Wednesday, October 31, 2012


This time next week, give or take a hanging chad or a tropical storm, we should know whether Barack Obama is to be a two-term or a one-term president. That the electoral outcome could be in doubt has only really been a matter of moment since the first television debate between the two major candidates (I think we can safely discount the possibility that Roseanne Barr, the Peace and Freedom Party candidate, will be the 45th occupant of the Oval Office).

It says a lot about the tenor of American politics and its relationship with television that Mitt Romney’s campaign, hitherto universally scorned as the most inept in the modern era, could be turned around simply because he was able to trot through three debates without perpetrating a major gaffe and because the incumbent was perceived to be relatively subdued in the first of the encounters. Such a low threshold of credibility hardly suggests that the American electorate is either very thoughtful or very far-sighted.

Moreover, one might imagine that sufficient numbers of snake-oil salesmen have run for public office in the US for the voters to be leary of broad and uncosted promises. Yet no presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has been more ready to say anything to get elected than Mitt Romney. Can any member of the Republican team say, hand on heart, that they know for a certainty what is Romney’s definitive position on any issue of the day?

Mitt's tax affairs remain a mystery

This readiness to embrace an implausible candidate who reckons to carry the right-wing banner is a peculiarly American trait. Just as the twice-elected George W Bush was at best a joke and in general an inadequate to the rest of the world, so Obama remains held in high esteem everywhere except in the States. Under a Republican chief executive, disobliging remarks about his character and record are held to be un-American. Yet the most vituperative abuse is poured onto Obama’s head by Tea Party adherents and others. This says a lot about innate attitudes in America. Indeed, it is absurdly difficult to overestimate the unblushing conservatism of a huge proportion of the American populace.

In a posting earlier this year – The Elephant is Still in the Room (March 12th) – I explained why I feared that Obama’s declaration that he would ask the rich to contribute “just a little bit more” to the economy was something that might deny him re-election. I still don’t discount that but I detect a more potent swell against the incumbent. And I am sorry to say that I believe it is the race issue.

Those attacks on Obama that are meant to be abusive and damaging are really addressed to the notion of his legitimacy as an American. And even after four years of him leading and representing the American people on the world stage – certainly with no less dignity or distinction than any of his predecessors – these nay-sayers have revived the attacks with even greater venom. There are three prongs to these absurd claims: that he is “secretly” a Muslim, that he is nakedly a Socialist and that he was not born in Hawaii as his birth certificate clearly states.

Dog-lovers have never forgiven Mitt for driving hundreds of miles with the family dog in a cage lashed to the car roof

From Donald Trump upwards, people of malicious intent and clinical stubbornness insist that, despite a total lack of any corroborating evidence, all these assertions are true. Outside the States, there are millions who – unlike the Americans – have actually lived under Muslim or Socialist governments and who therefore can recognise the genuine article. Show me anyone in the world outside the Republican-Tea Party nexus in the States who sincerely reckons that Obama is either a Muslim or a Socialist.

But of course Obama is an “outsider”, not a “proper” American so it stands to reason that he would be trying to impose “foreign” notions on the upstanding Americans: QED. The whole cockamamie stance speaks to the real objection to Obama, the racial objection. A few weeks ago, a Florida woman gave her vox pop view to a BBC reporter. Mitt Romney she declared “has more experience. And more class”. You can hear precisely what she means underneath those words: “why, Mr Romney is white”.

A placard sometimes seen at Romney rallies yells: “Put the white back in the White House”. It would be encouraging if the Republican stewards told the bearers to take these down but they don’t. As with every other issue, Mitt Romney has played fast and loose with the race card. Would he support the implementation of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act), a federal measure designed to admit to citizenship those integrated children whose parents brought them to the US without proper documentation? Romney has said yes, no and partly. Then Romney has floated the elusive notion of “self-deportation”, a technique that is theoretically voluntary, yet you just know that its implementation would be accompanied by techniques designed to impel the inadequately documented to leave.

Having no foreign policies of his own, Mitt is apt to echo Barack's

Voting in Arizona will be watched with particular interest in connection with this matter. The state’s immigration law is bitterly resented by the Hispanic community and its chief architect was recruited to be a Romney advisor. Arizona has been safely in the Republican camp since favourite-son Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964. But lately, against the trend, Obama has been eating into Romney’s lead there. Instead of being marked as “Republican” in the forecasting graphics, Arizona is now counted, in the jargon, “leaning Republican”. That may have great significance, not just for this election but for future political developments.

