This week's front pages
Friday 31 October, 2014
A couple of weeks ago the Sun declared war on comparison websites, saying they were concealing deals from companies that didn't pay them commission. Some cheaper options would appear only if a prechecked box was unchecked.
It caused quite a stir and the paper joined forces with an organisation called the Big Deal to try to use mass buying power to secure better energy prices for its readers. We should learn in the next few days how that has worked out. It's an interesting enterprise, although SubScribe is not entirely comfortable with it. Nor did the "scandal" seem to be particularly heinous, the savings gained by unticking that box were not large and we know from TV and newspaper advertising that some companies do not make all - or even any - of their packages available through comparison sites.
Today the Telegraph comes up with a similar story, which has some far more striking figures. The structure of rail fares in this country has for years been absurd, with advance and online prices showing huge variations from those available at ticket offices. Now the Telegraph tells us that machines standing side by side on big station concourses are offering tickets for the same journey with a price difference of £100 or more.
There are some splendid examples of how passengers could save money. It apparently costs half as much to travel from Carlisle to Manchester if the journey is split into chunks for ticketing purposes as it does to buy one ticket for the whole trip.
But is it fair to expect a machine to suggest to a passenger in Chester-le-Street that if they want to go to Manchester, they'd be better off buying a ticket to Barrow 60 miles along the track and getting off early?
Maybe not, but it can't be right for a machine not to offer a simple off-peak option for a journey, as another example states.
This is important, not least because passengers risk big fines if they dare board a train without a ticket - you can't even get a permit to travel now - and if the booking office is closed, they are at the mercy of the machine.
A good job well done here.
Less well done is the Mail's deliberate over-interpretation of a report into the impact of Britain's overseas aid efforts.
The report, by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, does indeed give the Department for International Development an "amber-red" rating, which calls for significant improvements. The report does say that Dfid has not paid enough attention to the impact of corruption on the lives of the poor or developed an approach equal to the challenge. It also says that the £22m directly targeted at fighting corruption should be set against an overall budget of £10.3bn.
The Mail does not agree with the way that taxpayers' money is sent abroad and has long argued that it is bolstering disreputable regimes. So its splash heading this morning is entirely understandable and, indeed, justified.
But it couldn't resist pushing that bit further:
The billions Britain pours into foreign aid are actually doing harm by making corruption worse in many parts of the world, a damning report reveals.
In fact, the report focuses tightly on the effects on the poor of Dfid's anti-corruption efforts since 2011 in just two countries - Nepal and Nigeria, which between them account for 5% of the foreign aid budget. Nigeria received a little under £437m between 2011 and 2013 and Nepal about £160m. Hardly "billions".
Nor does the report criticise the department for spending too little of its budget on fighting corruption, as the Mail asserts. It actually says:.
Dfid was unable to tell us how much it spends on anti-corruption activities. We, therefore, could not form a view as to the relative weight given to anti-corruption work within DFID’s overall development assistance
It points out that spending specifically aimed at fighting corruption had risen from £3.5m since 2008 and that it is projected to rise to £190m by 2018. But it adds that the figures "significantly underestimated" Dfid's efforts because they didn't include money spent indirectly or through other agencies, including the UN.
This report does not put Dfid in a good light and it gives the Mail ammunition for its argument that our money isn't reaching the right people. So why did it have to over-egg the pudding?
Finally, SubScribe makes no apology for repeating that while overseas aid spending has increased greatly to reach 0.7% of GDP, that means 99.3% of our money goes on other things. And many of them are a great deal less deserving.
Thursday 30 October 2014
Fact, spin and opinion battle for the highground today.
First, three of the four heavyweights put drugs at the top of their schedules. What is particularly interesting is that the intros are almost the same, but the headings go in three different directions.
