Is Greyer Than Grey Ok?

Only a few weeks on from the Olympics and it turns out that British sport is starting to resemble an over aged cheese. What was seen as the premium product is starting to go just a little bit whiffy. The smell is faint though – a slight discomforting odour which occasionally pervades through. That’s because fundamentally no one has actually done anything wrong. Indeed further to that, the channels with which those (non) offences have come to light are often as suspect as the supposed misdeed.   Those channels both have significant motive for causing the trouble or the discussion that has followed.

On the one side, a national (almost tabloid) newspaper has the significant incentive of selling more papers (and therefore advertising space) by creating the most sensational story possible. And on the other, the Fancy Bears as they refer to themselves, are seemingly intent on showing the world that the concentration on Russian State involvement in doping is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, these motives don’t  make the allegations incorrect.  

The first, that of the ex-England football manager Sam Allardyce, is probably the clearest. Even he admits to a major miscalculation in meeting the agents / journalists to advise on how to ‘bend’ transfer rules and in regard to the comments that he made against the royal family and Roy Hodgson. There are many though who say that he would have been innocent if not for the media ‘plotting’ to bring him down. Anyone who has read my posts before will know I am generally hugely against stings by the media but I have to say that this has highlighted ‘good and bad stings’. This was not a matter of sexual indiscretion or lifestyle choice for which I believe there is very rarely any legitimate public interest. It was a matter of clearly breaking the rules. As the England manager – the very pinnacle of representing British sport, it was imperative that Allerdyce played the ethical line. He didn’t and was rightly sacked. His moaning about entrapment is purely self-pity. It is arguable that the might not have gone looking for it. He certainly didn’t run from it. The flip side of course is (aside from the comments) he didn’t actually break any rules…he seems to have advised on how to, and the inference is that he may have accepted payment had it gone further but nothing actually happened.

That Peak Form Look
Image ©  Surrey Council

The second incident leaves a really bad taste in the mouth even though there is in theory no evidence of wrongdoing. For me,  Sir Bradley Wiggins is the poster boy for the changed face of (British) cycling. Arm in arm with Brailsford, he represents the clear line that British Cycling and later SKY have taken in terms of their no drugs, no needles policy. And yet, the much exalted policy of marginal gains is starting to leave a grey area around how close up to the line those marginal gains were pushed.

The response from Brailsford to the Wiggins TUEs along the lines of ‘we have not done anything that we didn’t have the right to do’ hardly provides comfort that rules were followed rather than bent. I don’t know anyone whose asthma is bad enough to need an injection of such a strong drug (although I don’t doubt they exist). I doubt that that same person would record themselves in their autobiography as being in peak condition at that point though. I doubt they would categorically say in the same book that there is a no needles policy within the team if they required such a medication (shades of Armstrong there perhaps) and I doubt that they would only have a need for such an aggressive intervention before key races. Having said that I don’t know any elite athletes either.

When contrasted to Callum Skinner’s excellent reaction to the TUEs exposure, the reactions of Wiggins and Brailsford feel like stuttering, floundering defences of potential guilt which of course adds to that slight uneasiness…   It seems clear that no rules have been broken. But Sky and British Cycling have presented a proactive image of being whiter than white. And that’s clearly not quite the case – more greyer than grey perhaps.

We want British sport, any sport, to be watchable, we want it to be a competition played on a level playing field. Unfortunately Wiggins own concept of generating that “level playing field” is probably not what the public thought (hoped) that they were watching.   What both these examples show is that what the vast majority of the public wants to think is happening – transparency in sport, clarity that what they see is real, confirmation that there is a level playing field both in and out of the arena – is not there.

Britain it seems is actually no better than any of the other competing nations which casts doubt on the missiles thrown at FIFA as well as the condemnation of Russia. Many, would sacrifice some of the ‘success’ that the GBR team has enjoyed for the confidence that we can properly hold that moral high ground.

Proud To Be British?

