Have you ever watched the BBC Breakfast News before work? Do not bother – you are more likely to see a story about Madonna than hard news.

Some would argue that this is what we need to start the day: soft pap and a sunrise-glow set to prepare us for the harsh realities of the world, with the young, pleasing looks of Susanna Reid and the avuncular charm of Bill Turnbull.

Ratings

Certainly, the BBC have to compete with ITV’s Good Morning Television and its magazine format for ratings, so it is understandable if producers want to attract new viewers.

And the internet is now supposedly an immediate source of daily news, encroaching onto all old-media territory, and for some, replaces the morning news staple with a slimmed-down alternative (even though we should all be dubious about any outlet’s claims to having the definitive news angle).

Broadband has made internet access easy

But what about the old audience? Surely as licence-payers, we are entitled to a range of programming which satisfies a need, even one that other channels are not catering for.

Surely, the BBC‘s daily evening programme, The One Show, hosted by Adrian Chiles, fills the magazine show niche, though at a different time.

Unfortunately, Breakfast News is filled with novelists and directors plugging their work, even though the BBC is not supposed to directly endorse products, and with factoids ranging from skateboarding chipmunks to scientists discovering the perfect sandwich.

Unpalatable at any time of day

There is certainly room for lightweight, press release-driven news stories in our televisual breakfast, but not to this extent. We need only look to BBC‘s general scheduling to see that they sometimes overdo a format – such as reality shows about auctions, gardening or interior design – all of which are cheap to make, because there is no need to employ actors.

There is a balance to be struck, and there comes a point when empty, trivia and celebrity-driven news diminishes journalism: on September 17 2007, the day after the private mercenaries from Blackwater had gunned-down innocent Iraqis in Baghdad, the event was ignored by the BBC, who instead ran the gamete of human interest stories.

No uglies, please!

As an aside, we should also consider the implications for aspiring young reporters: what chance do women have when they have to compete with attractive Natasha Kaplinsky clones, or men with charming middle-agers like Turnbull?

Good-looking Blue Peter presenters

You may also have noticed that this sexist older-man younger-woman formula has been reproduced across many formats, such as ITV’s Des and Mel, or The One Show, and that even the children’s show Blue Peter seems to have a no-uglies employment policy.

You are all going to look harder for your news I am afraid. Where exactly, I am not sure.

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A new national student award for environmentally friendly design was launched this month. Environmental student campaign organisation People and Planet and green events organiser UK AWARE are behind the project. 

However, despite such noble schemes, the mainstream ecological movement is gradually being co-opted by people motivated by cold economics.  As our government ignores the environmental damage our industries wreak, and shifts the onus of climate-change prevention to private households, some of the most unethical businesses are investing in our renewable energy programmes.

New Green Students

The Eco-Innovation Award is supposed to nurture new design and engineering talent in post-GCSE students. Entrants will be judged by industry bigwigs such as Charlie Browne, the sustainability coordinator for IKEA, and Martin Carter, from the Centre for Sustainable Design. Events co-ordinator for UK AWARE, Jodie Carnegie Fowler, was excited: “We hope to see anything that is inventive, from redesigns of a system such as refuse, to environmental protection itself.

“The event will be a good opportunity for networking and a platform for the students to talk to future employers. All sorts of ideas can be turned into things that change the way we live, and sometimes they just start out as ideas.” 

More awareness is indeed needed. Research by the government’s department for Environment food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) shows that most Britons are still confused about the specific causes of climate change and what they can do about it.  

University of Central Lancashire Forensic psychology student, Kirsty Williams, 21, said: “Normal people are not taught enough about how to be environmentally friendly.

“Unless universities have programmes, they’re not going to know. In a big house like mine, you see how much goes to waste.” 

However, like many things in the post-Blair era, the industry awaiting these bright young things is a vivid and exciting brand, but not necessarily what it seems. 

Government Green Spin

In a May 2006 speech, Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health, Jeff Rooker, treats the environment as a marketable commodity. 

Speaking at the UK Eco-innovation and Environmental Technologies event, he asked for a “focus on high growth companies employing leading edge sustainable technology,” and said: “There is a big role for the private sector and the Government does not always know best.” 

The focus on wealth, growth and profit is all too familiar. He said: “Large corporate investment is essential. BP plan to invest £5bn in renewable energy technologies over the next decade.

“The environmental sector is emerging as a key business sector for wealth creation, as well as delivering a cleaner and more sustainable world.”  

Energy companies need to be sustainable and profitable, but Rooker’s onus on growth and wealth creation is repellant, and his words are deceptive.

Inevitably, DEFRA will defer to powerful organisations such as British Petroleum (BP), but it is clear that ecological conservation is not their first concern. 