"There is no evidence that tough enforcement of the drug laws on personal possession leads to lower levels of drug use, according to the government's first evidence-based study," writes Alan Travis in the Guardian. The Independent takes its first paragraph slightly further - referring to a punitive approach, including locking up addicts, failing to curb addiction. The Telegraph turns it round to say: "Decriminalising drugs would have little effect on the number of people abusing illegal substances."
Look then at the headings: for the Guardian drug laws are failing; the Telegraph moves away from the nub of the report to home in on disagreements within the Government over how to respond to it; the Independent editorialises with its loaded question.
We're used to newspapers approaching stories according to their own perspective or agenda, but this is an unusual example of a fact that would have been compelling without embellishment being dressed up unnecessarily, as though it were not strong enough to stand up as a splash on its own without a row or a bit of posturing.
Cameron's tax pledge
The Times, which puts the story on 16 under the heading "Drug laws don't work, ministers admit" is meanwhile busy printing shameless Conservative propaganda. The paper leads on a write-off of a David Cameron OpEd piece in which he asserts that the average taxpayer would be £3,800 better off over the next parliament if he, rather than Ed Miliband, returned to Downing Street next May.
The calculations that lead to this conclusion are so tortuous that the first-edition sub misinterpreted the figure as an annual gain. The reporters do try to leaven the party political broadcast with a limp attempt at impartial assessment: "A leading independent expert was unable to endorse the figures, saying that the benefit might be up to £1,000 less than the Conservatives suggest." Why isn't this expert named?
There are also a couple of explanatory/questioning paragraphs on the turn. These suggest that Cameron has reached his figure by going back to 2010 and then assuming that if Labour had stayed in office it would have increased the personal allowance in line with RPI over this parliament, which would have taken it to £7,500 rather than the £10,500 at which it stands today. That's a bit presumptuous, but that's politics for you.
But what happens with the hypothesis after 2015? Does Cameron assume that Labour would continue to lift that allowance in line with RPI? What about Miliband's pledge to reinstate the 10p lower rate of tax? Indeed, mightn't he have done so by now?
The Times does point out that Cameron's numbers do not take account of benefit changes or the freezing of working tax credits for two years. The story also mentions a surge in "stealth" taxes over the past ten years, although it doesn't say how much of the extra take was down to Gordon Brown and how much to Cameron.
It's all smoke and mirrors. If you have the Prime Minister writing for you, you are almost bound to splash on what he has to say. That leaves you with the choice of subjecting his figures to proper scrutiny - thereby running the risk of disproving claims put forward by one of your columnists - or of accepting what he says at face value and being accused of printing propaganda.
Which is why the Times's former policy of not running columns by serving politicians was a good one. It should be reintroduced - and others (who have this week offered space to Yvette Cooper, David Blunkett and Nigel Farage among others) should follow suit.
SubScribe: crunching Cameron's numbers
Wednesday 29 October 2014
Migration, migration, migration: Mehdi Hasan will have been dismayed to see today's front pages for there is - and will be - no respite from this conversation.
The Mayor of Calais hopped across the Channel to talk to MPs yesterday and took the opportunity to blame British benefits for the camps full of refugees cluttering her town. People were willing to die for the £36 a week they expected to receive once they landed here, Natacha Bouchart told the home affairs select committee.
“The real magnet is not the city of Calais but the benefits that are perceived in Great Britain. People call and say, ‘We’ve got through. This is El Dorado. We are here and we are staying here.’
“The weekly benefits of £36 that are given to migrants or asylum seekers is a huge amount for people who have nothing in their lives. They have no idea about the value of money and they don’t understand that £36 is very little."
Both the Times and Express splash on the story and highlight Bouchart's description of Britain as a "soft touch". Except she doesn't seem to have said that. An MP asked if she thought Britain was a soft touch and she said "Oui". Not quite the same thing.
Nor do her words, as reported, justify the headline "Calais goes to war" or the phrase in the Times splash that she "unleashed an attack" on the benefits system. This is not to say that they are not a fair reflection of the hour Bouchart, pictured, spent in the company of our MPs. Rather that the paper made an unfortunate decision to combine its report of the encounter with the verdict of the public accounts committee on the way the Home Office handles asylum applications, thus ending up with the worst of all worlds.
