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    The BBC's only female on-air editor is due to leave Auntie Beeb for a job as Chief Market Strategist at global megabank J P Morgan.

    No more Stephanomics. At least, not for the licence fee (and BBC pension) paying public. Stephanie Flanders has announced that she will step down from her job as Economics editor for the BBC to work instead as Chief Market Strategist, UK and Europe, at J P Morgan Asset Management.

    The poacher, it seems, has turned gamekeeper. Ms Flanders seems to think it'll be pretty must business as usual. She wrote on her blog:

    In many ways, I will be doing the same thing in my new job at JP Morgan Asset Management that I have been doing as Economics Editor: explaining what is happening in the economy and markets, and why it matters.

    But I can't help but thinking there'll be a few changes: the decor, locale, canteen conversation, and perhaps most of all, the pay packet. Flanders's exit leaves the BBC with a bit of a dilemma too. She was the only female on-air editor within auntie's ranks, and the obvious person to replace her, Chief Economics Correspondent Hugh Pym is, well, a Hugh.

    What will they do?


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Osborne has been disproved on austerity (Financial Times)

    Nobody thought a recovery would never happen – merely that it would be delayed, says Martin Wolf.

    2. Ed Miliband is no more 'red' than the Tony Blair that won the 1997 general election (Independent)

    The Labour leader’s temporary freeze on energy bills is a fair and moderate step, says Andrew Adonis.

    3. The scale of Ed’s ambition is both breathtaking and terrifying (Daily Telegraph)

    The Labour leader’s socialist ideas on energy prices and housing shortages are radical, coherent and – worst of all – popular, says Fraser Nelson. 

    4. David Cameron's least favourite question: whose side are you on? (Guardian)

    There is no vacancy in the fabled centre ground, writes Polly Toynbee. Labour occupies it, and voters may no longer be fooled by red scaremongering.

    5. Good news – foreigners are buying up Britain (Daily Telegraph)

    The present phase of globalisation is painful for the west, but we should see it through, writes Jeremy Warner.

    6. Ed can win from here. But he can’t govern (Times)

    At last Miliband has defined what he stands for — it is not challenging his party’s comfort zone, says Philip Collins.

    7. Only talks can reset Iran’s atomic clock (Financial Times)

    The US must take risks or accept a stand-off, with Iran trundling further towards the bomb, writes Philip Stephens.

    8. Beyond Europe (Times)

    Senior Tories need to talk more about bread and butter issues like housing and pay, says a Times editorial.

    9. 'Mental patient' fancy dress shows how deep offensive stereotypes go in society (Guardian)

    Tesco and Asda have done the decent thing, says Alastair Campbell. But we must work to end the stigma about mental health in work, communities, friends – even the NHS.

    Where are the  Islamic voices raised in protest at the abuse of the system, asks Peter Popham. 


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    Conservative group Renewal's pledge card calls for an increase in the minimum wage, the building of one million homes, free party membership for trade unionists and action against "rip-off companies".

    Free party membership for trade unionists, the building of one million homes over the next parliament, an increase in the minimum wage, a "cost-of-living test" for every policy, a cut in fuel duty and a cabinet minister to "take action for the consumer against rip-off companies". The latest set of demands from Len McCluskey? No. Rather, the six proposals that will appear on a New Labour-style pledge card next week from Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters (the launch of which I covered earlier this year).

    The group, led by NS contributor David Skelton, has gone further than any other in recognising that the Tories need to dramatically refashion their agenda if they are to ever win a majority again (a feat that has eluded them for 21 years). The party currently has no councillors in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, and just one seat in Scotland. In 2010, it won the support of just 16% of ethnic minority voters.

    If it is to improve on this performance next time round, it needs to depart from its traditional script of Europe, immigration and welfare. Voters might share the Tories' views on these issues but they do not share their obsession with them. To win new supporters, the party needs to adopt a relentless focus on living standards. As Skelton notes, "Traditional Labour voters are disenchanted, lack a natural political home, but do not believe the Conservatives are interested in them. We have got to change that perception. We have got to show that we stand up for ordinary working people, and that we are not the party just of the rich or big business. The six issues on the pledge card are designed to show we are on the side of hard-pressed working people."

    So, what are the chances of succcess and how worried should Labour be? Renewal enjoys significant support from senior ministers, including Patrick McLoughlin, who wrote the foreword to the collection, and Eric Pickles, who addressed its launch, as well as MPs such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman. Its work is also being studied by George Osborne, who appointed Skelton’s former Policy Exchange colleague Neil O’Brien as his special adviser and whose former chief of staff, Matt Hancock, contributed a chapter on "conservatism for the low-paid" to Renewal's recent pamphletAccess All Areas. Several sources have told me that the party is likely to announce a significant increase in the minimum wage at its conference in Manchester next week in a bid to win over low-income groups.

