Daily Express descends into self-parody

Did anyone responsible for any part of this front page actually seriously mean anything they wrote?

It looks like one of those mocked-up spoofs you find used as the group picture on anti-Mail/anti-Express Facebook groups.

I particularly like their proud trumpeting that they are “10p CHEAPER THAN THE DAILY MAIL”. I think it says something about also being “better” underneath that, though it’s hard to make it out. I think drawing a comparison between the Mail and the Express is like comparing having all your teeth ripped out without anaesthetic by a dentist for £50 with having them ripped out by a drunk friend with pliers for £40.

Do people buying the Express actually feel like by reading it they are becoming more informed about the world around them? How disturbing.


Haltemprice and Howden

I realise my track record on influencing people’s voting choices isn’t great, but for the record I wholeheartedly agree with Dave Cole’s conclusions on next month’s David Davis-induced by-election.

There are no other relatively mainstream, left-wing, liberal parties standing against Davis, and his support for the death penalty and what might abbreviatedly be called Section 28-day detention gives the lie to any pretence he’s a champion of civil liberties, so backing the Green party would seem a no-brainer to me, were I actually living in the constituency.

Is 26 candidates in a by-election a record, by the way? Does anyone know? It seems rather a lot, particularly considering the absence of most of the main parties. Hope the returning officer has stamina.

Talking of pushing the boundary…

Just saw Jimmy Cliff at Glastonbury hailing the crowd thus:

Greetings, Glastonbury, London, England!

That’s really pushing the boundary.

TV review: Your News

This is the first of what might become a series of reviews – definitely not all as excessively detailed as the below – of TV programmes which I feel are unlikely to be reviewed elsewhere. Possible future contenders include BBC Parliament’s The Record, BBC News’s Click, and BBC Two’s post-Newsnight weather bulletin.


"Your News" is a strange programme, whose weekly 15-to-20-minute dose is given several different outings each weekend on the BBC News channel.

To call it merely "strange" is perhaps to go a little too easy on it: this programme is actually painfully bad in most respects, although if I’m at a loose end when its title shows up in the now and next listings, I will usually opt to cringe my way through it, for reasons which will perhaps become clear below.

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Blog Nation

BenSix, me and the Tory Troll

On Wednesday night, as evidenced in the photo above (thanks Sunny), I attended the Liberal Conspiracy/Comment is Free (CiF) Blog Nation event for bloggers of the liberal-left persuasion, at the Guardian Newsroom.

I’ve been to the Newsroom for a number of its exhibitions over the past few years, including a great tribute to their sadly missed cartoonist Austin, and more bizarrely the world’s first chance to gaze at the entire skeleton of the whale that swam up the Thames a couple of summers ago.

It turned out that the part of the venue which had back then been the whale’s temporary showcase more ordinarily doubles as a lecture theatre-type room, and it was in here that I began putting faces to bloggers’ names as they introduced themselves throughout the discussions, which covered topics from campaigning to coping with the likelihood of a Conservative government in 2010, and from feminism in the blogosphere to the signal-to-noise ratio in comments, particularly on CiF.

[I’m going to use a “Read more” link now. Personally I don’t like these when I’m reading a blog but they seem popular in long posts elsewhere so I’ll give it a go. Feedback warmly welcomed about whether these are good or not.]

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Beanz Meanz Swinez

I’ve been doubly gobsmacked by the unfolding tale of Heinz’s ‘gay kiss’-incorporating mayonnaise advert.

First, I was taken aback by the large number of complaints that had been attracted by a simple peck on the lips between a two men in an advert. Which century is this? Where did so many homophobes suddenly find the Advertising Standards Authority’s phone number? Apparently:

viewers complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that it was "offensive" and "inappropriate to see two men kissing".

Other complaints include that the ad was "unsuitable to be seen by children" and that it raised the difficult problem of parents having to discuss the issue of same-sex relationships with younger viewers.

Well, really – poor them. Fancy having to discuss an issue of perfectly natural loving relationships with children. How is this not a good thing? I don’t hear these people complaining about having to discuss issues like, say, straight relationships, or perhaps even less natural things like why people keep interrupting their television-viewing to insist they buy things they don’t really need.

Then, shortly after I finished shaking my head in disappointment at people’s narrow-mindedness, I learned that Heinz’s reaction was to cave in and drop the advert! What on earth are they thinking? Have they calculated that bigots are a more profitable market than the rest of us? Is it really more important to keep them on side than the rest of us?

(I suppose they might have a point actually – I can’t speak for other non-bigots but I haven’t bought Heinz products in years. Own-brand beans are so much cheaper, and taste great. Which makes joining the boycott rather easier… 😉 )

What makes this all even more bizarre is that if you watch the advert, it’s pretty clear that this advert is no more about an actual same-sex relationship than the Bounty kitchen paper ads are about accurately portraying a pair of cohabiting pre-op transsexuals.