Ann Treneman's sketch on page 6 gives more of a sense of conflict in the committee room - indeed, our MPs seem to have been most discourteous to their guest. Why should Bouchart have had to put up with Michael Ellis barking at her about international treaties and border responsibilities over which, as a small-town mayor, she has no control?
The paper leads page 2 with Cameron's ally Nicholas Boles saying that Britain would never be able to control its borders so long as it was in the EU - not a particularly helpful contribution from the Prime Minister's point of view. But the paper's coverage falls down badly through its decision not to run a separate story on the public accounts committee report, which details a huge backlog of asylum applications, the disappearance from view of 50,000 illegal immigrants and £1bn wasted on systems that don't do what they're supposed to.
The Mail, in full splutter mode, combines the elements far more effectively with its generic "What a mess!" headline, triple strap, and dedicated story for each outrage. It also does better than the Times with its England-France panel. The Times's is an embarrassment, the Mail's far more informative - albeit with the editorialising headline "Lessons we can learn from France".
The Mail also has room on its inside spread for a piece on the boat people who are to be left to their fate once Italy stops Mare Nostrum (see yesterday's review). The Times and Express don't mention it.
The Guardian follows up yesterday's lead on the Italian rescue service with three-quarters of an inside page, although it doesn't really take the story much further. The splash is another wrap, in this case nosed on the accounts committee report with a bit of the mayor and Boles incorporated. The Independent (which splashes on ebola) and the i meanwhile combine the PAC and Mare Nostrum. The i also has room inside for a story on the mayor, the Independent prefers to give Boles his own slot.
So which was the better story? SubScribe thinks the Times and Express were right to go with the Mayor, a truly unusual story with provocative quotes; the PAC figures are shocking, but we are used to the committee producing alarming statistics - and the material is dry by comparison with Bouchart.
There is little new to say about Mare Nostrum, but the facts of this operation will come as a surprise to many and present a serious moral dilemma. Leader writers and commentators have rightly concerned themselves most with this today. It is a matter of life and death for tens of thousands of desperate people.
It will be a long time before Hasan gets his wish and we all shut up about this.
See what the commentators have to say about Mara Nostrum here
Tuesday 28 October, 2014
Hasan is right. But unfortunately none of that hot air has produced answers to the tough questions being asked not only here, but throughout Europe.
The Mail's Blunkett splash is a redigestion of an OpEd piece in which the former Home Secretary seems more concerned about justifying his choice of words 12 years ago and assorted policies that he espoused, including the introduction of ID cards.
Far more interesting and concerning is the Guardian's lead about migrants from Africa who are drowning in their thousands trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe crammed into rubber dinghies. For the past year the Italian navy has been looking out for refugees in the Med and helping them to safety. The Mare Nostrum programme - established after 366 died when their boat sank off Lampedusa - is believed to have saved 150,000 people so far. But it costs Italy €9m a month and the country wants to scale back the operation. The EU has agreed to introduce some patrols under what it calls Operation Triton, although not to replicate the Italian enterprise.
None of this is new; there has been much debate for the past three months, both about Triton and the merits or otherwise of the Italian effort. An article by Nicholas Farrell in the Spectator last month described it as a tragic folly that had acted as a magnet for boat people. That view turns out to be in line with government thinking, for at the heart of the Guardian's splash is a written answer from the Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay saying that Britain would not be taking part in Triton. There was, she said "an unintended pull factor" in search and rescue operations that encouraged more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and so lead to more deaths.
She may be right, but the answer cannot be to stand by and watch people drown.