BP’s terrible environmental Record

 Aside from a catalogue of human rights abuses, swathes of the Canadian Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were decimated by their activities.

BP expected to make £3.5 billion between 2005 and 2015 from renewable energy, and are routinely accused by environmental groups of using this as a “greenwash” for their heavy-polluting activities. 

Same old story

But why would we expect better? In December 2006, government figures predicted aeroplane carbon emissions would rise by between 22 and 36 million tonnes by 2030 because of an increase in no-frills flights.

This is despite the government’s promises to double passenger duty and cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.  

Under European law, the government can also fund the start-up costs for airports, and plane companies, who buy “carbon credits” from other companies rather than cut their own emissions.  

The number of passengers travelling on internal flights will inevitably increase given the spiralling costs of public transport and vehicle-running. 

Paper Waste

If this was not enough, a study by Lexmark in May 2006 showed that British businesses were the worst paper wasters in Europe. At the same time, a high profile government television campaign encourages ordinary people to use recycling banks.

Recyvling bins

Dr Rob Marchant, senior lecturer in the Environment Department at the University of York, said:  “Many companies have questionable records, but seeing them invest money is always a positive thing. It’s better that they should be on our side than against. 

“The government are certainly not doing enough on air travel, and large plane companies have a lot of influence in dictating policy. It’s going to take a long time as people like to travel.” 

Dr Marchant added, however, that new European legislation on waste, will force council to address paper wastage on a company-by-company basis. 

But as long as environmentalism is run by big business, the student eco-innovators will be forced to work for those who all too often use their power and wealth to prevent progress.


It is a truism in journalism that reporters should stick to the facts, free from comment. The trouble is, so called “facts” are not always that clear-cut, and it sometimes requires a little comment and debate  to find out what they are. This is where John Pilger comes in, white suit, perma-tan and all.

The Ofcom Code demands that television news is impartial and objective, presumably so the public are not misled by erroneous speculation or innacuracies, or any kind of bias. Sounds fair…

But this is where “balance” comes in and this is a problem.

Our litigious outlook means that all parties in a story need to be seen to be represented fairly, especially so a reporter can avoid or defend against a defamation suit.

The appearance of fairness, in the eyes of the law and the media, is certainly not the same as “truth” or objectivity, for a number of reasons.

Two sides – too simple

Firstly, stories are often split between two sides, even if this does not accurately represent the complicated facts, as adversarialism tells and sells. It is also easiest to represent a “side” and thereby avoid the courts by going to an official source and asking for comment.

Because of this, offiicial comment is liable to acquire a special status and an almost mandatory place in stories about governments or large organisations. Unfortunately, such comment is often designed to deceive or obfuscate, and if the journalist is not careful, skew an article in favour of invidious arguments.

Pilger proved this in his 2004 film Stealing a Nation, when the Undersecretary of State for the Foreign Office lied to him that the British government had not overruled a High Court order to allow Chagossians to return to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia after being forcibly and illegally evacuated in the 1960s.

He also showed how recalcitrant our government could be when asked to reveal information priveleged under the Freedom of Inormation Act, by instead invoking the Data Protection Act frequently.

John Pilger

However, if a journalist is allowed to make comment on the reliability of a source or a document, the audience can better decide for themselves whether that evidence is reliable, based upon that detailed infomation. But this is expressly disallowed by Ofcom for television news stories, even though Pilger’s documentary would have been weaker and less “objective” for it.

It seems absurd that the opinions of those in power should deserve so much coverage even when their words are consistently and reliably untrustworthy.

Fallacy of mutual equivalence

John Pilger refers to this as the fallacy of mutual equivalence: that just because two opposing sides have expressed a view, they are both equally weighted.

 For this reason, he claims in his 2002 documentary, Palestine is Still the Issue, and his 2007 book of reportage, Freedom Next Time, the Israeli-Palestine issue is usually portrayed by BBC news as just a conflict between two irreconcilable cultures, not what it is – an illegal, United States-funded occupation.

From the Israeli suicide bombers of the 1950s, to the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians in 1982 and the destructive and petty blockade of the West Bank, Pilger establishes the facts and scale of the injustice. Many thousands more Palestinians have died and suffered as a result of the occupation than Israelis because of Palestinian suicide bombers.

This is a far cry from the BBC‘s tone on Palestine and Israel. Perhaps they are scared: Pilger was himself threatened with legal action by the Israeli government. And when, in 2005, the BBC‘s Andrew Gilligan dared to question the government’s unfounded claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities, he was hauled before a phony, hand-picked select committee who were expressly prohibited from cross-examining the Prime Minister, Tony Blair

Chilled-out but churning out

Events like these have a chilling effect on all media, who self-sensor for fear of being sacked or sued, or going up before a committee who have reinterpreted “objectivity” to reach a foregone conclusion.

