Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Jeremy Clarkson, Swindon and a pile of stones.

On the most recent episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson managed to achieve what I thought was impossible: He made me dislike him even more than I do now. We’re talking Melanie Phillips levels here.

How? He congratulated, to rapturous applause from the audience, Swindon Borough Council’s Councillor Peter Greenhalgh, for leading the Conservative-run council’s proposals to withdraw funding for speed cameras.

As the Independent reported, Greenhalgh recently labelled speed cameras “a blatant tax on the motorist”, and suggested that “there are much more important things we as a council should do instead of acting as a law enforcement arm of this government."

Meanwhile, back at the Top Gear studio, Clarkson, Hammond and co. reached orgasmic levels of excitement, and promptly awarded Councillor Greenhalgh the 'Top Gear Trophy of Excellence' for “services to common sense in the face of blatant Government stupidity”, before cutting to a picture of a throne (which, if I had my way, they would tie Clarkson onto before placing it on the fast-lane of the M25).

And so the story began to spread, virus-like, across the internet forums: A victory for common sense! A brave stand against attacks on the innocent motorist! A battle against the tax-stealing government! A step towards ending the nanny state! And so on.

SwindonWeb, an unofficial website which aims to cover “anything and everything to do with Swindon”, gave their local readership a chance to comment:

“Doing 70 in a 30 is wrong, but I’ll bet most people get done doing 40-45 in a 30. And on a dual carriage that's not the crime of the century!!!!!! God I hate the government."

Exactly, what’s wrong with 45 in a 30? That’s only 50% above the legal limit.

"Nice one make a change for Swindon to lead the way, now to get the boys in blue to give us a break as they think its now a good excuse for them to take over and rake in the cash. Bike cops with laser guns police camera vans, Get back to work and catch some real criminals."

This is the tipping point: ‘Mikeyb’ uses the phrase which sums up all that infuriates me about a large proportion of motorists: Their beliefs that speeding, careless driving – and even drink driving – are somehow not crimes. (Or at most are just minor crimes).

“The police should concentrate on real criminals”: Those that oppose any interference in their motoring lives seem to operate from this mindset.

Except it’s not a human right to drive. It’s a luxury – it should be earned. To argue that clamping down on abuse of this luxury is an attack on your civil liberties is absurd.

Yet for some people the ‘unnecessary’ enforcement of driving laws is more than just an annoyance. It becomes a matter of principle:

A petition on the 10 Downing Street website to scrap speed cameras, set up by the pressure group 'Safe Speed’, attracted over 28,000 signatures.

The Safe Speed campaign was founded by the late Paul Smith, who died last year. Immediately under the heading on the homepage of their website is a lone advert which seems almost a deliberate attempt to alienate any potential convert who may have otherwise been prepared to give the site a chance: “A very significant number of prosecutions are defective. The trick is to find the defect. A good firm of specialist lawyers may well be able to help. Safe Speed recommends…”

The central theme of the entire campaign, once you’ve boiled it down, is summed up by the following: “As soon as we increase regulation individual responsibility is reduced”.

By regulation, he primarily means speed cameras and strict speed limits. The former is an easy one – Smith sets out to try and prove that speed cameras simply do not work and can be counter-productive, and (to his credit) steers away from the cash-raising argument in favour of what is reported as being 5,000 hours of research.

The latter is more complex. His argument is hard to pin down. He begins by claiming he “welcomes properly set speed limits”.

But then goes on:

“Speed limits do little to modify the speed of traffic, and should never be used to attempt to modify the speed of traffic”.

Overall it is clear that although he argues for more variable limits, on the whole he means increasing the limit, the most extreme example being on rural roads:

“This is where we see the most problems with modern speed enforcement. The safe speed on British rural roads varies from 0 mph to over 150 mph, yet we have a "one size fits all" 60 mph national speed limit.”

Yes, that’s not a misprint. He is seriously suggesting you can safely drive on some rural roads at over 150 mph.

So if speed limits (and cameras, etc) detract from “individual responsibility”, what does he mean? And what, ultimately, is his solution?

“This leads us towards a very, very simple road safety strategy - if we can make our average driver just a little bit more like a class one police driver then we should expect accidents to fall. In order to achieve this we need to feed it right at the foundations of individual responsibility and attitude.”

I see.

Shortly after the Swindon story broke, the Independent ran an article entitled: ”The Big Question: Do speed cameras work, or are there better ways to make our roads safer?”

Rather fittingly they chose Swindon itself when arguing the case.

After a page of discussion, it reaches a few conclusions for and against speed cameras. So, do they work?

