A good week for spinning

It was billed as the greatest free show in town. A battle royale (of sorts) that on Tuesday, August 19, pitched Westminster’s finest against a media baron who in the past had tyrannised them. Would Rupert Murdoch, and his heir anointed James, wither to dust under their forensic interrogation? Or would the dynamic duo turn the tables and emerge from the phone hacking scandal with a clean(ish) bill of health?

Not quite! Labour MP Tom Watson and his fellow inquisitors on the Culture, Media & Sport Committee did land the odd punch or two, while the Murdochs’ performance gave News Corp shares a 5% lift when Wall Street opened for business. Maybe it was crazily naive to hope that every question would yield a satisfactory answer, but don’t worry. There’s so much muck in the executive cupboard at the moment that it’ll be a while yet before clan Murdoch will be free of the stench.

They had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors

A week is a long time in politics and for a corporate behemoth with a major PR problem on its hands seven days is sufficient to start repairing the damage. Because make no mistake the appearance of both Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary select committee, was more about disaster management than a sincere attempt to aid the truth. These two had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors and haul the company’s battered image off the ropes. The evidence is so overwhelming it blinds!

Rupert Murdoch said he was humbled and sorry for both the phone hacking and the misery it caused. Yet the “S” word was conspicuously absent from his vocabulary in the immediate aftermath of this scandal. Neither did he appear to show that much concern for the victims of this deplorable practice since his declared priority was Rebekah Brookes, the woman who edited the News of the World when Milly Dowler’s phone was illegally accessed!

However five days after the final edition of the News of the World hit the stands the sound of burning rubber from a hand brake U-turn was plainly audible. Hours after Brookes’ resignation as News International CEO, a contrite Rupert Murdoch held a face to face meeting with the Dowler family. Shouldn’t he have spoken to them when the allegations first surfaced? Of course, yet given his rapid mood swing from detachment to remorse, even I couldn’t help wondering which PR professional was spinning away in the background. By the time the Murdochs appeared before the committee, they were more coached than a premier league football team.

Murdoch senior came across as old, doddering and vague about such matters as how his newspapers are run, although memories of his Downing Street visits – albeit via the backdoor – were exceptionally vivid. The terrifying, bullying figure of the past was more like a flaccid bogeyman with a hearing problem, judging by the number of times the panel had to repeat its questions. Doesn’t it therefore follow that an 80-year-old man who might be losing his grip couldn’t possibly be expected to know what was going on in his own company? That’s exactly what his PR spinners wanted us to think and given the prevalence of age related adjectives in the following day’s coverage, they succeeded.

Yet there were a couple of instances when Rupert’s mask of fragility almost slipped from its moorings, notably when he thumped his hand down on the table. Fortunately his wife put a stop to that with a few whispered interventions. Let’s face it table bashing might be enough to bring a board of directors under control but it doesn’t play well with a TV audience whose sympathy you’re trying to win.

Mr Murdoch’s performance was typically spirited, like a captain fighting to maintain control of his ship. There were occasional memory lapses (another symptom of creeping old age perhaps?) and the shifting of blame onto everyone other than himself and his family, carrying with it the inference that he was just as much a victim as those whose phones had been hacked and was perhaps as deserving of our compassion. The idiot who lunged at him with a shaving cream pie actually did him a favour since it provoked an outpouring of sympathy that previously wasn’t there. No wonder his PR crew were grinning like Cheshire cats.

As an example of how to turn the tables on an accuser Rupert Murdoch’s performance was flawless. James didn’t fare too badly either. He was confident, feisty, sure-footed and almost touchingly deferential to his father; the kind of bloke who couldn’t harm a fly let alone preside over a business where phone hacking was rife. Indeed his own father claimed the very abuses that have now laid the business so low occurred before James even got his feet under the table. But James’ feel good glow is sinking faster than his tan as his evidence to the committee is now under attack.

