This week with Brian 13 to 20 July 2023

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including a few questions to myself, dreams and fantasies, the nature of auntie, strange times, a great speech, possible conflicts, water structures, Jeeves the tapeworm, pay rises, Saudi’s A-list clubs, a lost password, Kosovo-style debating, surveying the buses, levying the right charges, morbid lyrics, a lot of islands, a nasty biter and going over the top.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

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

• The reporter at the centre of the recent spate of allegations has been named as Huw Edwards. This news was broken by his wife who said that this was done “out of concern for his mental well-being and to protect our children. Huw is suffering from serious mental health issues,” she went on. “As is well documented, he has been treated for severe depression in recent years.”

[more below] 

• Nothing to see here?

It’s quite hard to know what to think of all this, the more so as for the last five days the whole thing has had as its backdrop a ceaseless round of social-media speculation. I wrote one thing about this, talked to a friend who worked for the BBC for 35 years, deleted it and thought again. Then I decided to sit down and ask myself some questions…

  • Was a criminal offence committed? The Met has said “no”. I’m surprised. As I understand it, the Protection of Children Act 1978 states that someone under 18 can’t give their consent to having lewd images taken of them. The Sun said that the first young person was 17 at the time. If the Met has now decided that no crime has taken place, it surely follows that the paper’s account was wrong in this respect (and so perhaps in others).
  • Could the BBC have handled this better? Hard to say as I don’t know what was told to whom and when. It seems the BBC was first told something was amiss in May by the parents of the young person. It was not until the day before the story was splashed in the Sun on 7 July that “allegations of a different nature” were revealed. 
  • What was the Sun’s role in this? Mainly, it seems, to cause the maximum embarrassment to the BBC. This aligns with Murdoch’s general distaste for the corporation. The fact that the person was not named by them kept the pot boiling perfectly. On 12 July, for example, two presenters, Jeremy Vine and Richard Bacon, were at public loggerheads. The newspaper and the broadcaster were, perhaps, waiting for the other to do the naming. Draconian punishments for infringing privacy laws may well have caused both to stay their hands.
  • Why did the young person and their family have completely different takes on all this? God knows.
  • Why did Huw Edwards reveal his identity to at least two people whom he solicited for these photographs? God knows.
  • Should the BBC should have been covering the story at all in the circumstances? Absolutely. The excellent Ros Atkins, for instance, stressed on 11 July that BBC News and the BBC are different things for these purposes.
  • Could  the Sun claim the story was justified on the grounds of public interest? Not if it didn’t name the presenter. As it was, the article was a very effective general attack on the BBC – probably the intention from the outset.
  • And yet there was public interest: was this justified or just prurient fascination? Tough one. If there was no law broken (see above) perhaps it’s just prurience. However, the worth of a person is not measured just by whether they’ve broken the law. There’s a line that can get crossed: the problem is that no two people can agree where it is…
  • Does the fact he’s a famous person make this worse? I think so. There are also different kinds of famous people. Numerous musicians, actors and writers – including many we all admire – have or had private lives that could best be described as chaotic and morals that could best be described as loose. Elton John is a good example. In 1989 he was vilely persecuted by the Sun over a series of rent-boy allegations that were, as the paper knew, utter tosh. He sued and emerged victorious to the tune of £1m in damages. Everyone knew he then lived a life that was a long way from any monastic ideal: but many loved his music, which helped turn public opinion. Many people still love Chuck Berry’s and Michael Jackson’s songs, Roman Polanski’s and Woody Allen’s films, Errol Flynn’s and Kevin Spacey’s acting and PG Wodehouse’s and JK Rowlings’ novels: yet all of these, and many others, fell short of the standards which the time demanded, or were accused of doing so. We can, perhaps, more easily forgive shortcomings if they are found in those who are selling us dreams, escapes and fantasies.
  • But Huw Edwards wasn’t doing this: he was effectively in our living rooms, reading the news. I was coming to that. This makes a difference, if only emotionally. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect higher standards from those who tell us truths rather than fictions: but we do. The presenters involved should realise this.
  • The fact he worked for the BBC made all this seem even worse, didn’t it? I think so, as do others who hold it in high regard. The BBC’s long-standing nickname of “Auntie” is apposite. It perfectly catches the character of organisation that can be stuffy and formal but is basically well-intentioned and truthful. If all its other activities were to be stripped away, the last to survive would be its news. This is the essence of Auntie: and Huw Edwards was reading it. For many, this is the key point. There’s some kind of betrayal of collective trust involved here which the far worse excesses of Polanski or Chuck Berry could never have matched.
  • Will the Sun be publishing any more on this? In a statement on 12 July it said that it would not, but added that it would “provide the BBC team with a confidential and redacted dossier containing serious and wide-ranging allegations which we have received, including some from BBC personnel”. The last phrase was doubtless designed to expose further rifts in the organisation which the paper can exploit at a later date. For now, its work is done. In the final analysis, this perhaps isn’t really about Huw Edwards at all. He’s just collateral damage in the bitter war between Murdoch and the BBC. Others may follow.

