The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘Question Time (BBC1)’

NHS Groundhog Day

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 16, 2010 @ 09:31

Francis Maude and Andy Burnham even had a lively exchange of views...

One of the bigger items of news this week has been Andrew Lansley’s statement to the Commons about his White Paper suggesting the poor old NHS should undergo yet another reshuffle.

The issue was covered last night on Question Time, and when I heard the start of the original question my brain already started going to sleep. But I gave it a chance, and it turned out to be the most interesting part of the programme.

The main reason for that was because the somewhat left-wing panel (George Galloway, Sally Bercow, Andy Burnham) found itself an unusual ally in the ample shape of Nick Ferrari, the always excitable, never unopinionated talk-show host. The four of them battered the lone policy defender, Francis Maude, a quiet and unassuming man, and were aided by very generous rounds of applause, and one or two bouts of heckling.

NHS reorganisations are probably the most boring thing to happen in this country. But one thing you can’t say is that they’re not regular. Every Health Secretary under Labour seemed to have their very own pet project to implement. Now, step forward the new Tory Health Secretary, who doesn’t want to feel left out.

The whole exercise is pointless. The main reason is simple: it has been tried before in the late 80s and it didn’t work (see Simon Jenkins in Tuesday’s Evening Standard). The goal of is to “put GPs in charge” of the money. I’m not sure why we’d want to do that, as I don’t believe most GPs entered the profession to be accountants.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we need bureaucracy. We don’t need waste, and we don’t need over-regulation. Stop the press. But we do need good, professional administrators to handle the difficult organisational decisions so that the people who want to do the caring and the treating can actually do it.

Like most things in life, structures do matter, but only to a point. Beyond that point, the rest is down to the people involved. Just like poor schools failing because of poor management, hospitals and other health organisations too suffer when there is a failure in leadership. If the coalition wants to do something useful, it should be to start in that area, and let the current system at least have a chance to bed down so we can see what impact it actually has. Especially as changing them now is going to have a £1.7bn price tag.

All sounds too easy, doesn’t it. Well, of course it isn’t. Finding good managers is tough. Might it be that they have to be poached from the private sector with generous wages? Talk about a minefield.

What is it about governments, of all colours, that they feel they must be seen to be doing something? I had high hopes that this coalition might actually resist the New Labour hyper-legislation reflex.

It seems to be a poor showing so far.

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The Parties Swap Seats

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 2, 2010 @ 09:17

When a Tory can address the Beveridge Society you know something is afoot...

I can’t have been the only one – and I don’t think I was judging at the Twitter stream – to have watched Question Time last night pretty surprised at some of the things I was hearing.

First of all, there was the disgrace of Alan Johnson telling the world that “Michael Howard was right”. Prison works, apparently. Labour, what has happened to you? I thought I liked Alan Johnson until last night. No more.

Then there was the remarkable performance of Iain Duncan Smith. Not wanting to show off, and all that, but for the people who’ve been following IDS’s work for a while, it didn’t really come as a surprise.

Hopefully, the few million people watching will have been as intrigued as the studio audience seemed to be. Towards the end of the show, it basically turned into “Question IDS Time” as a string of audience members kept putting intelligent and thoughtful questions and observations directly to him on the issue of benefits and welfare reform.

It was a revelation. A politician who had used his time in opposition wisely. Studying evidence, conducting his own research, and formulating intelligent, rational, evidence-based policy. At several times he displayed a note of passion which we don’t usually get in such dour politicians. He held court, deploying relevant statistics and speaking in such an erudite fashion that I got the sense he will have made a big impact last night.

What annoyed me was that, during all this, Alan Johnson’s lines of attack were simple: IDS is a lonely figure in his party, and will not be able to carry through Tory backbenchers; and IDS will not have any money to conduct his welfare reform programme.

The first point is tired, old partisan hackery. The second has some truth to it. His plan, if implemented properly, will cost money in the short-term, and that’s before you even get into the minefield of how to withdraw benefits from unemployed people who then start work. I’ve had no good answers on this issue.

But the travesty is that the economic mess is probably going to mean we’re not really going to make any progress on this issue. The coalition will hold together on welfare reform, and probably even more so because it’s being led by the most unlikeliest of characters. Meanwhile, Labour will carp from the sidelines, having spent 13 years presiding over such failure.

