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July 1 - 7, 2009
Afunny thing happened on the way to the reform of Britain’s financial sector. Several funny things, in fact. While policy-makers were deciding how to limit bankers’ bonuses, Goldman Sachs announced record payouts to partners and staff. While the Treasury was worrying about the viability of the nation’s banks, those banks began recording substantial profits, raising capital, and planning to pay back the bail-out money that had saved them from ruin only a short while ago.
Markets just seem to move faster than ministers – and often in a different direction.
Even funnier is the dispute over just how to reform and restructure the financial sector. Last week, the Prime Minister returned from an EU summit, having denied the Europeans the right to determine which financial institutions he, or his successors, would have to bail out in the future.
Or so he says, and may even believe. In fact, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy was closer to the truth when he proclaimed that “AngloSaxon” capitalism had been altered by the establishment of new pan-European regulatory bodies. Prepare yourself for the European Banking Authority; the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority; the European Securities and Markets Authority; the European Systemic Risks Councils.
These new agencies will not only provide jobs for the boys: they have binding powers to investigate and oversee cross-border banking, insurance, pensions and securities, and can issue orders to resolve disputes between member states.
Sarkozy has only scorn for Gordon Brown’s claim that these bodies have very limited power. “We have agreed a European system of supervision with binding powers. My conviction is that its scope will increase.”
History is on the French president’s side – efforts to hold EU institutions to their original remits have uniformly failed.
Perhaps the funniest thing
of all, however, is the demolition of the stillChancellor by the Governor of the Bank of England.
Alistair Darling sees the problem primarily as one involving the creation of a new organisation chart – this chore gets moved over to the FSA, that chore deposited somewhere else. But the structure of the financial services sector is to remain virtually unchanged. The theory is that if he can get the regulatory organisation right, armies of regulators will, by sheer weight of numbers and regulatory edict, defeat the fleet-of-foot entrepreneurs and innovators who populate the Square Mile.
Mervyn King knows better. If you allow plain vanilla banks that take deposits and lend money to continue to participate in riskier investment banking, backed by the knowledge that if things go pear-shaped a government bail-out will be available, there is virtually no limit to the risks bankers will take. Heads they get the
profits, tails the taxpayers pay for the losses.
King hasn’t quite brought himself to mention GlassSteagall, the US statute that separated commercial from investment banking before it was repealed, but that is where he is heading.
King also exploited a problem that confronts Darling, in the process taking revenge on the Prime Minister who left the Governor swinging in the wind while dithering over his reappointment.
Darling knows that spending at current levels will bring inflation, a falling pound, rising interest rates, the loss of Britain’s AAA bond rating, and a return visit from the IMF. But his boss refuses to countenance “Tory cuts”, and vows to continue increasing the rate of “investment” – Brownspeak for “spending”. King made it clear that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are so at odds that only the Governor of the Bank of England can put things right.
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Letters to the Editor
Digital doldrums SIR – In its apparently rushed statement on digital broadcasting, the Government appeared unaware of the problems that could be in store for the majority of radio listeners.
Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) services can – but often don’t – provide excellent quality reproduction, depending on the bandwidth used by the broadcaster. BBC Radio 3 and 4 can be superb when used with a properly set up antenna system. But poor antennae and less than satisfactory DAB transmission levels can cause real problems for the listener.
With FM, the listener rarely runs into insurmountable reception problems, even though the majority is using portable receivers with inadequate telescopic antennae. Occasionally, only mono reception is possible, but the programme can still be heard and, if the receiver is moved (perhaps to a window), reception can be perfectly adequate.
However, with digital, there is a delay of several seconds in decoding the signal. So the listener can find it extremely difficult to tune into a programme because the decoding delay could lead them to believe an otherwise suitable position for the set wasn’t suitable.
Basic AM radio may not be hi-tech, but it is reliable and is essential in cases of national emergency, due to its simplicity and the availability of easyto-use receivers. FM radio is also well suited to domestic use. On the other hand, DAB radio is not suited, in many cases, for use with portable radios, which the vast majority of listeners use. Dr Rob Mannion Editor, Practical Wireless Broadstone, Dorset
SIR – In deciding to switch off analogue radio, has the Government considered the number of radios that will then be useless?
