Archive for January, 2006

Can Plaid swing it for Maggot?

Posted: January 26, 2006 in Uncategorized
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Plaid Cymru is backing Maggot to win this year’s Celebrity Big Brother, according to a press release which has just dropped into my inbox.
The GLC rapper might be a bookies’ outsider but Plaid say his appearance in the house has done a lot to promote Wales.
Plaid AM Jocelyn Davies says: “Maggot has already reeled in a lot of support. I’m hoping he will wriggle his way to victory. Now housemates don’t evict people, voters do. So I’ll be texting for Maggot to win. Maggot needs your support now.
“What Wales wants is to see Maggot win, I’m sure. We knows he has the backing of Plaid and everyone in Gwent and Wales too.
“Whatever happens he has done his Mam proud.”

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Posted: January 24, 2006 in Uncategorized
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Last week, the National Assembly’s culture committee discussed Trinity Mirror’s role as the dominant newspaper group in Wales. It owns Western Mail, North Wales Daily Post, Wales on Sunday, South Wales Echo and the Celtic group of weeklies which serve the valleys.
Regional newspapers make huge profits, but their story is one of redundancies, strike ballots and doom-laden predictions for the future. Here’s an article I wrote before the committee meeting looking at why newspapers are making such bad news. The comments’ section has updates.

WHY THE NEWS IS BAD FOR OUR REGIONAL PRESS

Campaigns have always been a major feature of the regional newspaper.
Helping to keep hospitals, playgrounds, post offices and schools open are key roles for the Press.
Now, though, it is the newspapers’ own places in our communities which are under threat, with analysts predicting a bleak and bitter future for Wales and south-west England.
Despite massive profits, the media companies which dominate the local press are cutting jobs to reduce costs and further increase profit margins.
The changes are not being dictated by reader demand but by shareholder power and boardroom politics, bringing bosses into conflict with unions, politicians and eventually, experts predict, with readers and the communities themselves.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has predicted 2006 will be “a constant fight to defend our members from this onslaught”.
It highlights two newspaper giants, Trinity Mirror (TM) and Northcliffe, as being at the centre of that fight. Both are essential providers of news and information in Wales and the south-west.
TM owns the largest newspaper centre in Wales, Cardiff’s Thomson House, home to Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and the Celtic group of weekly newspapers. It also owns the Daily Post, the morning paper covering north Wales.
Northcliffe, the regional newspapers arm of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), owns the Bristol Evening Post, the Western Daily Press, the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea and the Torquay Herald Express.
The titles continue to make huge profits in spite of competition from the internet.
TM made a profit of £250m last year. Thomson House, alone, had a £55m turnover with a whooping 35.5 per cent profit-margin – putting the Western Mail and Echo Ltd (WME) among the top five profit-makers in Wales.
Northcliffe enjoyed operating profits of £102m in 2005, £1m or 1.5 per cent ahead of the previous year. Advertising grew by two per cent across the group and by 10 per cent in Bristol.
However, despite swelling their coffers, both companies are making cuts and axing jobs.
TM announced it was cutting 44 full-time job equivalents before Christmas. An NUJ campaign backed by senior politicians – including UK Foreign Office minister Kim Howells and Wales Education Minister Jane Davidson – later ensured none of those leaving would be made compulsory redundant and a plan to merge the editor jobs at the Pontypridd Observer and Rhondda Leader was scrapped.
The company narrowly avoided industrial action but the local chapel (NUJ branch) is still balloting its members to “underline the strength of feeling about this issue and also put down a marker for the future”.
“We are not prepared to stand idly by while faceless executives on huge salaries in London destroy jobs in Wales and wreck long established newspapers,” says Martin Shipton, of the chapel committee.
Northcliffe has been put up for sale following extensive cost cutting. In Swansea 67 jobs were lost when the printing press at the Evening Post was closed, while staff at the company’s Bristol centre are involved in a bitter dispute with the company over 36 redundancies.
The company plans to merge business, sport, features, pictures and copy sub-editing departments at (the mainly rural serving) Western Daily Press and (urban) Bristol Evening Post so that the same journalists would produce pages for both papers.
Unions say this will to “tear the heart out of two great papers”.
NUJ rep Derek Brooks says demonstrations outside the Temple Way offices have been attended by more than 100 people. “We have received backing from every section of the local community in our campaign against these senseless and unnecessary cuts,” he adds.
Journalists at Bristol voted in favour of a strike before Christmas but delayed the action as the union attempted to negotiate with the company.
Northcliffe’s Aim Higher project plans to save £30m over the next two years with further job losses expected at Plymouth and at Cornwall and Devon Media, publishers of The Cornishman, The West Briton and The Cornish Guardian.
So why are our regional newspapers in such a mess?
Dr James Thomas, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, believes part of the reason is because the large media groups enjoy monopolies on newspaper advertising in the areas they serve.
“The circulation of regional newspapers has declined over the last 20 years but, on the other hand, they are very profitable,” he states. “It’s a paradox and one which I suspect the people at Trinity and other newspaper groups have woken up to. Now they effectively want to get rid of the journalists and make money from the advertising, almost turning the papers into free-sheets relying on central news sources which don’t cost them very much.
“Their profits come from advertising and providing they can keep the circulation at a level which won’t scare away the advertisers they are happy.”
However, Dr Thomas adds, low morale combined with the industry’s low wages, is bound to have an impact on the reader.
“How journalists are treated affects newspaper content,” he says. “Effectively if the journalists are badly treated, the readers are badly treated. Readers are already being badly served.”
Regional newspapers will be the focus of much attention over coming months.
At Westminster, more than 70 MPs have signed separate early day motions stating their concerns about events at TM and Northcliffe.
In Wales, where two new dailies – one in Welsh, the other in English – are planned to launch this year, National Assembly member Leighton Andrews, a former head of BBC public affairs, has tabled a statement of opinion urging TM to reconsider its staff-cutting policies and urging Competition Commission to review the South Wales market.
This Thursday (JANUARY 19) the Assembly’s culture committee is due to hold an evidence-taking inquiry into the “role of TM in the media market in Wales”. WME managing director Keith Dye and Western Mail editor Alan Edmunds will be among those appearing.
AMs, according to committee member Lisa Francis, have “grave concerns about the future of the Welsh media”.
Political consensus on the issue was illustrated by a statement issued jointly by Plaid, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems about the TM cuts, describing the policy as one of a “company with both eyes on its profit margins rather than maintaining the excellence of its newspapers”.
The statement added: “These cuts will lead to poorer coverage of local politics and community issues, and will seriously undermine local democracy and accountability.”
However, Dr Thomas called for greater intervention to safeguard the Press. “Unless there is some kind of public intervention to pressurise the dominant commercial interest I would sadly conclude that the only way is down,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”