- Studies have shown that a reduction in the speed limit to 20mph in built-up areas causes a 60 per cent fall in accidents
- Evidence from Swindon showed a 30 per cent reduction in the numbers of people killed or injured since cameras were installed
- At 10 of the sites in Swindon where cameras were introduced, no road accident deaths have been recorded

- Critics say it's not speed that kills but tiredness and careless driving. It's this that should be targeted with safer driving campaigns
- Speed cameras are being used as an easy way for the authorities to bump up their revenues, antagonising the public
- Cameras are counter-productive in creating a tendency for drivers to break the speed limit when they are not around”

This pretty much sums it up: The argument in support of cameras uses statistics, the arguments against do not. Worse, the opposing points actually drift from the question itself. The fact that speed cameras may be used as a money raiser is hardly an effective criticism of their effectiveness. And the third point is just bizarre. Surely if drivers break speed limits when cameras are not around then this is even more reason to keep them, unless this is some sort of twisted protest?

If I decided to start throwing stones inside a nightclub, it would raise two questions. The first would be: Why would you bring a pile of stones into a nightclub? To which I would respond: Ok, it is not the best analogy, but stick with me.

The second (and obviously more relevant one) is: Am I doing anything wrong? This seems a ridiculous question. Of course I’m doing something wrong, stupid and dangerous. I’m throwing stones around a dark room that is full of people. There is a pretty good chance I am going to hit someone and do some real damage.

But then again, maybe I’m not intending to hit anyone. Maybe I’m just enjoying throwing my stones. Maybe I think I’m an excellent shot and there is very little chance I will strike some bystander. And I’ll be damned if any nanny state starts infringing on my rights to hurl stones around. They should go and concentrate on real criminals – burglars and the like.

Granted, this is possibly the most ridiculous, convoluted analogy you could make, but I think the general point is reasonably clear.

I could drive at 50 mph on a road with a 30 mph limit, I could have a drink or two more than I’m supposed to before stumbling into my car, but still fool myself into believing I can handle it. (And I’m not going to have some PC government telling me otherwise!)

As for the effects: If I were mugged in the street, I may lose some valuable possessions, and it may be a traumatic experience, an event which could take a while to get over. But if I were hit by a car doing 50 mph when they should be doing 30 mph, I will probably not need to worry about my emotional state, because I’ll most likely be dead. Which is worse?

But somehow vast numbers of people don’t see the average careless or speeding driver as a criminal (unless they’re poor, working class teenagers from a council estate). Whole campaigns are set up to attack the laws and regulations which govern how we can drive, groups rally in support of a man who destroys speed cameras, and a councillor who plays political football with people’s lives gets a standing ovation from Jeremy Clarkson.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Right-wingers are wimps. Fact.

"Scientists studying voters in the US say our political views may be an integral part of our physical makeup.

Their research, published in the journal Science, indicates that people who are sensitive to fear or threat are likely to support a right wing agenda.

Those who perceived less danger in a series of images and sounds were more inclined to support liberal policies."

Want to know more about why some of us are namby-pamby, wimpy right-wingers? Then read on.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Andrew Gilligan Dictionary

For those who find themselves puzzled or frustrated when browsing the articles of award-winning journalist Andrew Gilligan, I have provided a series of definitions for some of the key words he uses which should clear up any confusion.

The Gilligan Dictionary
(Click links for examples of usage)

Bendy-buses: Death on wheels; a vehicle which produces “high-pitched beeping noises”.

Crony: A person who works or has worked with Ken Livingstone.

Experts: Individuals whose opinions matter, but only in certain circumstances. Often wrong.

Hypocrisy: A valid journalistic method to correct previous statements, employed when the focus of a news article changes.

Inverted Commas: A tool to underplay any attacks and mock critics (For example: “Scandal”).

Ken Livingstone: Satan.

Lee Jasper: A measure of corruption (For example: “I know Lee Jasper, and Ray Lewis is no Lee Jasper”).

Nit-picking: Any form of criticism directed at Boris Johnson. (Also known as ‘over-reaction’ or ‘whingeing’).

Olympics: A positive or negative event depending on the time or situation.

Routemaster: A conviction made flesh.

Tim Parker: An individual whose importance is dependant on his employment at City Hall.

Truth Check: A method of analysing the policies of individuals (Unnecessary in certain circumstances).

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Boris kicks non-existent staff out the building

From Britain's most impartial paper comes news of a "cost-cutting shake-up" at City Hall.

Here is my favourite little snippet:

"The Mayor said he wanted to streamline the Greater London Authority with around 100 job losses."

But then later on:

"He aims to cut the number to less than 700, although some of the posts that will go are already vacant."

Last time I checked (unless you're being very pedantic) getting rid of empty posts doesn't strictly class as job "losses", as the headline and initial paragraph states.