He said he didn’t know about an email which suggested that phone hacking wasn’t just the work of a single “rogue reporter”; yet two former News of the World executives are claiming otherwise. James is standing by his testimony but it still boils down to who you believe. Since I don’t have the money to fight a libel action I won’t be staking a bet, but for some reason I can’t get the image of weasels out of my head!

In the meantime James Murdoch is digging his heels in as chairman of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, although he does face a crucial board meeting on Thursday, the day before the company is expected to post annual profits of a billion pounds.

They say that money talks so maybe it’s possible that the right amount of the green stuff could yet save his neck.

A week can be a very long time in politics, business and PR!

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Now can we have the truth please?

So the News of the World is no more! Sleazy politicians, nymphomaniac housewives, spivs, perverts and gangsters can relax in the knowledge that “Uncle Rupert’s” moral torch won’t be shining on them for some while yet. Two hundred people and 168 years of history have gone in a heartbeat. An example of how the corporate juggernaut runs over the innocent bystanders when the empire is under threat – well that’s how it looks to me anyway.

Let’s not forget the words of a certain Jesus Christ who once referred to stones being cast by those arrogant enough to think they’re without sin. Maybe too many rocks have been flung by senior News International managers with the most to hide. Had The News of the World become a dangerously toxic title? Yes! But who took it to such a lethal point in the first place? Well the jury’s out on that one but we can guess which way the fingers are pointing!

I know plenty of print journalists (some of whom worked for the Murdoch press), who neither hacked into people’s messages nor bribed police officers. Their professional standards simply wouldn’t allow them to stoop to such levels of moral squalor. I don’t know why or when the tide turned in the wrong direction at Wapping, or how it’s possible to exist in a working bubble where a culture of getting a story at any cost is more important than the human consequences. What’s so disturbing is that no low was off limits to these so called “professionals”. When they weren’t deleting the messages of a murdered schoolgirl, they were allegedly accessing those of British military personnel killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, along with the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks. Who’s next – a rape victim perhaps?

This whole nasty saga (which still has many lengths to run) has thrown up a welter of issues including press regulation, the restoration of public trust in the media and the police and why sme of our political leaders assiduously tunnelled up the cavity of a certain media tycoon who isn’t even resident in theUK! It’s a sorry day when elected representatives feel more beholden to powerful members of the fourth estate than to the ordinary men and women who voted for them. There’s nothing wrong with politicians having a relationship with the press, but it’s one that should be managed carefully.  That’s as true for politicians as it is for other public servants. When the one with the fattest wallet is pulling the strings all the time that’s when you know you’re in trouble.

So where do we go from here? Who knows, although the announcement of two new investigations (one to be led by a judge), do give rise to hope along with the progress to date of Operation Weeting (the latest Met investigation into phone hacking). One could be cynical and say the debacle of the inquiry that preceded it is a guarantee against failure. That may be true but frankly I’m not bothered, just as long as the rotten apples are emptied from the barrel: and I’m not just talking about the fruits from the lower branches of the tree. If News International is serious about atoning for its misdeeds then senior heads must roll. This is no time for hiding behind the: “I had no idea this was going on” excuse which disturbingly echoes the: “I was only following orders” defence. It’s implausible and an affront to human intelligence.

Likewise News International must stop playing corporate pass the parcel. For those who aren’t familiar with the rules let me enlighten you. Take a scandal pass it along a line of players and the one who can’t get it out of their hands fast enough is stuck with the mess! There’s been quite a bit of game playing at NI and I have a feeling that at some juncture the parcel may have to work its way back to the top of the line.

The British press will survive this appalling scandal, (bruised, slightly broken but still standing nonetheless), although that might not be true for some of the victims left behind. It was easy to turn a blind eye when a sprinkling of celebrities (some of whom most of us had never even heard of), complained their phones were being hacked. The assumption that because they were famous meant they were fair game overlooked the fact that phone hacking is illegal and that messages left on a handset are supposed to be confidential. Clearly the point had been lost on Glen Mulcaire!