As it happens, Romney has immigration issues in his own family. Though his myriad sons have all-American names like Biff, Jerk and Schlong rather than Dai, Rhys and Gwrddywal, Romney is married to a woman whose parents came from Wales. What’s more, Ann Romney’s father was fiercely opposed all his life to supernatural superstition and was shamefully baptised into the Mormon church by his children within days of his death in 1992. He’d have been incandescent with rage to be dragooned into what he termed “hogwash”. For his children, this must have looked like the DREAM solution.

One of the most heartening aspects of the 2008 election was the way Obama’s candidature galvanised non-whites. Hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of citizens who had never voted before, because they felt disenfranchised by a WASP establishment, found themselves queuing round the block to vote for a black presidential candidate. Well, you might say, those people will vote again and so he’ll be safely returned. But will they vote?

A big issue for Obama's second term will be the USA's response to the economic power of China

For many, I surmise, nothing much has been changed by four years of Obama. The president has very properly governed on behalf of all the citizenry and so, in the longest recession in living memory, few of those who already didn’t have much have added to their store. Many of them will not be motivated to vote as they were four years ago and many of them will reason that they made their great gesture then and they don’t need to repeat it. The glass ceiling has been broken and, had he not ruled himself out by self-inflicted damage, Herman Cain might have been the Republican candidate.

The Democrats have several causes for hope, however. One is the streamlined organisation on the ground that got the vote out so overwhelmingly last time. Re-election as an operation has been planned and fine-tuned ceaselessly for at least two years, a time during which the Republicans have frequently been all over the place. Another is that incumbency is certainly an advantage. Those presidents who failed to be re-elected – Ford, Carter, Bush Sr – were held in low esteem by their own parties, let alone their opponents, and the rival candidates in each case offered a credible new start. And Hurricane Sandy has been as good an “October surprise” as any incumbent could wish, allowing him to be and to appear responsive and decisive: at any rate, the storm is certainly not about to cost Obama any votes, unless he fumbles something in this last week of campaigning.

Opinion poll trackers like The New York Times and The Huffington Post have never shown any serious doubt that Obama would prevail. But opinion pollsters can be very wrong: as I frequently remind my readers, I was unable to stay up for the 2004 elections and retired to bed with Bob Worcester’s confident “calling it” for John Kerry ringing in my ears. So I do genuinely fear that the unprincipled puppet may yet make it to the White House, buoyed by the unspoken racism of vast tracts of the supposedly god-fearing electorate. But I cling to the audacity of hope.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


The faintly ludicrous figure of Norman Lamont, these days known as Baron Lamont of Lerwick, does not swim into my consciousness very often. When he does, it is as likely as not in the context of Julian Clary’s notorious and outrageous joke at his expense. Otherwise, there was the debonair dismissal of political misfortune – “je ne regrette rien” – and the somewhat enigmatic story of his letting a flat to a Miss Whiplash. Oh, and there was Black Wednesday.

It’s another quote from John Mayor’s Chancellor that occurs to me now, the most quoted line from his resignation speech to the Commons after he had been offered a demotion that he found insulting. Lamont described Major as “giving the impression of being in office but not in power”. It was one of those “ouch” moments that the House relishes forever afterwards.

Lamont and Major back in the day

The coalition is having a lamentable – or, if you prefer, a lamontable – year that just seems to get worse. And some of the damage begins to look irreparable, particularly that self-inflicted by David Cameron himself. He is being increasingly seen – in his own party quite as much as outside it – as inept. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Ed Miliband has found how to get under his skin and – what Cameron maybe does not realise – it shows in the PM’s heightened colour, barely concealed anger and tendency to bluster. Moreover, Cameron’s notorious impatience with detail and procedure is dangerously prompting him to make policy on the hoof, as in his remarks about energy that were news to the department charged with that rather important subject.

The PM of the red face

The Andrew Mitchell debacle – inevitably dubbed Plebgate – has done far-reaching damage, not least in allowing Tory backbenchers a month largely free of being kept in line by the whips. Cameron ought to have been able to see at once that Mitchell’s authority – the only quality that a chief whip really needs – had been fatally undermined by the man’s inability to mount a coherent and convincing account of the exchange with the Downing Street police officer. When a party leader’s instincts – in this case to tough it out – leave him stuck in a corner, the followers inevitably begin to wonder if the game is up.

