This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including the biggest threat, fakes, easy information, 0.31 seconds, a Wild West, local problems, dodgy tactics, the supreme accolade, council costs, another new low, a green U-turn, false teeth, the wrong kind of matches, two press releases, a new budget, CIL bills, the sweetest girl, drilling through the world, a polar bear on ice, Mickey Mouse and an annoying witness.
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 [email protected].
The World Economic Forum has identified what it feels is the biggest short-term threat to the global economy. The Guardian reports that this is not climate change, nor inflation, nor Putin, nor the refugee crisis, nor terrorism. The number-one fear is one that links all of these threats and many others and yet is a thing unto itself. Most people were barely aware of it even ten years ago, perhaps because it then had no name. It has also now got hitched up with a new, and to many alarming, development in IT. Have, as Rolf Harris would have said, you guessed what it is yet?
The answer is fake news: specifically, “a wave of artificial intelligence-driven misinformation and disinformation that could influence key looming elections.” The report goes on to suggest that this could lead “to riots, strikes and crackdowns on dissent from governments.” It’s not just elections that are at risk, of course: and not just AI that’s responsible. Humans are perfectly capable of making up lies without any help. There are several disinformation battlegrounds but climate change is probably the most important.
This issue is very serious (for us as a species and for many companies as threats to their profits) and also fairly new. These make the business of twisting the narrative both very important and fairly easy. This has been happening since the shark’s fin of a problem was first identified in the late 1970s. The matter has even recently found its way into radio drama, BBC’s R4 having broadcast The Great Delay, on 7 February, a psychodrama about the PR company hired by big oil to deny climate change. Whether this will have as big an effect as Mr Bates v The Post Office remains to be seen.
The shift from fossil-fuel to renewable energy will require big changes. Some will have short-term costs (as all investment does), both financial and in terms of convenience. These uncertainties have been exploited by often behind-the-scenes organisations, many of which are right-wing, libertarian think tanks under the Atlas Network. The result has been a waterfall of questionable statements, most written by humans rather than computers. Many have, through complicity or lack of verification, found their way into the press and thus become at least partly sanitised.
The pushback, however, is under way: in October 2023, for instance, Carbon Brief published a rebuttal of 21 misleading myths about electric vehicles. In February 2024, DeSmog published a rebuttal of the claims of Liz Truss’ Popular Conservative faction’s views on net zero and the problem of misinformation about EVs in the press has been spotlighted in the Lords.
There has never been as much easy access to information. I just typed “cat” into Google and, within 0.31 seconds, was rewarded by the news that my search had produced over seven billion results. You only have to wind back thirty or so years for the time when all one could find about about anything was from newspapers, radio, TV or books. All took time to wade through and the results might not have been any more accurate. Are we therefore now better off or not?
Opinions differ. Back in the day, almost everything we read or listened to had been curated by the editorial and journalistic filter. Although often biased, this involved applying some standards. Now, the amount of material being produced has swamped this. Anyone – including me – can write what they wish in order to please whatever market they’re aiming at, the only constraint being time, internet connection and libel laws.
The uncomfortable paradox is that the more information there is for free, the less people want to pay for content: yet, for exactly that reason, the more need there is for exactly the kind of fact-sifting that professional journalists can (or should) provide but whom many media organisations can no longer afford.
That’s not to say that pre-internet was a golden age for journalism. There were some hideous forays into mendacity, of which The Sun’s malicious pursuit of Elton John in 1987 is just one example. None the less, you kind of knew where you were. If you read The Sun there was going to be a lot of cheque-book journalism involved whereas with the broadsheets there probably wasn’t, even though each would have its bias. In the same way, the Spectator and the New Statesman could be relied upon to look generally from the right and from the left. Now we have a kind of Wild West.
This is very much to the liking of the Atlas Network and others who want to push their version of events into the disrupted, cash-poor and click-demanding new media world. Conventional print media still commands a certain amount of respect. However, many press groups, locally and nationally, can no longer live up the high standards they might once have set themselves.