It really is an incredible turnaround. Progressive coalition versus fatalistic Labour.

The only danger is this. If the coalition fails to make a serious dent in changing the poverty of aspiration in certain parts of the country, simply because there is just no money to finance the agenda, it might kill our best chance of tackling this problem for another generation.

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Whither Question Time?

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 28, 2010 @ 12:08

I wonder how many more years our David has left in him...

In the latest in my Bill Withers instalments, today I turn my attention to that venerable institution, BBC One’s Question Time.

I’m not particularly interested in whether the coalition refuses to debate alongside Alistair Campbell, for the simple reason that the answer is obvious: the BBC is right, and the coalition are extremely stupid to think they can dictate the terms of engagement. If it is true that David Laws refused to appear because of Campbell, then I’m embarrassed for my government.

But the real reason that made me want to write this post is that something is seriously amiss about the programme in these days of coalition.

I enjoyed last night’s show because of the interplay between Campbell, Piers Morgan and Max Hastings. They had a great deal of banter, and some fantastical allegations were launched at each other. A real dogfight. Campbell and Morgan on the Iraq War also made for good television.

Meanwhile, John Redwood and Susan Kramer, for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, had a love-in.

That’s not right. Not right at all.

Throughout the programme, it was hard to differentiate between the two. They were both extremely loyal, and you could barely slide a cigarette paper between their answers.

Who’d’ve thought that, eh? One of the Conservatives most uppity backbenchers, combining forces with someone who isn’t even an MP any more, and therefore is free of the party whip. And they agreed with each other continuously.

I know the coalition is in early days, and power is the glue holding everyone together, but it seems right now it’s hard to get an independent thought out of anyone. Unfortunately, turning everyone into robotic drones parroting the party line is not remotely “new politics”. It’s the same old New Labour spin machine, prepped with pre-packaged soundbites and talking points, only now expanded across two parties.

I quipped to one of my friends the other day that I guess I must have missed the party merger…

Question Time is going to have to decide. If the Tory and Lib Dem representatives are going to continue having a love-in, neither wanting to say something different because they could jeopardise the coalition, then there is no point having both of them on there. That would then reduce the panel to four. No doubt they could then squeeze on an extra celebrity. They seem to love doing that these days.

People may pretend they want their politicians to agree (just so long as those pols agree with what “the people” apparently think), but agreement makes for a boring 60 minutes of television.

During this government, which will be the most centrist in British history, it’s going to be important for Question Time, and other political TV/radio shows, to highlight that other opinions really do exist, and are just as legitimate as the hegemonic Lib-Con coalition.

Otherwise, people might resume wondering whether politics is worth bothering with…

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The Bulger Case

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 5, 2010 @ 11:32

Before I begin I want to make clear that I am not entering into this post lightly. This is an extraordinarily difficult issue on a horrendously sad case.

Last night I watched Question Time, as you do. On it, the discussion turned to whether or not the public had a right to know information about the activities of Jon Venables, one of the two that murdered James Bulger in 1993.

The reaction from the audience was more restrained than I thought it would be, but the highlight of the evening was the contribution from Will Self. I would transcribe it, but he speaks with so quickly that it would take me a while.

The speed at which he delivered his point, however, illustrates the clarity of his thought process. He made an excellent argument, reminding us all that actually they were children with no concept of what they were doing, and there was no sign of “malicious aforethought”. He then shared his experience from reading the court transcripts of the original trial, and it’s obvious that he is very interested in what the motivations of Venables and Thompson were that caused them to commit such a horrific act.

The question of whether or not we have a right to know what is happening now is irrelevant. Frankly, we don’t. For the same reason that we should not get our politicians involved in the legal process, neither should the public get involved in this extraordinarily delicate matter.

Some argue that they have no right to a new life and a new existence. I disagree profoundly because they were children. Will Self’s point was that people are forgetting that they were extremely young at the time of the crime, and that just because they were young it doesn’t make them somehow more evil. In fact, it makes them less evil. It makes them almost entirely unable to understand the consequences of their actions. Indeed, had they been just a few months younger, both boys would not have been able to come to trial at all for being under the age of criminal responsibility.

It is that that justifies the exceptional nature of cases like this. Children have differently wired brains to adults. That is scientific fact. They are first and foremost the product of their genes, then their families, then our whole society. Adults have had much longer to escape and change the pre-determined nature of much of what life throws at you. Children haven’t. Children invariably make no independent decisions until they’re much older.

