Tuesday, 30 August 2011

WHALE MEAT AGAIN

© Copyright Nick Smith and licensed for reuse. This is not an endorsement of my post.
For those of you who remember the sperm whale which washed up on Pegwell Bay back in March, there's still time to catch the Inside Nature's Giants documentary on 4OD, in which veterinary scientist Mark Evans and comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg dissect the creature in their usual gory way. It's certainly not for the squeamish, but there's only 7 days left of it being online so you might as well watch it while it's still there.

However, am I alone in thinking that the concept behind this programme  in which they butcher dead animals on live TV  is remarkably cruel and exploitative, even if it is a post-mortem done in the name of natural biology? I remember many local people were very upset that this poor sperm whale died on Thanet's shores, so the fact that it is now the subject of a TV documentary in which it is ripped apart by scientists is rather unsettling. If a human being had been given the same treatment, there'd be a public outcry. Oh wait, in fact, there was - Gunther von Hagens came under fire for doing a live autopsy on a human corpse didn't he?!

Funny thing is, I seem to remember that when the sperm whale originally washed up on the beach, Cllr. Martin Wise was quoted on Kent Online as saying

"We can't forget that this is a beautiful animal and we want to ensure that we remove it in the most dignified way possible."

Dignified?! I've got to admit, when I eventually drop dead, the last thing I'd want is to be cut open and given a live autopsy on Channel 4. That doesn't sound very dignified to me. In fact, I'd say it's rather shameful that the Channel 4 team didn't waste any time sending a TV crew out to make mince meat of this poor creature no sooner had it washed up on the beach, or maybe I'm just being soft.

Still, the opportunity to watch the episode of Inside Nature's Giants is there, if you've got the stomach for it. It's your choice.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

BLINK AND YOU'VE MISSED IT

© Copyright Luke Edwards and licensed for reuse . See photo album on Flickr.
I went to see Blink in Margate last night, an open air event on the beach full of arty farty razzle dazzle and culminating in a sizzling firework display. It was Pan Optikum's finale of soaraway gymnastic feats where they flew above spinning sparklers, Catherine wheels and bursts of bright plumes of fire which left the best impression on me, which I'll admit was something special. Other elements of the event, such as Wayne McGregor's Random Dance troupe, were located in an odd place which meant I had to mingle around the beach to get a good view, which wasn't easy. As an observer, it was slightly challenging to watch, a bit avant-garde, but hey, whatever floats your boat.

Some people have been rather gushing in their praise, but to me, the mood amongst the crowd as they walked away seemed to be one of shrugged shoulders and general disappointment. Maybe it was too arty for some. Perhaps it was the poor layout which meant people couldn't get a decent view. I personally felt the event itself was OK, complimented by the impressively acrobatic and pyrotechnic-filled final performances by Pan Optikum and the eclectic soundscapes bursting out of the PA by Scanner, but the event didn't 100% flick my switch.

But why? Well, for me, the worst thing about Blink was some of the unsavoury people who went to it. You had a screaming rabble of delinquent kids barging and shoving past you, drunken slobs effing and blinding and, unsurprisingly, pram-pushers wheeling their crying newborn babies demanding you get out of their way by running over your toes.

Worse still, when I took the bus home, some lout who claimed he was “on a curfew” tried to start a fight with me. The bus was full, you see, with the driver telling everyone to wait for the next one. But this bloke insisted on trying to play the Good Samaritan by smuggling somebody else's kids onboard, lifting a buggy and gesturing for me to help lift it, but when I refused by pointing out there was no room on the bus, he started moaning at me for no reason whatsoever. I mean, how petty is that? Starting a fight over a pram? “If I see you again,” he said, “I'm gonna knock you out!”

Sigh. Even people who should be old enough to know better got shirty and shouted to the driver: “We've got kids, we should be on the bus! Tell everyone who hasn't got kids to get off the bus and make way for us!” This indignant sense of entitlement pisses me right off. I'm sure it's that sort of thinking which led to shops getting looted during the London riots. People of Cliftonville, you really should know better. Sort yourselves out. How can Thanet become the great cultural destination we want it to be when events like this get hijacked by loutish, uncivilised buffoons?