    But less than two years away from the election, time is short for the Tories to detoxify their brand. The decision to cut the top rate of tax, to privatise large parts of the NHS and to demonise trade unionists have all added to the damage. But if Renewal's agenda becomes the party's, the long work of winning a hearing among voters who have shunned it for decades will begin. 


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    News stories from around the web.

    UK kicks off £3bn Royal Mail privatisation (FT)

    The UK government set the price range for the flotation of Royal Mail on Friday as postal service workers prepared to vote on industrial action.

    Help to Buy: Osborne asks Bank of England to keep closer watch (BBC)

    Chancellor George Osborne has asked the Bank of England to take a bigger role in ensuring his Help to Buy housing scheme does not fuel a property boom.

    Pound rises after Bank of England Governor Mark Carney sees no need for more QE (Telegraph)

    Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, sees no need for more stimulus for the economy given the gathering pace of the recovery, sending the pound higher.

    North-South divide in house prices, says Nationwide (BBC)

    The gap between house prices in northern and southern England has moved above £100,000 for the first time, according to the Nationwide.

    North-south house price divide widest ever at over £100,000 (Telegraph)

    The average southern home is now worth 74pc more than its northern equivalent.


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    The deal will provide eBay access to Braintree’s mobile application Venmo.

    Online retailer eBay has agreed to acquire global payment platform Braintree for about $800m to enhance mobile payments capabilities of its payments service PayPal.

    The deal will provide eBay access to Braintree’s mobile application Venmo that allows consumers make payments on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

    PayPal’s mobile payment volume is expected to be more than $20bn this year. It contributed 40 per cent of eBay revenues in 2012 and has 120 million users.

    Bill Ready, CEO of Braintree, said: “The alignment with PayPal means Braintree can continue to push the boundaries of innovation while expanding into new markets with increased speed and confidence.”

    Braintree provides merchant accounts, billing and credit card storage services to more than 40 million consumers worldwide. Online firms like Airbnb, Uber, OpenTable, and TaskRabbit use Braintree’s payment platform.

    After the closure of the deal, Braintree will operate as a separate service within PayPal under the leadership of Bill Ready, who will report to David Marcus, president of PayPal.

    John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay, said: “Together, we expect that PayPal and Braintree also will accelerate our leadership in supporting developers who are creating innovative solutions for next-generation commerce startups.”

    The transaction, which is subject to regulatory approvals, is expected to close in the fourth-quarter of 2013. The deal will not affect management team and employees of Braintree.

    Meanwhile, eBay shares grew 4.4 per cent on the Nasdaq yesterday.


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    The criminal investigation is the largest carried out by the department’s antitrust division so far.

    The US Department of Justice (US DoJ) has imposed a fine of more than $740m on nine Japanese auto parts makers and two executives over price-fixing conspiracies that affected more than $5bn in automobile parts sold to American car makers.

    The fined firms and executives have sold more than 30 different aftermarket parts to Chrysler Group, Ford Motor, General Motors, as well as to the US subsidiaries of Honda Motor, Mazda Motor, Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan Motor, Toyota Motor, and Subaru.

    The parts sold include seatbelts, radiators, windshield wipers, air conditioning systems, power window motors, power steering parts and other products.

    The criminal investigation is the largest carried out by the department’s antitrust division so far, both in terms of its scope and the commerce affected by the alleged illegal conduct.

    In total, more than 25 million cars purchased by the US consumers were affected by the illegal conduct.

    The department in a statement said: “The conduct this investigation uncovered involved more than a dozen separate conspiracies aimed at the US economy. Although these cartels operated totally independently, they all had one thing in common - they targeted US manufacturing, US businesses and US consumers.”

    The department further said “We will continue to check under every hood and kick every tire to make sure we put an end to this illegal and destructive conduct.”

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other international agencies worked with the department to detect and prosecute the illegal cartels. The charges were filed in the US District Courts of Detroit, Cincinnati, and Toledo, Ohio.

    The department charged 20 firms and 21 executives in this ongoing investigation so far with the accused agreeing to pay criminal fine of more than $1.6bn.


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    Years of training in “spotting”, the technique of quickly and repeatedly bringing your gaze to two specific points in front and behind you, certainly helps, but new research suggests that the brain’s ability to adapt plays a powerful role.

    If you’ve ever tried spinning in circles while looking up to the sky, you’ll know the accompanying dizziness that can follow. But what stops ballet dancers, who pirouette endlessly for a living, from falling into each other like a set of dominoes?

    Years of training in “spotting”, the technique of quickly and repeatedly bringing your gaze to two specific points in front and behind you, certainly helps, but new research suggests that the brain’s ability to adapt plays a powerful role. And it could help better treat and diagnose people who suffer from chronic dizziness.

