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Suffolk Council needs tougher questions

Today I have some sympathy for the politburo and apparatchiks of Suffolk Country Council which is planning to turn county hall into a giant buying department. It wants to buy in all the services it provides.

The East Anglian Daily Times has today fearlessly posed the questions it believes the citizens of Suffolk want answering.

Here is question 4:

Leadership capacity.

Does Suffolk County Council have the general leadership knowledge, experience and capacity for the scale and pace of changes proposed – and their implications, including unanticipated events?

Is there leadership knowledge, experience and capacity in Suffolk County Council to work through all the detail of the changes in a partnership way with council staff, service users, voluntary organisations and potential service providers?

How will the council build support for what is proposed?

Of course, they will hold up their hands and say “No. We don’t have the expertise to do this. We are going to have to employ consultants at the cost of zillions to do it for us.”

All the questions are just as woolly and can only lead to “political” answers.

For example, on the subject of children at risk and families in need it asks if the council has “anticipated the impacts” and what does it think these will be.

I think I can hazard a guess at the reply: “We have considered the impacts which will be a better service provided by private and charity sector providers as a lower cost of council tax payers.” Something along those lines but probably dressed up with more jargon.

The one thing the questions show is that the editor of the EADT, Terry Hunt, who wrote them, is no John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman. We probably don’t want their aggressive style but we do need clear questions which make political waffle obvious.

There are questions that need asking. They should be incisive. I imagine Suffolk CC is looking closely at the London borough of Barnet (Easy Council) whose “no frills” policy is costing more than it is saving, according to the Guardian.

As for Suffolk, I want the local daily paper to ask much tougher questions which suggest they have really thought about what the voters want to know. It is the job of newspapers to hold councils to account, not to toss them easy balls.

The trouble is that in trying to be impartial the EADT is looking like a plant at a press conference tossing in the easy questions provided by the spin machine.

Local daily bids to reverse ciculation decline

A ring on the doorbell today took me back to my early days as a reporter. A pleasant young man from the East Anglian Daily Times arrived to tell me that the paper was doing a editorial supported circulation drive in the area.

He said that they had done research earlier this year and had found — would you believe it! — that people felt there was not enough local news in the paper. So they were going to base a reporter in the area and would I buy a ten-week reduced rate subscription at £1.75 a week?

I was immediately taken back to my days on the Western Daily Press when under editor Eric Price it was building circulation. It went from around 11,000 to nearly 75,000 in a few  years. With that experience in mind, I suggested that the EADT would need to maintain the better local coverage if they hoped to keep an circulation gains.

They certain need gains with the figures down from 44,755 (ABC) in 1999 to 30,332 in the first half of this year. On a rough calculation they have lost a third of sales in a little over 10 years.

I just hope there has been a change of heart at Archant, owners of the EADT, who I recorded cut a further 20 jobs from the East Anglian Daily Times and its  sister paper, the Evening Star, in January last year.

Ever the optimist, I signed up for the reduced rate subscription.

Fairness demands end to unpaid internships

The other day I was talking to a friend, also retired, and, as so often happens, talk turned to how fortunate we were compared with young people seeking work today. We were both journalists who had got our first job without further eduction.

Our employers gave us paid time to study for the National Council for the Training of Journalists Certificate. Since then the industry has passed the costs and responsibility for training as journalists on to the state and individuals.

Worse still the employers who used to pay a wage to the greenest trainee demand that people who have done a first degree and a post graduate qualification, work for free. They call it an internship.

No wonder the National Union of Journalists has launched a cashback for interns campaign. Fiona O’Cleirigh explains in today’s Media Guardian how the union is encouraging former interns to sue for unpaid wages.

Once, graduates could apply directly to employers for training and work. Thomson newspapers, then one of the biggest names in British journalism, owning the Scotsman and the Times as well as a string of regional papers, ran its own training school.

Graduates who successfully applied first went to the company training school in Newcastle for an intensive course and were then sent to one of the group’s papers.

I worked for Thomson alongside graduate trainees including John Coldstream, Stephen Pile, Anthony Holden and Melanie Phillips.

If they were starting work today, they would have to pay for post graduate diploma or MA and then face lengthy periods as interns unless they were very lucky.

The result is that as well as conversations about how lucky we were, I often hear from friends about the long-continuing financial support their children need.

There is a belief that an MA will solve everything. But is a second degree really really the appropriate way of training journalists. Having worked on university journalism courses I have spent long hours dressing up course documents with jargon to make what are really vocational courses sound academic.

Harlow College was the premier place for journalism training in the 1960s and still has a high repletion. It was a remains an FE college.

The prospects for righting the injustice of internships does not seem good. There are even suggestions that police recruits could be required to spend a year working as a volunteer special constable before being able to even apply for paid work.

Freelance journalist John Slattery writes about internships, but the same issues apply in a jug range of jobs as the Interns Anonymous blog shows.

David Cameron along with almost every politician is an advocate of “fairness” but I doubt if he will do anything to end the scandal of unpaid internships. As the police example shows his policies are likely to make it worse.