• NATO

There’s no doubt about it, Volodymyr Zelensky is a very skilled political operator.

The recent NATO summit, not surprisingly, refused to provide any clear timetable for when Ukraine might join NATO. Zelensky fulminated that this was “absurd” and that the conditions were “vague”. Well, of course they were. One of NATO’s principles is that you attack one of us, you attack all of us. You therefore can’t admit a new member when it’s being invaded by a nuclear power: particularly when this partly is a result of the country wanting to join NATO in the first place.

Zelensky knows all this and his seemingly grumpy remarks were designed for internal consumption. He got a bit of pushback from the UK’s Ben Wallace but also a separate and valuable declaration of support from the G7 later in the day. He accomplished as much as he could realistically have hoped and let his own people know he was asking for more.

He also knows something else. Ukraine’s crisis is proof of why NATO needs to exist at all. For decades it was there, as part of a balance of terror, and nothing big happened. Now it has. NATO’s founders would, I suspect, never have imagined that its most intense test would come when one part of the then USSR decided to attack another. Strange times indeed.

• Partygate

The treatment that has been meeted out by some members of both houses to the Commons Privileges Committee –which looked into whether former PM Boris Johnson misled parliament (spoiler alert: he did) – has been abominable. Characters like Dorries, Goldsmith, Rees-Mogg and Fabricant seem absurd to me: parodies of themselves, tilting at windmills in defence of an ideal that they can’t identify. None the less, they clearly represent something to someone. This does not, however, give them the right to denigrate the processes and procedures of Parliament and mount savage attacks on the Committee which found against their beloved Don Quixote, aka BoJo.

A statement from an MP would be the best way of helping to resolve this: so please click here to read the full text (and see the link to the video) of a superb speech in the Commons made by our local MP Laura Farris on this very matter on 10 July. She put the record straight on a couple of matters, defended the Committee’s Chair Harriet Harman and took a well-executed swipe at Zak Goldsmith. It all needed to be said and hats off to her for saying it.

• Water

Our privatised water firms continue to be prominently featured in all kinds of media outlets, rarely for good reasons. Three recent pieces of coverage have caught my eye.

  • The first, in the latest (1602) Private Eye looks the history of Thames Water’s ownership and the extent to which shareholders seem to have benefitted disproportionately from its performance. The article also comments, as I did last week, on the rather underwhelming performance of Ofwat CEO David Black on BBC R4 Today programme last week.
  • The second is this article in The Guardian which considers the efforts made by Thames Water to secure more funding and restructure its business, which now has more than ten times the amount of debt that it did in the late 1990s. It also quotes an admission from the water giant’s two current interim CEOs (why two?) that in the last 12 months “our performance was not as we – or our customers – wanted it to be.” Indeed not.
  • The third is the latest newsletter from WASP (Windrush Against Sewage Pollution) which you can read here. This is the third instalment of an investigation into “the hopelessly inadequate and poorly applied measures the Environment Agency claims it uses to manage conflicts of interest such as shareholdings in water companies and other regulated companies as well as directorships and interests in other companies.” This one looks at another example of the well-oiled revolving door that connects employment opportunities at water companies and at the regulators and considers the possibilities the current arrangements allow for conflicts of interest.

