Weekly News with Brian 1 to 8 July 2021

This Week with Brian

This week Brian discusses official language, corporate defensiveness, secret papers, hidden cameras, life on Mars, booster jabs, the end of days, a wrong address, the wrong conclusions, sublime noise, triple landlocked, the longest day and being a spy again.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (generally updated every Thursday) including traffic lights in Hungerford, a fête in East Garston, screening in Lambourn, a vision and a mayor-making in in Newbury, the fun day in Thatcham, closures in Stratfield Mortimer, D-day approaches for Wantage’s station, Marlborough’s missing clock, Compton’s plan, Swindon’s art, Readibus, the Showground, CIL, water and member’s bids – plus our usual tour around the area’s websites and FB pages.

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• There’s a whole research paper, perhaps even a book, to be written on the subject of the strange language used by officialdom when explaining some failure or error.

[more below] 

The first reaction is often to shoot the messenger: the opposition, perhaps, for “playing politics” or the media for “scaremongering”. All the organisation wants to do is “draw a line under the issue” and “move on.” If this doesn’t cut it,  the next stage is to retreat behind the defence of an internal enquiry: “to make any comment now would be to prejudice ongoing investigations.” Then, perhaps months later when most people have forgotten what the faux pas was, the results of any enquiry are published. As internal enquiries are rarely worth the paper they’re written on, this will be interpreted as a “vindication of the decision we took under unprecedented circumstances.” If the matter gets as far as a public enquiry, it can probably be forgotten about altogether – there will be some embarrassing revelations along the way but these will be occasional points of light in a deep fog. When the report finally appears – which could be years later – there’s very little chance anyone will remember what the issues were, who was blaming whom, why it all seemed so important. The same “vindication” response will be trotted out unless there’s something really damning in which the body responsible will promise, in that most hollow of phrases, “to learn from its mistakes.” Any further attempts at re-opening the matter will be dismissed as “playing politics” and “scaremongering”, so putting us back where we started.

I accept that this is a very cynical and simplistic summary, though perhaps no more so than some of the actual official reactions. This attitude of corporate defensiveness, as it’s often termed (even when not applying to companies), has the effect of stonewalling any questions until those asking them either get bored or, if professional advice is involved, run out of money. Those that survive this winnowing risk being branded “troublemakers” and are treated as such. The fewer of them there are, the easier it is to justify this attitude. As the issue drags on, the points they’re arguing – which might be quite important – are not generally picked up by any mainstream media source as the story has gone on for so long and has generated so many documents that few will ever understand it. Reminders of the issue appear in occasional letters to the local paper which create the illusion that the paper is, even at one remove, engaging in investigative journalism. The letters rarely make sense to most readers as there’s no space to back up all the points with evidence. The writers are often branded, and perhaps become, single-issue obsessives, just a step or two away from those people who march up and down Oxford Street with sandwich boards proclaiming that the world is about to end.

OK – that’s pretty cynical and simplistic too. Where the second lot of things happen, though, it’s often a direct result of the first. Most organisations of any size or power have secrecy as one of their paramount concerns: preventing information from seeping out in the first place and, when it does, spinning it into something quite different. It’s a depressing fact that, as such outfits employ more and more such people, the number of professional journalists who might be able to blast holes in these defences has reduced (by over 25% between 2007 and 2019 according to the Press Gazette). To make matters worse, debate is increasingly conducted through social media which lacks nuance and also tends to be an echo chamber for similar opinions. Journalism involves asking awkward questions, following them up and often making enemies as a result. (So too does having the courage to take up a cause and fight against the might of the government, corporations or councils.) It therefore perhaps isn’t a popular career path in a society whose members, from the PM down, thrive on being liked – in all the ways that the term is now used – despite the fact that much their online behaviour creates the opposite result.  