It is not only unfair on those who work for nothing but on those who do not have parents able to subsidies their search for work. Journalism and, I believe, other jobs have become available only to the children of relatively wealthy middle class parents.

Child benefit cuts threaten us all

Why do I feel so strongly that the child benefit cuts announced by George Osborne are wrong? One of my first reactions was that it might help reduce the numbers of four-by-fours parked outside the primary school. It is a feeling not far removed from that of Deborah Orr in the Guardian today who writes:

It is difficult to tax the rich, we’re often told, so it seems rather silly also to continue giving the rich unneeded benefits to spend on what are to many families quite unattainable luxuries. The idea is that child benefit makes the wealthy feel that the welfare state is on their side too. The reality is that too many of these buggers need reminding of how much they gain already.

Yet, I feel the principle of universal benefits needs to be preserved. They don’t have to be taken (eg sending children to private schools instead of using the state sector or having private health insurance) or can be passed on to charity (winter fuel allowance). But they are there for all as a bedrock for a stable society. Cutting child benefits or the wealthy makes the next assault on universal benefits easier.
The fact that the proposal is ill thought out is beside this point but it is very worrying that this comes from a Government whose Prime Minister is hammering on about fairness.

As Richard Murphy in his Tax Research UK blog points out it is a “massive boost to the tax avoidance industry”. Before explaining several ways of avoiding the cut he writes:

For a family caught by the change the parent of two children  with income of just over the limit faces an effective 100% tax rate on all income in a rage from about £44,000 to £47,000. That is a gift to the tax abusers.

You would expect a blog called Left Foot Forward to be against the restrictions on child benefit, but I was taken with a quote from Richard Titmuss, the pioneering social researcher, who said, “Services for the poor will always be poor services.”

Benefit “backlash” and a boob job

Old habits die hard and I was going to write something about the Tory press reaction to the prospect of the ending of the universality of child benefits. But I see I am too late. Roy Greenslade got there first.

But I would like to add that the Daily Mail did get a bit confused. Yes, there was a “growing backlash” and a strongly worded leader. But then the welfare scrounger agenda got mixed up with it in the story headlined: As millions of decent families face benefits cuts, one woman who’s never worked in her life is investing hers… in a £4,500 boob job.


E-books are a rip-off

I have found the experience of reading books on an iPad to be enjoyable. Certainly much more comfortable on the eyes than mass-market paperbacks, with the added advantage that I don’t hear my wife demanding, “When are you going to turn the light off,” from the other side of the bed.

Before buying I thought that the Kindle or one of the other e-ink screens would be better for books than the illuminated screen, so was very pleased that I had no problem with the Apple device. The big issue is the price of e-books — they are a rip-off.

Clearly the publishers are fighting to preserve their out-dated dead tree business model. The marginal cost of an e-book is practically zero. I don’t mean they should give them away.

But the pricing is crazy. Take Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré, list price £18.99 but for sale at Amazon as a hardback for £8.99 (from £7 if you use one of the merchants who sell through Amazon). At the Apple iBookstore where publishers can set their own price for electronic versions it is £11.99 while the Amazon price is £8.08 for the Kindle version which can also be read on an iPad.

So at Amazon the electronic version is 92p less than the hardback (or £1.08p more than the same book from another seller at Amazon). The publishers have the nerve to treat readers as idiots by pricing the e-book at Apple at £4.99 more than I need to pay for the hardback.

First, the publishers are admitting that the recommended price is utterly meaningless. Second, the e-book version is gross profiteering.

What should be the price? Let’s assume that on bulk sales John le Carre is getting 5% or the recommended retail price: that is 95p. If the publisher £2 for editing, production and marketing and the retailer has a 50% mark-up the price should be around £4.50. I suspect I am being generous to all those involved.

Clearly the publishers are trying to protect their dead tree, gas guzzling business model. I could say the same about newspapers but thanks to Shane Richmond, technology  blogger at the Telegraph, for reminding me about e-book pricing. He writes:

All publishers can do is slow things down, though. Customers believe instinctively that e-books should be cheaper than the paper equivalent. There are no printing costs, packing costs, shipping costs or overheads on shelving. Whatever the publishers might believe, it won’t be them that decides pricing but the market.

He is probably right, but I don’t see much sign of the market working yet. In the meantime, I am reading a lot of 19th century out-of-copyright books which I had long planned to read but never for round to. There are great free ebooks out there to keep us going until the publishers come to their senses.

Time to revive Wordblog

Wordblog has been in recess. Adjusting from being Andrew Grant-Adamson, lecturer/journalist, to being Andrew Grant-Adamson, retired, has taken time. Coming to terms with a life without an occupation-defining label  is traumatic: at least, it has been for me.

It is not just a matter of the job but also changing from being a person who thinks, “Am I earning enough to live the way I want?” to working out, “How much can I spend from pension and other savings?”

I have found things to occupy my time including helping out with a local arts festival and a little paid work but where is my voice? That ability to have a say. That is why Wordblog is coming back. It may end up as the words of a grumpy old man. If it is a little bit more maybe someone will read it.