The Legend of Being English

(Image © UGardener)

I watched a party political broadcast tonight for the English Democrat party. I sat open mouthed, not sure whether I was watching a real broadcast or whether it was a parody. The message repeated often by four or five white middle class, middle aged men (one woman) was to ‘Vote English’. It got me thinking about what I was proud of. Am I proud ‘to be English, not British’ as the broadcast tried to persuade me to be?

Being English is pretty much the only life event that I had no choice in. A fluke of attraction between two people who happened to both be English, who happened to have both found jobs and a house in an English town at the time I was born. That’s what made me English. And yet, for many, that one life event – the one in which you have absolutely no say – becomes central to their beliefs.

Am I proud to be English? Well, I am proud of the country I live in (which happens to be England) and I m happy to be an albeit small part of the mosaic which makes it what it is. I am proud to live in a country with freedom of speech, a country with probably the best welfare state system in the world, where medical care is free on the point of access. I am proud to live in a country which immigrants risk their lives to reach in order to better themselves. The list goes on: a country in which the justice system is one of the fairest in the world, with one of the least corrupt and most approachable police forces in the world. A country where education is open to all regardless of birth, sex or ability.

So yes. I am proud to live here. Proud to be part of this country. But I don’t think it’s perfect. I firmly believe the welfare state could be improved , could be streamlined to focus on those who need it rather than those who assume it. I believe that the NHS could be more efficient at the management level, could be better focussed on those who need free healthcare. I believe our tax system could be fairer, less aggressive and could reward entrepreneurism, risk taking and success much better. I admire countries like the United States for promoting the need to improve ones chances, Sweden for their more relaxed approach to education in the early years, India for aggressively creating a service economy that has moved from the budget solution to the slick high quality choice in only ten years. I even admire Belgium for their incredible success in bringing on youngsters through the football ranks into their national team. And on the flip side, each of those has elements I don’t like. (Although struggling to think of anything wrong with Belgium!!). I’m proud to be therefore part of a progressive country. One that for all it’s flaws, I believe is focussed in the right direction. An inclusive, fair, just and giving society. That’s what I’m proud of. Not necessarily being English.

The inference from the broadcast was that as a supposedly stereotypical English person (white, 40 plus male) I should identify with other ‘Englishmen’. Let’s test that one for a moment. I identify most with people who are trying to better themselves. In my professional, social and some would say most importantly, my sporting life, I surround myself with people who are trying to further themselves. This is where the Englishness of the argument falls apart. I don’t care what the nationality of that person is. I don’t care what sex they are, what sexuality they are, where they are born or where they have decided to live. What I care about is whether they are happy and whether they are driven to succeed. So at this point, being English has nothing to do with the people I identify with. In fact in many ways, being ‘culturally different’ from me is actually a positive thing. Surround yourself with yes men and you will never be wrong but never be challenged.

This brings me on to one of the key principles of their somewhat limited sales pitch. “English jobs for English people”. I struggle with this on two levels. First, I am firmly of the belief that age, sex, sexuality, colour etc is of no relevance when I am recruiting for roles. What I am after is talent. I do not care in the slightest about the religion, political beliefs or nationality of that person. I want ‘can do’. I want experience and passion for delivery. I work with Germans, Indians, Americans and a Spaniard on my current job. It makes no difference. In fact that’s wrong. It creates a cultural melting pot that enables different approaches to problem solving, to team building and to work attitude. It’s great. Surround myself with white, middle class, middles aged, English males? No thanks.

Secondly, I struggle with the term English jobs. I presently work in England for one of the most recognisable British (sic) brands. It’s owned by an Indian company. Is this an English job? I’m guessing they would say it was because it is predominantly based in the UK. Most of my work though is for global firms, generally run from England. When I am abroad working for them is that an English job? Are the people who work abroad in Europe, USA, Canada for that UK based firm taking jobs that should be English or is that different. If they weren’t working in those ‘English  jobs’ would we have market penetration in those geographies? It’s a joke. Any job should be given to the  person who will deliver it at the best quality or cost depending  on the driver regardless of location or nationality.