We have 11: two radios, two alarmradios, two CD-player radios, one CD-player alarm radio, two tape-player radios, one tape and CD-player radio,
Fireside radio: George VI and Queen Elizabeth tuning in at Buckingham Palace, 1942
and one car radio. These will become useless.
We are encouraged to throw less away. Nationwide, there are likely to be two or three hundred million radios scrapped. How big a hole for landfill will be required when millions of the nation’s radios are scrapped? And how much extra landfill tax will have to be paid for the privilege ofthrowing them away? Rev Brian M Cave Nailsea, Somerset
MPs have learned nothing SIR – It is clear that our MPs have learnt nothing from the exposure of their abuses of the expenses system, as the election of John Bercow as the new Speaker has shown.
MPs had an opportunity to draw a line under the affair. Instead, they have chosen a man who wants to give MPs another huge pay rise, to £100,000 a year. Kevin Davidson-Hall London W1
SIR – I despair. In the election of Mr Bercow, there were MPs who still did not think of the people of this country.
They thought of scoring points against each other and settling old scores. Instead of voting for someone who could be welcomed wholeheartedly and trusted by the whole House, we have yet more controversy. Marilyn Imi Esher, Surrey
SIR – Talks of a Tory move to oust the new Speaker, should they win at the next election, are worrying.
The claim is that he has moved too far to the Left. Surely the Speaker has a politically neutral role and should, therefore, be afforded the respect of the whole House. Duncan Rayner Sunningdale, Berkshire
Redaction speaks louder SIR – Hands up all those who had never heard of redaction before the controversy about the publication of
Even at 50, Michael Jackson’s glory days were far behind him. He hadn’t made a record in eight years, and a really good one in 20. His life had become a weird, overwrought soap opera, and his health (physical and mental) was the subject of much speculation.
Yet anyone who grew up in the Eighties is perhaps wedded to a purer version of the singer: the one that conjured up a perfect storm of pop forces to create an album that established him as one of the all-time greats. In November 1982, Jackson released Thriller, a pop masterpiece that dominated the decade, gradually building a head of steam to become the bestselling album of all time. Thriller
was a record that crystalised so many diverse strands of pop that its range, sonic imagination and daring raised the benchmark for everybody, in a way not seen since the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper in 1967.
Drawing on Jackson’s facility for rhythm and melody, Thriller boldly blended the synthetic plasticity of white synth-pop, the swagger of heavy rock, and the syncopated propulsion of black rhythm and blues, at each point throwing musical curves with lush orchestrations, gospel choirs, flourishes of world music rhythms and the dazzling harmonic chordal structure of jazz.
Crucially, Jackson added a bold visual layer to the pop process with his instinctive command of the new medium of video.
Thriller was the album that could not be stopped. Over three years, seven of its nine tracks were released as singles, selling more than 20 million. Making
Michael Jackson’s Thriller went on to become the first million-selling music video. And Jackson himself went strutting through it all with a physical assuredness and sharp, finger-on-the
pulse wit almost completely at odds with his image of shyness and
neurosis. Before all the chaos and controversy, Thriller was his moment of pure pop perfection.
Of course, Jackson didn’t make Thriller on his own. Key collaborators included British keyboard player and songwriter Rod Temperton (who contributed three songs, including the title track) and legendary producer Quincy Jones. If there was a guiding principle, it was simply, according to Jackson, to create an album where “every song was a killer”.
Four of those songs were written by Jackson himself, and, apart from the rather saccharine duet with Paul McCartney, The Girl is Mine, they establish a mood of psychological telegraph.co.uk/expat
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July 1 - 7, 2009
MPs’ expenses. It is defined as “the act of editing or preparing for publication”; more recently it has come to mean “the removal of sensitive information”.
