Talk about Spinning

Heroic spin by Labour’s Alastair Campbell in his blog this morning, arguing that there’s “fantastic stuff” in the Observer. He chose to focus only on a YouGov poll at the bottom of the splash story on Gordon Brown (see earlier blog post today) showing the gap narrowing between the Tories and Labour and to combine that with highlighting the only extract from Andrew Rawnsley’s torrid book that puts the Prime Minister in a good light.

He left unanswered the allegations of the Prime Minister’s temper tantrums and anger problems, the dysfunctionality of 10 Downing Street under Brown and Brown’s underestimation of the looming financial crisis. Oh, and no response to allegations about Chancellor Darling trying to stop Brown being “reckless” with the public finances.

Presumably Campbell had no time to respond properly — he was rushing off to watch his team Burnley play Aston Villa. They lost heavily……

The Brown Character Issue

The UK Observer has gone big today on Andrew Rawnsley’s book End of the Party with front-page and inside coverage. But the lead strikes me as a tad misplaced. Both the Observer and the author have focused on the British premier’s tantrums and anger management problems, but the more damaging material surely is buried: that Brown and Downing Street underestimated how bad the economic crisis would be, are overwhelmed and highly dysfunctional, delay decisions and can’t even keep up with correspondence.

Labour Party aides are pushing out the line that they have never seen the Prime Minister lose his temper. Home Secretary Alan Johnson on the BBC’s Politics Show made much of this, saying he found him to be soft-spoken. The other line of defence has been to argue snidely that they understand the author has a book to sell. Others argue that indeed Brown is an emotional and passionate man, committed to principle and country.

Brown wouldn’t be the first national leader to have temper issues. Bill Clinton could throw his weight around with subordinates and staff — one Washington DC news channel once famously caught the then U.S. President screaming at a cowering aide during a visit to a local school. Surely, British voters won’t be shocked to learn that the British Premier can’t keep hold of his temper — anyway that is old news.

Far more telling in the book is the detail Rawnsley throws up on Brown’s indecisiveness and on the overall inability of Downing Street to push through the work in efficient fashion.

Obviously it is disturbing that the head of the UK civil service, according to Rawnsley, had to reprimand Brown for his abusive behaviour towards staff at all levels, from typists and phone operators to senior aides. And the temper issue, as Rawnsley points out, raises relevant character questions about how Brown handles crisis.

But it is the examples of the dysfunctional nature of Brown’s Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s obliviousness to the depth and extent of the looming economic crisis that strikes me as more worrying — and far more damaging for the Labour Party as the election looms.

On the former point, Rawnsley has this to say in an extract buried inside the Observer’s coverage: “Even the basic housekeeping wasn’t being done. Letters…went unanswered.” Phones would also not be picked up. “There were cases of foreign embassies not being told whether a visiting leader was going to be granted a meeting with the Prime Minister and dates being muddled up…Routine decisions took months to process. Cabinet ministers and their senior officials began to speak with extraordinary vehemence about what one called ‘the sheer dysfunctionality ‘ of Number 10. On the account of one civil servant: ‘However chaotic it looked from the outside, it was a billion times worse inside.’”

Of course, one of Brown’s supposed strengths has been his understanding of economics. But according to End of the Party, it was Chancellor Alistair Darling who had a better grasp of the approaching financial catastrophe. According to Rawnsley, after Darling had issued a warning in a media interview in 2008 that the economic crisis would be the worst for 60 years, Brown flew into a rage and told the Chancellor that the financial turmoil “will be over in six months”.

Readers Digest — Doing the Dirty?

Sounds like Readers Digest is doing the dirty to avoid pension liabilities in the UK. To his credit, Murdoch has been putting more money into News Corp pension funds to help soften the shortfall and so have other major international media players, including Sweden’s Bonnier Group. Is the World’s biggest selling magazine with 50 editions using the US bankruptcy courts to escape pension liabilities?

BBC Man in Mercy Killing

The BBC’s Ray Gosling has admitted in an interview that he smothered a former lover who was suffering from AIDS and was dying. Gosling has refused to cooperate with police and is unwilling to name the man or where and when the smothering took place.