It's all in the semantics. It is true that removing as yet unfilled posts is still technically cutting. But the intention of the article - and indeed the headline - is to instil in the casual skim reader the idea that 100 overpaid wasters are literally going to be thrown out by their shirt collars.

Sniping aside, I'm genuinely interested to know how many of the cuts are vacant posts. "Some" is a touch vague.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Lawyer fights back.

Last week a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found what it described as a "worrying trend of reversal" in the number of women in top positions of power across both the public and private sector. In 12 of the 25 job categories it surveyed it found that fewer women hold top posts compared to last year. In 5 the number remained the same.

Professions where the number of senior women had declined included those in the judiciary, politics and the press. For instance, according to the report "women make up just 19.3 percent of all MPs."

To put it in perspective the article on the EHRC website expanded on the "snail's pace" analogy used by the Commission:

"A snail could crawl:

- Nine times round the M25 in the 55 years it will take women to achieve equality in the senior judiciary.
- From Land's End to John O'Groats and halfway back again in the 73 years it will take for equal numbers of women to become directors of FTSE 100 companies.
- The entire length of the Great Wall of China in 212 years, only slightly longer than the 200 years it will take for women to be equally represented in Parliament.

Oh dear.

But hot on the heels of last week's report comes a study from 'The Lawyer'. As the article on their website states:

"More women are breaking into the top ranks of the UK’s leading law firms than ever before, research for The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report has revealed."

However their enthusiastic revelation is somewhat dampened by the actual facts in the report which state that the number of female partners in the top 100 firms has increased by, well, 0.6% in two years. (Best hold off the champagne for now then.)

The article describes the findings as being "in ­contrast to a report from the ­Equality and Human Rights ­Commission".

This last statement, however, is a touch misleading. The EHRC only researched judges (high court and above), of which women make up just 9.6%, down 0.2% from 2006, and did not mention lawyers at all.

Regardless, for 'The Lawyer' to title the article "Female partners defy glass ceiling in record numbers" is a little over the top.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

BBC: Have your say, you cynical, moaning bastards.

Sometimes when I'm feeling a bit down I try to cheer myself up a little by logging on and laughing at the nauseatingly offensive, bigoted, often borderline racist, right-wing nuts that infest the BBC Have Your Say forums. It rarely works.

Alternatively, if I'm feeling in a good mood I feel compelled to log on anyway and despair at the cynical, selfish, mind-numbing vitriol that spews from the pages of what is a seemingly never-ending winge-a-thon.

Whichever way you look at it, it's an addiction.

So the best thing I could do was make a game out of it.

I call the game: "How F***ing Predictable Can You Be?"

The rules are simple:

First you must operate on the (safe) presumption that the most popular comments are going to be the sort of cliches you imagine would come from the mouth of someone who constantly yearns for rose-tinted times gone by, thinks 'taxes' is another word for 'stealing', is convinced an asylum seeker is about build a house at the bottom of their garden, is particularly sceptical of climate change, believes political correctness has 'gone mad', and uses the term 'Commies' to describe anyone vaguely to the left of Thatcher. To put it simply: They have 'had enough'.

That is your average BBC Have Your Say contributor.

Once you have that mindset it's easy. So here we go: In the morning the BBC will open a new discussion. Looking at the title make an educated guess as to what you think the typical contributor would say on the subject. When you have finished, open the debate and click on the "Readers Recommend" tab. Compare your answer to the most recommended comment and see how close you got.

Here are a few examples of the system in action:

Let's start with a crime debate from back in May, which can be found here:

How can we tackle knife crime?

An interesting debate. What steps could we take? Stop and search is a highly charged issue. So what does the most recommended Have Your Say contributor have to say about it?

"Oh, will it upset the knife carrying little darlings who clearly have done no wrong? No doubt it’s against their human rights not to carry a knife then?
This type of liberal thinking sums up everything that is wrong with fighting crime in the UK."
Cyrus P Turntable, At The Races
Recommended by 484 people

I see. (I almost forgot: A recurring theme in the forums is that the Human Rights Act is bad. Apparently it only applies to criminals or something.)

Now let's try an international issue, discussed in June:

"Should African leaders apply more pressure on Mugabe?"

Perhaps we need to discuss what form this pressure could take, how to encourage progress and what barriers lie in the way. Let's ask the most recommended contributor, responding here:

"All these states demanded independence from the old colonial powers after WW2 and they all got their wish, since then all they have done is scream for help and continuously held out the begging bowl.
It’s about time these countries were left alone to sort out their own problems maybe then they will start to grow up."
Alan Baker, Chelmsford
Recommended by 429 people

How sympathetic.