Overall, my impression of Blink was that the performance itself – or what little you could see of it – was quite entertaining and well choreographed. I'd like to say well done to all the Blink performers. They did a fantastic job and I did enjoy watching it from where I was standing. I just wish my memory of the event as a whole was more favourable. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd have been the only person in the crowd!

And needless to say, that's the last time I get a bus in Thanet. Never again!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

J. M. W. TURNER IS ALIVE!

JMW Turner, Self Portrait, circa 1799, PD-Art
J. M. W. Turner is alive and well. He's added me as a friend on Facebook. Judging by his profile, it seems that the 236-year-old is still knocking about doing sightseeing tours of Thanet for the History Walkers. Well I never!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

FORMER TDC CHIEF EXEC TOOK 1.7% PAY CUT?

The Telegraph has claimed that former Chief Executive of Thanet District Council Richard Samuel took a 1.7% pay cut in the financial year of 2010/11 before he left his position. This comes from an interactive table compiled by analysing draft accounts which have not yet been audited and are subject to revision. Back in October 2010, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles called for all council chief execs on £150,000 salaries to take a 5% cut, so Samuel's pay reduction seems to have fallen short of that. Although, it has to be said that previously, in 2009/10, Samuel's salary is claimed to have been £142,476, roughly 5% lower than the threshold Pickles was referring to. 

On that basis, perhaps we should be thankful that Samuel cut his salary to £140,037 at all, since he could've easily appealed against it, especially when you compare him to some of the other council chief execs across the UK. Some of them, such as Joanna Killian, joint chef exec of Essex & Brentwood Councils, apparently had her pay increased by £4,000 to a salary of £289,143 – and that's despite widespread budget cuts. Overall, the Telegraph claims that the average salary for a council chief executive is £186,872, so since Samuel's earnings appear to have been below average, we seem to have got off reasonably lightly here in Thanet.

I must state, however, that these stats from the Telegraph don't appear to match up with Thanet District Council's salary data report which claimed that Samuel's FTE salary was £113,625, increasing to £118,625 after receiving cash for his car. Where did the extra £21,412 come from? Since these figures don't seem to corroborate with each other, I'm not so sure what to make of this. Maybe I've misinterpreted the data. I guess you can be the judge. As it happens, assuming the Telegraph is right, I think we should count our blessings. Compared to other chief execs up and down the country, we could've done far worse. 

In any case, it seems Samuel left just before the cuts started to bite and the poo hit the fan, so the real question is whether the new TDC chief exec Sue McGonigal is getting paid more or less than Samuel. How much has her salary been reduced in this Brave New World of deficit reduction? I can't seem to find any info on the TDC website which discloses info regarding McGonigal's current salary, so I can only but speculate for the time being. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Needless to say, please take all this data at face value until somebody with a better eye for accountancy can make sense of it. But if the Telegraph's data is proven correct, it's clear we may not be the luckiest, but we certainly seem a lot luckier than others, so I think we should at least be thankful for that. What do you think?

Monday, 22 August 2011

EMIN DEMANDS 'MORE PASSION' IN DOWNING STREET

Modern art madam and Margate homegirl Tracey Emin has installed a gaudy neon sign inscribed with the words 'More Passion' in 10 Downing Street. Similar to the 'I Never Stopped Loving You' sign Emin installed above Droit House in Margate last year, this new artwork - believed to have cost around £250,000 - hangs on the wall of the Terracotta Room, which should come as no surprise considering Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly a fan of Emin's work. 

Whether this is just a case of our mate 'Dave' donning the Emperor's New Clothes is a matter up for debate, but what's for certain is that Emin was keen to 'tone down' the rudeness of her previous works to make it more accessible. "It has to be something that will relate to different people on different levels because of all the dignitaries and world leaders and religious groups who go to No 10," Emin told the Telegraph, "so it has to be something that's fitting for that situation."