• There is also another way of dealing with a problem, one which was adopted by the MoD after some secret papers about the current naval activities in the Black Sea were found at a bus stop in Kent. This only works when there’s no point in hiding the fact that something has gone horribly wrong and involves making statements which appear to be frank admissions and yet are no more than self-evident facts. “This is a mistake, it appears”, the Defence Minister told the Commons this week. (If it was deliberate it certainly wasn’t a very professional handover.) The Minister then goes further: “I don’t want to prejudge the investigation,” he says (see above), “but it appears it was a mistake made by an individual.” Gosh. He was then asked if the UK had informed its allies. “We’ve certainly informed the United States,” he replied. So the other NATO countries will have got it from the news, then. The article also refers to a Conservative MP who claimed that he was “saddened” by the fact that the BBC had published its report rather than pass the documents to the Police. I presume he meant “to the Ministry of Defence” but will let that pass (I’ve been watching too much Line of Duty). He probably should go away and look up “media scrutiny” and “free press”. As for “saddened”, that is – like “disappointed” – a classic example of what might be termed the continuous manipulative tense. People complain that grammar is no longer taught in schools: sure as hell this aspect of it is to politicians.

• And so Matt Hancock has departed the Cabinet: not because of Dominic Cummings, nor the PM, but because of the toxic and previously untested mixture of marital deception and lockdown breaches. I don’t think posterity will judge his performance that kindly but it can’t have been quite the job he signed up for. Health Secretaries’ tenures are normally characterised by signing off a hugely ambitious root-and-branch NHS reform which will reach fruition (if it ever does) long after they’ve left office, sympathising with junior doctors and nurses about how long their hours are and occasionally being heckled at national assemblies of the health system’s many professional bodies – nothing to scare a career politician there. A global pandemic was another matter. As for the denouement, people have rightly focussed on the hypocrisy. Another aspect of this is that we are, once again, dealing with someone who studied PPE at Oxford. I appreciate this is a riff I’ve played quite a lot: I would have done so more were I not married to one of them.

• The question also arises as to where the incriminating photo was obtained. The Guardian reports that there’s unlikely to be an enquiry into this as it could lead to a defence of whistleblowing in the public interest; also that the photo seems to have emanated from a security camera in the office. Did Matt Hancock not know it was there? This article in the Daily Mail suggests that it was clearly visible. Proof that love is blind, perhaps.

It seems from this article from NASA that all is not quite as it seems on Mars. The article looks at the incidence of methane – a gas which is produced by biological reactions but can also occur as a result of geological ones – in the red planet’s atmosphere, with readings taken on the ground and from up above appearing to differ. Aside from the question of where the methane is coming from, there’s the matter of why Mars’ atmosphere appears to be destroying methane at a faster rate than happens here. If so, we could do with a bit of the Mars magic to help with global warming, as this is – in the short term – over 80 times more serious than is carbon dioxide. Martian cows could be the answer, if the current mission can find them.

• The cases of Covid are rising sharply but deaths and hospitalisations seem not to be. It’s becoming increasingly clear that much more alarming figures could be presented for other forms of death and disease were these likely to catch the public imagination. Meanwhile, those over 50 seem likely to be offered a booster Covid jab in the autumn.

• On which subject, this BBC article debunks the claim on a “conspiracy site” that vaccinated people were dying at a higher rate than unvaccinated ones and suggest that this is a good example of how to “use real figures in a misleading way, to arrive at a completely false conclusion.”

• I think it would be as well to regard England’s 2-0 victory over a surprisingly poor Germany side as being the final of the Euros, the rest of the matches being merely a series of friendlies. That’s certainly how the press have viewed it and a casual reader might think that on Tuesday we’d won the Euros and the World Cup, discovered a cure for cancer and generally ushered in the End of Days. The next two matches are very winnable but I cannot see England (or any of their possible opponents) beating Italy, Spain or Belgium in the final, wherever the match is played. The oddest thing is that we’ve got this far with hardly any showing from Foden, Sancho and Grealish, our best players. Is there some Southgate masterplan that’s yet to be unveiled?