Ukip poll surge
Europe and migration are, of course, the subjects of consuming interest to Ukip, and Nigel Farage is adept at making them - rather than health, education, poverty, justice, or defence - of greater interest to the country at large. Today the Independent and i report that support for Ukip is at a record high in the wake of the £1.7bn bill we have just received from the EU. An opinion poll for the two papers puts Ukip on 19% with the Tories and Labour on 30% each. Ukip is four points up on last month and Labour five points down. Tough times for Miliband.
Tough times for Cameron, too, who had to contend not only with a noisy House of Commons demanding what he was going to do about this enormous EU bill, but also with a jogger who ran into him in the street. Everyone uses the sequence of blurry photographs taken by a passer-by with a smartphone, and most fretted about security. "What if this man had been carrying a knife?" the Mail demands, while the Mirror leads on the incident with the clumsy heading "It could've been a terrorist".
The Mirror is not alone in producing an unfortunate terrorist head. The Sun was too busy being clever with the play on The Only Way in Essex to stop and think about whether it was a remotely suitable headline for a woman believed to have taken her toddler to join the jihadis in Syria.
It wasn't. Nor was the injection of her liking of the programme into the first sentence to justify the heading. It was a throwaway quote, not the point of the story.
The Star completes the redtop parade with the most compelling splash headline of the day - and one which is completely untrue. This poor lady didn't eat the fridge. She ate its contents. Sorry to spoil the fun.
Monday 27 October, 2014
For Britain the war is over. Thirteen years after Osama bin Laden's suicidal pilots flew into the heart of Western democracy, our troops are finally on their way home from Afghanistan. A war that lasted longer than the two world conflicts of the last century, Korea and the Falklands put together has ended. Quite a moment.
Not, perhaps, a dramatic, hard news moment - such as the drowning of three surfers on the first weekend of half-term. Not a controversial political moment to equal a ministerial gaffe or the EU budget tussle. Not a scientific moment to match the discovery that a bedtime cup of cocoa might help your memory. Not a nail-biting moment with the intensity of decision time on X Factor or Strictly.
But quite a moment, nonetheless.
It is natural, therefore, to see it recorded on every front page. For five it is the splash, for eight the main picture. But only two papers properly grasped the nature of the occasion.
For the Mirror there is room for nothing else; the Telegraph also dispenses with its puff for its one-subject cover, but sadly not the ad. Both complete their Afghanistan news coverage before letting any other topic get a look in. Both run a spread further back with the names and photographs of every one of the 453 British servicemen and women killed during the conflict.
Here we see the two papers at diametrically opposite points of the national newspaper market, the rightwing broadsheet, the leftwing tabloid, marching together with such conviction that everyone else looks out of step.
This really is purposeful journalism, beautifully executed. Good writing, strikingly presented - although, again, the ads in the Telegraph get in the way.
Of course there is work to commend in other papers, too - a striking graphic on the Times's inside spread, a poignant cartoon in the Independent. But there are also a few false steps - the Mail's petulant splash moaning about the removal of a memorial from Camp Bastion and the Independent and Guardian's positioning of their coverage too far back in the book.
The Sun splits its material between page 2 and 8-9, a spread framed with photographs of the dead. But the skinny picture and poor heading on the front - squeezed to the edge by a soap actress and a trio of puffs - are a big error. This is the paper that regards itself as the mouthpiece of "our boys", the staunch supporter of Help for Heroes, the first to bring out the remembrance poppy.
The Express, too, sees itself as the home of patriotism, yet the end of a war that has involved tens of thousands of troops comes in third after that cup of cocoa and a couple of sunny days. For the Star - which, like the Express, has been wearing its poppy with pride since Friday - it is even less important, ranking well behind the X Factor, football and freebies.
See the weekend papers (but no reviews) here
A malicious and misconceived sting...
...No it was the Press doing its job...
...second thoughts and humble pie
Sean Langan was invited to give evidence about Afghanistan to the foreign affairs select committee's inquiry into global security. Its members could not find Helmand on a map.
"The foreign affairs select committee: they're supposed to be specialists. They had sent soldiers to die in Helmand and they didn't know where it was."
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