And then I ask myself what I don’t identify with. And I come up with racists, I come up with people who think they are owed a life on benefits, people who think that they should get a job because of their nationality over their ability. And I start to wonder. I think of the person I saw yesterday at a football match. St George’s cross tattoo on his arm and yelling w****r at an opposition player whilst his young kids sat either side of him. I think of the pubs that I would never walk in because they are populated by ‘English’ men. Unreceptive, hostile and questioning of outsiders. And my mind is made up.

I would happily move to another country. I’d go the US, to Canada, Australia to further myself. I’d go European as well if I wasn’t such a sad Englishman who like so many has no grasp of foreign languages. And abroad I would feel proud. Proud of my nationality and of my new found host. Proud to be part of an evolving global tapestry of multiple cultural, cross boundary cohesion. Quite honestly, the opposite is true. I welcome with open arms anyone from another country that feels they can improve themselves in the UK. Rather have someone like that than someone who thinks the world owes them a living. Regardless of where they are born.

I am proud to be English. I’m proud to be British too, to be European. In fact quite honestly I am proud to be part of a world wide population at such an exciting time in history. I am proud to be living here though. But above all I am proud that a group which in my opinion has such narrow minded, backward views get their five minutes of fame on national TV. I’m proud to live in a society where there is that level of free speech is allowed and where they can have the ability to persuade me to use my vote. To vote for someone other than them.

A Fair Tax System

Is Paying More Tax Than Others Any Fairer?(Image © agrilifetoday 2013)

As discussion begins in the media about the rich paying their fair share of taxes once more I am once more interested in the definition of that fair share. I’m not talking here about the actions of corporations who exploit loopholes in the complex tax laws to reduce their tax burden. I am talking about the peculiarly British problem of ensuring that anyone who is successful gets portrayed as having the easy life. The concept that one should be punished for being successful.

There are various degrees of being fair. On the (slightly flawed) assumption (there is actually an inverse correlation to tax paid to services used) that everyone uses tax funded services to the same level, at its simplest one might say that fair would be to all pay the same amount of tax. So everyone pays a flat fee of say £20k per year. Fair then in that we all pay the same. Socially unfair though in that if one earns £100k one has £80k left to enjoy life but if that person only earns £20k per year, they are almost in debt before they are even living. Clearly that’s not going to work.  Thus this proposal is actually unfair the other way although anyone with any sort of social morality would surely discount this element! 

So, maybe it’s fairer if we all pay the same proportion of our income as tax. That seems to work, with a few allowances so that those on extremely low levels of income are offered an increased exemption we are left with all taxpayers having the same proportion of income left. At a flat rate of say 20%, a worker earning £20k still retains 80% of their income as does the worker earning £100k. The richer one is the more one pays. In the above example the £100k earner pays five times as much as the person earning £20k. Even with our slightly simplistic assumption above, that is five as much to use the same tax funded services.

I guess that is at the limit of fair for me. The financially successful massively subsidise the lower earners. Fair though as in any society, there needs to be a degree of social responsibility to enable it to work.  This allows for that without deliberately targeting and penalising the rich, I would argue that this definition of fairness is the impression that many people have of where the tax system is at present.

But no. There is a further concept of fairness which, even as a child I have always failed to comprehend. That goes beyond the idea where the richer you are the more you pay to use the same services. It says that the more you earn, the higher proportion of that income you should pay. under this regime the multiplier above goes crazy. Let’s assume for simplicity a flat rate tax rate of 20% for the first £40k of earnings and then a further 20% for anything earned above that level.  With our example above, the lower salaried example pays £4k in tax. The higher one, £32k. The more financially successful is therefore paying 8 times as much to use the same services.

Clearly the tax system is, and needs to be far more complex than this. It needs to safeguard those on very low wages. It needs to incentivise certain professions or segments of the population to work. It needs above all to provide the income necessary to keep the country functioning.