The British press may be down at the moment but it isn’t necessarily out. We’ve had enough explanations as to why this may have happened (and doubtless many more will be dished up in the coming days) but it’s time to move on and bring the guilty to justice, no matter how high up they are in the food chain. There can be no real sense of closure until that element is satisfied and for those in denial of their culpability remember, you can run but you can’t hide!

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Hanging up the mayoral chains… and back to the blog!

John and Juliette May - former mayor and mayoress of Surrey HeathHi everyone… sorry I haven’t updated the blog but I really have been ferociously busy.

On Wednesday 18th May my husband John and I finally handed over Surrey Heath’s mayoral chains of office. It was an emotional occasion but Tim and Jany Dodds (our successors) will do a fabulous job and we’re determined to give them our support.

In the run up to the handover we organised a concert for our charities, a borough-wide collection day, a grand ball and the piece de la resistance a champagne and canapes event at The Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. It was a wonderful evening and we raised a good sum of money for our charities.

The work didn’t end there as I’ve been involved in the Surrey Heath Literary Festival so I’ve had to read four books, prepare a debate and interview the authors. It was a challenging week but I’m pleased to say that the event went well and we’ll be holding another one in 2012. So that’s why it’s been a little quiet round here for a while, but don’t worry… I’ll be doing some new posts in the next few weeks. Please be patient as I have a load of catching up to do along with some very early shifts at BBC World. Take care everyone and thank you for your patience, support and friendship.

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Banking on a dirty little secret

Andrea is nervous! She’s tapping her fingers on the table, staring restlessly into the emptiness of the room and chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes.

My smart, funny, confident friend who rarely lets anything get her down is a shadow of herself. I don’t have to look far to see what’s causing the despair that’s eating her up. Propped against the saucer of her coffee cup is a half folded letter with the date of her next court appearance. In two months time she’ll be slugging out the final leg of a battle that’s already taken up nearly ten years of her life. I’m confident she’ll win but she’s not so sure because her bank is the plaintiff!

“This isn’t just despicable it sucks. But since it’s the banks we’re talking about I’m really not surprised.”

Her story began in 2002 when, recently widowed and struggling with financial difficulties, she took out a £20,000 loan. Although the payments were being met, life was far from easy and the trauma of having nursed her husband through his final illness eventually caught up with her, triggering a nervous breakdown that put her into hospital. Andrea did what any sensible person would do in that situation: on the advice of the mental health charity MIND and the Citizens Advice Bureau, she told the bank about her illness and the impact it was having on her circumstances. She managed to negotiate a freeze on the interest rate along with a deal to slash the monthly repayments to a level that was affordable. Not only did the bank agree to this but it assured her that the paperwork had been adjusted to reflect the new arrangements.

Andrea was relieved! To meet her obligations she paid out what was left of her savings, sold a few possessions and slashed her domestic outgoings to the absolute bone. It was tough medicine to swallow but worth it as she was on schedule to clear the debt – or rather she would have been had the bank not dropped a massive bombshell. In 2005 it sent her a letter claiming that she owed a staggering £64,000! Part of it was the original capital but the bulk was the interest which – unbeknown to her – had been rolled up over the years. She assumed there had been a mistake but the bank denied this along with any knowledge of ever having agreed to a deal in the first place!

“I was stonewalled every time I complained or tried to explain things,” she said bitterly. “They behaved like sharks circling around a drop of blood.”

It was now a case of one person’s word against another’s with the bank accusing Andrea of trying to wriggle out of her responsibilities, even though the evidence suggested otherwise. She had letters which proved there was a deal along with records of the dates and times of telephone conversations with bank staff. Curiously the bank didn’t explain why if there hadn’t been an agreement, she was allowed to pay the money at a rate which put it out-of-pocket. And if there was no chance of a deal then why wasn’t she told this the moment she raised the issue?

Maybe the fact that Andrea owns a house with half a million pounds of equity attached had something to do with it! If the bank forced its sale then it would walk away with £64,000 plus any extras it might decide to add on. How very neat! Andrea’s tenacious digging also uncovered a document which revealed exactly how the loan team was thinking:

“No offer in response to review letter. Payments are not acceptable as customer is a home-owner. Continue recovery.”