None the less they are still hungry for copy, even though they often now lack the resources to gather it for themselves or to check stories that are provided. Some need the money badly enough to run content which has come from a source that might be uncomfortably close to a shareholder or advertiser.
Given all the competition, it’s remarkable that most of the national papers that were around thirty years ago are still with us. The business models have changed, though not always in ways that are immediately obvious unless you’re prepared to verify the sources for yourself: which could be translated as doing the newspapers’ jobs for them. Most now rely heavily on their online presence. Many have pay walls. Meanwhile, the general decline in print circulation continues.
The picture for local papers is perhaps even more gloomy. This February 2024 article in The Guardian claims that at least 320 local titles closed and advertising revenue fell by 70% between 2009 and 2019. There are, the article suggests, now fewer local papers than at any time since the eighteenth century.
This is leading, as Ian Silvera of SEC Newgate suggested in early 2023, to “news deserts” forming across the country. “When local and regional outlets disappear,” the article continues, “it opens up an opportunity for politically motivated operators to step in.” It gets worse: for “a lack of good information means voters go straight to politicians and social media for their news.” It’s happened in the USA, Silvera adds. Now it’s happening here.
In early 2023, the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report which highlighted a number of evils which were likely to result from this steep decline in local journalism. These included “a decrease in participation in civic life, less scrutiny of local government decisions and increasing levels of polarisation and misinformation.”
One of the measures called for was a central innovation fund: which might look alarmingly like government-sponsored journalism; which might rather defeat the point. However, desperate situations may call for desperate measures. Another suggestion was to “explore ways to make it easier for local news publishers to achieve charitable status and encourage more philanthropic funding of local journalism.”
The above-mentioned Guardian article points to one very practical example of this problem. This referred to serious issues at the government-backed Teesworks scheme in the north east. The story was exposed by Private Eye’s Richard Brooks. He argues that this should have been investigated by a local paper. “But they don’t have the resources,” Brooks ruefully conceded. “That turns into a lack of ability – and will – to scrutinise.”
Following such stories is neither quick nor cheap and there’s no guarantee that anything useable will emerge. Councils, government bodies and large companies are adept at prevarication and secretiveness – these were the issues with Teesworks – and have deep pockets. Any newspaper publisher set on such an enquiry will need to have a fighting fund for legal advice and, if it went that far, for legal representation. The publication also needs to able to deal with pressure from shareholders or advertisers that the story for whatever reason be spiked. Finally, they need journalists who are adept at this kind of work.
It’s likely that, faced with such obstacles, many local papers wouldn’t even try. To do so would be the equivalent of the Belgian cavalry’s brave but hopeless charge against the might of the German gunners in 1914. Of course, there’s no law that says that only printed publications can engage in this kind of work but this is a role that, in these confusing times, traditional papers – the senior service of the media world – might be expected to fill. Unfortunately, most couldn’t be worse placed to take this challenge on.
The Guardian article points out that many local titles are local in name only with many now being owned by large groups that share journalism so there’s often no one who knows a particular area. I know of one not far from here which has the name of a local town on its masthead, this often being the only serious mention of it one will find in the paper. The result, the article suggests is that most local papers are now largely “an amalgamation of copy from news agencies, repurposed content from sister titles, letters and press releases.”
Regarding the last point, a good number of press releases are now finding their way into print with little or no checking of the sometimes inaccurate claims they contain. Where this happens, an active disservice is being done to the readers, and an active service to the originator of the press release: for the story is, by being printed, now presented as a statement of fact.
It is, as I suggested before, akin to money laundering. Better that the “story” not be printed at all, or be clearly stated as being solely the opinion of whoever sent it. This problem will become more common as the election approaches.
So too will the dismally insidious practice, which I mentioned last week, of politicians creating campaign leaflets dressed up as local newspapers. There’s nothing illegal in this as long as there’s an imprint. However, you do have to ask what’s wrong the message if you have to disguise its provenance.
• Back to the beginning
All of which more or less brings us back to where we started. Some of what we read in newspapers is wrong or questionable, either because it was a deliberate piece of bias that for whatever reason was allowed to published or because it was an opportunist press release that some over-worked journalist with space to fill didn’t have time to check. Some of the newspapers aren’t even newspapers at all.