However, it’s the definition of fairness that I struggle with. I agree with an argument that says that the more one earns, the more one should give back to society. The proportional tax rate achieves that. To take that further though penalises people for being successful. The media in this country currently seem on a witch-hunt to penalise the wealthy.  There is a concept out there that they should be paying more, far more proportionately than those less well off. a concept that if you are successful at what you do, you should almost feel guilty for those less successful. I’m not sure when that crept in. I know that when I was at school, the mantra was work hard now and it would create success in the end. If you wanted to work in the areas where jobs roles were going to be in short supply then you worked hard to ensure that you secured those roles, and the accompanying financial rewards. It feels now like we are supposed to apologise for that and pay guilt money to those who didn’t fancy that choice.

To my mind, that’s just not fair.

Bringing The Internet Into The Real World

Censorship Or Protecting Society?
(Image © Andréia Bohner)

A couple of weeks ago, the government announced that it wanted to bring in changes to access to online porn. Last week, there has been media coverage of ‘trolling’, where twitter users have threatened female politicians, celebrities and campaigners with rape, assault and even death. And then this week, the case of a young teenager who took her life after abuse on a social media site.

As the technological age continues, as the Internet and online access runs our lives more and more, something needs to be done. When the Internet was developed, core to it was a belief that freedom of information was imperative. That it should be above censorship and would enable knowledge, information to be passed across the world. This concept though has led to an out of control beast – one though which runs our lives and we cannot avoid. We are still applying laws, views and principles that seemed laudable in the eighties and even nineties to something which has developed at an exponential rate and is now so integrated into our culture and life styles that it  has a whole different function to that which was envisaged.

To be clear, the Internet, online access and the ability to share information is a great thing. It has, and will do more dramatically in future, transformed the way in which we work, play and interact with each other. It is vital though that is has some measure of control though. At least in the areas that we can manage.

I am entirely in favour of reducing censorship. Countries where news is filtered, edited even, to aid the control of populations and the abuse of human rights should be targeted at international level in order to allow for freedom of information and the exchange of knowledge. This however feels very different to the management of the Internet which is what the current crisis needs. It’s a shame that at times like this, the dissenters always argue at the extreme of the discussion, on one side a belief that all restrictions amount to censorship and that to bow to restrictions makes the UK no better than North Korea or the Yeman. On the other side of the debate, the Daily Mails “stance of close this site now” requests censorship rather than control.

Those who argue that censorship of the Internet is wrong should perhaps look at what has (or indeed hasn’t )changed in society over the past twenty to thirty years. When I was at school, a teenager, full of curiosity and hormones, the only access to porn that we had was learning that Mike in year four had his brothers mag and was willing to sell, or (rather worryingly now) rent it out! Access was rare, restricted and was to controlled top shelf images. That was because in those days, the regular channel of access to porn was that an adult needed to buy a magazine from a shop. The law stated that one had to be over 18 to buy one and therefore access was restricted. In essence censorship was in place. With the development of the Internet, all that has changed. To access porn now, all one needs is access to the Internet, a phone, tablet or pic and you are there. So, just because the the ability to access porn has changed, why should we have relaxed our view that only those over 18 should be allowed to purchase (or indeed access) it? Have we really changed our attitudes to porn that much in twenty years that we now think it is a child’s right to access it? I am thinking not. And this is where the change in supply, the change in channels of access have become confused with the original ethical argument. Whilst there are always going to be debates around the edges around the images that are classed as pornographic, the images that are extreme, surely our fundamental principle that porn should not be viewed by kids is still valid and held by the majority? I’m assuming so. Indeed the governments approach to this in my mind doesn’t go far enough. I think the government, the ISPs and parents should be doing far more to ensure that access to porn is limited.

The argument that introducing restrictions to the accessing of pornographic material is a slippery slope toward government censorship is a naive one. It ignores the fact that there are already restrictions in place. Thankfully it would be an extremely small group that condoned child porn images being accessible. The vast majority would agree that severe penalties should be in place for those making, distributing or accessing such content. But that’s a restriction. That’s censorship. Possibly to a lesser extent (although not much) most of us will have a threshold around which extreme images should be accessible (and to who). Again, as soon as one sets a threshold, that’s censorship.