Who said there was no such thing as compassion!

Sadly Andrea’s story isn’t unique as there are other people in a similar situation. Hopefully if the judge rules in her favour she can get her life back and close the page on this dreadful chapter. Whether the bank will give her the apology she rightly deserves is another matter. I’ll let you know what happens, but frankly we’re not holding our breath.

Banks have had a seriously bad press in the last three years and they’ve earned every bit of it. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to bring a global financial system to its knees; trigger a recession; reward those responsible with eye watering bonuses and then calmly leave the taxpayer to clear up the filthy, disgusting mess. It’s so breathtakingly audacious that it makes Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme look like a scam to sell stolen t-shirts off the back of a lorry!

To then add insult to injury by reneging on customer agreements and then accusing those same customers of lying, adds a new dimension to the word “low”. This isn’t just despicable it sucks. But since it’s the banks we’re talking about I’m really not surprised. To hope for even an ounce of decency would have been naive.

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Why this antique won’t be doing the road show

I like antiques and if money were no object I wouldn’t think twice about filling my house with them. There’s nothing more pleasing to the eye than the intricate design of a Chippendale cabinet or the delicate brushwork on a Meissen porcelain figurine. The value is in the pleasure of owning something that’s unique and which has survived two World Wars, countless house moves and the destructive hands of the under fives!

I’m not the only who thinks this. Several of my friends are the proud owners of antique pieces which – though not terribly valuable – have made their way down the family into their possession. Even when times have been hard they’ve never been tempted to sell their inheritance nor have they toyed with the idea of getting it valued on The Antiques Road Show.

“What’s the point?” they say whenever the issue is raised “If it’s worth something our contents insurance will go up. Apart from that burglars would probably try to break in and nick it.”

There may well be a lot of truth in that but it’s not enough to stop thousands of people from religiously hitting the Antiques Road Show trail when the bandwagon comes rolling into town. You can see them at the start of every programme cluttering  the lawns of someone’s stately home, jealously guarding their precious artefacts with the ferocity of a lioness defending her cubs. Good luck to them! It’s the utterly disingenuous expressions of surprise that I can’t handle. Let’s put it this way if an expert told me that the Royal Worcester vase I bought for a fiver in a car boot sale in Kilburn was actually worth more than twenty grand, I don’t think you’d hear me politely exclaiming:

“Gosh! Whizzo! Ha ha! That’s a jolly fine bit of news. What a spiffingly marvellous stroke of good luck!”

You’re more likely to see a dazed look of stupidity on my face followed by nervous laughter and a drizzle of expletives which would roughly translate as, “Are you serious?” or “Sure you haven’t made a mistake and you’re not taking the mickey?”

That’s how most normal people would react but then nothing’s really normal about the Antiques Road Show! People claim they’re only there to satisfy a curiosity about the history and value of an object, but I don’t believe that for one minute. Nine and a half of times out of ten they’re on the programme to satisfy their greed. It’s written large in their eyes especially when the expert’s valuation falls wildly short of what they expected. No matter how hard they struggle to put a brave face on it there’s no hiding the disappointment of discovering that the frame on a 19th century fine art landscape is actually worth more than the picture inside it! I half expect them to turn bottle green with rage and blow up to the size of the Incredible Hulk once the reality of what they’ve heard starts to sink in. At least with ITV’s Dickinson’s Real Deal you know the punters are avariciously pushing to get the one over on the expert, even if the price they’re looking for is totally unrealistic!

I’m not saying the Antiques Road Show should be permanently dropped from the schedules I just wish that people were a little more honest about their intentions.

Why is it so hard to admit that the only reason they’re getting their stuff valued is so that they can flog it on Ebay? And I wish they wouldn’t feign polite surprise when they find out that an object is actually worth something. What’s wrong with jumping up and down excitedly, or just fainting in a heap on the ground? At least that’s a bit more realistic.