Personally, I feel that Tracey would've done better to capture the public's cynicism about our politicians by creating a more foul-mouthed sign which said 'More F***ing Passion!', but maybe that's just me. As for the cost, I think the final word should go to Jools from the North, who posted this about Emin's new chef-d'oeuvre in the Daily Mail's online comments section:

"£250,000??? My local chippy has one similar. No wonder he charges so much for a cod and chips. Outrageous."

Hmm, not a bad idea that. Maybe Peters Fish Factory should call up Tracey Emin and get her to design them a sign too. They'd make a killing!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

FOI REQUESTS CAN BE MADE BY TWITTER, SAYS ICO

© Colevito Mambembe and licensed for reuse. This is not an endorsement of my post.


According to a monthly newsletter sent out by the Information Commissioner's Office last month, people can now submit FOI requests via Twitter. What will this mean, I wonder, for Thanet Council’s decision to only allow accredited media sources to make queries to their press office? Everybody else, need I remind you, is encouraged to submit FOI requests by e-mail instead to foi@thanet.gov.uk, leading to a process which takes up to a month to be dealt with. But since the ICO – a government quango – now approves of tweeting FOI requests to local government authorities (like @ThanetCouncil), will that be a more efficient way of allowing bloggers to make FOI requests?

Sure, it might be difficult to condense a question down to 140 characters, but generally speaking, I’m curious about what Thanet Council’s opinion of this is. Could there come a time when Thanet Council will be sent tweets for information and, what’s more, be obliged to answer them? The ICO certainly seems to think they should prepare themselves for it.

In their newsletter, it states:

“While Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests, this does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid. They can be valid requests in freedom of information terms and authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them.”

The ICO’s admission appears to pave the way for local governments to adopt a more proactive and responsive approach to utilize social media as a channel for communication, rather than using it as a semi-automated repository for press releases or public service messages. I doubt it will make the FOI process any quicker, but on a local level, it will certainly make it easier for local residents, community activists and bloggers to use Twitter to make FOI requests and apply for information from Thanet Council now that they’re prohibited from making calls to the press office due to not being ‘accredited’ journalists.

I suppose it can’t hurt to give it a go, can it? So... now the Information Commissioner's Office has told us it’s OK to tweet FOI requests, who’s gonna try it out?! Let me know how you get on!

Friday, 19 August 2011

PFIZER SITE MORPHS INTO STARSHIP ENTERPRISE


Pfizer's Discovery Park has officially been declared an Enterprise Zone in a move the government hopes will attract more businesses and generate jobs in the local area. In the aftermath of the pharmaceutical giant's departure, I argued yesterday that this news should be welcomed, but there is some controversy surrounding Enterprise Zones, so I felt I should address it. Firstly, it's not a new idea - they were a policy favoured by the Tories in the 1980s but only had varying levels of success.

Secondly, there's also an issue regarding their expediency, with an in-depth study by The Work Foundation entitled 'Do Enterprise Zones Work?' analysing their effectiveness using historical examples. They argue that "evidence suggests that Enterprise Zones - or any policy which offers tax breaks or incentives to businesses in concentrated areas - are likely to be ineffective at stimulating sustainable economic growth in depressed areas." It's also said they "do very little to promote lasting economic prosperity" and that "most Enterprise Zones create a short-term boom, followed by a long-term reversal back into depression."

There are also concerns about whether Enterprise Zones actually end up creating jobs for local people. BBC News covered the Pfizer Enterprise Zone announcement by revealing the government's intention to advertise the area globally, possibly in the hope of attracting businesses based abroad to relocate here. Automatically, this makes me concerned as to whether foreign companies might just move into Pfizer's Discovery Park to take advantage of tax concessions, only to outsource their workforce from overseas and base them here in the UK, meaning that no new jobs actually end up going to local residents at all. As the Work Foundation states, "80% of the jobs" Enterprise Zones "create are taken from other places."