Similarly with trolling. One is not allowed to make threats to kill, rape or harm when in a pub, the street or anywhere else. This applies to verbal and written threats. So this should apply to the Internet as well. If someone makes a threat to harm another, they should be dealt with in the same way as if they did it face to face. I would argue that the effect on the victim is the same and that is the key. ISPs, governmental organisations and the big social network organisations need to do more to ensure that anonymity is no more a cloak online as it is in the ‘real world’. If I received an anonymous threat in the post, I would expect the police to follow it up. My view is that twitter, Facebook and google should not be the police in this, they should be able to work with the police and provide evidence of threats, details of ip addresses, ISPs etc.In fact, ISPs and social network sites should have it in their terms and conditions that they will pass your details on in the event of a police investigation. The policing of this though should remain where it is in the ‘real world’  and we need to be aware that that will require extra resources. Indeed the faster that we accept the the Internet is part of the ‘real world’ and not something to control or police differently we take a significant step forward in the understanding of this problem.

A government  sets restrictions on what we can and cannot see. They set restrictions on what we can and cannot do. The great thing about the democracy that we live in is that we have the power to change those levels of restrictions through our vote. That’s not the same as censoring the media or the Internet. That’s just common sense to create the right level of restrictions to enable society to function in a just and fair way.

My argument here then is really that censorship of supply is nothing new. Laws which have been in place for years to protect principles around porn, slander, threats to harm were not seen as censorship then. And they shouldn’t be now. It’s only because the channel of communication has changed that they are being viewed as such. When one examines the reasons behind restrictions being in place twenty years ago and the reasons now, I would argue that little has changed. The reasons remain the same.

There is a desperate need for a privacy debate in this country. A need for a debate about whetehr principles have really changed that much from twenty years ago. A need to understand how much we control where we are going. The technology could drive us or we could drive it. My vote is with the latter.

The Politics of Greed

I note a number of stories about politicians again in the media over the past few weeks. The first was based around whether it was right that they were given a 10 per cent pay rise, the other notable one was the headlines about our Prime Minister being off on his ‘jollies’.

The debate over the pay rise quickly moved away from the point. The difficulty in granting such a pay rise at a period when public sector pay rises have been largely frozen should have been the main discussion point. However, the talk quickly descended into an argument about MPs being lazy, greedy and corrupt. A theme the media love to take up even though the evidence is barely there to support it. A it’s simplest level, the vast majority of MPs could hold down senior executive roles in FTSE companies. The latest pay rise will put them roughly  at the bottom of this pay range. In short there are easier ways for talented people to make money.

David Cameron
Is Cameron no longer allowed on holiday?
(Image © BisGovUK 2013)

To take the laziness argument first. MPs work hard. I would love to know what the man in the street who states otherwise is comparing it to. Long hours, extreme constant scrutiny and high stress doesn’t strike me as an easy life. Attending Westminster and working for the party alongside the constituency business means seriously long hours accompanied by the logistical difficulties of high degree of travel. A Hansard study of new MPs conducted in 2011 highlighted the disparity between needing to spend the majority of time on constituency business with the fact that around 65 per cent of time is spent in Westminster. The study picked up on an average 69 hour working week. This compares for instance to an average of 57 for a secondary school Head-teacher  The reality though for both these roles is that one is permanently working. Always on call, always available. What any of the detractors fail to grasp, sitting in their 9 to 5 roles is that there is no turn off point. One hears comments on long holidays (from Westminster) which ignore the point that that is generally focused constituency time rather than time spent in the sun. 