• Threads

• Elon Musk appears to have pressed the self-destruct button on Twitter and the company’s woes are only likely to deepen now that a new clone has been launched. Forbes reports that 100 million people signed up to Meta’s Threads in its first five days, none of them presumably put off by its grotesque logo with reminds me of a tapeworm. (Other Twitter clones are available, including Mastodon and Blue Sky.)

Threads is ad-free at present but that will soon change. Private Eye 1602 quotes a recent Meta statement which claims that the company is developing behaviour-analysis systems which are “orders of magnitude bigger than anything in existence.”

On the one hand, this seems an alarming admission. However, it’s worth reflecting that one doesn’t pay for these kind of services with money, but with information. When you sign up you’re effectively handing over all your hopes, fears and desires (or those you express online) to the social-media company in question for it to mash up with everyone else’s. To complain about information being used in this way is as beside the point as grumbling about the fact that you have to pay to travel on a train.

Convenient as all this collective knowledge might sometimes be for us, it’s none the less creepy that there’s this entity out there that increasingly appears to know more about us and what we’re going to do next than we do ourselves. It’s like having a kind of super-Jeeves permanently at your side to tend to your every need. If, however, he one day decides to go rogue, there’s nothing you can do about it.

This won’t be a problem for Threads, though, for Mark Zukerberg has assured us that he intends the platform to be a “kind and friendly” place. How this will be accomplished is less clear. For some people, the main attraction of social media is the ability to direct opinions which are anything but kind and friendly to people they’ve never met, and which they would probably not dare to say to them in person if they did. Nor does “kind and friendly” seem to include more nuanced but still vigorous and sometimes combative debate.

There are certainly some things that could do with being changed about social media – but to do that we’d need to change ourselves, which ain’t going to happen. A few years ago I wrote an April fool article which purported to describe some new features Facebook was about to introduce to combat some of our baser instincts. Perhaps Mark Z read this and took note. If so, we can perhaps expect to be seeing them rolled out on Threads before too long. For all I know, they might be there already…

• And finally…

• On 13 July, the government announced it had agreed to pay rises of 5 to 7% for public-service workers. Some unions appear more happy about this than others. A number of strikes are taking place currently and others are planned or threatened. Time will tell if this results in any of them being called off.

• There are a lot of football fans out there but many of you will probably be unfamiliar with the Saudi Pro League. This has been in the news recently because of the unfeasibly vast sums that have been splashed out to sign players from around the world, not all of whom are in the twilight of their careers and looking a final pay day. This article on the BBC website runs though the top clubs and some of the stars who’ve so far signed up. My main takeaway from this so far is that almost all the clubs’ names begin with the letter A.

• After weeks of snarling and biting in the courts, BoJo was finally compelled to accept that he would have to hand over all his WhatsApp messages to the Covid enquiry. It seems that some of these have not been. This is because, exactly as predicted by James O’Brien on LBC, the wretched man now claims not to be able to remember the password. If I were late with my tax return because I’d lost my YouGov log-in details, HMRC would say “tough – here’s the fine.” So my suggestion is to lock him up for contempt of court until he manages to remember. As for the phone, surely someone at GCHQ could have that sorted in two minutes.

• Another way of handling a political dispute was caught on film in the Kosovo parliament recently and descended rapidly into what looked very much like a full-scale brawl. I’d like to see the House of Common’s Black Rod try to sort that lot out…

Across the area

• Surveying the buses

In 2021 the Government launched the National Bus Strategy setting out its vision of improved bus services and provided authorities with additional funding to ‘build back better’ bus services via the Bus Service Improvement Plans. Its main aim is to get more people travelling by bus but this can, a recent statement from West Berkshire Council points out, ” only be achieved if buses are made more practical and attractive as an alternative to the car.”