I know there are plenty of people out there who will strongly disagree with my views because The Antiques Road Show is probably the highlight of their weekend TV viewing. But before you start assaulting me with brickbats I’d like you to consider the following. If the contents insurance on your house was £40,000 a year would you really want to hold onto an antique that’s so valuable it could potentially quadruple the monthly payments on your policy? Or might it be better to have never known the value in the first place? Think about it!

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Being grumpy – a blessing and a curse

Brace yourselves but I have become a grumpy, middle-aged woman who’s perversely proud of her ability to always find something to complain about. No matter how big or small the issue I can be guaranteed to whip it up into a monumental storm that puts the WikiLeaks row in the shade. So how did I go from being a fairly mild-mannered, easy-going kind of woman to being narrow-minded with a tendency to blow things out of all proportion? I blame the man who blew cigarette smoke in my face when I was heading towards Clapham Common station.

We were walking in opposite directions on the same side of the street when a massive fog of smoke from a Marlboro Light hit me full in the face. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had made an effort to apologise, but he didn’t. He thought it was perfectly normal to foul the air with nicotine clouds and beads of spittle from his smoker’s cough. Back in the days when I used to light up twenty Silk Cuts a day it wouldn’t have bothered me, but as I’ve been clean for sixteen years all I could see at that moment was pure red. I followed him up the road, called out: “Oi, you,” and after fixing him to the spot with an evil eye expression, lectured him about the evils of tobacco and how it would be his fault if I contracted lung cancer. He didn’t say much at first although after a few minutes he muttered a vague apology and then sauntered off. Victory is mine I thought, until I heard him shout:

“Why don’t you get a f**king life?”

“I would if people like you didn’t make it so difficult?” I retorted.

I don’t know how long we stood on the pavement trading insults at one another but his parting gesture of a two-fingered salute brought the matter to a close. I decided not to pursue it partly because I was in a hurry to get home but also because a fellow grumpy who had witnessed the encounter congratulated my stand against “addicts who kill the environment with cigarettes.” I felt marginally better although he ruined the moment when he said I deserved a Nobel award!

My friends Mickey and Charlotte, who are so unreasonable they should be exiled to another planet

So far nothing else has happened on the scale of the Clapham Common incident, although I’ve come to realise that my intolerance levels are pretty good when they’re compared to those of my friends Mickey and Charlotte, who are so unreasonable they should be exiled to another planet. Apart from them, no sane person would want to live in a society where the state removes the assets of anyone caught spitting on a pavement or which punishes crime with the guillotine.

“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” I asked them over lunch.

Mickey arched one of his bushy eyebrows in surprise: “Of course not,” he said indignantly. “In case you haven’t noticed crime is going up. No-one feels safe anymore!”

“There’ll always be people who never feel safe no matter what you do to protect them,” I replied. “But I can’t see why parliament would want to introduce the guillotine. Apart from the fact that beheading is messy it isn’t exactly humane or sensible!”

“Well strictly speaking that isn’t true.” Charlotte drawled. “People usually get to see things from our point of view once the message is sold to them in the right way!”

My stomach did a sideways lurch especially when I saw the conspiratorial way they winked at each other.

“What are you two playing at?” I said “I know you’re up to something. What is it?”

They hesitated but after a few minutes Charlotte handed me a bundle of papers she pulled from her briefcase.

“This is our manifesto” she said “Mickey and I wanted to stand as independents in the last election but we couldn’t get a deposit!”

It didn’t take long to see why. Whilst I can understand their frustration at falling standards of behaviour, the uncontrolled greed of some bankers and the superfluous number of traffic markings on the nation’s roads, I don’t think that condemning people to a life of hard labour or forcing traffic wardens to work as fruit pickers in Mongolia is the answer. I’m not sure what is but I know for a fact that it isn’t anything these two have to offer!

They were disappointed that I wasn’t ready to sign up to their cause even with the promise of a membership discount.

“Well if you change your mind you’ll know where to find us” Mickey was ready to fire off one last volley of persuasion but stopped when he saw the lunch bill “Would you look at that” he hissed “I haven’t even touched my wine and yet they’ve charged me for it!”