No doubt, opponents of assisted suicide will jump on the case — and, despite being a committed advocate of the assisted laws in the UK being changed, I, too, am disturbed by Gosling’s action and his behaviour now.

But it needs to be stressed: assisted suicide is not the same thing as mercy killing. Gosling has not indicated whether his former lover made clear his wish to die and the method of death.

Any intelligent advocate of legalising assisted suicide understands a couple of major points: there must be transparency and clear evidence that the wishes of the dying or incurably sick are being carried out and that they, if possible, are the ones who “pull the trigger.” And when, or if, there is an investigation there must be evidence that there has been no trickery or cajoling. Obviously, if there is a change in the law there should be checks and balances and procedure — in the absence of a change of law, it is, surely, the responsibility of anyone involved in an assisted suicide to ensure a “procedure” involving others (family and friends) is followed and that they are prepared to be questioned by authorities.

I suspect, Gosling may have put back the assisted suicide cause by his high-handed and rather casual attitude since announcing his involvement in a mercy killing.

Britain Heading for a Double-Dip Recession

According to the splash in The Times today, both of Britain’s main parties — Labour and the Conservatives — are planning after the spring general election to raise sales tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent, part of the desperate effort to start putting the country’s books in order.  And what will be the effect? Almost certainly to put the country into a double-dip recession.

Both parties are also talking about hiking income tax. January has seen a retail collapse — Britons just are not buying. And with a jump in VAT, retailers will have an even more torrid time. They are facing already in the spring a jump in business rates.

As I blogged back in September, both of the UK’s main parties seem oblivious to one of the key lessons of the Great Depression: federal and state tax hikes and currency devaluation prolonged the depression and pushed the US back into a second slump in 1937.

Murdoch Digital Floundering

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have much to show for his digital efforts. He is still threatening pay-walls and seems to have little feel for a New Media that seriously threatens his bottom line. In the UK, the Telegraph Media Group and the Guardian newspaper continue to enjoy better traffic and more critical praise than The Times Online. The Telegraph is branching out with its Create department searching for business development ideas and exploiting the platform for advertorial purposes.

And on broader fronts there are setbacks for Murdoch. The latest came yesterday with the resignation of Silicon Valley veteran Owen Van Natta as CEO of MySpace, the tumbling social networking site Murdoch bought for nearly $600 million five years ago.

Van Natta, a former Facebook executive, was brought in just last year with the task of reviving a site that has seen a significant fall-off in membership and revenue. Murdoch has decided to distance the site from its origins and turn it into a portal for movie content and games. Reports are that Van Natta clashed with other Murdoch executives.

i-Pad Not Exciting Brits

Despite all the hoopla in San Francisco last week with Steve Jobs’ unveiling of Apple’s tablet, a survey published in the Daily Telegraph tomorrow shows the British public is not impressed and a majority have no intention to buy. The biggest hurdle seems to be the cost for having a 3G version — respondents didn’t see the need to have a tablet they can walk around with and use out of range of an internet wireless connection or Hotspot.

The resistance also seems to be prompted by i-Pad’s middle position — neither a proper computer with a seriously functioning keyboard nor a convenient phone. As I blogged before — Apple should have gone for a netbook.

British Back Change In Assisted Suicide Law: Don’t Prosecute

The Daily Telegraph splashed this morning on a very significant poll conducted by YouGov. More than 80 percent of those polled agreed that relatives of terminally ill people, who had made it clear they wanted to die, should not be prosecuted for assisting in their deaths.

Three quarters of those polled said the law should be amended to allow assisted suicide.

The Telegraph also reports on the upcoming lecture by  author Sir Terry Pratchett, an Alzheimer sufferer, who will call for assisted suicide “tribunals” that would give the terminally ill permission to end their lives. In this week’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, he will offer himself as a test case for just such a tribunal.

One hopes that Sir Terry will also take into account the plight of those who are desperately and incurably sick.