If you’re looking for things to get upset by in this ad, how about the casually sexist stereotyping inherent in wheeling out the cliché of ‘mum’ preparing meals for kids, nagging them and so forth, and ‘dad’ going out to work? Or the fact that a product banned from kids’ TV due to its unhealthiness is prominently advertised being given to kids for lunch.

I’m not suggesting either of these is a reason to pull the ad off air, but they’re certainly better justifications for doing so than a supposed gay kiss (which is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder anyway).

Of course, Heinz has now garnered a lot of publicity over this, as well as appeasing homophobes, but I can’t help wondering if this may turn out to be one of those rare occasions when there is such a thing as bad publicity. Here’s hoping.

One rev forward, one screech back

Today’s Guardian G2 supplement asks: is the fuel crisis a blessing in disguise?

As with most questions posed by newspapers, or indeed in life generally, there’s no one simple answer; in some ways, it is a blessing, but in others the disguise is perhaps rather too good.

I can recall reading not that long ago – but certainly before such a prospect looked remotely feasible – that the price of petrol would have to reach £2 per litre before the UK would start to see the sort of modal shift away from cars and onto public transport which London has bucked the trend with over the past few years.

Now prices are about 20% closer to that than they were when I read it, is this an unalloyed good thing?

There’s little doubt from an environmental point of view that there is almost no such thing as too high a price for oil. It’s going to run out, and until it does it’s going to cause dangerous damage to the environment, so the sooner we can cut down on its use, the better.

From a social justice point of view, though, high petrol prices hit poorer people harder, as do most environmental taxes, which makes things that bit more awkward.

The well known difficulty with making the transition from cars to public transport is that public transport needs to be good to encourage people to leave their cars at home. More ideally, public transport needs to be so good that people don’t have a car in the first place.

The problem with the costs of running a car is that so many of them are one-off, up-front, ‘sunk’ costs: the moment you opt to own a car, you effectively commit to throwing hundreds of pounds at it each year in maintenance, insurance, road taxes and loss of value. The incremental costs which actually vary with the car’s use make up a relatively small (but increasing) proportion of the cost of owning a car.

The result of all this is that for anyone who owns a car, public transport simply can’t compete on a fair basis when deciding how to embark on a particular journey. Sure, the overall cost of taking a car on each trip to the supermarket over a year may be similar to the cost of hopping on the bus instead, but that’s not how decisions are made. Sunk costs are irrelevant to any individual decision, so you’re comparing – in the case of our small, fuel-efficient car – an incremental cost of about 15p a mile with a return bus fare, even in the cheap bus paradise of Greater London, of £1.80 per person.

It’s clear that to enable fair competition between private and public transport, as many of those sunk costs need to be removed and replaced by incremental costs which vary with distance travelled instead. So, for instance, the government’s much-maligned (and even now, I understand, not expected by anyone in the Department for Transport to be implemented for at least a decade) national Road Pricing Scheme would be an ideal replacement for road tax, arguably fuel duty (although this is of course already incremental), and perhaps more radically some sort of MOT system funded from the scheme, if they really wanted to try to win over the usually unappeasable motorists. The more sunk costs they can apportion per mile in this way, the fairer the comparison can be between taking public transport and taking the car.

As things stand, too much of Britain is too difficult to navigate by public transport, so many of us – even those of us who write blog posts like this and wish they didn’t feel the need to own a car – find ourselves reluctantly purchasing a car to get around.

Living 150 metres inside Greater London, with parents living a few miles outside London, I know I could very easily and happily go without a car if I only ever travelled in the 180° zone on one side of my home, but since I often need to travel to the other side, going without would be impractical, inconvenient and expensive.

This is why so many people, even those with decent transport links in their immediate vicinity, have cars, and as soon as they own the car, it’s a financial no-brainer to use it as much as possible.

So as the fuel prices begin to rise, and people are looking for ways to change to public transport, what progress is being made toward replacing one-off costs with incremental costs?

Sadly, very little. In addition to the aforementioned shelved National Road Pricing scheme, I arrived home (by sleeper train, not car!) last week to find a letter from my car insurance company, Norwich Union, telling me that the innovative product I signed up for last summer, Pay As You Drive, was being axed.

Apparently take-up was poor – poor to the point where they refused to say quite how poor but insisted it was “not less than” 10% of what they were hoping for!

I’d signed up for this as a first optimistic step towards enabling myself to compare public transport and car use fairly, and while I was pleased by how well it worked and did feel somewhat additionally rewarded each time I left my car at home and walked or cycled somewhere, the per-mile rates, even in rush hour, were minimal, and as nothing compared with all the sunk costs of owning the car. Nevertheless, it was a good start, but now even this small step towards a fairer transport market has been withdrawn.

Perhaps it will make a comeback, but in the mean time, is £2-a-litre petrol still our best hope for achieving modal shift? If there’s not a marked improvement in (and reduction in the cost of) public transport outside London, for the sake of the less well off, I rather hope not.