However, looking back on this list, of the three – the misleading spin, the unverified statement or the fake paper – it’s perhaps the last that’s, marginally, the least dishonest. With them, if you study the document at all carefully you’ll soon see it’s not news at all. With the other two it’s harder to be sure. However, any election won with the help of such dodgy tactics is, to my mind, devalued.
The most important aspect is, in each case, the headline under the masthead, all many of us have the time to read. In many cases, these are created by a different person from the one who wrote the article, the headline-writer presumably being chosen for their grasp of eye-catching, three-second attention-grabs rather than any knowledge of the subject. In some cases, I’ve found myself wondering if the headline writer has even read the article. Thus we have another layer of confusion.
In these complex, disruptive and financially constrained times, there seems no obvious solution. Mind you, AI could come to the rescue. If it can read everything published on a subject in 0.31 seconds, it shouldn’t take more than half a minute to write 500 words on it. This would surely satisfy the most demanding of deadlines. If AI has read everything, it should be able to come up with a reasonably dispassionate summary.
Hang on, though – who controls the AI? No one said solving this was going to be easy…
It’s been some time – well, actually not that long – since a serving PM’s actions merited the supreme accolade of its own heading in this column. However, I thought that his time had finally come this week.
First, on 6 February he accepted an on-air bet of £1,000 with Piers Morgan as to whether any migrant flights will take off for Rwanda before the next election. By any standards, this is strange way of ensuring government policy is enforced. It might also be a sufficient reason for his delaying the election. The PM is a rich man but, you know what they say: you can never have too much of the stuff.
Second, on 7 February, he made a rather feeble and ill-timed joke during PMQs about gender identity which Starmer did not fail to turn into a comment about Sunak’s inability to lead; which Sunak then tried to turn back onto Starmer. The parents of murdered trans-gender teenager Brianna Ghey were in the gallery* and her father said afterwards that the PM’s remark was “degrading” and “dehumanising”.
*(Note: it’s since been suggested to me (see comment below) that although Brianna Ghey’s mother was in the House of Commons at the time, she wasn’t in the gallery. The reports include statements that she was “in the gallery”, “about to enter the gallery”, and “in the building”. None seem to have much to say on where her father was. There’s clearly some confusion about this; though not about what Sunak said and this would not have been changed depending on where a listener happened to be at the time. As for the comment below about misreporting, I take this on the chin. It shows how careful we must all be…)
Sunak clearly doesn’t get it. No politician turns a flagship policy into a celebrity bet, no millionaire seeking popular approval casually wagers £1,000 on live TV and no one who is seeking any public office will make whimsical forays into the LGBTQ minefield. Doesn’t he know there’s an election coming up?
• Lord Gnome writes
As I do every fortnight, I turned with interest to the latest (1616) edition of Private Eye.
My first call was to the Rotten Boroughs section to see if any of our local municipalities had been picked out for censure (they hadn’t). There was, however, something about the general problem of local-government funding. I looked at this last week. The main point the Eye’s article added was the fact that the increase Michael Gove has currently offered doesn’t come close to the extra costs that councils face. As I’ve mentioned before, the large majority of council expenditure is on matters such as adult social care and education where they are effectively acting as the government’s local agent (though not one that it treats very well).
I next looked to see what fresh hell from the Post Office scandal had emerged. I was not surprised to find several. One (on p9) was a story about a barrister retained by the PO in 2010 who was involved in a non-disclosure of key information during a trial which resulted in a £74,000 “debt” sending a pregnant postmaster to prison, even though the judge had told the jury that there was no direct evidence of theft.
In the Post Office at that time, a blind faith in Horizon seems to have been a pre-condition for continuous employment, rather like accepting the miracle of the host or the idea of purgatory was in the medieval Catholic church. That’s no way to run a state monopoly these days.
Is there any chance that some of the right people will go to prison for this, or at least be prevented from holding any directorships? The inquiry continues.
• And finally…
• Chinks in the armour of Labour’s seemingly unstoppable march to power at the next election were exposed this week when the BBC reported that the party “is ditching its policy of spending £28bn a year on its green investment plan.” Good news for the Greens and the Lib Dems, I guess.