Having seen what has now been published, would the word censorship not be more appropriate? A ACooper Clitheroe, Lancashire
SIR – The House of Commons has inadvertently done us all a service by publishing the redacted expenses. Since we have the full details from The Daily Telegraph, we now know, thanks to the Commons authorities, exactly what it was they didn’t think we needed to know. JohnBates Ipswich, Suffolk
SIR – A black whitewash – now that’s novel. IanHymes Dodleston, Cheshire
Hiding nuclear weapons SIR – I fear that the gallant Wing Commander I.R. Tyrrell is talking through his parachute in saying that the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft should carry air-launched nuclear weapons.
It is not the security of the weapon storage site that is the problem. The challenge is to keep the weapon platform’s position a secret. Nothing on the land, or in the air, is undetectable these days. An aircraft attempting to get close enough to release its weapon would be blown out of the sky before it left British air space.
Only a deep, silent submarine can provide absolute concealment, enabling the weapon to be airborne before the launch vehicle is detected. Therein lies the power of a deterrent.
I suspect that what Wg Cdr Tyrrell is really trying to do is to find a role for the Typhoon aircraft, itself already a relic of past warfare planning. CdrDerekBeesleyRN Llandudno, Conwy
SIR – “‘I will lead Labour to victory’ says Brown” (report, June 22). I am
BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
An old English country custom: Telling The Bees, by Charles Hemy (1841-1917)
now getting seriously worried. This is the man with his finger on Britain’s nuclear button. RichardMHemer Stafford
SIR – Gordon Brown says: “I could walk away from this tomorrow.” Why wait? Today will be just fine. JohnScott Nuneaton, Warwickshire
SIR – I don’t want Mr Brown to “walk away” from Downing Street. I’ll pay for the taxi. BrianChristley Abergele, Conwy
Advertising won’t save the bee for Britain SIR – Last week, the Government responded to the “Save the Bee” petition. The petition pointed out that the British Bee Keepers’ Association estimated that Britain lost between 25 and 30 per cent of its bee colonies in 2007. The BBC reported a much lower drop, of 10 to 15 per cent in the past
two years, and this figure was admitted by ministers.
The Government is now allocating an extra £1.1million this year, and again next year, to the 10-year plan called Healthy Bees, which “addresses the importance of increasing the numbers of beekeepers who are known to the National Bee Unit”. Does this mean that the money will be spent on encouraging beekeepers to register with the unit? A further £500,000 will be spent on “a major programme, which will consider the problems facing pollinators”. This is apparently over five years – so £100,000 a year.
As the British Bee Keepers’ Association predicted 18 months ago that honeybees could “disappear from Britain by 2018, causing calamitous economic and environmental problems”, this extra funding looks like too little, too late.
Could MPs who claimed for gardening expenses (manure, moats, moles, duck islands) chip in an equal amount, to help safeguard our fastdwindling biodiversity? JohnHunt Isleworth, Middlesex
edginess, underpinning Jackson’s bright pop fantasia with dark themes. Billie Jean is infused with sexual fear, Wanna Be Starting Something paranoid and confrontational, Beat It ripe with macho violence. Thriller is not a soft and cuddly album; it is deeply strange and affecting, ripe and emotionally explosive.
It needed a confluence of factors to turn Thriller into a global sensation. “What happened was lightning striking on every level at the same time,” according to Jones. “Number one was a performer who had been honing his craft and was really ready as a dancer, singer and songwriter. And also the crest of video and Michael rode each other in.”
The video for Billie Jean electrified the world and took the album (already out for three months) to the top of the charts. Beat It provided another massive hit. Then, in the middle of May 1983, Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary with an American TV special, on which Jackson debuted his ‘‘moonwalk’’ dance, sending Thriller back to the top.
At the end of that year, when it had sold more than 15 million copies, the
14-minute John Landis-directed Thriller horror video was released and the album went to the top of the charts for the third time.