What with Boris Johnson capering merrily in the wings and the certainty that the coalition parties will be brushed aside in the imminent by-election in Tory marginal Corby, Cameron indeed starts to give the impression of being in office but not in power. I suspect that it is many weeks since Downing Street discounted the potential appeal of Ed Miliband under the scrutiny of a general election; even Fleet Street has reluctantly begun to acknowledge that Miliband has been playing it very long and very shrewd.

Ed Miliband projects

But my sense of it is that, although his backbenchers are palpably growing more critical if not openly mutinous, encouraged by such insider savagery as Lord Tebbitt directed at the government this weekend, Cameron’s main worry for the prospects both before and after the election concerns the Liberal Democrats.

Consider the bind in which Nick Clegg finds himself. What can he and his party offer at the 2015 general election? That they ameliorated the grosser effects of the Tories? Who will swallow that? That they achieved some of their cherished long-term aims? Which were those? That they surrendered their independence in the national interest and made common cause with the hated Tories to save the economy? Figures to be released this week may suggest that the longest double-dip recession Britain has ever experienced – which, moreover, only began on the coalition’s watch – is coming to an end, but who can believe that any but the richest voters will go to the polls next time with a good feeling about their own finances?

The reality is that, even if the statistics can be massaged to look promising, the broad mass of the electorate will still be hurting and will still not believe that “we are all in it together” in the risibly untrue phrase that the fare-diddling Chancellor had the gall to dredge up again in conference. What’s more, the Tories will be fighting the Lib Dems for every vote. Tory backbenchers will heap all perceived unpopularity onto the coalition’s “weak sister”.

Andrew Mitchell leaves office

Of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats, 28 (virtually half) are held with majorities below 5,000 votes, all of which must be feeling vulnerable. Don’t expect Sarah Teather, John Hemming, Jo Swinson, Chris Huhne or even that old warhorse Sir Alan Beith to return at the next election.

Nine Lib Dems have majorities above 10,000, which might be thought to be relatively safe. Interestingly, all the past leaders still in the Commons number among those nine – Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Sir Menzies Campbell – along with the present leader, Nick Clegg, and the mooted future leader, Vince Cable. But you wouldn’t want to put folding money on Clegg retaining his Sheffield Hallam seat, especially as students have long been moving into the area in order to punish him over tuition fees.

But the support for the Lib Dems as measured by opinion polls is so low and so half-hearted that they will be lucky even to retain eight of the nine purportedly “safest”. I habitually discount the “evidence” of those pseudo-scientists the pollsters, but I confidently predict (based simply on what my waters tell me) that the Lib Dem candidate in Corby will be beaten by both the Green and the UKIP candidates and consequently will lose her deposit. She may even be overtaken by the anti-wind-farms independent (the journalist and prize ass James Delingpole) and by the Monster Raving Loony Party representative, a Mr Toby Jug.

Nick Clegg: things can only get ... um ...

Contemplating annihilation, the Lib Dems surely must be considering their options. A number of statements lately by Clegg and others – statements, mind; not actions – tend to suggest that the Lib Dems are beginning to see the need to let light become visible between them and their coalition partners. But surely something more dramatic and far-reaching is required.

If I were Clegg, I would be looking as a matter of urgency for the issue on which I could credibly and creditably lead my party out of power. To do so would certainly bring down the government. Cameron would have no choice but to try and soldier on with a minority administration. Labour, promptly unveiling its hitherto mysterious plan for government, would take the first opportunity to seek a vote of confidence, which the Tories would lose. Then Clegg could fight a general election not as the ineffectual junior partner of a reviled and blundering coalition but as the leader who had the “courage” to bring down the coalition on “a point of principle”. Believe me, it’s the only scenario that will save his party from electoral annihilation.

Elsewhere in the wild wood that is coalition government, some of the forest creatures lollop along as if without a care in the world. Here’s a story that reveals more about the Tory hegemony than might appear on the surface. That egregious twit Jeremy Hunt was recently present at a Buckingham Palace reception, clearly still basking in the Olympic glow that he erroneously believes may redeem his disgraceful stint as Secretary of State for Media, Culture & Sport. When he and the monarch duly came to face to face, little Hunt was ready with his anecdote, delivered, we may be certain, with all the toe-curling brightness of a shiny-faced Vth-former.