• If you wanted to buy the gold-mounted false teeth that Sir Winston Churchill wore as he made his “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech then you’re too late: these have been, as Sky News snappily puts it, “snapped up” for £18,000 at a recent auction. The only thing I know about false teeth (my one) is related in this story. I wouldn’t want to own anyone else’s in case I one day tried them on and hoped to speak like their original owner. I’m surprised it wasn’t Boris Johnson who bought them. Perhaps he did: this story doesn’t give any information about the purchaser.
• A French model enthusiast who spent eight years building a model of the Eiffel Tower using nearly 707,000 matches has had his claim for a place in the Guinness World of Record dashed because he used the wrong kind of matches. The completion only allowed that “commercially available” ones be used but the environmentally-minded and (seemingly) astute Richard Plaud contacted manufacturers to get ones without the sulphur tips which he’d have had to saw off (and do what with?). [On 10 February the organisers relented and gave him the award.] The wrong kind of matches, the wrong kind of leaves: Richard, there’s a job waiting for you at GWR – the train company that is, not Guinness World of Records: or perhaps them too…
Across the area
• Two press releases
This week I received two press releases from our MP, Laura Farris. The first concerned “a meeting with Lambourn trainers to discuss the future of the racing sector and gambling reforms.”
Considering where I’ve lived for the last 25 years I concede that I know very little about this world. I’ve only been on a horse once. Most of my knowledge has come from local trainer Pat Murphy, either through talking to him or editing his excellent monthly column in Penny Post. A few months ago Pat made the point that financial risk-checking is a divisive issue: also that problem gambling is often of the on-line variety and that the racing industry, though implicated in this, is not the chief culprit.
All in all, I’m cautiously prepared to accept Laura Farris’ statement that the catastrophic effect gambling can have “is far less a feature of horse racing where the odds change all the time and for many people, it is a big day out once or twice a year.”
She added that “I know that the government is aware of these industry concerns and has been clear that any checks should not over-regulate the gambling sector. But it is vital that the voices of racing are heard as part of this exercise. I will continue to urge the government to proceed with care and seriously consider whether affordability thresholds are appropriate for a sector like racing, which is not part of the problem these proposals are really seeking to address.”
I’ve only bet on a horse once (which won, at ridiculously good odds, after losing a shoe at the first corner). I therefore don’t feel able to comment much further on this. However, I’m aware it’s a big employer round here and many of the people I’ve heard speak passionately about it seem to have more interest in the race, the tactics and the horse than the winnings. I have no problem with her making the case for an important local industry in what is clearly a divisive and nuanced debate.
The second concerned the launch of “the Government’s Pharmacy First approach, helping patients across West Berkshire to receive care more quickly through better use of our community pharmacies.” First problem here is that this opening sentence suggests an initiative solely for our district (and thus one for which she might have been responsible for). It isn’t.
The scheme will enable pharmacies to prescribe medicines for conditions “including sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.”
She mentioned that she had discussed this with Graham Jones – who runs our local pharmacy in Lambourn and also sports a very natty line in waistcoats – although she said nothing about what these discussions involved. There was certainly no mention of the fact that, although pharmacists such as Graham (also a former leader of WBC) are highly skilled, the government’s initiative perhaps says more about the failures of many surgeries (though not, in my experience, Lambourn’s) to provide GP appointments within a reasonable time.
What we therefore learned from this was that (a) the government has introduced a new scheme; and (b) that Laura Farris, although seemingly having had no role in this, is supporting it. I’m not sure this is worth a press release given that the details have been widely publicised. None the less, I’m happy to pass these on again here for those who might have missed them elsewhere.
I’d also like to say how lucky we are here to have two excellent pharmacies in the upper Lambourn Valley – Graham Jones’ and at the GP surgery. Hungerford, although in many ways the town in the district with the best infrastructure and amenities, falls short on this score as the future of the Boots store there has a question mark hanging over it.