Combining these fears with the non-stop demands of “churnalism” in a new-media age, all reporters will be hard-pressed to sniff-out challenging stories.  Television news, despite its bells and whistles, is not far off becoming impotent and sterile.

Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why so many stories, such as Richard Branson’s recent £24m wage packet from Virgin Trains, to name but one, escape mass-media scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, too, all journalists need to brown-nose their editors, who increasingly want more and more, faster and faster, 24-hours a day.

From this, it is difficult not to be reminded of Chis Morris‘ satirical Channel 4 show Brass Eye, which made startlingly prescient observations about the growing trend for style-over-content in evening news, and about how Paxman or Trevor McDonald tended to shout louder than the facts in their stories.

A rich tapestry

Journalism, remember, is not a science. The reporter is led to the story by his nose, and should be led thus to the facts, not restrained so unfairly by Ofcom, who are accountable to a government which is always ripe for scrutiny and opprobrium.

Though Pilger is sometimes justifiably accused of sensationalism (most notably by Evelyn Waugh in the 1960s) his combined powers of comment and instinct make his books and documentaries particularly powerful.

Heroes, for example, combines the fastidiousness of a history scholar with the sensitivity and detail of a novelist. At the expense of immediacy, the book chronicles the effects on ordinary people of Thatcher’s monetarist reforms and how the press were misinformed about Arthur Scargill’s labour movement.

Journalism can be reflective as well as topical, if only we are allowed to cast a critical eye.


Christmas can be lonely, especially for carers. National Carers’ Rights Day on December 7 was a reminder of their difficulties.

 Peter Sullivan, 62, is a full time carer whose job does not stop just for any public holiday. He has the compassion and restrained anger of a man who constantly helps people in need. 

He said: “It is hard to get support at Christmas because other carers want time off.” This, he believes, is made worse by an overall shortage of carers, lack of funding, and an ageing population.

Peter became a full-time carer 13 years ago when his wife was taken ill with spinal thrombosis. She is paralysed below the neck, needs a ventilator to breathe, and requires constant supervision to prevent her choking.

He said: “It was hard to begin with, to get used to it. It was a bit extreme. It was a hell of a shock to know that for the rest of your life you are going to be a carer.”

Employers do not care 

Caring is hard work. Health care professionals provide physiotherapy, and bath her in a special rise/fall bath that he purchased.

For the rest of the day, Peter provides medication, empties catheter bags, and performs suction on her tracheotomy, always remaining in contacting distance.                                         

He sleeps until about 6:50am unless alarm on his wife’s ventilator goes off.          

Hard work                                                   

Peter used to be a benefits worker, but gave up as he often had to stay awake at night to monitor his wife’s ventilator. Like many carers, his employers were not obliged to offer flexible working hours, and they did not.

He said: “It depends on employers being reasonable. Some, especially with young children, are entitled to flexible rights. It can also be a great difficulty getting back to work after a death.”                                   

Because she uses a ventilator, she receives most outside support through the local health authority. But Peter only received this after the Lancashire Evening Post published an article about him, and he is still almost solely responsible for her care.

Personal tragedy

Peter has had a lot of sadness in his life. A normal working class upbringing in  Nelson near Burnley was changed forever when his mother died when he was 15.  He believes, however, that this helped prepare him for the shock he got when his wife fell ill. Peter’s son died of a brain Hemorrhage aged 16.

Peter has another child who lives in London, but she has a baby and cannot help with caring.

Not enough support for carers 

Social services support for carers is means tested and Peter earns too much money to receive it. But like many others, he often has to buy the materials himself that he needs for caring.  

A big problem for many, he said, is that carer’s allowance is only £48 a week. If you receive this, you may not get other income maintenance benefits such as a state pension.

It was once easier for Peter to find support. Women were neglected because it was assumed that they were naturally more capable carers. Only paid men and single women could get home help until the 1989 Carer’s Strategy came about.                                                                                                                                           

He said carers are more valued because of this act, and praised The Princess Royal Trust for its charity work.

Support for carers is decreasing

But he believes support has decreased in the last ten years because of social services cut backs. Primary Care Trusts are allocated less money than the old regional health authorities and less money is now set aside just for carers.

The system is sometimes irrational and inefficient, as there is a strange division based on different budgets. Peter said: “The person from health has to push the wheelchair but social services have to get things off the shelves.”

He also believes people with moderate needs might soon miss out as the local government are planning to downgrade mental disabilities to development disabilities.

Rewarding work

Peter has been an adult carers’ support officer at the Preston Carers’ Centre for seven years and is chairman of a group that advises carers and the people they look after.

