Monday, May 18, 2015

Dartford River Crossing charges motorists double

Some drivers using the Dartford Crossing between Kent and Essex are being charged twice due to glitches with the online payment system which was introduced in November when toll booths were scrapped.

The Automobile Association in Britain has said that early teething problems had persisted and complaints from drivers paying online were not being resolved quickly enough.

Poor customer service

However Highways England said the vast majority of payments were being processed accurately. "The vast majority of the 100,000 chargeable crossings at Dartford made each day are processed accurately and smoothly," the agency said. "Given the scale of transactions from time to time errors will be made for which we apologise unreservedly."

According to the AA, one customer had two payments taken for the same crossing in February and motorists have experienced poor customer service [BBC / BT].

Congestion reduced

While there were hopes that the new charging system would ease congestion problems and while problems still exist at the Dartford River Crossing for the most part delays have reduced. AA president Edmund King said that "the new scheme has undoubtedly eased the congestion at busy times but, for some, there is a new concern regarding the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that accompanies this supposedly high-tech, non-stop tolling."

Difficulties registering

At its introduction there were also worries expressed by some motorists who said they had difficulty registering on the Dartford Crossing website [tvnewswatch: All change for Dartford River Crossing tolls]. Others said the new system assumed all motorists have Internet access. Indeed, whilst there are other ways to pay the toll, finding information without Internet access remains difficult.

15% fail to pay

Around a month after the introduction of automatic tolls it was reported that nearly 15% of motorists failed to pay the charge and risked fines of £105. Those not pre-paying have until midnight the following day to pay after making a crossing. The penalty for not doing so is £70, reduced to £35 if payment is made within 14 days but rising to £105 if payment is not received within 28 days [This Is Money].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What if there were no BBC?

It is an argument that is continually raised, that the licence fee be abolished and the BBC should be self funded.

Many people feel aggrieved at forking out nearly £150 a year which primarily funds the BBC, and which they claim they do not watch. But at at less than £12 a month the BBC offers far greater value than many might think.

Audience share

It may be true that a significant number of individuals do not watch BBC television, listen to BBC radio or use its online web services. Nonetheless despite a drop in viewers, the BBC still pulls in an audience share of more than 30%.

Furthermore abolishing the licence fee might have a far more dramatic effect than critics foresee.

The TV licence fee also funds other services and activities such as local and national radio, online services, the World Service and S4C. And should there be no BBC television and no licence fee, these other services would probably need to be cut or alternative funding be found.

That might not be an issue to some individuals who claim they never use BBC iPlayer, check out news content on the BBC website, or ever listen to BBC World Service.

This is a valid claim. But the effect of removing the BBC from the equation would likely change the whole nature of broadcasting, not only in the UK, but around the world.

Effects of a BBC shut down

One independent report [What if there were no BBC TV - Reuters Institute], published in early 2014, concludes that if there were no BBC Television the total TV industry revenue would most likely be lower, although there is a wide range of uncertainty about how much. The report points to a significant reduction in content investment of between 5% and 25%. Investment in first-run UK content would also be 25% to 50% lower. And the net impact on viewers would vary, but most would suffer a reduction in both choice and value for money.

Even where many people opt for alternatives to the BBC, such as ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and subscription services on the Sky broadcast platform, quality content might well take a dive.

Power & influence

Indeed, the BBC has often set standards and influenced independent programme makers. The BBC has taken chances and pioneered programmes which no commercial broadcaster would risk making.

It is almost unimaginable that such classics as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not the Nine O'Clock News and Fawlty Towers would have been made by ITV, which was the only alternative at the time.

Growing choice

Of course it is no longer the 1970's, when the only choice was to watch BBC One, BBC Two or ITV.

Now there are countless television channels. And even if one is not prepared to pay additional subscriptions on top of the BBC licence fee, there is a much greater choice.

But what kind of choice really exists in terms of quality broadcasting?

Pioneers in documentary

The BBC still churns out high quality documentaries that are the envy of broadcasters around the world. These are indeed sold overseas, but without such sales the licence fee would be significantly higher than it is.

Yes, there are specialist documentary channels and independent documentary filmmakers. Certainly the Discovery Channel and National Geographic both have relatively high reputations. But does their content really stand above that made by the BBC, funded almost entirely by the licence fee and overseas sales?

From the World About Us to The Planets, Walking With Dinosaurs and The Blue Planet, the BBC excels itself again and again.

Timeless classics

It's not just documentary either. The BBC has brought timeless classics when it comes to comedy. While Channel Four has brought innovative content, there are few broadcasters which can rival the BBC when it comes to Sitcoms and satirical comedy shows.

Taste is of course subjective but here's a list of but a few. Steptoe and Son, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Some Mothers Do Have 'Em, Are You Being Served, Butterflies, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, The Young Ones, Bottom, Red Dwarf, Only Fools And Horses, The Thick of It, Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Absolutely Fabulous… the list is almost endless.

Catering for different audiences

OK, but there's a lot of dross on the BBC too, the critics might argue. This might very well be true. The BBC, being a public service broadcaster has to cater for everyone.

Thus there is a plethora of programmes which could be considered banale.

The BBC produces many shows which are certainly beneath the standards of many. But nonetheless soaps like Eastenders and the likes of Strictly Come Dancing are extremely popular.

Minority interests

But with the advent of BBC Three and BBC Four there is an outlet for more intellectually challenging programming or programmes that might only appeal to a minority audience.

In fact, minority audiences are rarely catered for at all on commercial television since it is simply not commercially viable. Can you imagine the Sky at Night running for as many years on ITV?

Leader in News and Current Affairs

Then there's News and Current Affairs. For many years there was just the BBC and ITN but with the advent of satellite television Sky News changed the game.

Sky News is certainly number one when it comes to breaking news, and it can push out the boat with many big stories. And while there are many other news stations - CNN, RT, Al Jazeera and France 24 to name but a few - the demise of the BBC would leave only Sky News covering UK news, and almost no-one covering regional news at all. Funding a news station is extremely expensive, and without decent funding the BBC News channel might disappear, as did the ITV News channel back in December 2005 [tvnewswatch: UK news broadcaster goes off air]

Less wireless

And what too of radio. Radio 4 and the BBC World Service still command a large audience, though it perhaps has to be conceded that Radio 1, 2 and 3 are rather niche stations.

One may not be a big radio fan, but when away from home, radio can be a life saver. What is noticeable however is that outside of London, or other big cities, radio stations rapidly disappear from the dial.

One might find a local independent station, but one is more likely to be reliant on national and local BBC stations. And when abroad the only English voice available will probably only come through the BBC World Service, though cutbacks have already reduced services abroad.

Calls for cutbacks

The likes of Nigel Farage have repeated accusations that the BBC is left wing and politically biased. He has also labelled the broadcaster an anachronism and would, should he have it his way, shut the broadcaster down or at least remove its public funding [BBC].

It is a question that may not go away. But should the licence fee be dropped, the BBC might become little more than one or two channels, reliant on advertising and programme sales. BBC radio would probably fade away into non-existence and web services would also see cutbacks.

This week the outgoing controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson, said the broadcaster was at a "tipping point" and that cuts to the licence fee would mean "less drama and fewer jobs"  [BBC].

In the days following the election there has been much talk of the Tories going to war against the BBC [Telegraph].

The former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid has rejected the idea the government was really "going to war".

"No not at all. I think there's a bit of over excitement in those headlines," Javid was said on the BBC Radio 4 programme Today.

Nonetheless there are growing concerns that with negotiations for the BBC's charter renewal in 2016, the public broadcaster might face serious cutbacks.

Such concerns come particularly from outside the home counties. Indeed one former top TV executive has said any plan to drop the BBC licence fee would have enormous consequences for the North East.

Graeme Thompson, a former BBC news executive who also was managing director of Tyne Tees TV, recently said, "If the licence fee was abolished it would hit jobs" and leave a vacuum that the commercial sector would be unlikely to fill [Chronicle Live].

Funding is certain to change. In fact there is a possibility that funding may be taken directly as taxes as is seen in some European countries [Radio Times].

To end on a slightly comical note, here's a clip from Not The Nine O'Clock News which satirizes the BBC programme Points of View and features letters of viewers singing the praises of the BBC.

To quote but one fictitious letter writer in the sketch, he writes, "The testcard is quite magnificent. It justifies the licence fee on its own. Personally, I would willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC."

The irony is that without the licence fee, that is just what one might be left with.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Election 2015: Resignations, riots & calls for electoral reform

David Cameron's return to Number 10  might have been celebrated amongst Conservatives, but for most of the other political parties there was disappointment, consternation and a need to re-evaluate their future strategy. There has also been anger on the streets and growing calls for electoral reform.


Given the failures of the Labour Party, UKIP and particularly the Liberal Democrats, the day after polling was marked with resignations as their respective leaders announced their intention to stand down.

UKIP's leader expressed not only his disappointment that the party only secured a single seat in parliament also but anger. Farage declared the UK political system "bankrupt" given that his party obtained nearly 4 million votes but only one seat. He then went on to announce his resignation as leader but added that he wasn't "giving up on UKIP".

Only hours before Nick Clegg had also announced his intention to stand down as leader of the Liberal Democrats which had a disastrous night, losing some 50 seats across the UK. Clegg said he accepted "full responsibility"   for the party's poor performance but said he "expected this election to be difficult for the Liberal Democrats" [BBC / Sky News / Telegraph].

Labour's Ed Miliband also threw in the towel on Friday after the party's worst general election defeat since Margaret Thatcher's final victory in 1987. "This is not a speech I wanted to make," he said in a Westminster hall just after noon on Friday. "I take absolute and total responsibility for the result." [BBC / FT]

Far left reaction

The Tory win has raised concerns that austerity will increase, services will be cut and that Thatcherite authoritarianism will return.

Thus it was perhaps no surprise that fringe far left wing groups flocked to central London on Saturday [9th May] to vent their anger.

Various groups appeared to be behind the protests. The pseudo-anarchist group Class War sent out a tweet on Saturday morning calling for people to gather outside Tory HQ. There also calls for protests by other fringe groups through Facebook.

Some one thousand people marched from the Conservative Party headquarters along Whitehall to Downing Street where some protesters battled with police. At least 17 arrests were made and there were a handful of injuries reported amongst the ranks of police that were deployed to contain the situation.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters, some holding placards reading "I pledge to resist" and "Stop the cuts". Some placards were a little more colourful.

Chief Supt Gerry Campbell said the "vast majority" of protesters had taken part peacefully, but added that a "small minority" had been intent on causing disorder [BBC / Sky News / Metro / Daily Mail].

Amongst the more peaceful protesters was the celebrity singer Charlotte Church who was spotted holding a placard reading "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" [Daily Mail].

Calls for electoral reform

The election result has highlighted the imbalance that exists in terms of how the electorate are represented, especially given Britain has entered an era of multi-party politics.

Even before polling day there had been some discussion concerning proportional representation [ITV News].

But following the results on 8th May, the calls for reform grew louder. With UKIP winning 12.6% of the vote and only managing to get one MP into parliament, and, by contrast, the SNP returning 56 MPs with only 4.7% of the vote, the argument for reform is certainly strong

The full results indicated that many parties would have done a great deal better under some form of PR.

Particularly poignant were the publication of maps showing second place results [Telegraph / Metro].

The maps are certainly interesting but what would parliament have looked like with proportional representation? It all depends on the type of PR employed, but should the UK adopt the D'hondt system that is used for selecting MEPs the Conservatives would still have won, but there would have been a significantly more members of parliament representing the likes of UKIP, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats.

The D'hondt system is widely used in parliamentary elections across Europe and elsewhere, though there are many other systems, like the Alternative Vote model which was rejected by British voters in the 2011 referendum [BBC / Channel Four News blog / i]

These would be the resulting number of seats under the D'hondt system of PR:

  • Conservative (36.9%): 243
  • Labour (30.4%): 201
  • UKIP (12.6%): 83
  • LibDem (7.9%): 51
  • SNP (4.7%): 31
  • Green (3.8%): 24
  • DUP (0.6%): 3
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%): 3
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%): 3
  • Independent (0.5%): 3
  • UUP (0.4%): 2
  • SDLP (0.3%): 2
  • Alliance (0.2%): 1
  • TUSC (0.1%): None
  • NHA (0.1%): None
  • TUV (0.1%): None
  • Respect (0.0%): None
  • CISTA (0.0%): None
  • Yorkshire First (0.0%): None
  • English Dem (0.0%): None
  • MRLP (0.0%): None
  • Socialist Labour (0.0%): None
  • CPA (0.0%): None
  • Christian Party (0.0%): None
  • Workers Party (0.0%): None
  • BNP (0.0%): None
  • Class War (0.0%): None

As can be seen from the list above, proportional representation would have been good for UKIP and the Greens which under the present system have but a single voice each.

Many of Northern Ireland's parties would however lose out as would single person independent candidates. For example despite having been an MP since 2001 the independent candidate Sylvia Hermon would have lost her seat if PR were to be implemented.

Swings and roundabouts

There has been much commentary on why the Liberal Democrats lost so badly. Where did all those supporters go, and why did they abandon Nick Clegg and the party of the centre right. Some have suggested there was a shift because of the Lib Dem's failure to deliver on some of its promises or simply due to anger that the party had got into bed with the Conservative party and formed a coalition.

Failing on promises may be an issue, however a weaker part of a coalition obviously has less clout that the dominant force. In fact the Lib Dems actually helped deliver several of its 2010 pledges [Guardian].

Many of the party's high-profile pledges, such as scrapping tuition fees and opposing nuclear power, have been ditched but perhaps more have been adopted than might have been expected for the smaller party in a coalition.

The party had called for the first £10,000 people earn to be tax-free, something that was delivered under the coalition. A pledge to increase funding for the most disadvantaged pupils by £2.5 billion was also met as was a call for the introduction for compulsory language and competence tests for doctors working in UK.

Of course there were many things the party failed to deliver, but for a party in coalition the Liberal Democrats did far better that they might have done, and infinitely better than if they had not joined forces with the Conservative party.

By becoming a part of a coalition the Lib Dems also helped reign in the more extreme right wing tendencies of the Tory right. Indeed there were some core Tory policies that the Lib Dems prevented the Conservative from implementing [i]. Now the Lib Dems have been all but wiped out there is already talk of reviving policies such as the so-called 'snoopers charter' that was scuppered by the coalition [Guardian].

Nonetheless there are still many core Lib Dem supporters who feel that they were betrayed by their party.

There may another reason why there was a large drop in Lib Dem support.

With the rise in UKIP, and the risk of a Labour SNP coalition, many Lib Dem voters may have felt compelled to vote for the Conservatives. To have done otherwise would have resulted in an almost certain Labour win and a far greater number of seats falling to the United Kingdom Independence Party.

UKIP support had certainly swelled and its core support probably took votes away from the Conservative party. But there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it gained supporters from the more extreme right.

The British National Party for example saw a massive drop from 2010 when it took 563,743 votes. Five years on the party only achieved a paltry 1,667 votes across the entire country. The question is where did those half a million votes go?

With such extremes in politics, there will be many that might reject proportional representation for fear of allowing far right groups achieving their voice in parliament.

Some also argue that PR leads to weak government run by committee since there would rarely be an overall majority. The counterargument might be that by attaining majority rule, the first past the post system establishes a form of dictatorship under a guise of democracy - given of course that every member of the ruling party is whipped into line.  

But given the imbalance of power and lack of representation for much of the electorate that the first past the post system offers, the argument for PR is certainly going to grow. A poll conducted for the i newspaper just days before the election indicated that 61% of the electorate believe the voting system should be changed to better represent smaller parties in parliament.

Getting the system to change may prove difficult since any party that wins in the future would not see any advantage in changing the system which benefited in its success and introduce another that might reduce its future chances.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, May 08, 2015

A “brighter future for everyone” Cameron declares as he heads to No 10

And so after what many have called the dullest election campaign in living memory, the British electorate have returned David Cameron to parliament as Prime Minister.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats faced a humiliating response from the public, losing seats all over the country.

With 543 of 650 seats declared by 7 a.m. the Conservatives had 248 against Labour's 212. The SNP surged taking the nearly 58 seats predicted in the exit poll which was published soon after the polling stations closed on Thursday. By 8 a.m. with 603 of the 650 seats declared a Conservative victory looked certain with the Tories taking 297 against Labor's 219.

But the night was a bigger victory for the SNP. And with 55 seats in parliament it was perhaps more than the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon could have dreamed of.

For other parties it was more a nightmare. The Liberal Democrats had taken on 7 seats by early morning, less even than exit polls had predicted.

Even UKIP failed to reach its goal of double figures and while there were still some undeclared results to come the party had only 1 seat in parliament as this article was published.

So all in all, a terrible night for Labour, a worse night for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and a disappointing result for UKIP, though Farage will no doubt claim victory in terms of the number of votes his party took and criticise the first past the post election system.

At the time of publication only Cameron and Miliband had aired their feelings concerning the result. And there was certainly no word from former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown who said he would "publicly eat his hat" if predictions about the Lib Dems taking as little as 10 seats were right. "If this exit poll is right, Andrew, I will publically eat my hat," Lord Ashdown said [BBC].

"This has clearly been a very disappointing and difficult night for the Labour party," Ed Miliband posted on Twitter, "To every member and supporter, I want to say thank you."

Meanwhile, David Cameron, spoke of a "brighter future for everyone"

"One nation, one United Kingdom - that is how I hope to govern if I am fortunate enough to continue as Prime Minister," he proclaimed.

Full results: BBC

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A dull election campaign comes to an end

With less than 24 hours until polls open there are many people that have been entirely turned off by the UK election campaign. In fact some have dubbed the 2015 general election campaign the dullest in living memory.

Tiresome squabbling

Even before the race begun the campaign had become rather tiresome with squabbling over how the election debates might be run.

Such infighting and school boyish behaviour is a turn off for many voters. And even when a format was agreed, the debates themselves were dull and uninformative.

While there were some engaging moments, there were almost flippant and puerile moments such as a focus on whether David Cameron had ever eaten three Shredded Wheat and Ed Miliband's ability to eat a bacon sandwich properly.

The seven way debate had its moments but given the amount of time available and the number of issues on the table there was really no way that public concerns and questions could be properly addressed.

Domestic vs foreign policies

The main focus by all the parties were domestic issues. Jobs, housing, immigration and the deficit were all continually debated.

These are certainly important but there was almost no mention of Britain's place in the world, foreign policy, international trade, defence and the growing threats of cyberwar and terrorism.

A few manifestos touched on such issues but how many people even bother to buy or download them, let alone read through the often rambling texts.

Foreign trade & cyber risks

The Tories mention China all but five times in their manifesto. "Our trade with emerging economies is up, with exports to China more than doubled since 2009, but overall we are still too dependent on slow-growing European markets. Business investment is rising, but we still underinvest compared to other countries," the manifesto states, adding that the Conservative party would build on this as well as "championing an EU-China trade deal."

For all its importance China is mentioned but once in the Labour manifesto. "Labour will set up an Asia Step-Change Taskforce to ensure a more strategic and effective dialogue with regional partners, including China, both in the commerical [sic] realm, and in other areas, from cultural exchange to human rights." [Yes, that spelling mistake IS in the published document].

As for the LibDems, China is again only worthy of a single mention, tied again to Europe and trade. "Britain's membership of the EU is essential for creating a stronger economy and for projecting influence in the world," the manifesto claims. "Millions of British jobs are linked to our trade with the EU, and being in Europe puts us on a more equal footing when negotiating trade deals with global players like the USA and China and in countering security threats. A modernised EU is crucial to responding to the global challenges Britain faces, whether they are climate change, cross-border crime and terrorism, or conflict."

