Tuesday 27 February 2007

The road to perdition

How tempted to pick up a newspaper would you be if the main front page story was headlined, “One person killed in car crash”? Not a lot, I expect. It’s almost up there with the legendary “Small earthquake in Chile: not many dead”.

Yet substitute “train” for “car” in my first sentence and that’s exactly how most of our national newspapers led on Saturday, after a last-minute re-make to accommodate the accident in Westmorland.

True, they dressed it up rather more excitingly as “95mph train horror” or something similar. Ghoulish early morning radio presenters did their utmost to whip up public hysteria about Virgin’s new-fangled “Pendolino” tilting trains – a proven design which has been in service elsewhere in Europe for years, with an excellent safety record. They could scarcely conceal their disappointment when someone from British Transport Police came on air to announce that they were focusing their enquiries on a set of points rather than the train, though at least that identified someone else on whom to try and pin the blame.

I have been intrigued for years by the disproportionate interest that the media and, latterly, the police take in rail accidents (and, yes, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that every now and then accidents will happen, not necessarily involving criminal conspiracies).

Compare the saturation coverage of every rail crash with the almost complete lack of interest in anything less than the most horrific multiple pile-up on the roads. Just over a year ago, I was driving north on the A1 when I was brought to a halt in Cambridgeshire. A huge pall of black smoke hung over the road as emergency vehicles of every description screamed past. Being a curious type, when I finally got home I went onto the Internet to find out what had happened, and eventually did. A lorry had driven at speed into a queue of vehicles at road works, killing a young mother and her two children, and injuring six others. It had been covered, well down their running order, by the local radio station. Although a colossal family tragedy, apparently no-one else much cared.

That’s because road accidents are dismissed as everyday stuff. Yet in 2005, the last year for which official figures are available, 3,201 people died on Britain’s roads. To put that in some sort of context, that’s 48 more than were killed in the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, which commanded rather more interest and attention.

Our record of reducing fatalities is actually a pretty good one. There were 4,886 UK road deaths in 1926, when there were only 1.7 million vehicles on the road, compared with perhaps 35 million today. Almost 8,000 people died on Britain’s roads in 1965, when the carnage reached its post-war peak. Our death rate per vehicle mile driven is one of the lowest in Europe. My point is: it’s still way too high.

Would we shrug complacently if 3,000-odd people were being killed every year by escaped prisoners, suicide bombers or dodgy turkeys? Of course not. So why don’t the roads get more attention? Worldwide, around 3,000 people are killed in road accidents every day – more than die in wars.

Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, a family torn apart. So, while I may sometimes come across as a virtual anarchist in my campaign for personal freedom, I actually welcome this week’s further clamp down on those idiots who drive with one hand on the wheel and the other clasping their mobile phone.

And to inject one final bit of perspective, although there were 10 passenger fatalities on Britain’s railways in 2005, none died in an actual train crash. You’re probably safer on a train than you are in bed, particularly if you haven’t checked the electric blanket wiring lately. What’s more, you can talk on your mobile as much as you like. Unless, that is, you’re sitting next to me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 February 2007

Taking a liberty

Marvellous things, databases. They must be, given the apparently limitless amounts of money that the Government is prepared to chuck at them.

There’s the £20 billion NHS system, for a start. (Just think how many “unaffordable” drugs and rationed operations that could pay for, at a time when cash-strapped NHS Trusts are removing light bulbs to cut costs.) This is the database to which they plan to upload your medical records so that they can be accessed by every health worker in the EU. Plus, I suspect, any hacker who fancies a laugh.

Then there’s the national DNA database, already the largest in the world and expected to include the profiles of over four million people by next year. Again, about to be freely accessible by the police forces of all 27 EU countries.

A comprehensive children’s database is being created in the name of child protection, excluding – with truly astonishing hypocrisy – the offspring of politicians and other “celebrities”.

Yet another handy database has been unwittingly created by the 1.5 million people who rashly signed the current e-petition against road pricing, allowing a Government spokesman to promise to get in touch with them all to explain the error of their ways. Or, as bullies, usually like to put it, “we know where you live”.

Though this is nothing to the database that will be created if the road pricing scheme comes to fruition, using satellite tracking to record every vehicle movement in the country.

There’s the housing valuation database being prepared to facilitate the forthcoming hike in council tax, backed by unprecedented powers for Government inspectors to enter and photograph your home. There will soon even be a database of your weekly refuse output, measured by a microchip in your wheelie bin.

But all these pale into insignificance compared with the great National Identity Register. The requirement for new passport applicants to attend an interview is but the first turn of a ratchet which will soon require all of us to travel to a regional interrogation centre to be cross-questioned, finger-printed and iris-scanned for entry onto the database and to pay for the associated ID card. Without this, it will be impossible to work, bank, drive or access healthcare, pensions and benefits. In short, to exist in any normal sense.

