Mourning David Amess – and yearning for a kinder politics

Britain was horrified by yesterday’s murder of Sir David Amess – the second member of parliament to be killed in five years, after the tragic loss of Jo Cox in 2016. Police are treating Sir David’s killing as an act of terrorism.

In the meantime, I yearn for an end of the climate of hatred that has developed in British politics in recent years. As I blogged a week ago after the death from cancer of James Brokenshire MP politics has always been a rough trade. But calling your political rivals scum (as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner did recently in referring to Tories) and enemies of the people and traitors (as populist right wing papers labelled the judiciary and MPs who didn’t support Brexit) is undermining democracy and the rule of law. All amplified by the poisonous echo chamber of social media, which circulates hate speech and lies.

This rancid mix may not have been the spur to the person who ended David Amess’s life. But it makes reasonable debate on crucial but sensitive topics almost impossible.

Britain’s parliamentarians – in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood – serve the people tirelessly. A friend recently praised the new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, for her superb support on a family matter. Our friend is not a natural Lib Deb voter – but Sarah, like all MPs, is dedicated to serve and help all her constituents, no matter how they voted. MPs, MSs and MSPs have become a social service, far removed to their predecessors years 60 years ago who had far less contact with their constituents. They deserve our support especially when they live in fear after two of their peers have been struck down in the service of the people.

Women in journalism: my mother’s view from the 1940s

My mother’s article about journalism as a career for women

We got a precious glimpse into attitudes to women in journalism in the 1940s this week when my father Bob Skinner gave me a handwritten article my late mother Rosemary Skinner (nee Preece) wrote over 70 years ago as part of her journalism training.

I could hear Mum’s voice as I read her talking about rude awakenings, and advising women reporters to dress quietly but with distinction. (Her point being that you may be present at an inquest and a fashionable reception on the same day.) Intriguingly, she comments that ‘the old saying “women are the unfortunate victims of sex prejudice” is rapidly dying’, given that there were more openings for women workers on a newspaper at the time. I suspect that may have been a little optimistic!

Rosemary Preece as a young reporter

Mum’s own career in journalism was short lived. She put down her reporter’s notebook for good after my sister was born in 1953 when she was just 25. (It was common for women in the Fifties to give up their careers on starting a family, in many cases because unenlightened employers insisted on it.) Reading her article today, I can’t help thinking she could have done very well, with her determination, her way with people and her unique personality. She wrote all those years ago that ‘most women reporters soon learn to add a small amount of charm, and larger amounts of persuasiveness, even persistence’. Mum had all those qualities in abundance.

You can reads Mum’s article below: click continue reading.

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Elections 2021: London media ignore Wales again

For Wales, see … nowhere

It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.

No such thing as the Welsh Assembly

The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.

Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.

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David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

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Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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John Humphrys: goodbye to Today

John Humphrys. Photo: BBC

Britain’s politicians will sleep more easily after this week. The interviewer they fear most, John Humphrys, is leaving Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years.

Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was about to win her third term. People were starting to get concerned about global warming. And Radio 4’s Today programme had established itself as the show that set the nation’s agenda led by legendary broadcaster Brian Redhead.

I was a fan of Today from my early days. While school friends in the Seventies tuned in to Radio 1’s breakfast show, my bedside radio was set to Radio 4. I timed my morning routine to the schedule. I loved Redhead’s wit and the way he switched between caustic treatment of shifty politicians and kindness towards ordinary people who found themselves in the news.

John Humphrys quickly established himself as Redhead’s successor after Brian’s tragically early death in 1994. I thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke in the 8.10am interview in the run up to the 1997 general election. The Conservatives were clearly going to lose by a landslide to Tony Blair’s New Labour but the two impresarios of the Tory party had a compelling presence that few current politicians of any party can match.

My family shares similar roots to the famous broadcaster. Like me, he was born in Cardiff, not far from my grandmother’s birthplace in Splott, and went to Cardiff High School – in its grammar school days, as did my father. (It had become a comprehensive by the time I started in 1975.) Like Mum and Dad, he started his journalism career on the Penarth Times. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, and later said that nothing in his career compared to the tragic landslide that overwhelmed the Welsh village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

For me, the most unforgettable Humphrys interview in recent years was the one that cost the job of his ultimate boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle, in 2012. Humphrys interviewed Entwistle at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The BBC boss came across as utterly out of his depth and ill-informed. I described the interview in my blog as the director-general’s exit interview and so it proved: he resigned hours later.

Photo: BBC

John Humphrys is right to go now. He has been criticised as being out of touch with the times. That may be true – the 76 year presenter appeared uncomfortable with the understandable backlash against the fact that he and other male presenters are paid more than their female peers. And Today itself can feel heavy compared with the livelier offering from the BBC’s 5 Live breakfast show. But John Humphrys has been an essential part of the national debate over the past 32 years. I will miss my fellow Cardiffian on my drive to work.

The Independent: goodbye to print

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The Independent’s first edition, 1986

The death of the printed newspaper came a step closer today with the news that The Independent and Independent on Sunday’s print editions are to close next month.

The Independent was Britain’s first new broadsheet paper for a generation in 1986. But it has been struggling for years. Its early success was torpedoed by a hubristic decision to launch a Sunday edition to compete with the highly regarded, but short-lived, Sunday Correspondent. Later, Rupert Murdoch’s price war cut even deeper.

I found the daily paper rather dull, but loved the Saturday edition in the late 1980s. (The Independent was one of the first to recognise that Saturday would become a day for leisurely reading of a multi-section paper, as Sunday had been for years.) An excellent magazine helped. In time, The Guardian, its closest rival, took the hint and created a worthy Saturday rival.

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It’s the Sun wot fudged it

The Sun endorses Tories and SNP

Vote Tory! And SNP!

Newspapers love to think they have influence. Tony Blair grovelled to Rupert Murdoch to win The Sun’s endorsement in the 1997 election, after the paper claimed (wrongly) to have won John Major the 1992 poll. Yet this week’s decision by Murdoch to back two utterly opposing parties north and south of the border reveals the nonsense of such self important, cynical posturing.

I take exception to papers telling me how to vote. Democracy suffers through the massive bias in favour of the Tories. I also objected to the Guardian’s campaign against Boris Johnson in the 2008 London mayoral election. Yet the Sun’s laughable decision to back both the Tories and the SNP surely suggests the days when anyone paid attention to eve-of-election endorsements are coming to an end.

It’s an election, not a war, Polly Toynbee

It's an election, not a war

It’s an election, not a war

I expected better from Polly Toynbee. The Guardian’s columnist is usually a wise commentator on politics, and a passionate voice for the deprived. But today’s column indulged in childish war cliches. I assumed a female commentator to be more sensible.

What on earth has a ground war and an air war got to do with an election? Please grow up.

Don’t get me started on ‘retail offers’. Political reporting gets more ridiculous by the day.