Let us also not forget that these cases are, mercifully, exceptionally rare. There is no question of a precedent at stake here. It is not the case that we are granting someone a new identity and a new life, and we should go on and do that for all murderers. No, it is the unique nature of a child murderer that means, in a free and just society, we have no choice but to give people another chance.

The point was again nailed home on Question Time. Someone in the audience was ranting about how they have no right to privacy or a new life. Shirley Williams replied: “So what would you do?” Answer came there none.

The alternative is not acceptable. Those boys have to live with what they did on their minds for the rest of their life. They are subject to intense scrutiny, and, as in this case, are subject to recall on any offence, even technical ones.

My final thought, though, is I believe we’ve let ourselves down. By this even re-emerging in the news, we may to disrupt a difficult but necessary consensus from all politicians on maybe one of the only things they are all agreed upon. Populism is an unedifying sight when it comes to political-judicial relations, and anything that threatens to stoke the fires must be avoided.

For that, we can only blame whoever allowed this story to get out in the first place, and the Home Secretary for fanning it further by saying the public should know.

Wrong, Alan. We shouldn’t know. It doesn’t help us. It doesn’t protect us. It just feeds into our tabloid curiosity.

As the old saying goes, just because the public is interested, it doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest.

The original crime was a tragedy for everyone concerned, victim and perpetrator. We crafted a way out, the only right course, and the only one which a truly enlightened liberal society should be proud of, in spite of all that’s happened.

Let’s leave it at that.

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The Question Time Quandary

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 16, 2010 @ 11:51

Dimbleby needs to be careful he doesn't turn into the modern-day McCarthy...

No, not Prime Minister’s Questions, which is 30 minutes of botched soundbites with the occasional mild joke that always brings the House down in tears of exaggerated laughter, but the BBC’s “flagship” vox pop opinion programme, Question Time.

I finally got round to watching Thursday’s episode last night thanks to the wonders of on-demand television. It was probably one of the most interesting episodes I’ve seen for a long time, largely because of the entertaining 20 minute start in which both the panel and audience let loose a continuous anger about the Iraq War.

You can include in that the reaction of Peter Hain. Yes, he dithered and defended his decision to back the conflict, but it was clear for all to see that he was sticking firmly to his guns, that in his mind it was a war about WMDs, and he ever so slightly implied that he may not have supported it if the WMD argument were not present. He looked uncomfortable, and even praised Lib Dem Chris Huhne for his “correct judgement” (maybe paraphrased).

The reaction to this episode from planks like John Rentoul was fast and withering, calling it a “witch-hunt” and bemoaning its quality of fact-checking. True, the fact that even Ken Clarke thought the government only scraped through its war declaration with a majority of 11 was somewhat embarrassing, and perhaps a sign that things aren’t all there any more in Ken Clarke’s head… and I did get the distinct feeling that the audience was filled with A-Level politics students… but to me it was fully reflective of how the British public will never forget Iraq in a hurry.

Criticism rained down all night, from the left and from the right. And even the very right. Thanks Kelvin. It was another tirade against government, against Labour, against politicians, against almost everything we have gone through in the past decade as the world has changed.

I’m still young and hopelessly naive, so maybe I’m not best placed to say the behaviour of the British electorate over the past year is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But it still feels bad. Week after week, the relentless feeling that the old politics is dying just cannot be escaped. The political classes are utterly despised. The record of this Labour government over the last seven years, even since the disaster of Iraq, is a festering wound at the heart of democracy. Did people genuinely think their votes in 2001 were going to lead to this?

Maybe people don’t want representative democracy any more because – in this era where deference is only paid to celebrities and the talented – we don’t believe our representatives are fully qualified to represent us. We’ve had enough of Burke’s trustee model. And we might have even had enough of democracy full stop.

The Tories have to be careful how they ride this wave of cynicism into power. If they misjudge it, they’ll only end up getting bitten themselves.

Meanwhile, Question Time will rumble on. I can’t help but wonder, though, if maybe we’re slowly becoming a victim of too much opining…

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Will You Be Watching?

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 20, 2009 @ 08:17

A Face For Radio?

A Face For Radio?