• The budget
West Berkshire Council has unveiled its budget for 2024/25, setting out how it will “spend £174m delivering services across the district and £50m on infrastructure and improvement projects. Delivering investment across the district, the £50m capital programme will see more than £10m invested in schools and education, £4m on improving our roads and £1m on active travel schemes.”
As mentioned last week, this has been produced against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty in terms of government funding and also the permissible (and, in my view, dangerous) interpretations of what can be done with capital receipts. All councils are in the same boat on this one. Many are leaking badly.
• The CIL bills
I mentioned above, with regard to the Post Office, that the more one reads about this, the worse the failures seem to have been. I’m afraid that much the same can be said about the incorrect CIL payments charged by West Berkshire Council.
CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) is charged on some developments. Since WBC started using this in 2015 there have been at least four and possibly as many twenty cases where people were charged often large sums as a result of technical paperwork errors regarding developments that should have been exempted. They were then hounded by WBC, sometimes using alarmingly aggressive and intrusive enforcement practices. Some paid and others did not. One had the threat of legal action hanging over him for years, the Council neither withdrawing the charge nor proceeding to a court case (which it doubtless suspected it would lose).
A number of similarities between this local debacle and the national Post Office scandal struck me last month and in the 18 January edition of this column (under “Our own version”) I listed eight of these.
The new administration elected in May 2023 promised to deal with these miscarriages and, to its credit, it has begun to do so. The first thing was to look at all the possible similar cases: I think that the complexity of these, as well as their possible number, were found to be slightly overwhelming by our new rulers. Some have since been sorted, to the extent of unpaid debts being cancelled. Others, including many of the ones where payment had been made, have proved harder to put to bed.
New information I received on 8 February shows there are other unresolved issues of which I was previously unaware. I understand that these are being passed to the appropriate people at WBC.
Any repayments or compensation will be made against the backdrop of WBC’s well-publicised financial woes. However, we are dealing here with a matter that is, as WBC’s Acting Leader Jeff Brooks has long and correctly maintained, a question of WBC doing the right thing by its residents.
More importantly, this money was never really WBC’s in the first place. Repaying it from the pot of CIL reserves is thus akin to making an adjustment for when a bank has wrongly credited money into your account. As CIL funds are ring-fenced, there can be no fear that repayments would impact WBC’s services. As for any compensation, if the matter had been handled correctly in the first place then this wouldn’t be necessary.
One of the beefs that the PO victims have had, and still have, concerns the delay in getting matters sorted. Much the same is in danger of happening here. Not to resolve this quickly now that a resolution has been promised will be to replace one problem with another one. Certainly none of the affected people I’ve spoken to about this are going to go away.
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes the budget, careers, national apprentice week, reducing anti-social behaviour, new hospital plans, consultations, half-term activities, Hungerford’s poetry festival, Shaw House and children’s mental health.
• 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.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire 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 area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area.
• Other news
• West Berkshire Council has announced that “local government officers and Councillors from across the country will be conducting a voluntary peer review from 6 February for four days. A peer review is when eight representatives from councils nationwide spend a week collaborating with a council to evaluate its performance, assess its ambition for residents, and determine if adequate resources are in place to fulfil those objectives.” This last took place in this district in 2019.
• A statement from West Berkshire Council says that “proposals to create a new Berkshire Prosperity Board to help drive forward and deliver future economic success across the county are set to be endorsed by all six Berkshire Councils.”
• West Berkshire Council has announced a “comprehensive support package for residents facing winter challenges.”
• More information on community warm spaces in West Berkshire can be found here.
• The Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found 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.
• The animals of the week are any of these wonderful creatures in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice Award. My particular favourite is the polar bear snuggled up on an iceberg.
• 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
• Here we are again at the Song of the Week. One from the past, yet again: Scritti Politti’s The Sweetest Girl.
• So next it must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Always worth going back to the Fry and Laurie archive: my pick this time is the Annoying Eye Witness.
• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: If you were to drill down from Beijing through the centre of the earth and then out the other side, in what country would you emerge? Last week’s question was: What was Walt Disney afraid of? The answer is mice, including (I imagine) Mickey. (Spoiler alert – he wasn’t a real mouse.)