The holiday comment is also worth pursuing in more detail. Pictures of David Cameron covered  the tabloid press last week. The Mail reported that he “relaxed in a restaurant” and quoted a Labour MP who said “Britain Deserved More”. Meaning what? They deserve someone who doesn’t take a holiday? Is that now the view of the opposition? That we are more effective without holidays? That’s moving quite a long way from protecting workers. I’m guessing that that isn’t really the view of Labour, guessing in fact it’s not really the view of the media either and that holidays are still allowed for the ‘hard working family’ and guessing that its just an easy bandwagon topic to roll out in the quiet summer months. It also ignores the fact that people who operate at this sort of level don’t really get holidays as the rest of us know them. Yes, they get away to the sun, even spend time having a meal in a restaurant, being romantically  photographed by paparazzi. But they don’t stop, always on call or in Cameron’s case, constantly being briefed and updated on the latest situations. Different location doesn’t mean he stops working.

Then the corrupt piece. There is an argument that says that the MP should be beyond reproach. That they should be perfect in every aspect of their professional and personal lives. This doesn’t merely even apply to the time they serve in parliament but to anything they may have done in their youth. Of course a criticism of MPs is that they are distant from reality, that they don’t reflect the lives of their constituents. These, I am guessing, are people who never make mistakes, never have affairs and are similarly beyond reproach? You really can’t have it both ways. In the Hansard study, the vast majority of canvassed MPs said the role was having a detrimental effect on their private lives. Worth noting that any role that has such a significant effect on private lives, especially combined with late hours and working away from home is likely to create am environment where MPs form extra marital relationships to help them cope or to escape.  One of the areas most frowned on (and sensationally reported on) of course by our impeccably well behaved media. 

The recent expenses crisis of course highlighted some of the worst practices of the MPs. Although interestingly the reality was that only very few actually broke rules. It highlighted antiquated rules, established practices and quite rightly prompted a remodelling of the expenses procedures. Those that did have been rightfully prosecuted and most have stepped down. They represent a tiny proportion of the whole. Probably one that is in line with (or even less than) a comparable sample of expense fraud in any corporate.  

But it created a view that the tabloid media have been keen to further. The view that politicians do it for the easy life, that they do it for the money. Neither bears out in reality. Long hours, always on duty.  The constant threat of exposure in the media for the slightest mistake all with low comparative renumeration. That’s not an easy life, it’s certainly not the way to make the most money.

Most MPs enter politics with the aim to make things better. To fight for principles that they firmly believe in. To make their country a better place. In my dealings with politicians, that never changes. Like anyone in any organisation, corporate or public, they get weighed down by the internal politics, the bureaucracy and the sheer effort involved in actually achieving what should be small tasks. But my experience is that that desire to do ones best always remains. 

It’s a tough job, one I would certainly never want to do. It isn’t by any means an easy life, there are better ways of making money. It also has a unique characteristic in that in theory, if you find enough people who think you would do a better job, you could do it. Mind you, that’s quite a lot of effort. Maybe it’s easier to go on holiday.

BBC report on Hansard study
Guardian comparison between teachers and MPs working hours 
Best Paid Jobs League Table  

Twitter’s Rumour Mill

I’m often asked by friends “What is Twitter and what do you use it for?” For me, Twitter is like a gigantic newsfeed where I can tailor the news I receive to focus on the events that directly impact or interest me. It’s different from picking up a paper or watching the bbc news as the feeds are more subjective and depending on how carefully the lists of followers is built, it can reflect views from all ends of the political spectrum. 

So, with that in mind, I was interested to note what happened on the nights of the riots. On Tuesday evening Twitter was certainly a great medium for picking up peoples thoughts on the riots and for understanding the latest outbreaks of violence. However, very quickly  Twitter rumours started to surface. The ease of retweeting meant that the speed of dissemination was amazing and before long reports of trouble across the Milton Keynes areas was being reported. Over a very short period of time, a sense of unease and even panic was coming out from Twitter around Milton Keynes. 
At that point (and mainly due to certain journalists who were keen not to scaremonger) some sort of social order set in and tweeters seemed to passively accept it. In the Milton Keynes case, the local paper (The Citizen) became the focal point for people to report their own sightings in and then for them to consolidate them and provide one source of truth. Through this method, rumours were very quickly squashed and the growing panic died away. 
So… what we ended up with on Twitter was the news coming from one source…an excellent service on the night but almost the complete opposite of my definition of why I use Twitter.