There are two obvious potential lifelines in this fast-developing nightmare of cradle to grave surveillance. First, the whole history of Government IT projects suggests that their plans will end in a series of humiliating fiascos. One of the consultants charged with delivering the NHS system has already pronounced that it “isn’t working and isn’t going to work”. So nothing to worry about, then, apart from the billions of pounds of our hard-earned cash that will have been tipped pointlessly down the drain.

Secondly, the British people have traditionally been prepared to take a stand for their liberty. Are we really going to accept this multi-pronged and multi-layered intrusion into our lives, in the belief that Big Brother knows best? I am reluctant to believe it. If these schemes do progress, I trust that we will all pull together in a spirit of non-co-operation that will render them ineffective, whether by forbidding our GPs to add our medical records to the central database, or failing to turn up for our ID card interrogations.

True, you can be fined up to £2,500 for failing to attend your “interview”, and so far as I can see they can go on issuing appointments and fines ad infinitum. The Government has cunningly made this a civil rather than a criminal offence (so no hope of Legal Aid to defend yourself), but presumably if one can’t or won’t pay then prison ultimately beckons. I’m working on the theory that they can’t lock us all up. Though if all the current plans come to fruition, would we really notice that much difference in the quality of our lives if they did?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 February 2007

That time of year again

This column contains a number of valuable Public Service Announcements. I shall abbreviate this to PSA so that I can pack in even more useful information.

PSA 1: it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I’m proud to think of all the grief that will be saved if this timely reminder sends just one man off to the card shop, florist, confectioner and jeweller. Though in my experience, for what it’s worth, all women ever really want is shoes. So maybe you could try buying a gift voucher for a shoe shop. As in somewhere selling fashionable new ones, not a kiosk that mends heels and cuts keys.

You may be a bit stuffed, though, if you haven’t already booked a restaurant. It’s the busiest night of the year, apparently. PSA 2: keep going back to the same restaurant, and they’ll miraculously find that they can fit you in when crises like this arise. Antonio always used to greet me warmly when I lived in London. “Ah, Mr Hann! Your usual table, of course. And who is the lovely lady? Not quite such a stunner as that one you brought in last week. Now I really could have given her …”

PSA 3: never let your relationship with a maître d’hôtel degenerate into familiarity.

PSA 4: in the event that you do make it into a restaurant, avoid excessively spicy food, baked beans and ten pints of lager, all of which tend to detract from the romantic atmosphere. While drinking champagne from the lady’s shoe may be a delightfully old-fashioned gesture, it won’t necessarily go down too well if she has only just bought it with your gift voucher (see above). Nor will the fact that the voucher was only generous enough to allow her to buy one shoe, rather than a pair.

Who am I kidding? What do I know about a successful Valentine’s Day? Last year on 14 February I dined alone on the 18.02 from Alnmouth to London. GNER did their best, with a gipsy fiddler joining the service between Doncaster and Newark, but I couldn’t avoid a certain sense of disappointment. (That’s a fiddler as in violinist, incidentally. We’ll have no negative racial stereotyping in this column.)

Still, things are looking up, and tomorrow I shall be having dinner with a beautiful woman. She is 82 and my aunt, but it’s definitely a move in the right direction. PSA 5: always look on the bright side.

PSA 6: never assume that having a weekly column in the region’s top newspaper will enhance your attractiveness to the opposite sex.

I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to the lonely hearts ads, but it would be hope triumphing over experience.

PSA 7: people who use dating ads and websites are desperate, and there’s usually a good reason for that. I know, I’ve been there.

PSA 8: don’t even think about it unless you understand the code in which everything is written. For example, “slim” actually means not clinically obese; “petite” = midget; “young 40” = weeks off qualifying for a bus pass; “successful” = less than 20 County Court judgements currently outstanding; “bubbly” = bestially stupid and irritatingly fond of hearing own voice; “gsoh” = laughs at anything, unless it is actually funny; “animal loving” = you really don’t want to go there.

I may stick a full glossary of the real meaning of dating terms on my website, in the admittedly unlikely event that I can be bothered.

PSA 9: if you’re dating someone new tomorrow, don’t fall madly in love during the first course and start planning the wedding and honeymoon. This is a classic example of “do as I say, not as I do”, based on rashly acquiring three ex-fiancées since 1990.

PSA 10: if you choose to ignore that last bit of good advice, contact me for some excellent deals on only slightly used diamond engagement rings.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 7 February 2007

Shark attack

I started work (if you can call it work) in financial PR in 1983, the year of Mrs Thatcher’s post-Falklands electoral landslide. There followed three years of absolutely frenetic activity helping to bring companies to the stock market. Big ones, small ones; Government privatisations, old family firms and entrepreneurs’ bright ideas; high quality household names and businesses massaged to an artificial peak of saleability by men you would not have bought a used road atlas from, never mind a car.