It seems the most anticipated political event of the moment has got to be the BNP’s presence on the BBC’s flagship political programme Question Time.

It’s also the one that’s generated the most hot air.

To me, it’s pretty simple. They are a political party. They are not illegal. OK, there’s a little hooha with their constitution, but let’s be realistic, whether they admit minorities into membership is totally immaterial, since they are so evidently racist. I can’t imagine there are many blacks champing at the bit to sign up once the party’s rules have been amended…

From that premise, they have a right to freedom of speech, just like anyone in this country. Naturally, there are limits on freedom of speech, more than I would like in a truly liberal society. But broadly, as long as they are not soliciting violence or inciting racial hatred, they are just as entitled to that speech as you or I.

However, one might argue that they often do cross that. Well… yes, but that’s not for us to judge. That’s what the police are there for. I’ve no doubt they will be watching carefully. Even if they aren’t, some clever sod in one of the political parties will be firing off a complaint if Nick Griffin uses the airwaves to call for the slaughter of all ethnic minorities living in council houses. And, naturally, since the programme isn’t live, the BBC’s legal team will ensure that anything dodgy doesn’t make the final edit.

Indeed, if Griffin pushes it too far, the whole programme might consist of the other politicians on the panel and members of the public attacking Griffin endlessly without an obvious right to reply – which would seriously backfire.

They are a political party with elected representatives. Like it or not, they have councillors across the nation, and members of the European Parliament. They represent their constituents, and clearly have a mandate to voice the concerns of the tiny minority of people who have cast a ballot in their favour.

Consequently, just as the Greens and UKIP get their moment in the sun on Question Time, so too should the BNP.

It will be an entertaining affair, I’m sure. There will be much playing to the gallery. There will be a typical BBC-orchestrated moment when an ethnic minority asks the first question (on immigration policy, no doubt), and David Dimbleby will give Nick Griffin the first reply. There will be pantomime groans and cheers from the audience.

And, one thing’s for certain, the ratings will be higher than they have been for Question Time in a long time. This one has been so hyped to death (something politicians always seem to do where the BNP are concerned) that it would be amazing if there was anything less than a 50% rise in its audience.

Nick Griffin is no pushover oratorically, though. I just hope the rest of the panel are up to the challenge without pouring the usual establishment disapproval on them.

That would only play right into their hands.

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The Wit of Geoff Hoon

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 30, 2009 @ 13:19

"Don't like that one? I'll tell you another one. A man walks into a bar..."

"Don't like that one? I'll tell you another one. A man walks into a bar..."

Fear not, loyal readers. This post is not actually about Geoff Hoon. Or, indeed, any attempts to be funny by the man himself.

No. It’s actually a brief reflection on his presence as representative of the government on last Thursday’s edition of Question Time.

And yes, I know I’m a bit late with this. But, such is the beauty of the BBC iPlayer. I’ve been busy all week, and I finally got a chance to see the last episode of the series – which was a slightly better affair than usual thanks to a very decent panel including Shirley Williams – who is always on the money, and George Galloway, who is always great value for money no matter whether you agree with him or not.

Anyway… my point is a fairly simple one. The Question Time audiences are much maligned, and perhaps not a true reflection of the country (after all, only viewers of the programme are likely to volunteer for the audience, and viewers of the programme are likely to be more politically-minded than the average citizen) – but if they are a good representation of one thing, it is very likely to be they do reflect the dwindling percentage of those who actually bother turning out to vote.

I understand the researchers always try their best to balance the audience to make it as fair as possible to all parties, but this relies upon audience applicants declaring their political loyalties correctly. Trusting people, in other words, which is very difficult where politics is concerned – since it’s widely known that party officials and activists are routinely advised to engage with such media: in the same way that most letters about politics in a local paper are from local party members or their connections.

With that context in mind, it would be wise to consider the response of the audience to almost every defence Hoon made of government policy very carefully.

In summary, Hoon’s responses were not merely met with the derision worthy of the man. No. If that were the case it would be reasonable to assume that the country is not very happy with the government right now. That would be understandable. But no…

In fact, most of Hoon’s replies were actually met with laughter. A knowing giggle of incredulity that the man really was trying to justify the unjustifiable, from the defenestration of Ian Gibson MP to the government’s response to swine flu. And, I admit, I too joined in with an amused smirk. It seems like the done thing as far as this government is concerned.

