing their abuse in exactly the same way as the police can confiscate hardware and so on.”

I suspect the Mr Manns of Westminster will be back soon enough to demand new law, when they find their codes of conduct and what-have-you are ineffectual. They are already getting ready to try to foist the “snoopers’ charter” on us once more. I’m not at all sure that law should be used “imaginatively”. Of course courts interpret laws to suit changing circumstances, within reason. But “imaginatively”? Mr Mann could expand a bit as to what he means. As for “deleting accounts”, I think “Old Holborn” is on his 36th Twitter account, having been repeatedly cut off despite never having been convicted of a criminal offence for his activity on Twitter. Some people are constantly deleted by social media operators if the right sort of people complain about them, regardless of whether or not an offence has been committed.

But we know how easy it is for people to switch to other mobiles or to internet cafes to continue and they are doing that.”

Finally the penny drops. It doesn’t matter how much equipment the Police confiscate, anyone can get online easily enough by other means. Let’s not even mention Tor, and other aspects of the “dark web” which are guaranteed to get MPs panicking. No amount of law, or law enforcement, is going to solve the problem on its own. We need several things in order to protect ourselves from the undoubted perils of life on the internet. Education of users, to understand that they are as much responsible for where they go online as they are for where they go when they are walking along the street. Education of users, to understand that it is up to them to access platforms’ grievance procedures themselves. Education of users, to understand that it is easy to libel someone online, and that what they say or do online may never go away. Education of users, to understand what rights they have against harassment and abuse and how to get the authorities to act when things become unacceptable.

Finally, we need education of everyone, but especially MPs (many of whom have the same unrealistic view of online life as John Mann), almost in basic terms of “what the internet is and how it works”. If you’re teaching someone to drive a car, hazard perception is rightly part of the course. But it is only part of the wider training. Technological education is in everyone’s interest, and it is a far better way of going about solving the problems of online life than involving the law or the Police, or having MPs panic and waffle at Westminster.

 

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

Feminism, teeshirts, and PR disasters

I’d been planning to write something quick in response to an article that Gaby Hinsliff wrote for The Guardian. It was a very fair piece on feminism barring one or two quibbles, which I had wanted to contest.  However, then the Mail on Sunday splashed across their front page the revelation that the teeshirts in question are made in a factory in Mauritius and by workers who are paid 62p per hour. At that point, something of a frenzy erupted.

Let’s deal with the Gaby Hinsliff piece quickly, then, before we get down to the serious business of Mail moral outrage. Gaby says:

“A year after finally conceding to Channel 4 News that if feminism is indeed about women’s rights (who knew?) then “yes, I’m a feminist”, the prime minister has once again stumbled over the F-word. Unlike Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, he weaseled out of donning a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt for Elle magazine, and thus neatly divided opinion between people who were cross that he wouldn’t wear it and people who would have been crosser if he had.”

I don’t think all women themselves are clear about what feminism is, having followed the “radfem” and cis/trans wars with some bemusement. Some women are more women than others, say some women. I think it’s a less ambiguous position to simply say that one is in favour of promoting equality regardless of the gender construct involved.

“Men in public life, meanwhile, are increasingly unsure whether it’s worse to embrace feminism (hypocritical bastard!) or avoid it (sexist pig!), and conclude that the safest option is to stay out of it. I once asked William Hague, in an interview where he’d talked frankly about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of warfare, if he considered himself a feminist: his first instinct was to ask his female adviser whether men were allowed to use the word. My guess is Cameron feels something similar, rather than suffering from austerity-related pangs of conscience.”

The appropriation of “other peoples’ slogans” is something I am wary of, and that applies in this case too. Hinsliff is more generous here than further up the piece when she talks about Cameron “weaseling out” of wearing the teeshirt.

“There is such a thing as rightwing feminism (there has been for centuries) and while it often disagrees with its liberal sisters on the means – Tory feminists are big on empowering individual women to rise, rather weaker on analysing the factors that collectively keep women down – it shares the same ends and many of the same priorities.”

This is a variation of the Thatcher resignation speech wavy-hand gestures “Do you want a bit more equality down at that level or a bit less up at this one?” issue.

“Obviously, you might argue that Tory feminists are wrong, or complacent, or wilfully blind; but it doesn’t follow that they are, de facto, not feminists. And to say otherwise is to undermine everything that T-shirt stood for when it was first launched by the Fawcett Society eight years ago – which was that this is a game anyone can play as long as they believe men and women to be equals; that there isn’t a uniform, or an entrance exam, or a million tiny unwritten rules that you should be afraid of breaking.”