As Jackson scooped up all the world’s major music awards, Thriller continued to sell in unprecedented quantities. The record industry, still recovering from the ravages of punk, was given a huge bolt of confidence, heralding an era of flamboyant mainstream pop records (from Wham!, Culture Club, Madonna, Prince and a host of others), stadium-level ambitions and sales driven by unabashed commercial exploitation. The ethos of the Eighties was “bigger is better”, and Jackson was its poster boy.
With his visual and musical talents, Jackson was the right man at the right time. The plastic surgery had just begun to reshape his African-American
features (he then looked otherwordly rather than alien) and his physical appeal was underlined by almost supernatural grace. With trousers cut high, the elasticity of his ankle
movements was the central focus of his dancing, whether moonwalking
or perching static for long seconds on tip toe, body bent at improbable angles. Jackson did not make those fluidly unreal motions look easy: he made them look impossible. And, through all the magic, the showbiz, the razzmatazz with which he comported himself, there was always that voice to ground it in something real: ethereal, fluid, percussive, soulful, ecstatic, heartbreaking, inspirational, full of rich, raw emotion. The voice is the magical ingredient at the centre of Thriller: its beating, human heart. The singer himself may no longer be with us, but, in the grooves of his pop masterpiece, Jackson lives on.
There was a plaque at my old school to the memory of boys who had died in an appalling, though largely forgotten, disaster. It took place 80 years ago next month at an annual fair held in aid of the hospital in Gillingham, Kent.
As had been usual for years, the fete was to end with a demonstration by the fire brigade. A staged wedding reception, featuring a bride and groom and their guests, all played by firemen, naval cadets and sea scouts, was taking place in the newlywed’s new “home” – a 40ft-tall, three-storey wood and canvas structure.
Once the “party” was under way, flares were lit in the house to simulate fire, and the firemen would rescue the guests. It was always very popular. But this time, it went tragically wrong. The flares ignited a real fire and within minutes the house was a conflagration. Fifteen people died, including nine boys aged between 10 and 14.
I was reminded of this tragedy by the latest hoo-ha over health and safety laws. A survey carried out by Teachers TV uncovered a litany of bizarre restrictions and precautions in schools across the country. They included a requirement for children to wear goggles and protective clothing in order to use Blu-Tack, a five-page briefing for teachers on how to grapple with a Pritt Stick, and a PE lesson cancelled because the grass was wet.
As the disaster in 1929 testifies, there is a clear need for proper precautions to mitigate the risk of activities to participants. The issue today is how far this should go – and whether it has gone too far. When I was at school, we were not even issued with goggles while experimenting in the chemistry laboratory; my children, however, did wear them, and I would have been appalled if one had lost an eye because such a basic safety measure had been overlooked.
On the other hand, we went on geography field trips that involved scrambling up rocks and jumping into waterfall plunge pools. All of this would today either be banned
or take place with ropes, helmets, wetsuits and other gear, making such pursuits prohibitively expensive.
After the latest survey by teachers, Judith Hackitt, the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive, said: “Hardly a week goes by without another health and safety myth appearing. Health and safety is blamed for a lot of things not going ahead, but they’re often about something else – high costs, an event that requires a lot of organising or fear of getting sued.”
But these are not health and safety myths. They are responses to a risk-averse culture that has become ingrained in our society. There was a time, not that long ago, when a child falling over and getting hurt in the playground would have been accepted by everyone as an accident. Yet now there is a constant search for someone to blame. Many schools no longer stage “traditional” sports days because children fall over and can get hurt.
Teachers are accused of being overly cautious; yet they are often responding to parental mollycoddling that does not allow children to cross the road unaided and insists they are driven to a school that is within walking distance because of some exaggerated fear of abduction or assault. Yet youngsters today appear far from being risk averse and are attracted to adventures that many of their parents would blanch at, such as white-water rafting, bungee jumping or skydiving.
Because terrible things can happen does not mean all risk should be eradicated. To hear stories of children being denied enjoyable and educational activities because there is always the faintest chance of something going wrong is depressing. We can teach children to be vigilant and sensible without being frightened of their own shadows. But if parents expect teachers to exercise common sense, then they must play their part by not looking for a scapegoat when things go awry.