We used to love working for one merchant bank in particular, because they consistently under-priced their offers for sale. It was a real treat to escort the vendors into the public gallery of the Stock Exchange on the first day of dealings in their shares, and watch their faces as the price rocketed upwards. Delight at the sharp rise in the value of their remaining holdings nicely counterbalanced by regret that they’d sold some far too cheaply. A textbook case of mixed feelings, like watching the mother-in-law drive your new Ferrari off a cliff.

Those years were huge fun, but one could also kid oneself that one was taking part in a worthwhile project: creating a share-owning democracy, in which many thousands of people made nice little windfalls from privatisations like BT and British Gas. Then realisation dawned: small shareholders were actually a ruddy nuisance.

Today the stock market traffic seems to be all the other way, with hungry private equity sharks circling every quoted company, probing for signs of weakness. Sainsbury’s is the latest to feel their bite, and is unusual only for its size and the fact that its recovery already seems to be well in hand.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made for sorting out persistently underperforming companies away from stock market scrutiny, bad news though that may be for their staff and other “stakeholders”. But I think the private equity craze has gone too far. How are public company boards supposed to manage effectively, if they are constantly having to look over their shoulders while trying to maintain eye contact with investors who demand consistent performance?

It may be in the best long term interests of a company to adopt strategies that will lead to short term profit slippage; reculer pour mieux sauter as the French like to say, though in practice they tend to major on the retreating, followed by a big lunch and a nap. It’s a very brave chief executive who’d dare to try that in 2007; and probably a short-lived one too.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who naively believes sweet money is what you use to buy dolly mixtures. www.keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

Cars, mugs and fat cats

Frankly, last week defied parody. It got off to a lousy start on Sunday morning, as I lay awake for two hours from 3 a.m., listening to a bunch of Tyneside motoring fans practising their engine revving and gear changing skills immediately outside my house. I began to regret writing so whimsically on the subject three weeks ago, when I compared this small hours rallying to foxhunting; another activity whose appeal is completely lost on me, but which I was never enough of a joyless busybody to want banned.

Now I’m going all out to get hold of one of those stinger devices, lads, so at the very least you might want to start thinking about an alternative route for next year. Oh, and if there is a company out there called Silencers R Us, might I suggest that opening a Whickham branch could be a great business opportunity?

Monday brought that classic pronouncement from “senior Labour county councillors” that there wouldn’t be a referendum on the creation of a unitary authority as we the public are too thick to understand the issues (as we demonstrated by not voting the way we were supposed to do on the Regional Assembly) and because there isn’t time. Right. The current structure has been in place for 34 years, and the Government in office for almost a decade, but all of a sudden change has become so incredibly urgent that there is no scope for public consultation. Odd, that.

Tuesday brought some welcome light relief when, just for once, all the leaks from “well-placed sources” proved to be completely wrong, and the super-casino went to Manchester. (I wonder if John Prescott had to return his cowboy boots and Stetson to the owner of the Dome?) But then came all the “it’s not fair” whinges from Newcastle grandees. Come on, chaps. This isn’t a decision to hang your heads about. It’s an occasion for punching the air and shouting “Yes!”

Gambling exists to exploit stupid and gullible people, who oddly enough are often the poorest in society. Yes, I allow myself a wry smile whenever I go to the Royal Opera House, and reflect that its beautiful refurbishment was made possible by £78 million of Lottery money, kindly donated by mugs buying tickets and scratchcards. But it’s not right, is it? We need more gambling opportunities like a hole in the head, particularly since Patricia Hewitt made it clear that a go on the fruit machines will not count towards your “five a day” target.

Then on Friday Newcastle officially became the noisiest place in Britain, based on the scientific sample of the Swan House underpass. There are rumours that the same team’s next shock survey will brand Malton the most dangerous place in the country, after positioning a researcher in the lion enclosure at Flamingo Land with an antelope on her lap.

Finally, on Saturday, I read another columnist in this paper singing the praises of a single unitary council for Northumberland on the grounds that it will make life simpler for other public bodies like the Tourist Board, and get rid of over 200 pesky local councillors, replacing them with fewer “well paid” ones who can be “encouraged to take the countywide strategic view”. Fantastic. So much for the concept of public service or actually representing local communities. Let’s just have a few fat cats to rubber-stamp the decisions of those who know what is best for us.

Of course, it may be too late to prevent this. The rot has already taken a firm hold. Is it a sign of the times or a printer’s error that led Newton on the Moor and Swarland Parish Council to advertise last Thursday for a new clerk, paying £8,147 to £9,315 per hour, plus expenses? There’s only one way to find out, and applications close at noon on February 16. Remember you’re British, and form an orderly queue.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.