“Over the last few years,” the article continues, “we have been working with our local residents to gather thoughts and intelligence on the local bus service. In summer 2021 we asked for opinions to help form the Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) which outlined how we at the Council, alongside bus operators in the district, would improve bus services in order to receive extra finding, which we were successful to be awarded £2.6 million.

“Last summer we asked about the changes and improvements made so far, to find out how satisfied residents were with local public bus services. Now, we want to gather views on ticketing improvements in the last year, the £2 National Single Fare Cap Scheme, your experiences of the service in recent months, suggestions for improvements, changes to existing bus services, and views on new bus services we are expecting to introduce in the coming months.”

For more information and to take part in the survey (which closes on 10 September), please click here.

CIL charges

We’ve been writing about this matter for several years (see here for the first mention: there have been plenty of others). In summary, at least two (and probably more) West Berkshire residents had been hit with eye-watering and potentially life-changing invoices as a result of making small mistakes when completing the paperwork on planning applications. In these two instances, the development was not actually liable for a CIL charge at all. In one case, a large bill was raised but not enforced. This suggested that WBC felt unable to move forward by going to the courts, for fear it might lose; or go back and cancel the charge, for fear of setting a precedent and appearing weak.

The Lib Dems, in particular Jeff Brooks, had pledged to resolve this problem if elected. Now they have been, work is starting on this. It’s not just a question of writing a few cheques and saying “sorry.” One assumes that processes and policies led to this situation which the Lib Dems (and some Conservatives, notably Claire Rowles and James Cole) opposed so these need to be changed for the future.

This may be an opportunity to look at other ways by which WBC might improve the way it works with and assists its residents. I’m not suggesting that it is tyrannical, brutish and aggressive: but every organisation can be made better and in a way which reflects present-day needs. Some work was done by a group led by the above-mentioned James Cole in the last year of the old administration on looking at the “customer journey” and seeing how that could be improved. I imagine the Lib Dems will be having a look at this and seeing what ideas have already been proposed.

Going back to CIL, it’s worth stressing that this is (along with the similar but different S106 agreements) a very important way for planning authorities to raise money from developers to help provide the facilities that will be needed as a result of their work. No one is suggesting that these charges should be dropped (though the system could do with a reform, something HMG is looking into), still less evaded. It does, however, need to be charged and enforced only when it should be.

• News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council’s Library Service.

• The work on upgrading the Lido at the Northcroft Centre in Newbury continues and it’s still hoped this will be open some time in July. You can click here to see a brief video which provides an update of the progress.

West Berkshire Libraries will be challenging primary age children to read up to six library books in the Summer Reading Challenge until 15 September and to collect free incentives from their local library for their achievements as they read, with medals and certificates for everyone who completes the challenge. More details here.

• West Berkshire Council is planning to invest an additional £1.9m on a housing scheme for displaced people to help provide an additional ten homes. More details here.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are these twin baby pandas from South Korea. They don’t look real to me.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of a messy business, scouts, chaos, oak trees and solid facts.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So it’s time for the Song of the Week. The Smiths are not everyone’s dish of Lapsang but if you like intricate guitar parts, melodic bass lines, thundering drums and lyrics for which terms like “mawkish” and “depressing” are woefully inadequate then look no further. This is one of my favourites of theirs which ticks all these boxes: I Know it’s Over.

• Which takes us to the Comedy Moment of the Week. Not comedy in all its aspects – certainly not the end – but amusing, sad and moving in roughly equal measure. Sure you’ve seen it before but here it is again – Going Over the Top, the last scene of the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

• And so, finally, the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: How many islands are there in Indonesia? Last week’s question was: What is the most venomous snake in the world? Most experts appear to agree that the inland taipan gets this award. Like so many other terrifying animals, you can encounter these in Australia.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link

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