Just to show how ridiculously predictable this game is, move on to a potentially inoffensive topic. Such as this one here, which cropped up in August:

"What is Britain's happiest place?"

Surely the system can't apply here? It's a nice topic. Maybe the most recommended comment will be "Brighton - because it's fun!" or "York - because it's friendly and there are some lovely sights!"

Sadly not. Because when you factor in the mindset of your average Have Your Say contributor the answer is obvious:

"The happiest place in Britain? Any place that has not yet been "enriched" by enforced, unwanted "diversity", so that people still feel they belong to that place and share its history and traditions."
Robert Soria
Recommended by 220 people

Marvellous, isn't it?

UPDATE: This weekend provided a few more debates which neatly fit the mould.

On Saturday this debate was raised:

Do we care enough about the Paralympics?

The most endorsed comment summed up the general consensus of the forum:

"I'm not really bothered, nor interested in this PC nonsense."
Bored Indifferent Chap.
Recommended by 152 people

Well at least he's honest.

I'll leave this sprawling post with another fitting example from yesterday:

What is your favourite decade?

"The seventies. The last time I can remember England feeling like England before PC loonies made it Racist to be proud to be Heterosexual, White or Christian, Whilst encouraging every one else to celebrate their ROOTS!"
Louis Cannell, Northampton, United Kingdom
Recommended by 131 people

Ah, yes. Louis nails what the majority of Have Your Say contributors feel is wrong with today: It's today.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Evening Standard: "It's Ken's fault... What do you think Boris?"

The Evening Standard has launched into full defensive mode today.

Here is the news:

"Tube and bus fares will rise by up to 10 per cent in the new year, [London Mayor] Boris Johnson announced today.

The price of taking a bus with Oyster pay-as-you-go will increase by slightly more, from 90p to £1, in January.

Underground passengers in the morning rush hour will pay £1.60 - a 10p increase - for a zone one journey and from £2 to £2.20 if they venture into zone two on pay-as-you-go. Trains and daily and weekly travel cards will also go up by more than the rate of inflation."

In the main article the Standard uses half the space to allow Johnson to blame former mayor Ken Livingstone for ""cynical and irresponsible" pre-election cash freezes" and then generously provides Livingstone with just one line to defend himself - completely cutting out his core arguments.

The Leader comment then goes on a full-out assault against Livingstone:

"But we should be in no doubt about where the real blame lies: with Mr Johnson's predecessor, Ken Livingstone."

Finally, just for balance, Boris Johnson himself is given a column in the paper to justify the rise. By blaming Livingstone again.

Saying that, right-to-reply has never been an Evening Standard strong point.

Anyway, here is the Livingstone defence that the Standard deemed not worth printing:

"Boris Johnson has lost between £30 and £50 million a year by abandoning the £25 a-day charge on the worst gas guzzlers in the congestion charging zone, he has scrapped the cheap oil deal with Venezuela, costing London £16 million a year, and he may throw away a lot more by abandoning the extension of the congestion charge to Kensington and Chelsea." provides a more in-depth discussion. Click here for more.

Side note: My favourite reader comment on the main Standard article:

"If people worked a bit harder they could maybe afford a car and wouldn't need to worry about taking public transport.
- Henrick, Belgravia, London"

Well that's one solution I suppose...

Monday, 1 September 2008

The C-Charge: An exercise on fulfilling pledges

I was looking forward to this.

Without a doubt many people who opposed the congestion charge were under the impression prior to the election that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was going to give them some form a vote to scrap the western extension or simply abolish it himself.

A brief glance through various comments and blogs across the net also clearly indicate that some believed he would get rid of the congestion charge completely.

Of course anyone who paid real attention would remember that his ideas were a tad vague and the latter simply incorrect.

So, finally, here is the news, as reported by the Evening Standard:

"Boris Johnson today launched a consultation on the future of the western extension of the congestion charge zone."

But the punch comes straight after:

"Although scrapping the scheme entirely is not a proposal..."

That is going to be a wake-up call for those voters who (mistakenly) thought this would be an option.

So what are the proposals?

"Possible changes include:

• Making the congestion charge easier to pay by introducing accounts for motorists.

• Introducing a charge-free period in the middle of the day in the western extension.

• Increasing the residents' discount to 100 per cent (this would apply to the extension and original charging zone)."

My money is on the first option being a near certainty: A minor adjustment to the system which can be spun to make it appear that he has somehow "fulfilled his pledge".

Then there is the justification for the second option: "The charge could be abolished during the middle of the day, making it cheaper for businesses to operate".

This is just confusing. Surely (for those businesses / traders that do oppose the charge) it would be better if they "abolished" it during the early mornings when they are bringing in goods?

I'm interested to see what the reaction to this will be. No readers comments on the Standard website as of yet.