There's also concerns about the overall size of the Sandwich Enterprise Zone being too small to generate a wider impact. David Foley, chief executive of the chamber of commerce, told BBC News that: 

"If it's just the Enterprise Zone established on the Pfizer site, good though that may be for some people, that will have the effect of sucking in businesses from out and about. If it's a wider area, say the Manston corridor, that will certainly throw the spotlight on what is potentially the fastest growth area in East Kent. I'm afraid there isn't the fat on the bone in Thanet and there really isn't in the Dover district."

Similarly, the Work Foundation's study also claims that the government should consider making Enterprise Zones bigger, but that they are extremely expensive and that "evidence from the 1980s suggests that Enterprise Zones cost at least £23,000 per new job they create." George Osborne has insisted that they have learnt from the mistakes of the past, but what is clear is that Enterprise Zones are not as cut-and-dried a solution as many would hope, so it will need a committed focus by our local politicians to ensure that its benefits are consistent and that the site generates a lasting economic impact in the long-term.

In their study, the Work Foundation concludes:

"The media has focused on the impact of public sector cuts, but there is an urgent need for the government to focus on economic growth. The Coalition has stated that rebalancing the economy is an important priority over the next few years, and this rebalancing includes sharing prosperity around the UK.

However, there is a danger that the economic recovery will be weakest in those places which are already most deprived, threatening to perpetuate the cycle of deprivation and worklessness in those places. Any measure that can reverse this trend should be welcomed. 

Unfortunately, Enterprise Zones are not the answer to these problems. Government should focus on the long-term drivers of economic growth: innovation, trade, skills, infrastructure and entrepreneurship. The recovery will be led by innovation, with a small proportion of high growth firms producing the majority of all jobs. The government needs to focus on these long-term issues, rather than short term measures which are likely to move jobs around, and have little sustained impact on economic growth."

Needless to say, the Work Foundation appear to be more opposed to such initiatives as I am, but they do raise some interesting criticisms which the Coalition must learn from if we are to avoid past mistakes from resurfacing. Overall, until such a point comes that we have a reason to criticise the Pfizer site becoming an Enterprise Zone, we should embrace it. Only a fool would say it's not in the best interests of our local economy to lend our support to it, so I can only hope it's successful.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

TO THE MANOR OSBORNE

© Copyright Laura Sandys MP via Flickr. Used with permission from her office.
George Osborne visited the Turner Contemporary in Margate yesterday and stopped for a photo in front of the Daniel Buren installation. Standing with Gallery director Victoria Pomeroy (on the left) and Thanet South MP Laura Sandys (on the right), the Chancellor of the Exchequer's visit was planned to coincide with a government announcement that the Pfizer site at Sandwich, Discovery Park, is one of the 11 locations which have been chosen as an Enterprise Zone.

An Enterprise Zone, according to Google Dictionary, is described as "an impoverished area in which incentives such as tax concessions are offered to encourage investment and provide jobs for residents." In light of Pfizer's decision to close its factory and lay off 2,400 workers earlier this year, with many more indirect workers due to lose their jobs as a result of its closure, it would be foolish to dismiss this news as anything other than promising, whatever your political stance on tax breaks.

Considering the devastating impact Pfizer's loss will have on East Kent as a whole if action is not taken, I feel this news is agreeable enough to be welcomed, especially if it does indeed provide work for local residents and boosts the local economy. As always, however, there are some who may have reservations, but all in all, I feel we should see the Chancellor's announcement as a positive one.

Later, after his visit to the Turner gallery, Osborne travelled to Sandwich and was filmed by a BBC News crew outside Pfizer's Discovery Park. He told them:

"I know how bleak things seemed a few months ago and how difficult things have been for the workforce here and for the local community. I hope we can begin to see the rays of a brighter future."

Elsewhere, on YourThanet, Osborne further explained:

"This is a unique Enterprise Zone because unlike the others it already has state-of-the-art facilities. Job creation isn't going to happen overnight - we'll start with hundreds of jobs and build up to that 2,000 plus figure. There are a lot of workers at Pfizer who are already looking at starting up businesses and we hope to attract others from across the country. We believe this site will become world-class."

I don't know about you, but I'm glad we're seeing some decisive action being taken to try and drag the East Kent region out of the mire, rather than simply being forgotten about. Mind you, I am mindful of the wider issues and concerns about enterprise zones, so I'd like to write more about them tomorrow, so please visit back and I'll go into a bit more detail. By and large, however, I think this news gets a thumbs-up from me. Let's face it, anything's better than nothing, isn't it?

Monday, 15 August 2011

RIOT AND WRONG

© Copyright StuartBannocks and licensed for reuse. This is not an endorsement of my post. 
Since a 17-year-old was arrested for attempting to incite a riot in Margate, I've realised the mass violence and looting which sprung up all across the UK last week grew unnervingly close to home. What caused so many young people to take joy in smashing up their towns? Why did vandalism become little more than a fad? Was this fondness for looting high street shops a manifestation of our greedy hyper-consumerist culture, or is it just an unexplainable burst of opportunist burglary and theft?

The left didn't waste any time trying to score political points by making the rather vacuous claim that youth service cuts and the scrapping of both the Future Jobs Fund and EMA are to blame. Even cuts in police numbers have been put under the Labourite magnifying glass and regarded with a discerning eye by Ed Miliband, even though it wasn't long ago that most civil liberties campaigners were criticising New Labour for trying to turn Britain into a police state. Clearly, being out of office hasn't changed them one bit, has it?

Meanwhile, the right seem happy to just dismiss these riots as nothing more than random, unrelated bursts of violence, thuggery and criminality by chavs and hoodies, putting little emphasis on the root causes other than calling it a sign of moral decay and social breakdown. Throw into the mix the misguided belief that bad parenting, absentee fathers, dysfunctional families and welfare dependancy are the primary causes and what we have is a recipe for disastrous policy-making on both sides of the political debate.

To try and explain why these riots happened, even Conservative historian David Starkey popped up on BBC Newsnight to make the disgraceful claim that white people have become black. He said that black culture or, as he puts it, the “violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture” of rap music, has corrupted white youths into lives of crime and gang warfare. If I remember rightly, the last time a man stood up and blamed the nation's ills on a specific ethnic group it didn't end so well. I can't quite remember his name, but he had this paranoid idea that the Jews were out to ruin his country... oh yes, that's right, his name was Adolf Hitler, that's it. As a historian, I'm sure Starkey knows how that panned out.

My point is, these riots and the responses of certain media commentators across the spectrum has highlighted to me that they are all, quite simply, useless. Those on the left veer towards apologism (implying that poverty, unemployment and deprivation justifies the rioters' violent actions somewhat, which is nonsense) while those on the right rejoice in getting puritanical and spouting empty-headed glittering generalities about 'family values' and 'moral collapse' without offering anything of substance.

The fact that we should focus on is that 51% of those arrested were between the ages of 18 and 24. Therefore, this seems to be a problem almost exclusive to a whole generation of young people, so we need to look closely at the causes of disenfranchised youth and perhaps we should even interpret these riots as a sign of collective unrest.

Even though the actions of a minority of juvenile delinquents are not representative of a whole generation, what is clear is that people in this age group – and I include myself in this – have to contend with problems of mass unemployment; fewer job opportunities; stratospherically high rental and housing costs which price young people out of the market, leaving many to live with their parents for longer; and a lifetime's worth of debt to pay off for those that are university graduates (like me). Of course, these are NOT excuses for starting riots. What they are, however, are problems which cause mass discontent amongst young people today, so any attempt to tackle problems with disenfranchised youth needs to take these issues into account.

If employment, jobs, housing and income disparity were given adequate political attention and intergenerational justice became a cornerstone of social policy, then it is quite probable that in future young people wouldn’t feel the need to riot. Instead, I fear we’re getting caught up in a vindictive cycle of police crackdowns and overzealous corporal punishment and risk alienating young people even more, making things worse in the long run. Of course, these rioters and looters must be held to account – many of those involved did, let's face it, have criminal pasts – but the punishments must fit the crime, and there seem to be many judgements made in UK courts recently where this doesn't seem to be the case.

A student caught stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water from Lidl has been sentenced to six months in prison. Children have been held at gunpoint and had their backpacks searched by police officers only to find a pack of Smarties. Now I'm hearing that somebody's due to appear in court for allegedly arranging a water fight in Colchester on his BlackBerry. Is this justice? Or is this a slippery slope to a totalitarian state? Either way, making an example of youngsters in this way is rapidly becoming a circus and it doesn't help people come up with any tangible solutions. I just hope we realise it before it's too late.

Friday, 5 August 2011

WHY I OPPOSE KM BUYOUT OF NORTHCLIFFE PAPERS


I'm going to throw my hat into the ring and say I'm not very comfortable with the idea of the Kent Messenger Group buying Northcliffe Media's several regional newspapers. Since the Isle of Thanet Gazette is Northcliffe Media's only de facto paid-for weekly, running in direct competition with the Thanet Extra, both veritable newspapers in my opinion, it would certainly send tremors through local journalism if one rival media outlet absorbed the other's assets.

I noticed in this week's Thanet Times – Northcliffe Media's sister paper to the Gazette – that there was an article (see above picture) appealing for donations to Academy FM, the Thanet-based community radio station run by former KMFM founder Pete Willson. It explains how the 'radio station faces being forced off air' with Pete himself saying: 

“People forget we are a registered charity and it's been very difficult. We have money in place for three or four months, but if we can't bring in funds the station could face being switched off. If we lose Academy FM that would be tragic for Thanet.” 

I couldn't help but wonder if I'd be reading that article if the Gazette were owned by the Kent Messenger Group. Sure, Pete has career connections with the KM, and I have noticed Academy FM has achieved some publicity in the Thanet Extra in the past, but none of those seemed to directly appeal for public support and financial donations. Why on earth should they? After all, Kent Messenger Group's radio station, KMFM, is essentially Academy FM's chief competitor, so why would they print an appeal for donations for them? That's like the Telegraph writing an editorial expressing regret that The Guardian is making losses, rhetorically speaking.

So I guess the Academy FM story is one example of how a KM buyout might impact on local news reporting – if a story doesn't fit in with the media owner's commercial interests, it probably won't get covered. Simple as that. I'm also concerned that a scarcity of regional media outlets will almost certainly threaten the level of public accountability we've been lucky to receive courtesy of our local journalists.

However, I'm well aware that the world of local media is constantly changing and evolving. It was only in 2007 that Northcliffe Media bought the Thanet Gazette and other regional newspapers from Trinity Mirror, so this kind of toing and froing is simply the name of the game. What's different in this instance is that I can only imagine a KM buyout will rid our Isle of its zest for local competitiveness and, thus, I fear the diversity of quality local print journalism may suffer due to a lack of pluralism. I like chocolate bars, but that doesn't mean I only want one on the shelf.

Despite my reservations, I have no doubt that should this buyout come to pass, KM will handle its new acquisitions with the professionalism it always adheres to, but my point is that competitiveness is a key driver in the media industry, and if there's no competition locally, then there is a risk that standards might slip and the public may not get the high standard of journalism they deserve. Besides, even Roy Greenslade wrote two years ago of how relaxing rules on media mergers would “create geographical monopolies” and it will “not solve the fundamental problems of newspaper publishing in the regions.”

We can't say he didn't warn us...

If you feel the same way as me on this subject, then please contact Raúl Nieto at the Office of Fair Trading by e-mailing raul.nieto@oft.gsi.gov.uk and voice your concerns.