:from The Big Issue Cymru and The Big Issue South West, January 16-22, 2006

Two Thai fishermen have been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Welsh backpacker Katherine Horton.
There are few words to describe the manner of the 21-year-old student’s death. It was simply brutal and despicable.
But that should not stop us from questioning the Thai authorities’ decision to fast-track the men’s trial and sentencing.
Bualoi Posit, 23, and Wichai Somkhaoyai, 24, who are illiterate and had no witnesses presented by their defence, deserved the fairest trial like everyone else. Not just for their sake, but for the sake of justice and for Katherine’s family.
The speed of the process, based on Thai police claims about DNA evidence and the two men’s alleged confession, is bound to cause consternation, particularly when considered alongside the political interference in the case.
Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was so worried about the consequences of the murder on his country’s tourism industry that he stepped in to appeal for the killers to be executed.
Murder cases usually take months to conclude in Thailand, but in this case sentencing took place only 17 days after the attack and only nine days after their arrest.
Katherine’s family have been remarkable throughout their ordeal.
While waiting for the sentencing, her mother Elizabeth told the News of the World: “I’ve never believed in the death penalty, but I believe life means life.
“A life sentence would be appropriate. I don’t agree with taking anyone’s life and Katherine wouldn’t believe in that either. I don’t think that serves any purpose. If they are behind bars until they die it will stop it happening to anyone else.”
It is not difficult for the observer, campaigner or commentator to argue against the death penalty. But to do so from Elizabeth Horton’s position shows courage, dignity and incredible strength of character. Hers are not words it should be easy for anyone to ignore.

Dig out Colin Powell’s turqoise shell-suit

Posted: January 17, 2006 in Uncategorized
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Interesting interview with General Colin Powell on Newsnight last night in which he outlined his thoughts on the Iranian threat to the international community.
It was like his address to the United Nations on Iraq’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction never happened.
When Jeremy Paxman tackled him on that, he said he had been dealing with “facts” – or facts as he knew them at the time.
In other words, facts which were later shown to be wrong, ie, facts which were not facts at all. Not then. Not now.
I have not seen a more deluded interviewee since David Icke went on Wogan in a turquoise shell-suit and announced the world was run by a race of reptilian-humanoids.
Anyway, David, would it be a stranger place if it was?