• Still on the subject of football, Rafael Benitez has been appointed manager of Everton. No story there except that he previously managed Liverpool, which some see as like Norman Tebbit joining the Labour Party or Noel Gallagher taking over the songwriting duties for Blur. The rotund Spaniard faced similar criticism when appointed in 2012 to Chelsea (a club with which Liverpool had long had a strong rivalry) and promptly won them the Europa League and Champions League qualification, after which most of the complainers shut up. Everton fans might do likewise if he garners some silverware for the first time in 26 years. However, that’s not what tickles me about this. He was this week subject to threats from Everton “fans” who made a banner saying “we know where you live – don’t sign.” Unfortunately, it seems that they didn’t actually know where he lives as it was left outside the wrong house. Perhaps this is whey the club needs a new manager…

Across the area

• The BBC reports that there were 117 CV-19 cases in West Berkshire in the week 21-27 June, up 15 on the week before. This equates to 74 cases per 100,000. The average area in England had 122 (67 the week before). See also this map from Gov.uk which enables figures at a more local level to be obtained.

• A reminder that West Berkshire Council has launched a six-week consultation into the draft Berkshire West Health and Wellbeing Strategy. See here for more details. This “aims to drive positive change to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and wellbeing across West Berkshire, Reading and Wokingham (the three local authorities within the Berkshire West Integrated Care Partnership).”  

• West Berkshire’s Summer Reading Challenge started on 1 July with an environment theme that “will inspire children to stand up for the future of our planet.”

Click here for information about lateral flow tests available in West Berkshire.

• West Berkshire Council is supporting Drowning Prevention Week to educate residents about water safety.

• In the 2021 spring holiday, 15 primary schools took part in a new trial to provide children aged between five and 11 who receive free school meals with fun activities which also taught them how to keep fit and healthy. The Department for Education has given West Berkshire Council more funding to expand the Holiday and Food Activity (HAF) programme to a further 13 schools. In addition, there are plans for community activities for children aged 12 and over. More details here.

• And still with WBC, the Council has launched a new campaignRespect our Parks and Open Spaces.

• The West Berkshire Covid dashboard can be visited here.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from West Berkshire Council.

• West Berkshire, Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire and Swindon Councils have their own web pages relating to the outbreak. Click here as follows for the high-level links for West BerkshireVale of White HorseWiltshire and Swindon.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon below for initiatives from Vale of White Course Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council.

Click here to visit the website for West Berkshire Council’s Community Support Hub. You can also call 01635 503 579 to speak to the the Building Communities Together team. The Hub has also set up two FAQ pages, for residents and for businesses. You can also click here to sign up to receive the Hub’s e-bulletins and click here to see the weekly updates.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. As with the volunteers’ post above, if you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are these bears who took a dip in a swimming pool during the ferociously hot weather in British Columbia. I bet they wish they could take those big fur coats off…

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes correspondence on the subjects of the Eagle Quarter, lacrosse, thin skin, Newbury’s football ground, environmental damage on Greenham Common and milk deliveries.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support including: Thatcham Park PTA (thanks to the recent big top challenge); Parkinson’s UK (thanks to Johnny Pride); readies (thanks to Thatcham and Newbury Town Councils); numerous local charities (thanks to Greenham Trust).

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here are at the Song of the Week. Some of the most sublime things that have been created for the human ear to enjoy in the last 50 or so years have come from Steely Dan. The lyrics are of a similarly high standard. Deacon Blues is a supreme example of this proposition.

• So it’s Comedy Sketch of the Week time again. I mentioned this Big Train sketch (called, conveniently, How to be a Spy) last week but, in the context of the Matt Hancock revelations, it seems worth mentioning again for those of you who missed it (as, it seems he did).

• And we slide into the harbour with the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only triple landlocked US state (ie you have to pass through three other states to reach the sea)? Last week’s question was: The summer solstice was on 21 June. How many hours and minutes of sunlight were there in Greenwich that day? It was 16 hours and 39 minutes. If you got that exactly right to the minute, give yourself two points.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Theale area; Wantage area; Swindon area please click on the appropriate link.

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale