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Category — Politics

Nuclear Power You Can Trust?

Hav­ing been involved in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in one way or anoth­er since the 1970s, I’ve always been in the “anti-nuclear” camp.

Indeed, I think I was the first per­son to cre­ate an Eng­lish ver­sion of the famous “Atom­kraft? Nein Danke” logo – for the cov­er of an edi­tion of Under­cur­rents mag­a­zine – a mag­a­zine that was into renew­ables (main­ly of the DIY vari­ety) before a lot of peo­ple. (You can read some copies of it here.)

Of course there are plen­ty of rea­sons to be wary of nuclear pow­er – of the cur­rent vari­ety at least.

  • There’s the ques­tion of ener­gy secu­ri­ty: Ura­ni­um does­n’t come from here, we have to import it, or reprocess oth­er peo­ples’. So although I gath­er there might be deposits off the British coast, it does­n’t seem at this point to help decou­ple us from poten­tial prob­lems with depen­dence on over­seas sources.
  • There’s the prob­lem of nuclear waste dis­pos­al, though some peo­ple (James Love­lock for exam­ple) are con­vinced that this can be done safe­ly and permanently.
  • Nuclear pow­er as we cur­rent­ly do it is absurd­ly inef­fi­cient. What you do is you let radioac­tive decay heat some water and then pass it through tur­bines. It’s just like a con­ven­tion­al pow­er sta­tion, except you heat the water dif­fer­ent­ly. I can imag­ine the effi­cien­cy is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than 50%. What­ev­er hap­pened to inno­v­a­tive direct con­ver­sion tech­nolo­gies like MHD (Mag­ne­to­Hy­dro­Dy­nam­ics), where, for exam­ple, you can run a plas­ma back and forth in a mag­net­ic field and pull elec­tric­i­ty direct­ly off the plas­ma, in a kind of flu­id dynamo? The Sovi­ets had some pilot plants gen­er­at­ing sev­er­al megawatts. What happened?
  • And there’s the risk of dis­as­trous acci­dents, like Cher­nobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushi­ma, which can poten­tial­ly spread sig­nif­i­cant amounts of irra­di­at­ed mate­r­i­al over a wide area, with poten­tial health effects like increased long-term can­cer risk and oth­er prob­lems beyond the direct effects of radi­a­tion poisoning.

Counter to the last of these, there’s the fact that remark­ably few peo­ple have actu­al­ly been affect­ed by radi­a­tion from nuclear pow­er plants. Many, many few­er than have been killed or injured by coal-min­ing acci­dents and oth­er fos­sil-fuel-relat­ed dis­as­ters. If Ger­many was as sen­si­tive to risks to life from bac­te­ria as it is from nuclear pow­er, it would have closed down the organ­ic food indus­try by now. But instead, it’s clos­ing down its nuclear plants, which, as far as I know, have not caused any deaths at all, unlike the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed beansprouts.

But of course, it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that.

The fact is that right now we need low-car­bon ener­gy sources, and quick­ly, to com­bat the threat of anthro­pogenic (human-cre­at­ed) glob­al warm­ing (AGW). There is no doubt about the threat of AGW, and I’m not going to enter­tain dis­cus­sion about it here. Sorry.

Much as I am in favour of renew­ables, and much as I like the sight of ele­gant, vir­tu­al­ly silent wind tur­bines dot­ting the land­scape (and I would as hap­pi­ly have some in the field behind my house as James Love­lock would have a nuclear waste stor­age facil­i­ty behind his), the fact is that renew­ables are almost cer­tain­ly not enough, and we need some­thing more to replace our age­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing­ly destruc­tive car­bon-spew­ing fos­sil-fuel pow­ered gen­er­at­ing sta­tions. Nuclear is the obvi­ous option, so after years of tak­ing an anti-nuclear stance, I am chang­ing my mind. And in doing so find myself aligned with peo­ple like George Mon­biot and Pro­fes­sor Lovelock.

In my opin­ion, even if we did no bet­ter in the inter­na­tion­al nuclear pow­er indus­try than we have done to date, any threat to human life from nuclear pow­er, past, present and future, is as noth­ing com­pared to the bil­lions whose lives are threat­ened by AGW and will be over the 50–100 years ahead.

I will be a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial and say that in my per­son­al view (and I am not a nuclear pow­er expert, so may be wrong), the cur­rent lev­el of nuclear pow­er tech­nol­o­gy is much safer than the chain that ends in a con­ven­tion­al fos­sil-fuel-dri­ven pow­er sta­tion. That, to me, is not the question.

Instead, the ques­tion is, can we trust any­one to build, main­tain and oper­ate nuclear pow­er sta­tions safe­ly?

You could argue that by and large, the answer to that ques­tion is yes. Nuclear pow­er as it is prac­tised today is in fact extreme­ly safe com­pared with fos­sil-fuel gen­er­a­tion. But there is a bit of a knife edge here. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, how­ev­er intrin­si­cal­ly safe the cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy is, the fact is that I do not trust for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tions to do the job prop­er­ly. I am not even sure I trust gov­ern­ments. They will always be look­ing to cut cor­ners and save mon­ey, time or what­ev­er else, and the result will be a great­ly increased risk. Take a look at this:

 

This is the seg­ment on nuclear pow­er from Adam Cur­tis’s Pan­do­ra’s Box series on some mis­us­es of sci­en­tif­ic research. I’m a big fan of Cur­tis’s work (although I have some issues with his lat­est series, All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace) and I think the above is spot on.

So, I think the tech­nol­o­gy of cur­rent nuclear pow­er is fine in the­o­ry, but we are going to screw it up in prac­tice. How can we have our cake and eat it? What we need is a method of nuclear pow­er gen­er­a­tion that you can’t screw up [very easily].

The answer just might be hint­ed at in this arti­cle from, of all places The Mail On Sun­day, a paper I would nev­er have thought I’d find myself rec­om­mend­ing in, er, a month of Sun­days. It’s also rec­om­mend­ed by the cli­mate-scep­tic Glob­al Warm­ing Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion. Talk about strange bedfellows….

The piece is about the “Elec­tron Mod­el of Many Appli­ca­tions”, or EMMA. Here’s the arti­cle. Research into this tech­nol­o­gy is going on in Cheshire and it might just pro­vide the key to one method of using Tho­ri­um in a reac­tor to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty – assum­ing the UK gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues fund­ing the research prop­er­ly, which I doubt. Here’s the begin­ning of the piece:

“Imag­ine a safe, clean nuclear reac­tor that used a fuel that was huge­ly abun­dant, pro­duced only minute quan­ti­ties of radioac­tive waste and was almost impos­si­ble to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. This is what lies in store if we har­ness the pow­er of a sil­very met­al found in riv­er sands, soil and gran­ite rock the world over: thorium.

One ton of tho­ri­um can pro­duce as much ener­gy as 200 tons of ura­ni­um, or 3.5 mil­lion tons of coal, and the tho­ri­um deposits that have already been iden­ti­fied would meet the entire world’s ener­gy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike ura­ni­um, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less tox­ic. Hap­pi­ly, it pro­duces ener­gy with­out pro­duc­ing any car­bon diox­ide: so an econ­o­my that ran on tho­ri­um pow­er would have vir­tu­al­ly no car­bon footprint.

Bet­ter still, a tho­ri­um reac­tor would be inca­pable of hav­ing a melt­down, and would gen­er­ate only 0.6 per cent of the radioac­tive waste of a con­ven­tion­al nuclear plant. It could even be adapt­ed to ‘burn’ exist­ing, stock­piled ura­ni­um waste in its core, thus enor­mous­ly reduc­ing its radioac­tive half-life and toxicity.…”

Now read on.

It seems to me that this tech­nol­o­gy could answer many, if not all, of the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns about the accept­abil­i­ty of nuclear pow­er. Of course I want to read the full report that is appar­ent­ly soon to be pub­lished, and no tech­nol­o­gy comes with­out draw­backs (or unin­tend­ed con­se­quences for that mat­ter), but pre­lim­i­nary accounts, like the one above, seem to offer promise.

For more on oth­er pos­si­ble uses of Tho­ri­um for pow­er gen­er­a­tions, see this Wikipedia arti­cle. You’ll see it’s not entire­ly prob­lem-free – but then noth­ing is.

*Head­er image from MensPulpMags.com

 

June 21, 2011   No Comments

UK Local Elections 2011: Goodbye Compromise

Why did the Lib Dems do so bad­ly yes­ter­day? The short answer is “prob­a­bly not what you think.”

The com­mon­est eval­u­a­tion that seems to be float­ing around cur­rent­ly, the day after the elec­tion took place and now the results have become clear, is that, exact­ly a year after the Gen­er­al Elec­tion that brought the Lib Dem/ Tory coali­tion, the vot­ing pop­u­la­tion expressed the view that it did­n’t like the cuts and oth­er dis­as­trous poli­cies pro­posed by the coali­tion. As a result the Labour vote rose; but in addi­tion, the Lib­er­al Democ­rats took a par­tic­u­lar beat­ing while the Con­ser­v­a­tives got off more or less scot free (with a slight increase in seats in fact). There seems to be some mys­tery in many minds as to why the Lib Dems should have borne the brunt of the nation’s dis­plea­sure while the Tories remained unscathed.

In my mind, there’s no mys­tery at all. Imag­ine a con­sci­en­tious Labour vot­er on the Left, per­haps quite far to the Left, who over the peri­od since 1997 (actu­al­ly before that in fact), saw the par­ty drift­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly right­wards until it was more cen­trist than any­thing else. That was a cause for con­cern, but even more dis­turb­ing was the behav­iour of Blair, over Iraq and the imag­i­nary Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion which nev­er were, and of course that many believe he knew all along nev­er were.

The only sig­nif­i­cant par­ty to oppose the Iraq involve­ment was the Lib­er­al Democ­rats. And as time went by, and Labour nev­er repealed the excess­es of Thatch­erism (just as Clin­ton nev­er reversed Rea­gan and Bush senior, inci­den­tal­ly*) nev­er reined in the finan­cial insti­tu­tions (that were to bring ruin upon us as an inevitable result of the com­bined efforts of Rea­gan and Thatch­er), nev­er in fact took any moves to the left at all to any great extent while at the same time increas­ing­ly threat­en­ing civ­il lib­er­ties, kow-tow­ing to big media com­pa­nies over inter­net use, media own­er­ship and behav­iour, the Lib Dems came to look more and more attractive.

Trou­ble was, the Lib Dems were by and large from two back­grounds. There were those who were orig­i­nal­ly Lib­er­als, many of whom were of course quite remark­able and pro­gres­sive peo­ple — my par­tic­u­lar favourite being Bev­eridge, who con­ceived a mod­el of the Wel­fare State before the end of the Sec­ond World War which, imple­ment­ed as much as was prac­ti­cal by the 1945 Labour gov­ern­ment, worked pret­ty well on the whole until Thatch­er start­ed attack­ing it.

But the oth­ers were for­mer­ly mem­bers of the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, a spin­off of what was essen­tial­ly the right wing of the Labour Par­ty when the lat­ter was rather clos­er to being (though not actu­al­ly being) a Social­ist par­ty than it was today. They were cer­tain­ly to the Right of the Labour Par­ty at the time of the Gang of Four, but where they stood with respect to “New Labour’ was pos­si­bly a dif­fer­ent matter.

Those of us firm­ly on the Left, dis­sat­is­fied and betrayed by the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­rat-style New Labour edi­fice (whose poli­cies, using tech­niques learned from Clin­ton, had been craft­ed by focus group and mar­ket research and not by fer­vent belief in the need for rep­re­sen­ta­tion of work­ing peo­ple; and who were fund­ed, like the Tories, by big busi­ness and oth­ers inim­i­cal to their needs) want­ed some­where to go. Some­where where we might actu­al­ly have a chance of the par­ty we vot­ed for actu­al­ly win­ning some seats (ie not Respect or some oth­er fringe Left­ist par­ty). The Lib Dems said enough of the right things for us to be inter­est­ed in sup­port­ing them, espe­cial­ly when every­one else in the coun­try seemed to be on the right.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, of course, the Lib Dems were on the right too — or at least part of them was. Many of us were dis­mayed last year that the Lib Dems formed a coali­tion with the Tories, even if we knew full well that a part­ner­ship with Labour would not have been work­able. How­ev­er we con­soled our­selves with the thought that at least “our lads” were mak­ing the Tories less tox­ic than they would oth­er­wise have been. With hind­sight, this seems debatable.

What has hap­pened in the past year is that we have seen threats from the Gov­ern­ment  to many things we hold dear, from Coun­cil ser­vices to the NHS to the BBC, and cuts that are very evi­dent­ly ide­o­log­i­cal rather than fis­cal­ly nec­es­sary. It’s Thatch­erism in a skin. In the mean­time the Labour Par­ty under Miliband has sought to dis­tance itself some­what from New Labour and even appear to move left­wards a lit­tle and behave a lit­tle more at least like a Social Demo­c­rat, rather than a Chris­t­ian Demo­c­rat,  par­ty. No doubt many of us would like it to move fur­ther to the Left, but we’re also con­scious that a right-wing press would per­suade the major­i­ty that a hard Left par­ty was une­lec­table and dan­ger­ous. It will take a lot of effort to depose the influ­ence of the Right in the media, and mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy is only part of the answer — one of the most pop­u­lar web sites in the UK is, I gath­er, that of the Dai­ly Mail, for exam­ple. That’s one rea­son why the unbi­ased nature of the BBC , though we may com­plain about it from time to time, is so important.

So what we did yes­ter­day is we went back home. Tory vot­ers remained Tory vot­ers – and why should­n’t they. We bol­stered the Labour vote, even in areas where only the Tories were in with a chance — like where I live in the East of Eng­land. Here, there has­n’t been a Lib­er­al (let alone a Labour) MP for 60 years, and if I was­n’t vot­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive it did­n’t mat­ter one lit­tle bit who I vot­ed for, thanks to First Past the Post (which we are now stuck with indef­i­nite­ly… I won­der if we could pro­pose the Scot­tish sys­tem of FPTP plus Lists to ensure pro­por­tion­al­i­ty?). Last time I looked, my vote here was actu­al­ly worth 0.01 votes in terms of how like­ly it was to change things. So I vot­ed Labour, and I hope the pun­dits look at the pop­u­lar vote, some­thing that was always ignored before the Infor­ma­tion Age, and note the num­bers well.

We post-Social­ists and friends of like enough mind with­drew our sup­port from the Lib Dems, and with­out us, their vote went, in most places, back to much ear­li­er, pri­mae­val­ly low levels.

We with­drew our sup­port because we dis­agreed with the state­ment that “com­pro­mise is not betray­al”; because we don’t believe the com­pro­mis­es should be being made. You can­not make accept­able com­pro­mis­es with the Right when the cor­rect answers are to the Left of both your posi­tions — some­thing I wish Oba­ma had grasped in the US, incidentally.

And because we sud­den­ly realised that of those two wings of the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat par­ty, the Cen­tre Right one was very much in con­trol. And we did not come all this way to vote for yet anoth­er par­ty of the Right. We had already made our com­pro­mis­es by sup­port­ing a par­ty with a known right-lean­ing ten­den­cy, which hith­er­to had been ame­lio­rat­ed by a small num­ber of Lib Dem fig­ures who shared our views, for exam­ple, on the environment.

We did­n’t like dis­cov­er­ing that we had been sup­port­ing a par­ty of the Right for some time. So we went home.

So what hap­pens now? Well, the atro­cious behav­iour of Cameron with regard to the antics of the No to AV mob – about which I am absolute­ly cer­tain that absolute­ly noth­ing will be done – will no doubt sour rela­tions in the Cab­i­net. But Blair and Brown hat­ed each oth­er for years and man­aged to run the coun­try. So there is no rea­son the coali­tion should fall apart for that rea­son. And falling apart now is any­way too soon.

The impor­tant thing in my view is to ensure that Tory poli­cies are stopped. My expec­ta­tion is that as time goes by, Labour sup­port will con­tin­ue to rise. It’s already jumped in a year: as the cuts bite and pub­lic sec­tor work­ers are turned out of their jobs across the coun­try, that can only increase. At a point in the future, a stand by Lib Dem MPs on some issue they feel pas­sion­ate­ly about would bring about a vote of no con­fi­dence in the Gov­ern­ment, or some oth­er route to a col­lapse of the coali­tion, and we’ll have a Gen­er­al Elec­tion – one that Labour will win.

OK, the Labour Par­ty still needs to demon­strate that it real­ly is a par­ty of the Left, for exam­ple a man­i­festo com­mit­ment to re-nation­al­is­ing the rail net­work and undo­ing some of the rav­ages of Thatch­er might be a good start, but hey, we are so used to vot­ing for the “least worst” we can prob­a­bly live with that as long as it keeps a slide back to Thatch­erism off the table.

Image cour­tesy of secretlondon123 via Wiki­Me­dia Commons

May 6, 2011   2 Comments

Time to change the voting system

On 5 May in the UK, we’ll have a choice, via a ref­er­en­dum: whether to keep the “First Past The Post” vot­ing sys­tem – where the per­son who gets the most votes in an elec­tion wins, even if under half those who cast a vote actu­al­ly vot­ed for them – or instead opt for the fair­er “Alter­na­tive Vote” (AV) sys­tem, where you rank can­di­dates in order of preference.

I am per­son­al­ly in favour of a ful­ly pro­por­tion­al sys­tem, but that’s not on the table. AV, how­ev­er, is a step for­ward and I’d urge read­ers to vote in favour. To find out more, click here.

I’ve heard an enor­mous amount of rub­bish about AV, main­ly from the “no” camp, and I am rather sur­prised that there is no mech­a­nism for hold­ing them to account for a cam­paign of what, in my view, amounts to a lot of lies and distortion. 

If you’d like to know which of the claims on both sides are fact, and which are fic­tion, check out Chan­nel 4’s FactCheck blog.

My nasty sus­pi­cion is that the “no” camp will win as a result of delib­er­ate­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ing what AV would mean. If you are also in favour of AV, I would appre­ci­ate it if you could do your best to stop that hap­pen­ing, and help peo­ple under­stand how it works.

There must be some­thing in it, too, because it’s used for vir­tu­al­ly every oth­er type of UK elec­tion: elect­ing May­ors, elect­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Scot­tish and Welsh Par­lia­ments, and choos­ing the Leader of not only the Labour Par­ty but (via a close rel­a­tive of AV) the Tories as well. It’s even used to elect hered­i­tary peers in the House of Lords (hon­est!).

So for­get the erro­neous protes­ta­tions of the nay-say­ers and try this instead. The truth is, AV is real­ly sim­ple. When you go to the polls, you rank the can­di­dates in order of pref­er­ence until it does­n’t mat­ter to you any more. That’s it. Or as some­one rather more graph­i­cal­ly put it, imag­ine all the can­di­dates are trapped in a burn­ing build­ing. In what order would you pre­fer them to be rescued? 

Dan Snow’s excel­lent video below clear­ly explains why AV is a good idea and how it works. 

April 26, 2011   No Comments

Where will voters on the Left go?

I think there are quite a few clos­et Social­ists in this coun­try. They are peo­ple, whether they were alive or of vot­ing age or not at the time, round­ly endorsed the 1942 Report on Social Insur­ance and Allied Ser­vices by Lib­er­al peer Lord Bev­eridge (shown above) that laid out the struc­ture of the Wel­fare State, and the Labour gov­ern­ment elect­ed via land­slide in 1945 that man­aged, despite incred­i­ble odds, to imple­ment much of it in the suc­ceed­ing years.

The view at the end of the Sec­ond World War was an opti­mistic one: that Britain need­ed a new approach in which the old ways of priv­i­lege were cast aside and in their place was built a new soci­ety in which every­one helped each oth­er, ensur­ing that Bev­eridge’s “Five Giants” – Want, Dis­ease, Squalor, Igno­rance, and Idle­ness – were ban­ished from the land. Peo­ple had seen the way things worked dur­ing the war when things were large­ly cen­tral­ly con­trolled, and they had become used to hav­ing to work togeth­er for the com­mon good, and they want­ed peace­time gov­ern­ment to enshrine those same values.

The result­ing “social con­sen­sus” last­ed from that point through to the elec­tion of the gov­ern­ment of Mar­garet Thatch­er in 1979. Thatch­er delib­er­ate­ly and care­ful­ly took advan­tage of arro­gance on the part of some labour unions to dis­mem­ber that con­sen­sus and throw Britain deci­sive­ly to the Right, helped by the pop­u­lar right-wing press.

Quite a few ordi­nary peo­ple did very well out of the Thatch­er years, for exam­ple being able to buy their coun­cil hous­es at knock-down prices, a pol­i­cy that only more recent­ly has been shown to have a dis­as­trous impact on social housing.

To appear capa­ble of re-elec­tion once again, the Labour Par­ty had to move to the right too. As a result “New Labour” aban­doned tra­di­tion­al Social­ist val­ues and, under Blair, suc­ceed­ed in get­ting back into pow­er with the aid of press barons like Rupert Mur­doch. It arguably sold its soul to focus groups and those who craft­ed pol­i­cy based not on prin­ci­ple but on mar­ket­ing. The result was a gov­ern­ment that failed to redress the imbal­ance caused by Thatch­er, refused to remove the regres­sive and repres­sive leg­is­la­tion that had been put in place over the pre­vi­ous twen­ty years, and end­ed up fur­ther to the Right than Edward Heath’s ear­li­er Tory government.

“Social­ism” had become a dirty word. But plen­ty of peo­ple still held to those old val­ues. Where did those vot­ers go? Some went to the var­i­ous small Social­ist par­ties that remained, like George Gal­loway’s Respect. But quite a few moved to the Lib­er­al Democ­rats. The old Lib­er­al Par­ty, they believed, had come up with the idea of the Wel­fare State back in the days of Lloyd George, and then the Bev­eridge Report dur­ing the war. The Social Democ­rats had left the Labour Par­ty and even­tu­al­ly joined forces with the Lib­er­als to form the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems had prob­lems, in that some in the par­ty were quite con­ser­v­a­tive. But there was also a tra­di­tion­al Lib­er­al­ism that was fur­ther to the Left – far enough to feel like home to many.

Today, we have a coali­tion gov­ern­ment which is large­ly Tory with a hint of Lib­Dem. Arguably it is more “Lib­er­al” than it would have been if it was a Tory minor­i­ty Gov­ern­ment. But to a lot of peo­ple it is in many ways worse than the pre­vi­ous cen­tre-Right “New Labour” admin­is­tra­tion. Quite a few of those left-wing Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat sup­port­ers are dis­sat­is­fied. As a result, they are mov­ing else­where. I think some votes we see today mov­ing from Lib­Dem to Labour are not so much “soft” votes as Left votes. If Labour real­ly moves to the Left (high­ly unlike­ly in my view), then we will see more of this.

As Johann Hari has point­ed out, the actu­al views of vot­ers are on aver­age sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the Left of all three main par­ties. Arguably, pres­sures, notably from the pop­u­lar Press, how­ev­er, have tend­ed to keep those par­ties well to the Right of what used to be the Cen­tre in the days before Thatcher.

A size­able num­ber of left-wing vot­ers grav­i­tat­ed to the Lib Dems as a result, mak­ing the par­ty, de fac­to, a rather broad church. That breadth is prob­a­bly not sus­tain­able in the longer term, espe­cial­ly if the Lib­Dems are seen as sup­port­ing “ide­o­log­i­cal” rather than nec­es­sary Tory cuts, and if the lead­er­ship of the Labour Par­ty moves its stance Leftwards.

Cer­tain­ly a par­ty with a com­mit­ment to tra­di­tion­al Liberal/Left co-oper­a­tive val­ues of the Beveridge/Labour 1945 vari­ety would appeal to a great many vot­ers who feel that British soci­ety, whichev­er main par­ty is in pow­er, favours the rich and priv­i­lege, that the gap between rich and poor is widen­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly (the lat­ter being an accu­rate assess­ment), and that this is a Bad Thing.

It’s a real ques­tion as to where those vot­ers will go, espe­cial­ly if they feel the Lib­Dems have let them down and the Labour Par­ty remains cen­tre-right. The Green Par­ty will prob­a­bly not be in a posi­tion to pick them up for var­i­ous rea­sons. It may be that they will sim­ply, ulti­mate­ly, take to the streets. Indeed, they may already be doing so.

This is a process that cur­rent Gov­ern­ment aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, which many see as ide­o­log­i­cal and favour­ing the rich rather than being nec­es­sary and fair­ly applied, will encour­age, and we may well see an increas­ing amount of civ­il unrest over the next few years unless the Lib­Dems in Gov­ern­ment can suc­cess­ful­ly ensure that cuts and oth­er mea­sures are imposed fair­ly. For exam­ple, many peo­ple want to see more empha­sis placed on lim­it­ing tax evasion/avoidance than on ben­e­fit cuts. Such suc­cess, to me, seems unlikely.

Mean­while, the Five Giants are return­ing. They have, indeed, been return­ing for thir­ty years.

For a rather more pos­i­tive view of the future for the Lib Dems, see this arti­cle in the Inde­pen­dent by Mary Ann Sieghart.

September 20, 2010   1 Comment

The Digital Economy Bill: an engineer/producer’s view

The Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill now being rushed through the UK Par­lia­ment is, in my view, a dis­as­ter area of lack of under­stand­ing of the issues.

Ordi­nary peo­ple risk dis­con­nec­tion from the Inter­net — accu­rate­ly described recent­ly as “the fourth util­i­ty”, as vital as gas or elec­tric­i­ty to mod­ern life — with­out due process; sites could be blocked for legit­i­mate users because of alleged infring­ing con­tent. These are just some of the like­ly effects of the Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill now being rushed through Par­lia­ment in advance of the elec­tion. And Swedish research indi­cates that mea­sures of this type do noth­ing to reduce piracy.

Pirates will imme­di­ate­ly use prox­ies and oth­er anonymis­ing meth­ods to con­tin­ue what they’re doing: only ordi­nary peo­ple will be affect­ed. It’s quite like­ly that WiFi access points like those in hotels, libraries and cof­fee shops will close down because their own­ers will not want to be held respon­si­ble for any alleged infringement.

This bill will not solve any prob­lems for the indus­try — in fact it’ll cre­ate them. Sup­pose you send a rough mix to a col­lab­o­ra­tor using a file trans­fer sys­tem like YouSendIt. It’s a music file, so pack­et snif­fers your ISP will be oblig­ed to oper­ate will, while invad­ing your pri­va­cy at the same time, encour­age the assump­tion that it’s an infringe­ment. And you may not be able to access YouSendIt in the first place because UK access has been blocked as a result of some­one else’s alleged infringements.

Sup­pose you run an inter­net radio sta­tion. In the UK that requires two licens­es, one from PRS (typ­i­cal­ly the Lim­it­ed Online Exploita­tion Licence or LOEL), and the oth­er a Web­cast­ing licence from PPL. Part of what you pay for the PPL licence is a dub­bing fee that allows you to copy com­mer­cial record­ings to a com­mon library. You might do that in “the cloud” so your DJs — who may be across the coun­try or across the world — can playlist from it, using a ser­vice like Drop­Box. How will the author­i­ties know that your music files are there legal­ly? Do you seri­ous­ly think they’ll check with PPL? Of course not. It’ll be seen as an infringe­ment, and your inter­net access could be blocked first, and ques­tions asked after­wards. You’re off the air and bang goes your busi­ness. Or you may have already lost access to your library because some­one thinks some­one else has post­ed infring­ing mate­r­i­al to the same site.

Worst of all, the bill is being rushed through Par­lia­ment with­out the debate need­ed to get prop­er­ly to grips with the issues.

The bill as it stands will threat­en the growth of a co-cre­ative dig­i­tal economy.

The indus­try bad­ly needs to review its posi­tion. We’ve known since the Warn­ers Home Tap­ing sur­vey in the ear­ly 1980s that the peo­ple who buy music are the peo­ple who share music.  In my view a busi­ness strat­e­gy that makes your cus­tomer the ene­my is not a good one.

The pop­u­la­tion at large believes that a lot of the fig­ures for ille­gal file trans­fer are con­jured out of thin air — a recent report claimed that a quar­ter of a mil­lion UK jobs in cre­ative indus­tries would be lost as a result of pira­cy where in fact there are only 130,000 at present. This does not look good.

The indus­try has a his­to­ry of tak­ing the wrong posi­tion on new tech­nol­o­gy. Gramo­phone records would kill off sheet music sales and live per­for­mance. Air­play would stop peo­ple buy­ing records (how wrong can you be?). And so on. The indus­try atti­tude to new tech­nol­o­gy seems to be “How do we stop it?” We should instead be ask­ing “How do we use this tech­nol­o­gy to make mon­ey and serve our customers?”

The indus­try is chang­ing. More and more record­ings are being made by indi­vid­u­als in small stu­dios col­lab­o­rat­ing across the world via the Inter­net. Sales are increas­ing­ly in the “Long Tail” and not in the form of smash hits from the majors. Instead of the vast major­i­ty of sales being made through a small num­ber of dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels con­trolled by half-a-dozen big record com­pa­nies, they’re increas­ing­ly being made via indi­vid­ual artists sell­ing from their web sites and at gigs; small online record com­pa­nies like Magnatune.com; and so on. It’s impos­si­ble to count all those tiny micro-out­lets, and they are not even record­ed as sales in many cas­es — mak­ing report­ed sales small­er, which is labelled the result of pira­cy when it’s in fact an inabil­i­ty to count — yet this is exact­ly where an increas­ing pro­por­tion of sales are com­ing from. I’ve seen some research from a few years ago even sug­gest­ed that there was actu­al­ly a con­tin­u­al year-on-year rise of around 7% in music sales and not a fall at all. And indeed the lat­est offi­cial fig­ures from PRS for Music (of which I’m a mem­ber, inci­den­tal­ly) show that legal down­loads are more than mak­ing up for the loss of pack­aged media sales — and bear in mind that these num­bers may increas­ing­ly ignore the vast major­i­ty of those Long Tail outlets.

I don’t have all the answers to what we should be doing as an indus­try. It’s a time of change as fun­da­men­tal as the intro­duc­tion of the print­ing press. The scribes are out of a job — but the print­ers will do well once they get their act togeth­er. Right now we’re in between the old world and the new, and every­thing is in flux — we don’t know quite what is going to happen.

What I am sure of, how­ev­er, is that mak­ing our cus­tomers the ene­my is not the way to go. We have to find answers that use the new tech­nol­o­gy to advance our busi­ness and serve our cus­tomers, and not pre­tend that we can force the old ways to return, because if we do, we will all lose.

The Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my Bill in its cur­rent form actu­al­ly stran­gles the Dig­i­tal Econ­o­my — some­thing we need to help pull us out of reces­sion — rather than sup­port­ing it. It stems from old-age think­ing and lack of under­stand­ing of the tech­nol­o­gy and its oppor­tu­ni­ties. It should not be allowed to be rushed through Par­lia­ment. Instead it needs an enlight­ened re-write that acknowl­edges what is real­ly going on in the world and how we can make it work for us.

If you agree with me, please write to your MP and join in the oth­er pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion now tak­ing place.

March 20, 2010   1 Comment

Time to start work to save the BBC

The British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion is in my view the best broad­cast­er in the world, and today it’s under attack from com­mer­cial rivals and politi­cians (pri­mar­i­ly in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty) backed by those same rivals (notably mem­bers of the Mur­doch fam­i­ly). The BBC, in response, is propos­ing its own cut­backs in ser­vices. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cur­rent Direc­tor Gen­er­al, Mark Thomp­son, who got the job in the wake of the Gilli­gan débâ­cle, and his col­leagues at the top of the Cor­po­ra­tion, have his­tor­i­cal­ly seemed to lack a back­bone as far as stand­ing up to crit­ics of the Cor­po­ra­tion is con­cerned. Instead of fight­ing back, in fact, the BBC and the BBC Trust seem to be tak­ing the view that when threat­ened, you should throw in the tow­el and do what the oppo­si­tion demands, how­ev­er con­tra­dic­to­ry, ill-advised or short-sight­ed. The like­ly result, it seems to me, is the emas­cu­la­tion of the Cor­po­ra­tion and the degrad­ing of a mag­nif­i­cent insti­tu­tion, the envy of the world.

In addi­tion, offer­ing to make cuts is the thin end of the wedge. Just as the skim­ming off of the licence fee to fund dig­i­tal switchover pro­vid­ed a prece­dent for skim­ming for oth­er pur­pos­es, so a deci­sion to make vol­un­tary (or invol­un­tary) cuts pro­vides a prece­dent for more cuts. We already know the Tories want to dis­mem­ber the BBC, and this is just start­ing their dirty work for them.

The Mur­doch fam­i­ly, con­scious that the world of news­pa­pers is chang­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly, want to try and halt the tide of change rather than going with it and see­ing what new inno­va­tions they can come up with. It’s rather like the record com­pa­nies try­ing to hold back change by mak­ing their cus­tomer the ene­my. Both will fail. How­ev­er, the Mur­dochs may cause exten­sive col­lat­er­al dam­age before they realise this, and nowhere is this of more con­cern to me than in the case of the BBC.

Thus it is that today the BBC Trust has pub­lished a Strat­e­gy Review for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion. It rec­om­mends clos­ing BBC Radio 6 Music and the BBC Asian Net­work, reduc­ing the con­tent of the BBC Web Site — one of the most pop­u­lar in the world — by 25%, and oth­er mea­sures. You can find the actu­al review itself here. You can also read the com­men­tary of the BBC Chair­man, Michael Lyons, on the review.

We licence pay­ers have the abil­i­ty to com­ment on the pro­pos­als, and I rec­om­mend that you do so. This can be done via an online sur­vey which asks a series of ques­tions based on the proposals.

If you are con­cerned as I am about the pro­pos­als, I also urge you to sign the peti­tion at avaaz.org. Peti­tions have swayed the BBC in the past. There is also a peti­tion at 38 Degrees.

I thought I would include here my answers to the ques­tions posed in the Online Con­sul­ta­tion ques­tion­naire. I hope you find them of inter­est. I’ve also writ­ten some addi­tion­al com­ments on the sit­u­a­tion in the Trans­d­if­fu­sion Medi­a­Blog.

BBC Strat­e­gy Review: My Response

The BBC’s strate­gic principles

Do you think these are the right principles?

The only thing I am con­cerned about is “Doing few­er things”. Why do few­er things? In par­tic­u­lar the web site is a mar­vel­lous resource and worth every pen­ny. The BBC should be doing unique things that nobody else can be both­ered to do, and the web site is one such. Radio 6 Music is another.

The BBC needs to offer qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty, and the web site, Radio 6 Music and the Asian Net­work deliv­er these.

Should the BBC have any oth­er strate­gic principles?

The fun­da­men­tal Rei­thi­an prin­ci­ples of “Inform, Edu­cate and Enter­tain” still work well in today’s envi­ron­ment. The BBC has a duty to deliv­er these to the pub­lic that pays for it. That means adopt­ing new tech­nolo­gies and new deliv­ery meth­ods, and giv­ing them the fund­ing they need to do the job well.

The BBC is in a lose/lose sit­u­a­tion in that if it pro­duces pop­u­lar pro­gram­ming, com­mer­cial rivals will moan that it sti­fles com­pe­ti­tion. If it pro­duces high-qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming that attracts rel­a­tive­ly few view­ers and lis­ten­ers, peo­ple will say it’s wast­ing money.

Thus the BBC needs to unequiv­o­cal­ly com­mit itself to qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty and make it clear that by mak­ing the pro­grammes the com­mer­cial com­peti­tors will not make, it is bound to lose view­ers and lis­ten­ers, and that this is an inevitable con­se­quence of such a strat­e­gy. Thus crit­i­cism of the size of view­ing and lis­ten­ing audi­ences must be ruled as irrel­e­vant and this must be made per­fect­ly clear.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Putting Qual­i­ty First

Which BBC out­put do you think could be high­er quality?

There are broad areas where a chan­nel or sta­tion could offer “high­er qual­i­ty”, but pri­mar­i­ly by drop­ping pro­gram­ming of a low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor nature. One could argue that gen­er­al enter­tain­ment pro­gram­ming with very expen­sive celebri­ties, for exam­ple, or real­i­ty shows (were the BBC to con­sid­er doing them in the future), can be left to the com­mer­cial sta­tions. That does­n’t mean that the out­put of the BBC in these areas is not of “high qual­i­ty”, but that the types of pro­gram­ming them­selves are not orig­i­nal or of high quality.

Offer­ing you some­thing special

Which areas should the BBC make more dis­tinc­tive from oth­er broad­cast­ers and media?

Celebri­ty chat shows and real­i­ty TV are not dis­tinc­tive. Any­one can do them.

Fac­tu­al pro­gram­ming is a par­tic­u­lar area where the BBC already is dis­tinc­tive, and this can be improved by tak­ing advan­tage of the fact, for exam­ple, that there are no com­mer­cial breaks, and thus no per­ceived need for inces­sant recaps. The audi­ence can be treat­ed as intel­li­gent and giv­en a well-paced sto­ry, with­out hav­ing to be remind­ed of past points all the time or tak­ing three steps for­ward and two back on each subtopic.

The BBC Web site and its range of ser­vices is dis­tinc­tive and unlike any oth­er offer­ing, with its broad spec­trum of news, com­ment, infor­ma­tion and blogs. This needs to be devel­oped fur­ther and take full advan­tage of new technology.

Sta­tions like Radio 6 music, Radio 3 and Radio 4 offer dis­tinc­tive pro­gram­ming and music that can­not be heard else­where. Radio 3 is noth­ing like Clas­sic FM, for exam­ple. There should be more spe­cial­ist pro­gram­ming not less.

In gen­er­al, the BBC is not being dis­tinc­tive when it pro­duces pro­gram­ming sim­i­lar to that found on com­mer­cial sta­tions and chan­nels. The BBC’s strengths include fac­tu­al and doc­u­men­tary pro­gram­ming, high qual­i­ty mod­ern and peri­od dra­ma, link­ing into new tech­nol­o­gy such as the web site and iPlay­er, and music radio that escapes from the mainstream.

The Five Edi­to­r­i­al Priorities

Do these pri­or­i­ties fit with your expec­ta­tions of BBC TV, radio and online services? 

Yes, they do.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Doing few­er things and doing them better

We wel­come your views on these areas.

Clos­ing Radio 6 Music and the Asian Net­work are in direct con­flict with the goal of “Offer­ing some­thing spe­cial”. While one might argue that ulti­mate­ly there should be no need for an “Asian Net­work” as a sep­a­rate enti­ty, we are not there yet.

How­ev­er in par­tic­u­lar when con­sid­er­ing Radio 6 Music, this kind of ser­vice — a ser­vice that a com­mer­cial broad­cast­er would not con­sid­er offer­ing — is exact­ly the kind of thing the BBC should be doing and clos­ing it runs con­trary to pre­vi­ous­ly-stat­ed criteria.

In addi­tion, radio is cheap — you could close BBC 3 and save a dozen spe­cial­ist radio stations.

The BBC Web site is also fine as it is. I enjoy the breadth and depth of cov­er­age, which is unmatched by oth­er oper­a­tors, not because the com­pe­ti­tion is sti­fled but because the com­pe­ti­tion sim­ply can­not be both­ered to do it this well.

I do not regard lim­it­ing the scope of the BBC web site as being in line with prin­ci­ples of excel­lence, orig­i­nal­i­ty or pub­lic ser­vice. We pay for the BBC and we have a right to the best pos­si­ble ser­vice from it.

Arguably, nobody could do a web site bet­ter — it is one of the most pop­u­lar in the entire world. Restrict­ing its scope comes across as a knee-jerk response to crit­i­cism and not in line with stat­ed strate­gic goals.

I would like to see BBC local radio remain local­ly gen­er­at­ed as far as pos­si­ble. There are plen­ty of peo­ple who would vol­un­teer to pro­duce and present local­ly-based pro­gram­ming out­side dri­ve time giv­en access to BBC resources, for example.

I do not have par­tic­u­lar views on oth­er areas men­tioned in this section.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Guar­an­tee­ing access to BBC services

If you have par­tic­u­lar views on how you expect BBC ser­vices to be avail­able to you, please let us know.

I do not have any par­tic­u­lar views on this sec­tion at present.

The BBC archive

Please tell us if you have views on this area.

The BBC is the great­est broad­cast­er in the world and it has a his­to­ry of pro­gram­ming stretch­ing back to the 1920s. In the past dread­ful sac­ri­fices have been made in the name of cost-effec­tive­ness that have result­ed in price­less cov­er­age of inter­na­tion­al events, unique dra­ma and oth­er pro­gram­ming being irre­triev­ably lost. Much of BBC cov­er­age of the Apol­lo XI mis­sion was taped over for example.

Main­tain­ing a com­pre­hen­sive BBC Archive is vital going for­ward and the mis­takes of the past, result­ing in irre­triev­able loss of our cul­tur­al her­itage, must not be repeat­ed in the future. We need to save the unique pro­gram­ming and out­put for our­selves and for future generations.

In addi­tion to being archived, pro­gram­ming should be avail­able to the pub­lic online and/or via viewing/listening envi­ron­ments like those offered by the BFI.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Mak­ing the licence fee work harder

If you are con­cerned about the BBC’s val­ue for mon­ey, please tell us why.

I have no spe­cif­ic views on this beyond sug­gest­ing that as far as salaries, expens­es and sim­i­lar areas of expen­di­ture are con­cerned, I expect the Cor­po­ra­tion always to be aware of cost and to nego­ti­ate the best pos­si­ble deal. I expect con­tracts and expens­es, for exam­ple, to be at lev­els gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as stan­dard in the industry.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Set­ting new bound­aries for the BBC

Do you think that the BBC should lim­it its activ­i­ties in these areas?

No.

Just because your com­mer­cial com­peti­tors say you should or should­n’t be doing some­thing does­n’t mean that you should lis­ten to them or that they are talk­ing sense.

Clos­ing 6 Music reduces the out­put of unique orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming and runs counter to oth­er strate­gic goals. It also saves only a tiny bit of mon­ey in real terms.

Reduc­ing pur­chas­es of over­seas dra­mas is not a valid deci­sion if you are intent on offer­ing audi­ences the best. There are some areas of dra­ma where no UK pro­duc­tion can match the qual­i­ty of pro­gram­ming made over­seas, notably in the USA. Deny­ing BBC view­ers high qual­i­ty con­tent sim­ply because it was­n’t made here is absurd.

Equal­ly, there are areas where the BBC is sec­ond to none, and I am sure the Cor­po­ra­tion does its best to sell these shows over­seas and thus facil­i­tate addi­tion­al ser­vices with­out requir­ing an increase in the licence fee.

Reduc­ing the scope of the BBC web­site makes no sense at all in terms of qual­i­ty of ser­vice cri­te­ria. The web site as it stands offers a unique ser­vice that is unpar­al­leled, not because com­pe­ti­tion is sti­fled but because nobody can be both­ered to try. It is a unique ser­vice, just like, say, the Guardian’s online offer­ings. In dif­fer­ent ways, I am hap­py to pay for both.

The BBC sets the stan­dards here and in many oth­er areas. Because the BBC had an orig­i­nal, bril­liant idea does­n’t mean to say that they have to give it up because the com­mer­cial boys did­n’t think of it them­selves or see how they could make mon­ey from it.

I see no rea­son why the BBC should restrict or reduce its local offer­ings. Nobody else is going to do it, what­ev­er they say. There is lit­tle or no mon­ey to be made there but there is a ser­vice that can be pro­vid­ed. Pub­lic ser­vice is part of the BBC’s remit. I do not have views on oth­er pro­pos­als in this section.

Should any oth­er areas be on this list?

I would seri­ous­ly con­sid­er whether BBC 3 meets cri­te­ria for qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty. The few orig­i­nal pro­grammes would be entire­ly appro­pri­ate on BBC 2 or per­haps BBC 4 for example.

My fun­da­men­tal view is that there are no areas of ser­vice that the BBC pro­vides that I am not hap­py to pay for. How­ev­er if you are intent on mak­ing cuts, then clos­ing BBC3 would save quite a num­ber of radio stations.

March 2, 2010   4 Comments

Standing for Election at a Critical Time

Cam­bridgeshire Coun­ty Coun­cil ‑4 June, 2009

Vote Liberal Democrat on June 4I am stand­ing for pub­lic office to make a state­ment about stand­ing for what one believes:  pol­i­tics needs to be trans­formed into efforts on behalf of the ben­e­fit of all the peo­ple - not a means of pow­er where a few peo­ple make prof­its on behalf of them­selves and a small minor­i­ty of fam­i­ly, friends and col­leagues, using a pub­lic office to make prof­its at pub­lic expense by ‘flip­ping’ or over­charg­ing for any num­ber of spu­ri­ous reasons.

I am stand­ing on behalf of the Lib­er­al Democ­rats for Cam­bridgeshire Coun­ty Coun­cil because the Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat Par­ty stands for a high per­cent­age of what I believe in.

What do I believe in? Once upon a time I called myself a Social­ist — and once upon a time, an Old Labour Par­ty might have cov­ered my aims, but that time has long passed. The Lib Dems are my best bet — and yours too, if you want fair­ness and jus­tice and reform in the polit­i­cal sphere.

The Tories are hid­ing their true elis­tist colours behind the green façade of their youngish leader; Labour has foundered under end­less years of would-be Thatch­erism. UKIP is a divi­sive and dan­ger­ous side­track. Let’s bring back the true face of Liberalism.

I was born in Cana­da but have lived in the UK (Scot­land and Eng­land) for well nigh 30 years — and have been mar­ried to an invet­er­ate (but adorable) Eng­lish­man for over twen­ty years. Once upon a time I  ran for the Greens (1992 Gen­er­al Elec­tions) and in Cana­da I sup­port the New Democ­rats. I want to bring light and air — maybe trans­paren­cy is the buzz word — into pol­i­tics; but above all, we need gov­ern­ment account­able to the peo­ple. Right on, eh ?

May 19, 2009   1 Comment