Governance of Wales

Posted: January 16, 2006 in Uncategorized
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Tomorrow, the National Assembly will debate the Government of Wales Bill.
The bill is the latest chapter in the rather confusing process of Welsh devolution.
Does anyone outside of Cardiff Bay and Westminster understand it? Does anyone want to try? One suspects most people would rather go through the stomach churning experience of watching George Galloway licking Rula Lenska’s fingers.
As stated in an early post (December 9) I’m sure most things are kept deliberately confusing. Politicians don’t want us taking too much of an interest: we might see what they are really up to.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, the bill will ‘enhance’ assembly powers, allowing it to appeal to Westminster for ‘orders in council’, which would allow AMs to frame a new law within specific areas (namely those the assembly has jurisdiction over, such as health and education).
Our First Minister will present a proposal for an order of council to the Secretary of State for agreement. It is not clear if he must go cap in hand.
If the S of S agrees, 90-minute debates and votes will follow in both the Commons and the Lords, and there will be much rejoicing.
Wales will not have full law-making powers but if two-thirds of the assembly, the S of S and both Houses of Parliament back the idea then there will be a referendum.
Peter Hain, the S of S for Wales, our governor with a Belfast desk, is not likely to back that option. He, too, would rather see Galloway imitate a cat.
Oh, and another thing, and this isn’t confusing either, under the bill, assembly candidates are to be prevented from standing in constituencies and simultaneously on the regional PR lists. Some AMs get very animated about that, mainly – if not entirely – because they wouldn’t get elected.
Now. Any questions at the back?
Yes?
-When is it likely to become law?
In the summer. But it won’t affect you until after the 2007 elections.
Another?
-What does Nick Bourne think?
Well, I’m glad you asked that. He wants to highlight divisions between Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain, hates the bill and wants a full-on referendum that we can all happily ignore.
“I accept that there are differences of opinion in all parties about the assembly’s future,” he said today. “The very least Peter Hain and Rhodri Morgan can do is admit the same.
“Welsh Conservatives are committed to the future of the National Assembly and want to make devolution work for everyone in Wales.
“What we cannot support is this attempt to sneak law making powers in through the back door.
“The people of Wales have been given a chance to have their say on major constitutional change in the past. It is only right that they are allowed to express their opinion now.”
Yes? Another question?
-Who is Nick Bourne?
Ah, an elector speaks.
Something serious please to end.
-What does Plaid Cymru think?
I am super pleased you asked that as Plaid’s boss Ieuan Wyn Jones put quill to paper only last week to reply to my Big Issue piece on this subject. He is a man of taste and judgement.
“Your article on the confused future of devolution by Greg Lewis rightly pointed out the bizarre way that the Labour party in Wales has implemented devolution,” he wrote.
“Plaid Cymru – the party of Wales – has consistently argued that Wales needs a parliament to build better public services and a strong economy. New Labour spent £1m on the cross-party Richard Commission, but ignored its recommendations. This commission found that Wales needed a parliament with law-making powers. Instead of listening to this, Peter Hain has decided to create a timid compromise that pleases no-one.
“It is up to the people to decide the future of governance in Wales, not some back room deal between Peter Hain and his London colleagues. Wales needs the chance to decide its future through a referendum on parliamentary powers.”
All clear? Please say it is.

How to read a stranger’s diary (Blogging in Wales)