Nigel Farage has made his views clear concerning Britain's place in Europe and called for a referendum with the hope that the UK might pull out of the EU. But despite all of Farage's experience in the world of business he appears to have little understanding of the global economic situation where countries are interdependent on each other.

Farage: China and Japan "have their own democracies"

In a debate on Europe in April 2014 Farage seemed to be entirely ignorant of world politics as he put forward the argument that an independent country could still have a strong economy. He cited Iceland as an example of an independent state that could still hold its own.

"If it is good enough for Iceland to do it," Nigel Farage remarked in the first of his two televised debates with Nick Clegg, "I'm damned certain the British with 64 million can do even better." The UKIP leader was referring to a free trade agreement that the Icelandic government signed with China in April 2013, despite the tiny Nordic country not being a member of the EU [New Statesman].

But then he went on to show his apparent misunderstanding of the politics beyond Europe's borders. "Canada lives next door to America, Japan lives next door to China, they do massive amounts of business with each other but they have their own democracies and their own rights of self government,"  Farage declared [Video - YouTube]. China a democracy! Hardly. Maybe this was a slip. But beyond that even trade between Japan and China is fraught with problems due to territorial and nationalist issues.

In terms of its manifesto, the claim that strong trade can still be maintained for a non-EU member is repeated. "Six of the top ten countries that export to the EU do not have a trade agreement with the EU at all: China, Russia, the USA, Japan, India and Brazil," the UKIP manifesto states. "Being in the EU is no guarantee of greater financial rewards than being out in terms of trade: non-EU Switzerland, with an economy one-quarter the size of ours, exports four and a half times more to the EU, per capita, than the UK does."

Cyber threats

All the manifestos do raise the issue of cyberattacks and other online threats, but there is little substance other than to say there would be a strengthening of defence in these areas. Certainly there is no finger pointing. Indeed, despite China being repeatedly accused of launching attacks on the West, engaging in industrial espionage - as well as reneging on trade deals and ignoring WTO rules - there is almost no mention how any of the major parties might deal with such issues which have a profound effect on the British economy.

In the final hours before the polls open much of the electorate are probably only focused on the issues the politicians have themselves made centre stage.

Setting agendas

For those who struggle to find work or living on benefits, the issues concerning what each of the major parties might do in the age of austerity is of great importance. But few of the politicians talks of the effect that global economics have on these issues. While immigrants taking British jobs might be a problem, so too can the farming out of the manufacturing industry to the Far East have a knock on effect on the UK economy. Chinese imports might be cheap but it comes at a cost to Britain and Europe when there are fewer manufacturing industries left in the West.

UKIP of course have capitalised on the fears of immigration. There is a problem concerning some migrants. But there is much scaremongering rather than a rational and reasoned debate.

Dull campaign

The 2015 election has seen few of the pantomime moments seen in previous campaigns. There have been no eggs thrown, punches thrown by politicians, and few if any heckling contests.

Talking to people on the streets and there is a general feeling of disillusionment. Indeed, given the nature of the first past the post politics of British democracy, there is a stronger feeling than ever that people's votes matter little. A vote for UKIP, the Greens or the LibDems may send a message to the main two parties but without some form of proportional representation a vote for anyone other than Labour or Conservative is essentially a waste of ink on the ballot paper.

Time for electoral reform?

With some 462 minor parties also vying for votes, few of which will ever hear their voice heard in parliament, the argument for proportional representation is greater than ever.

The British political system is far from perfect, and people may feel less engaged than ever before. But to quote Winston Churchill it might be a lot worse. "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

As for the result of Thursday's poll most pundits are still undecided. Our prediction is for a Conservative win, but with no overall majority and a likely coalition with the LibDems once again. UKIP may take a handful of seats - which Farage will no doubt claim to be a mandate of dissatisfaction expressed by the British electorate - but the party will have only a minor voice in parliament. Thus the status quo will continue for another five years.

Party manifestos

tvnewswatch, London, UK