“Let me see that,” Charlotte snatched the bill and scanned it from over the rim of her glasses. “And they’ve added on the service. That’s a right bloody cheek considering it took them fifteen minutes to get the table ready. Hey you”, she beckoned to the waiter.

That was my cue to leave. I knew that once these two had the bit between their teeth there would be no stopping them. They would cause such a stink that the restaurant would probably give in to their demands rather than have them disturb their other customers.

There’s nothing wrong with being a grumpy, middle-aged man/woman. People do eventually come around to our way of thinking once they realise that some of our complaints are actually valid. It only becomes a problem when grumpies start making a noise because they’ve got nothing better do with themselves. When that happens all hope is lost. Thankfully I haven’t reached that stage… yet!

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The Broken Face

Facing the facts

Have you ever flinched at the sight of a disfigured face? I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have.

Many years ago when I was working at a customer information desk in a shopping mall, I was approached by a man who wanted some directions. At first I hadn’t really noticed him, until he gave me a full on look that exposed a frightening disfigurement. The left side of his face was partially shrunken while the skin that covered an imploded cheek bone was twisted into a network of knots and welts. I tried to suppress a horrified gasp from rising up my throat, but it came out before I could stop it: he walked away in silence with his head lowered, barely able to conceal his embarrassment. I had inadvertently belittled him with my reaction, perhaps destroying the fragile courage it must have taken him to go out into public. Instinct told me to apologise but having decided that would probably make a bad situation worse, I let it pass. However time never allows these things to go away and when the mind is later invaded by the memory of a buried event, the power of recollection becomes a painful hindrance.

My day of recollection was triggered by an accidental spillage. I was lying on a couch and drinking a mug of tea when the cup handle suddenly broke, splashing liquid across my lap and over the sofa cushions. After fruitlessly trying to remove the stains with soap and water, I decided to put everything in the washing machine: that was my first big mistake! No sooner had I begun to pull the cushions from out of their covers, when my face was hit by a fine cloud of dust and feather particles. My eyes immediately started to water, but it was the right eye that came off worse as it itched with a burning, persistent rawness. I remembered there was a small bottle of eye drops in my handbag and that was my second big mistake because the bottle’s contents were out of date, yet that didn’t stop me from using them. The situation progressively got worse, although it wasn’t until I looked in the mirror that I realised just how bad it was.

I almost didn’t recognise my reflection because, like the man I had unintentionally humiliated twenty years earlier, my face had a mismatched symmetry. Half of it had retained its familiar contours but the other half didn’t even feel as if it was mine. The right eye lid was red with inflammation and drooped so heavily that it could barely stay open, whilst the skin from below the eye to the corner of my mouth, had the stretched bloated look of an over inflated balloon. I ran my hand over my entire face perhaps in the ridiculous hope that this one futile gesture would magically restore it to normal. But luck wasn’t on my side and I felt utterly helpless. In two days time I was supposed to host a TV programme, but I wasn’t even likely to make it to the studio door with my face looking like this: no amount of make up, regardless of how professionally applied, could hide the disaster. Would this dust allergy, (which had never really bothered me much in the past), leave me with a permanently misshapen face, and how would people treat me once my looks were no longer acceptable? It was a long restless night but by the morning the worst of the bloating had gone and by the end of the week it had disappeared altogether. I was lucky as my suffering was temporary, yet I can’t stop thinking about the thousands of people in this world who spend every day of their lives living with the effects of a facial disfigurement.

Many are ostracised from their communities, reliant on the charity of strangers, while others are regarded as the victims of some kind of divine punishment, the unlucky recipients of a horrific pay back. A surgeon’s blade may be a good corrective, but it doesn’t always work. But then again why does cosmetic surgery have to be the end all solution? Maybe we need to start from the following, simple premise: there is no such thing as “The Perfect Face”, and those whose features don’t cut “The Norm” should be treated with as much respect and dignity, as those whose features do. Maybe if we tried living by that rule we wouldn’t flinch so much when we see a face that’s permanently disfigured.

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