He is also a member of a community group that educates students and social workers about caring, and organises outings for young carers. He believes his responsibilities at home forced him to become an expert in the field.  

Peter said: “You can become really isolated and some friends find it too upsetting to visit. My work is a chance to meet others and I’ve been through all the things the other carers have.”

His work is upsetting. Some young carers have drug addicted parents, or had left school and friends behind to look after a relative. One was only five years old, Peter said.

Carers with large families have complained to Peter that they do not get enough support. There is no funding for former carers, but he helps them even though he is not supposed to.                                           

Manager of the Preston Carers’ Centre Ben Blackman said: “There is usually an organisation or charity, but carers are left on their own. Peter’s work puts carers at the front of the queue.”

Preston carers’ centre


In 2004, Preston started its first programme for affordable housing. But some argue that ‘regeneration’ from private sources is pricing most out of the market.

 

The city council are participating in a Local Development and Affordable Housing scheme which began in August, using the 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act.

 Local government documents state that this is a response to “continued increasing house prices” and the growing inability of many to afford housing. Development is now supposed to be more likely to receive permission if it provides accommodation to suit social needs, where they are not met by the market.

House Prices are astronomical

The average price of a new house rose by over £17,000 between July 2006 and 2007, according to a  survey published in the Lancashire Evening Post in September. Halifax claims the price of terraced houses in the North West has increased by 247 percent since 1997 (PR).

A 2004 government report showed that 19 percent of Preston households were too expensive, overcrowded or unsuitable. Of those, 70 percent were unaffordable. T

he report called for 285 affordable new dwellings, the refurbishment of old houses, and the provision of housing by companies for their workers. There may also be council owned or provided homes similar to old council houses.

The government said that sites with over 15 dwellings should have 20 percent Affordable Housing, which should be 33 percent lower than market prices. However, local authorities are free to alter these thresholds, and the percentage discount can be negotiated with developers.

What is being done is not enough

Conditions can be relaxed if a development is deemed too expensive or impractical, although the council can refuse planning permission to unreasonable developers.

However, current planning policy means that development is largely confined to the city centre. Most new housing developments will be new built flats in converted older property.

The report stated that Preston has 3,493 vacant properties and that the “total social rented accommodation which is required could be housed within the current level of vacant properties across the city”.

Construction groups Downtown Living and Construction Partnership UK  (CPUK) are building expensive flats on Lawson Street and are looking for new sites to develop, wrote David Coates of the Lancashire Evening Post last November.

The building on Lawson Street is called The Room and is part of a private £8million ‘regeneration’ project started in June.  It will have 85 stylish apartments with balconies and terraces.

CPUK managing director Steve Burke told him the £750million Tithebarn project, which includes plans for new city centre shops, had boosted investment in the area.

Low development costs made Preston a “city of opportunity” said Downtown Living Chairman Frank Bretherton to the LEP in September.

 

Natwest invested £8m in Downtown Living, and will undoubtedly benefit from mortgage lending. No one at Downtown Living, CPUK, or the council would tell the Courant how much the apartments will cost.

But the architects at Downs Viarava who designed The Room are also designing luxury flats and commercial buildings on Kings Dock and Ropewalks in Liverpool in the ‘Baltic Triangle’ project, according to an employee.

 A senior Preston planning-officer told the Courant: “Not many affordable housing schemes are up and running. We don’t want to scare developers away with planning obligations.”

The planning officer responsible for The Room, David Lynley, said that the price of the apartments “was not a consideration when planning permission was given.”

Registered Social Landlords are no help

In 2005, council housing was handed to Community Gateway, who appointed Registered Social Landlords to rent out properties. In June 2006, only 54% of these properties met government standards. Gateway would not comment.

Just Three banks – Royal Bank of Scotland, Nationwide, and Halifax were behind 75 percent of all such transfer schemes, claimed Socialist Worker in March 2002. Huge profits come from interest on mortgages, which is about 16 percent higher than council rents.

In 2001, 55 percent of housing associations increased their rents by more than that allowed by the government, and had a 12 percent higher eviction rate than councils because it is easier for them to do so.  

Preston Respect councillor Michael Lavalette said: “It was a disaster that we sold off council housing stock. There are many hidden-homeless, who can’t afford to leave their parents. We need more good quality council housing and to stop stigmatising it.”

He believes that social landlords were dominated by a small number of groups such as Avoncrest-Centour and that The Room was not in the public’s interest, but for niche markets created by ‘regeneration’.“The Ringway will represent a social boundary, since areas outside the city centre like St. Matthews and Frenchwood are not being regenerated.”

‘Regeneration’, it seems, is in the hands of developers more than policy makers. But whose hands are the policy makers in?


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