Quite. Another thing that has become rather unclear is who exactly is (or was, since it has descended into farce) benefitting from this PR stunt. Elle magazine are running a feminism issue for December (already on sale now) and are calling it “our feminist tee” in their headline – not “the Fawcett Society’s feminist tee”. The tone of the coverage throughout the magazine (or at least as one navigates it through the disaster of their website) is a bit “Fawcett Society invented the slogan, we made the teeshirt”. I think they are claiming rather more credit than they are due. I remember seeing Bill Bailey in one years ago and thinking I would never look as cool as he did in one, puffing on his pipe.  But it isn’t the PM’s job to help Hearst Magazines sell copies of Elle. The reaction I’ve seen on social media has been almost entirely about “Elle’s teeshirt”, which is a handsome win for them, but it doesn’t directly say anything about feminism.

But these are minor quibbles, and it was a good piece. More murky is impact of the Mail on Sunday splash. The main Mauritius government website – www.gov.mu – seems to be down at the moment, so the most recent available figures I’ve found elsewhere relate to 2011. You can download the 2011 Digest of Labour Statistics yourself if you like, if you go to the “Labour” tab and select the Digest but I will extract the relevant bits here. Those pages of pdf lay out the average hourly wage (in Mauritian Rupees – there are about 50 to the Pound).

The Mauritian government sets minimum wages by industrial sector, and seems to use them to manipulate the labour market in an unsubtle manner. It is clear from the extracted figures that despite being a fairly skilled job, machinists in garment factories are well below the level in other trades of a comparable kind. The Mail’s claim about “62p per hour” is borne out. However, as textile and clothing exports account for half of Mauritius’ export earnings, it starts to become clear why the sector is manipulated in this way.

We are often reminded by the likes of Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman that a minimum wage in the UK is not a “living wage”. So why should things be any more different in Mauritius? Is it acceptable to use factories in countries where factory workers are deliberately kept poor in order to protect exports? Is it acceptable for a government to manipulate the minimum wage by sector? Add in the observation that well over a third of the workers in those factories are imported labour, and a picture builds up which is pretty ugly for Ed and Harriet. Look also at the average length of a working week – nearly 49 hours including overtime.

The response of the Fawcett Society to the Mail story has been a bit confused. It makes clear that Elle were on the lookout for a good cause they could hook up with to push their December issue. It is also clear that Fawcett were expecting the teeshirts to be UK made, and not in Mauritius. The defence that CMT are Oeko-Tex accredited testifies only to the quality of the finished garments for the “Standard 100” level of accreditation they hold, and has nothing at all to do with ethical factories or workplace conditions.

Jane Sheperdson of Whistles expressed concern early on in the disposable fast-fashion revolution that ethical standards in many third-world garment factories are non-existent. She used to work as brand director of Topshop for Sir Philip Green, one of whose suppliers was attacked by an international trade union organisation over low pay, poor conditions, and abuse of foreign workers. That supplier was CMT. The same union organisation has spoken to the Mail on Sunday saying that things are no better in 2014.

What puzzles me a bit is why Shepherdson, who has a record of collaboration the fair-trade retailer People Tree, amongst others, went with a bog-standard Whistles supplier rather than someone with a more solid reputation as an ethical manufacturer. It should be possible to source it from a top-quality ethical supplier and still make a decent markup at a top-end £45 retail price. Instead, they ended up with CMT and a whole load of media embarrassment.

The entire episode is a sorry muddle. We have the Left caught out complaining about Cameron dodging feminism, while they have all been posing for the cameras in teeshirts made in factories almost certainly paying below a “living wage”; we have a magazine hijacking a long-standing and excellent campaign for womens’ equality; we have the poor old Fawcett Society caught up in a sourcing scandal in an area no reasonable person would expect them to understand; and we have the Mail giving it both barrels of moral outrage even though that isn’t the worst garment factory on the face of the Earth. Hardly anyone can say they aren’t complicit in the Third World fashion trade. I’m wearing jeans from Turkey and a teeshirt from Bangladesh.

There has yet been no comment from Miliband or Harman on the story. When they do respond, I wonder whether I’ll be reading anything about “living wage”, “poverty pay”, “predatory capitalism”, and “migrant workers”, all things Labour have been vocal about in the past when other people, like Sir Philip Green, have been in bother. When it comes to sourcing scandals Labour’s leadership too can now say “Been there, done that, got the teeshirt”.

Posted in Politics | Comments Off on Feminism, teeshirts, and PR disasters

Anti-terror Raids in Portsmouth

The aftermath of the “terror arrests” in Hudson Rd in Portsmouth has been all over the front pages of The News for the last few days, so I’ll assume familiarity with the case and dive straight in.  But if you aren’t familiar with it, see this on the case of the Portsmouth man who became a jihadist and died in Syria (and there is a good Channel 4 News report linked at the bottom of that piece), and this on the arrest of a number of people (believed to include his parents) at his former home.

The second article I linked to tells us what the people arrested were charged with. Section 41 of the Terrorism Act is the provision which allows the Police to detain those arrested for 14 days without charge if there is suspicion of an offence being committed, as explained above. Section 38(b) (in paraphrase) makes it an offence not to tip off the authorities if you suspect someone may be engaging or planning in terrorist activity. Section 17 of the Act makes it an offence to make property or money available to someone in the expectation that it will be used for the purposes of terrorism.  Section 1 5 of the 2006 Act says it is an offence to intend to commit any acts of terrorism.