Posted: January 11, 2006 in Uncategorized
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I’ve developed a taste for something a little unusual.
It’s slightly strange, vaguely self-centred and I do it all alone.
I’ve seen others at it too. Some make it dirty.
No, I ain’t eating Pot Noodles.
It’s writing a web blog – an online diary or digest of news stories, chat, opinion, vitriol, lustful thoughts or plain rubbish.
Blogging is what they call it and it is becoming big news. Often the blog is even the messenger bringing the news itself.
Many of those which have gained notoriety have been either smutty or nutty: blogs of the sexual fantasist, rumour monger or conspiracy theorist. The most famous, Belle de Jour, the anonymously-written, intimate adventures of a London prostitute, spawned a frenzy of media interest and a bestselling book.
But, a little like ‘high-class hooker’ Belle de Jour herself, blogging can be what you want it to be.
Blogs have been developing in the United States since the early 1990s but ‘blogging’ only made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 and neither my US or UK spell-checker recognises blog, blogger, blogging or blogged.
Now though a number of blogs have sprung up in Wales.
Blogcymru.com provides a starting place to find the most regularly-updated efforts, while britblog.com lists more than 100 Welsh sites. Titles include Taffia Don, Never Knowingly Wrong, Smiling Under Buses and Chronicles of a Lonely Genius, a name which speaks for so many bloggers.
I’m distinctly z-list as yet but I’m there at whatiswales.blogspot.com.
Some people just want to talk, others really have something to say.
The blogger at A Life In Wales movingly takes readers through the painful stages of her illness and her battle with a tumour. “As my 50th birthday is just a few days before Christmas I’d hoped to be over and done with hospitals by then but it seems I will be carrying this into 2006,” she wrote recently from her home somewhere in rural west Wales.
Meanwhile, there is a Kerry Katona version of Belle de Jour, Chav Mum, a gaudy red and yellow blog which smells of chip paper.
Experiences include an unsatisfying ‘romantic moment’ behind Cardiff International Arena and a cab ride home with a friend. “(The driver) said, ‘Where you going?’ We said, ‘Home!’ and laughed our heads off. He said, ‘Which caravan park’s that then?’ Cheeky bugger. Ashanti p***** on his seat in revenge.”
Politicians are in on the act. Peter Black, David Davies and Leighton Andrews are dedicated bloggers, while Brynle Williams hasn’t had anything to say since last year’s message on January 15, 2005.
The blog’s sense of immediacy has seen some newspapers, particularly The Guardian, grasping at them hungrily. It has developed not only its own blogs but is referencing others.
Mainstream news comes increasingly from fewer sources. Wire copy means that a single interpretation of a story is likely to be read by people around world: the same words run by daily newspapers from Swansea to Scunthorpe, and often to Sydney and Singapore too.
In addition, recent research has shown that both Americans and Europeans trust the opinions of “average people” more than most authorities.
It was therefore of little surprise that the invasion of Iraq proved a boon to bloggers.
Salam Pax became world famous with his Baghdad diary, while hundreds of American blogs launched on both sides of the debate – some started by members of the military.
Bristol law student Jo Wilding worked hard to bring truth from the Fallujah (and had her work celebrated by John Pilger). Youth Aid Iraq-organisers Kevin and Helen Williams, of Newport, South Wales, did the same from Baghdad.
In many ways, modern life has made people feel weaker and further from power. No matter how many march against a war, it goes ahead; while, in the office, anonymous, fat-cat shareholder greed outweighs the hard-work, commitment and loyalty of any employee.
So why not check out the blogs? They are not all intelligent, trustworthy or worth reading.
But they give voice to all sorts of people. Support your local blogger.

(as published in The Big Issue Cymru, New Year edition)

Country churchyard

Posted: January 3, 2006 in Uncategorized
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I recently travelled west for a night of drink with a friend.
When I go home I always turn off for Laugharne to visit my nan and granddad’s grave. This time I also chose to go to Meidrim, where my granddad was born. I had never been to the church there even though it was where his mother was buried.
I had no idea where the grave was but I could hear an organ playing inside. I felt conspicuous and when I tried the church door I pushed with the timidity of someone who feared it opening. Although I later found it was unlocked, it did not budge.
A man approached and I explained I was looking for help to find the grave of Charlotte Davies.
“My brother will know,” he said.
Within a few moments another man was scurrying through the lichgate. He was very short and carried a black and brown dog under his arm.
He turned out to be the gravedigger and he had only just finished a grave. A funeral was due to start.
He took me straight to the spot where my great-grandmother was buried. It was marked by a tall but plain stone with the names of several family members.
The gravedigger said he remembered Charlotte, although he did not look old enough to have been more than a very small child when she died in 1939. She had run the village pub and a general store. He had bought sweets from her, he said.
There was a vicious crack in the grave stone which I suppose should be fixed or one day part of the stone will collapse.
For various reasons, I know little about this section of my family and so it was a strange feeling standing there.
I felt as if the gravedigger was introducing me to her, as if Charlotte and I were meeting.
Alone, I took a moment to look around. The hills which closely surround Meidrim were covered in a hard white frost.
The village I suspect has changed little since Charlotte’s days. Her pub is still there. The iron shack which was her shop is still there.
And at the church she would have attended is her gravestone. A little weather-beaten now, but something of her all the same.