Jeremy Hunt: please like me

He related how a Japanese diplomat had assured him that the Emperor would never have been so game and public-spirited as to (pretend to) leap from a helicopter for the entertainment of the viewers of the Olympiad ceremony. The Queen, who obviously would have immediately tuned him out on the words “Japanese diplomat”, shrugged and moved on (the authenticity of this story is underlined by how absolutely convincing the account of the monarch’s demeanour contrives to be).

Hunt had barely begun to choke back his gush when the Duke loomed over him and barked “who are you?” How we all wish we had been eye-witnesses to this double whammy of vertiginous rebuffs. But really: if the public school millionaires in the cabinet don’t know how to make small talk with royalty, what earthly use are they?

Sunday, October 14, 2012


In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week, the Chancellor George Osborne scoffed that Ed Miliband had never once used the word “deficit” in his improvised address to the Labour Conference in Manchester. Labour wonks quickly hit back with the matching charge that Osborne had never once used the word “growth” in his own speech. Game drawn.

But neither Osborne nor Miliband nor Nick Clegg nor David Cameron in their respective conference addresses made any reference to the most overwhelming issue facing the governments of Britain and every other nation on earth: climate change. Six months back, in his only extended remarks on the matter since becoming Prime Minister two-and-a-half years ago, Cameron claimed that his tenure had already fulfilled his promise to lead “the greenest government ever”. That he felt he could claim as much with a straight face only emphasises how dirt brown and smoky grey successive British administrations have been content to be.

A melting glacier

Perhaps Miliband’s failure to allude to global warming was even more disheartening, given that he was the first cabinet minister (in the last Labour government) ever to hold the title Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Instead of launching his “One Nation” rebranding in his generally well-received speech, Miliband would better have taken possession of the phrase “One World”. Indeed, he could have extended it to reflect the anti-war stance he took at the time of the invasion of Iraq but forsook over Libya. Saving the planet requires keeping the peace as well as expunging carbon emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, based on the most rigorous and systematic research, the point at which global warming will begin to gather pace irresistibly and irreversibly will be reached around the beginning of 2017. It may already be too late to pre-empt this development – it may even be too late to delay it – but it will certainly transpire if governments act no more urgently than they are acting at present.

Flooding in Cockermouth, Lake District, 2009

An optimist in outlook and when contemplating my own circumstances, I yet find myself profoundly sceptical that the planet may be saved at all. I have no children and so I hold no direct stake in the survival of the human race. My line, which began in the primeval sludge, will have come to its end with my own expiration long before the lines of my friends who are parents peter out. When one dies (as I shall do some time in the next two or maybe three decades), the world effectively ends and the future must take care of itself. And I entertain no hope that the human race as a body is wise enough to recognise what is coming. The world will become lifeless, I venture, before the great-great-grandchildren of my friends have achieved a natural span, perhaps before the present century is out, and conceivably very much sooner.

The possibilities for planetary extinction have greatly increased in recent decades. There has always been the risk that some stray object will collide with us, as may well have occurred when the dinosaurs were wiped out. And it is a certainty that, at some great distance in the future, the earth’s orbit will have modulated sufficiently for it to move too near to – or too far from – the sun for life to remain sustainable.

But for nearly seventy years now we have possessed the nuclear option, a capability desired by any regime that seeks to reinforce or realign the balance of power. The global trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has dwindled sufficiently for public figures of many nationalities and philosophies to discuss unashamedly the supposed pros and cons of a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Binyamin Netanyahu has called an election in Israel in the confident expectation that his Likud-centred government will be returned, whereupon he will argue that he has a mandate to strike against the supposed nuclear capability in Iran, even though such action is opposed by more than two-thirds of the Israeli electorate. And elsewhere there is the dread – whisper it – that some terrorist organisation might get its hands on nuclear materials.

Wildfire, southern California

Then there is the danger of pandemic. We might rewrite Twain’s bon mot – “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth gets its trousers on” – in these terms: a virus can have infected half a nation’s population before medicine has found a remedy and bureaucracy has dispensed it. The planet’s immune system has clearly been eroded by the advance of intercourse (in every sense) between peoples, the breaking down of natural barriers, the invasion of wilderness and the concomitant opening up of avenues for opportunist organisms. The bacterium that can resist all known counter measures is a phenomenon increasingly encountered by researchers. Don’t discount the likelihood of some disease emerging that is so resistant and so fast-spreading that it swiftly eliminates the population of a whole continent.