There’s a lot of law there, but the matter is simple enough. If you do anything at all that might further terrorism, you’ve broken the law. If you house or support financially anyone engaged in terrorism, and you suspect they might be a terrorist, you’ve broken the law. If you think someone might be involved in terrorism, and you fail to tip off the authorities, you’ve broken the law. It is on suspicion of those things that these people have been arrested.

We have sweeping terror laws, and they generate big headlines. Of course, arrest is never proof of guilt; but there are some offences where people are inclined to say “there’s no smoke without fire”, and it can generate unease, or the authorities may trumpet it. Indeed, the generation of big headlines is necessary to justify the existence of the legislation, such have the doubts about it been.

Let’s look at the figures to see how arrests translate into charging and convictions. Between April 2001 and March 2014, there have been a total of 2645 arrests under our various terror laws. This has led to 1027 people being charged. Of that number, 838 were charged and 713 were convicted (data taken from the tables here on the Home Office site). That takes in every arrest under terror legislation, which as we see from the case above can include people linked in any way at all to a terrorist case. Those statistics should give some reassurance anyone inclined to believe that “there’s no smoke without fire”. There is a lot more smoke than there is fire.

The justification for our surveillance society goes well beyond terrorism, of course; the surveillance state interferes if you just want to go for a night out.  I went out in Southsea with some friends who live over the back of the hill recently and they were struck at how unfriendly the place seems with bouncers on the door of every pub, and that if you want to go in even a Wetherspoon’s, you have to have ID which they scan. It’s ridiculous, and at some point this nonsense must be pushed back.

Two of the people arrested have been released on bail. Two remain in custody. Everyone else is left wondering what on Earth has happened. The News has carried a story featuring local leaders calling for calm, and those quoted make good points. But the really interesting bit is that down the page, under the subheading ‘Radicalised men do not have views challenged’:

Sumaiya Ahtia, 19, worships at the Jami Mosque in Victoria Road North. She said: ‘It’s silly to ignore the fact a number have gone to fight in Syria from Portsmouth. It’s a high concentration for such a small community. Predominantly they are male Bangladeshis. They’re being ostracised by other members of the community. They don’t really have a platform to discuss and have their views challenged. They can’t go to the mosque and talk about it or their parents. They’re going to online forums.’

This view cuts across the stereotype of Asian-origin communities, and especially that promoted by some sections of the media who imagine that mosques are incubators of terrorism, or that the community which surrounds them is tolerant of extremism. It equally challenges people like me who would otherwise dismiss Portsmouth’s statistically anomalous contribution of 5 out of 200 Britons in Syria as a blip.

More importantly, it suggests that the Bangladeshi community in Portsmouth are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” attempt to influence those who may follow the extremist path. But that just mirrors wider society – we all know that if parents tell their kids not to do something, they may well just goad them into challenging parental authority. Do nothing about challenging behaviour, though, and you’re a “bad parent”.

Being challenged over flirtation with religious extremism might well generate the same response in disaffected people as being challenged about smoking, drinking, or “getting in with the wrong crowd” as soap operas used to put it. No answer is guaranteed to be the right one. Shock news for the EDL: kids from ethnic minority backgrounds are just the same as yours, and you face just the same challenges as their parents in understanding what your kids are up to when you’re not looking over their shoulder.

Social media can have effects which challenge the norms of society; that is generally understood. The way in which religious extremism spreads online is the same way that fraud is perpetrated, vulnerable people are drawn into sexual exploitation, that furious outbursts of flaming (so often misidentified as trolling) online brew up. The internet itself is transparent, it will transmit whatever you put into it without itself having a moral filter or restricting its influence to one section of society. Some politicians and Policemen would have you believe otherwise, but they generally have an agenda to push. The internet (including the “dark web”) is an amoral network, and religious extremism is just one of many unfortunate viewpoints travelling over it. The internet is not to blame.

My comment on the “appeals for calm” we always get on these occasions from politicians and “community leaders” is that it is the state that creates a lot of the panic, more than the terrorists. We have flurries of arrests on a battery of charges, those arrested disappear into the criminal justice system to end up convicted in only just more than one-in-four cases, and behind them they leave a vacuum in the community they are disappeared from. All sorts of confusion and emotion can fill it.

There is no reason to panic, but not necessarily for the reasons implied by terror arrests. The reality is just that extremism isn’t prevalent, and you are much more likely to be run over by a careless driver than killed by a jihadist. Some of that is because of the work the authorities do against terrorists, true, but given the powers they have, they had damn well better be catching the terrorists.

Everyone now is bored to tears of the “Keep calm and carry on” meme. But it was good advice in 1939 when we started a war, and it’s good advice in 2014 when we are still fighting a variant of that same one. The enemy was terror then, and it’s terror now. Don’t let it scare you.

 

 

Posted in Politics | Comments Off on Anti-terror Raids in Portsmouth