That reaction, above all, is the most shocking. That a government can be treated with so much disdain that we are amused by what they’re trying to do to recuse themselves from such a dire economic and political situation. Perhaps it, too, is a laugh of pity. Or even of sympathy at their predicament.

OK, maybe that’s pushing it a bit far.

But if anything tells me this government is a rotting corpse, it is the dismissive humour in which we treat them: as if the whole thing is just one big joke, and we’re waiting for the punchline…

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Take The National Express

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 3, 2009 @ 01:34

The Fat Controller asked Thomas what it was like to be owned by a bank, and then leased to a private company, while run on rail maintained by a not-for-profit public company, who sub-contract the maintenance of the rail to private firms. Thomas's face remained resolutely fixed in his usual, happy, smile. Bless.

The Fat Controller asked Thomas what it was like to be owned by a bank, and then leased to a private company, while run on rail maintained by a not-for-profit public company, who sub-contract the maintenance of the rail to private firms. Thomas's face remained resolutely fixed in his usual, happy, smile. Bless.

It seems our government did the only decent thing it could do when it took the advice of The Divine Comedy and, quite literally, took the National Express.

Well, they’ve sort of taken the National Express. They’ve taken something off them. Or, at least, they’re going to. Not yet. Clear?

Of course not. The government though has taken a highly principled stand of sort-of nationalising a rail franchise because, at some point in the future, they’re not going to bother paying the bill that they promised they would. And pioneering Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who recently spent five days travelling the country by train, thought the best response would be to hit them where it hurts.

I’m sure National Express will be very saddened to lose the financial burden the franchise was to them. Oh yes. What anguish they will suffer, no longer having to pay the government all the promised £1.4bn that they overbid, just like their predecessors in GNER, for the rights to run what should be the best, prestigious and most lucrative rail franchise in the country.

In case you haven’t guessed already – I have a keen interest in transport issues. My real concern about this whole agenda is something that actually highlighted even by one Peter Hitchens in tonight’s Question Time. Roads receive vast amounts of public money. It is seen as an essential investment in keeping this country ticking over. Meanwhile, rail is the Cinderella at the ball. It is not invested in. It receives subsidies, which are being steadily withdrawn as the years go by. And, on top of all that, it is widely understood that it is government policy to make the passenger pay more directly for usage of the network. That is, higher fares.

The logical equivalent in the road network would be not just road tolls, but the national road pricing schemes that has been indefinitely shelved because 2m people (or whatever) signed a petition on the subject. But somehow, the motorist is not treated in the same way.

Why should that be? Certainly in places like London, almost everyone is uses the rail network at some point. In the rest of the country, much less so. But it is still a significant proportion of the population… except for the fact that there are undoubtedly more car users.

So is it a case of numbers? An unusual case of government favouring the many and not the few? To a certain extent, yes.Let’s not forget that the road lobby is incredibly powerful. Organisations like the AA and the RAC have huge amounts of members. Rail users are disunited and disparate by comparison.

But the true nub of the issue is this: with a privatised railway, or any utility, the government can wash its hands of problems.  For the same reason why so much power is given to bureaucrats and quangos, why the government is determined to have foundation hospitals and trust schools, the less the government can be held to account, the better. It allows them to blame everyone but themselves.

But somehow, they just can’t escape from their road responsibilities. That’s probably why we’ll never get national road pricing – despite it arguably being the only answer to road congestion. Maybe I’ll return to that thorny issue another time.

At its heart though – for the same reason why roads should never be privatised, rail shouldn’t too. It is an administrative mess, with too much buck-passing. It is costly. It allows the private sector to take all the profits while leaving the taxpayer with the risk. It is an industry of strategic national interest. It is also a natural monopoly, like water (though we managed to privatise that too!): there is no genuine free market here, and so to pretend there is by going through the sham of a franchise and bidding process is just farcical.

But politics isn’t about principles. It’s about convenience. And it was convenient for the Tory Party of the 90s to sell it off, making a fast and easy buck. It freed them of the responsibility too. New Labour likes that very much. That’s why this will only be a “temporary” nationalisation.

More’s the pity. Let’s just say, if even Peter Oborne and John Prescott agree that the railways should be in public hands – well… we’re obviously having the piss taken out of us by our politicians again.

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