Meanwhile, chemical preparations are continually released into the environment with insufficient regard taken for the consequences of their widespread and long-term use. The Environmental Audit Committee, one of the House of Commons select committees, is beginning an examination of the effect of pesticides on honeybees. We may hope for some forthright conclusions from it, chaired as it is by the feisty Labour MP Joan Walley and including among its members the former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas and the fiercely independent Tory environmentalist Zac Goldsmith.

The catastrophic decline in the honeybee population, both in Britain and elsewhere, is widely deplored, but the implications of the hole made in the larger picture by the loss of these critical pollinators are yet to be fully appreciated. Beyond this manifestation of the issue, however, all of us who live in or near the countryside have heard of cases of human disease, the contracting of which appears to be linked to chemicals used in agriculture. This is a subject that is going to be aired more and more in future.

Disasters on a massive scale do long-term – perhaps irreparable – harm to significant areas of the planet. In the light of the damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant caused by the earthquake off the coast of northern Japan eighteen months ago, I wrote a piece asking some (I hoped) pertinent questions about the astonishing proportion of the world’s nuclear plants that are constructed on or near the fault lines where tectonic plates meet: the piece has been by a huge margin the most visited posting in the history of this blog (Nuclear and Present Danger March 17th 2011).

The mighty ash

Accidents involving contaminant materials will grow more common as multinational corporations embrace diversity and size but cut costs incurred in safety and expertise. After the examples of Bhopal and Chernobyl, they know that there is a fair chance that they will be able to get away with merely wringing their hands over loss of life, maiming of children and long-term genetic effects, provided the victims are poor and have no one to fight for their rights.

As the polar ice-caps melt and the seas rise, rather more sophisticated and litigious people will be affected. No corporations or governments will lose sleep over the loss of islands in and coastal regions on the Indian Ocean, but when Southeast England, the eastern seaboard of the United States and thousands of miles of western Europe are submerged, there will be a scramble to escape blame. Do not doubt that the rich and powerful, having relocated their governments and offices to higher ground, will not hesitate to shrug responsibility onto world leaders who are now dead and lobbyists and consultants who moved on long ago.

Vested interests such as multinational corporations and free marketeers discount climate change as an issue but no credible scientist does, unless he is in the pay of vested interests. The vested interests are in climate change denial because research into safeguards both incurs present expenditure and implies reductions in future profit. Capitalists have precious little interest in the long-term. They invest and speculate in the hope of lining their own pockets, not the pockets of their descendants.

In any case, capitalism increasingly deals in services rather than goods, in intangibles rather than products. When natural disasters strike, such businesses are only tangentially affected. It is residential areas, stuffed with vulnerable stuff, that suffer most.

I reached for the familiar term “natural disasters” but increasingly the disasters that befall the planet are man-made. The clearing of rain forest, the rise in carbon emissions, the consumption of fossil fuels and the pollution of the environment on land and sea all contribute to a distortion of the conditions in which nature operates, such that weather patterns are significantly in flux. In Britain, everyone has been aware of and has grumbled about the lack of so-called traditional summer conditions. The rainfall in April, June and September was the highest ever recorded. There have been fewer sunny days than even those with the longest memories can recall.

An extremely unwelcome keel slug

And the changes are global. This year alone, widespread flooding has struck Fiji, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Peru, Romania, North Korea, Nigeria, Myanmar, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, China, Nepal and India as well as Great Britain and Ireland. Conversely, this year drought has plagued eight countries on the African continent as well as stretching from Mexico to Canada with devastating impact on agriculture across the United States. Global food shortages are bound to follow.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations warned seven weeks ago of the economic consequences for the region if far more is not done to halt climate change. Monsoon patterns are being disrupted with incalculable consequences for agriculture and the region’s capacity to feed its people. Myanmar MP Kyaw Thiha said of floods in his country “this is what climate change looks like”.

Extreme weather conditions create opportunities for the destruction of habitat. As well as the rising waters, the warming of the planet sparks more wildfires that, like floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, destroy indiscriminately and comprehensively.

Fire and flood, quake and storm create great damage and vast disruption and take many lives. People are saved and rescued as a matter of priority but wildlife is simply wiped out by these events. Even birds cannot fly without rest: if there is nowhere to perch and floodwater or flame to the horizon, they drown or incinerate along with everything that cannot fly.

Wildlife extinction gathers pace as habitat is destroyed and as poaching and over-hunting go unchecked. Extreme weather also disrupts the natural life cycles of wild creatures, particularly because the availability of food becomes so irregular. In a limited and anecdotal way, we observe this in our garden and our field. This year many fruits have failed: there have been no pears, plums or damsons, very few cooking or crab apples, raspberries, currants, nuts and acorns. The squirrels are driven to eating conkers, a phenomenon we have not observed in our field before.

On the other hand, the rain has greatly encouraged slugs and snails, which attack many crops and which have been so emboldened that their hitherto nocturnal activity has extended right through the day. Keel slugs, the largest and most dismaying variety, have become epidemic across our land at the same time that their predators – hedgehogs, frogs – are much more rarely seen than before. A combination of rain, lack of sun and slug attack has seen off our hopes for potatoes, carrots, pumpkins and strawberries this year. The lack of sun in the greenhouse has reduced our tomatoes too.

Constant rain greatly reduces creatures that move through the air. We have noticed far fewer flying insects of all kinds this year. It is a measure of desperation that on a relatively mild day like today, one may see a few dragonflies and butterflies still active so late in the season. Bats and birds are clearly less numerous. We are lucky enough that an extensive colony of wrens makes its home in our grounds and the cover we provide has helped them survive two successive severe winters – small birds in particular are vulnerable to the cold – but we fear that another testing winter will leave its mark.

Slugs routinely attack brassicas

In another part of the forest, a fungus from the continent is threatening our native ash trees, no doubt rendered more virulent by a concomitant reduction in the ability of the trees to fight invasive fungi. The ash is the most numerous of the trees on our property and its loss has not seemed like a threat before – indeed, we have taken down several full-grown specimens, including one that was undermining the foundations of the house, while pulling up ash seedlings and saplings by the dozen (they are by no stretch of the imagination difficult to cultivate). But the sudden possibility that they will all go is extremely disheartening. I recall the rapid spread of so-called Dutch Elm Disease some 45 years ago. It accounted for upwards of 25 million trees in Britain, including the majestic row that bordered the cricket field at my old school, a ground so well thought of that the county team played a home fixture on it every season.

The reduction and eventual extinction of flora and fauna may be thought of as an aesthetic issue – merely an aesthetic issue – or (if you want to be grandiloquent about it) a moral issue. But these matters should also give pause to those only detained by severely practical considerations. For the global system may only operate efficiently – or indeed at all – if every component is in place. As soon as we, in our preoccupation with our own “more important” concerns, ignore the tears in the fabric of the intricate interweave of the natural world, we risk setting off chains of harm that may well harm us too.

Leaders from Aung San Suu Kyi to Merkel, from Obama to Zuma are – perhaps understandably – preoccupied with concerns of global and national economy, of citizens’ rights and imagined political scandals. But unless they raise their heads from these small concerns, they will not be addressing the matter that should be the first consideration every day of their working lives.

Modern leaders are peculiarly mindful of their so-called legacy, of the benisons that will be credited to them in years to come. Only if the present generation of leaders manages to save the planet can they hope to go down in history, for otherwise there will be no history in which they will be able to go down.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A SLICE of PIE in the SKY II

I have woefully neglected to fulfil my undertaking to report back on the response to the letter reproduced immediately below. I shall rectify the omission immediately.

The day after I posted the letter, there was an unplanned development. I was presented with a replacement Sky+ box, not by BSkyB but by a kind and concerned friend. Once this was connected and found to provide all the functions that such a box is designed to furnish, the approach to BSkyB was rendered academic.

Nonetheless, when BSkyB’s Customer Services phoned me – commendably enough, on the same day that my letter will have reached the CEO’s office – I allowed the company’s representative to address my concerns before revealing that I should not be requiring the services of an engineer. It had been explained to me that I would still be expected to accept charges for the visit of an engineer and that the Sky+ box was indeed my own rather than the company’s property.

On the other hand, BSkyB did, through the medium of its spokeswoman, take responsibility for my three calls each having been disconnected and owned that this was less than my desert. Accordingly, the company was prepared to offer me a reduction of 25 per cent on my subscription for the coming six months. Of course I should have liked more and perhaps I should have haggled for more, but I accepted the offer.

On balance, I feel I have come out ahead. I lost a week of access to programmes in my Sky package, though doubtless all will be repeated in due course, the only question mark being over reruns of Seinfeld, the programming of which on Atlantic has been very erratic. I have gained a rebate of nearly £80 and – though this is no thanks to Sky – a (nearly) new Sky+ box which is functioning very much more reliably than its predecessor.

So the truism that guided me in making my complaint remains true: it is always worth making a fuss and doing so at the highest level of any organisation. It’s the CEO whose office is least happy to be bothered with irate customers and whose impatient demand for someone else to deal with it that is most likely to get it promptly dealt with.


Much is being made today of its being 50 years since the release of Love Me Do, the first single by the Beatles. I remember hearing the record for the first time (probably on Radio Luxembourg) and deciding, in my pompous, 15 year-old way, that I wouldn’t care if I never heard of these Beatles again. So much for my star-spotting talent. It may be said in my defence, however, that every Beatles single released subsequently was very much better and, what’s more, very much more successful. Love Me Do only got to number 17 in the Top Twenty, after all.

What is sobering about this anniversary is that the beginning of the Beatles phenomenon seems – to me, anyway – to be such recent history. And then I stop to calculate. To a 15 year-old in 2012, the release of the first Beatles singles is exactly as remote as was the sinking of the Titanic to me at 15. And that makes me feel very, very old indeed.

Monday, October 01, 2012

A SLICE of PIE in the SKY

My devotees, god preserve them, will know that I am apt to relish the penning of a letter of complaint. Here, for their amusement, is my latest. It is to Mr Jeremy Darroch, the Chief Executive of BSkyB, and was posted today.

"Dear Mr Darroch,

We inherited a Sky connection when acquiring the above property some 14 years ago, altering the subscription to the Movie Package. I guess it to be five or six years since I had a Sky+ box installed in my study, where I download a good deal of broadcast material for research purposes: the Sky+ facility is a great help with this.

In recent months, the Sky+ box has begun to perform somewhat erratically and is perhaps showing its age. Last week, I had occasion to take out the viewing card. When I put it back, I was no longer able to access channels for which I pay.

BSkyB sent me a replacement viewing card but this made no difference. On each channel that comes with my package, the message that appears reads: “Insert your Sky viewing card”. I can assure you that the card is correctly inserted.

Now I come to the reasons for my troubling your office. Last Thursday (27th), I telephoned BSkyB on the 08442 414141 number to request assistance. The first man to whom I spoke asked some questions and then put me on hold. After a while, I was disconnected. I called again. A different man asked me different questions and then also put me on hold. Again I was disconnected.

When I spoke to a third BSkyB operative, I began by telling her that I had been cut off twice. She said that BSkyB’s service was suffering “system problems”. I gave her the history of my own problem and she tried a number of down-the-line tests that made no difference. She then told me that an engineer would have to be sent.
When I learned that I would be charged for this visit, I balked. Your operative put me on hold while she sought further direction from her supervisor but, for a third time, I was disconnected.

The Sky+ box remains, I believe, the property of the company; at any rate, it is certainly the responsibility of the company. My subscription now comes to £627 per annum, more than 4.5 times the price of the television licence fee of which your former chairman, Mr Murdoch Jr, was so scornful. I can see no justification for my being obliged to pay additionally for your attendance on the malfunctioning appliance.

Moreover, it is already sufficiently deplorable that calls for assistance should have to be made on a code – 0844 – that penalises the customer and profits your company. But that you should permit “system problems” to continue to disconnect such customers begins to look like sharp practice. Where technical glitches are interrupting calls, any diligent company would surely instruct its operatives as a matter of course to take the caller’s number so that he may be rung back in the event of a disconnection. This is a small-minded way for BSkyB further to inflate its £1.2bn profits.

I must tell you that unless BSkyB is prepared to resolve the problem with my Sky+ box without charge, I shall be switching to Freeview. I appreciate that the loss of one subscriber will make a comparatively small impact on your own £7m-a-year package, but I shall circulate my reasons for the switch as widely as I may and, in my capacity as a freelance writer specialising in broadcasting, such width is potentially considerable.

Depending on the promptness and sensitivity of your response, I shall also consider copying this letter to Ofcom and to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Thank you for your time."

I shall of course report back on any interesting developments.