    Neuroscientists at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and spun them around in a chair in a dark room. When the chair was stopped, the dancers were asked to turn a lever to indicate how quickly they still felt they were spinning. This measured their perception response to dizziness. Eye reflexes – the quick flicking of the eyes from moving around rapidly – were also measured. In normal people, these two responses correlate well, but in the dancers there appeared to be an uncoupling: while their eye reflexes kept going, their perception response fell.

    A group of 20 female rowers, who were similar in age and fitness, were also recruited as a control group. Brain scans were then taken to analyse the brain structures of all the individuals.

    Powerful resistance

    In cases of chronic dizziness, tests are usually taken of the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled organs use tiny hairs to sense the movement of the fluid, which in turn send signals to the brain. The continued movement of fluid explains one of the reasons you can continue to feel dizzy after you’ve stopped moving. But this doesn’t go far enough to explain dizziness in chronic suffers, said Barry Seemungal, co-author of the study, published in Cerebral Cortex.

    “We measured sensation perception and eye reflexes and found dancers were much more resistant to non-dancers,” he said. “In the rowers, sensation correlated very well to reflexes, but in dancers the two were not correlated – they had de-coupled. In a person with chronic dizziness, the duration of their perceptual response is much longer; there’s a disproportionately higher reaction compared to a dancer who shows powerful resistance.”

    An MRI scan then looked at the amount of grey matter (the bit that calculates) and the white matter (the part of the brain that makes connections) in the cerebellum. This also threw up differences between dancers and non-dancers.

    “A statistical comparison between brain structures showed that in dancers an area of the cerebellum was smaller than in the rowers. This part of the brain also known to be involved in processing signals from the ear. And the more experienced the dancer, the smaller it is. The cerebellum can process signals that are then sent to areas of the brain linked to perception. In dancers it reduces the flow of signals – it acts like a gate.”

    The researchers then looked at the cerebral cortex, which is associated in perception, and found stronger white matter in the control group. “More white matter means you’re more likely to be dizzy – in dancers we didn’t see it,” Seemungal said.

    Seeing is believing

    So how can these findings help people with chronic dizziness? For a start, we now have recognition that the brain is the organ that controls balance and, crucially, that it’s able to adapt.

    “Traditional testing considers the ear as the organ of balance,” Seemungal said. “I’m a neurologist so I consider it as the brain.”

    “The brain takes in lots of different information to make an assessment and compensates if it needs to. The ear is one source, vision is another. If you hear a noise to the right and move your head to look at it, your brain combines the estimates and places greater weight on the more reliable, in this case the eye.”

    “But vision can be ambiguous – for example when you’re sat on a train and another one moves and you think you’re the one moving. As a general principle the brain prioritises visual motion over vestibular organs [the ear]. Another example is the ventriloquist’s doll, it combines the auditory and visual inputs but relies more on the visual so you think it’s the doll that’s talking.”

    “If your vestibular organs aren’t working well, your brain won’t trust them and even trivial visual stimuli can trigger a dizzy sensation. But traditional testing relies on testing the vestibular organs, which might indicate nothing is wrong.”

    People with chronic dizziness can be treated for underlying causes but also longer-term physio treatment. Depending on the form of the condition, this can include exposing them to self-motion (the swaying we all do but don’t notice if we don’t suffer from dizziness) and visual motion to get the brain more habituated.

    One lucky find (for the researchers anyway) was that one of the dancers involved in the study later went on to develop chronic dizziness. This enabled the team to test her against their original findings. They found that although her reflex functions had remained the same, her perception response had become stronger.

    Professor Nicky Clayton, a Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge and Scientist in Residence at Rambert, the contemporary dance company, said: “As a dancer you learn tricks that allow your body to move in very flamboyant ways but without losing control. One of the tricks I learned was that when you get that sense of spinning, you use your core muscles to pull up; and that you’re disengaging with that feeling of fluidity and creating a stabilising energy.

    She added: “Dancers think in very abstract ways … The way in which the brain talks to the cognitive system, whether through its plasticity or psychologically, is more than just spotting. Spotting helps you to focus but it’s not the only thing.”

    Simon Lloyd, an ENT specialist, said: “The tests could potentially be useful because at the moment we have no effective way of testing how well parts of the balance system within the brain are working. Testing this would also allow us to measure how people are responding to treatment.”

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


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    When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular.

    200,000 mothers forced into jobs, screams the front page of yesterday’s Telegraph. It’s enough to send shivers down the spine. Imagine being a mother and going to work! It’s as though life really isn’t a 1950s sitcom after all!

    The Telegraph is responding to this week’s ONS report into women in the labour market, which the newspaper claims shows that “almost 200,000 women in two-parent families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011”. It’s a sharp increase but not exactly evidence of coercion, unless one counts needing money as “being forced” (in which case, aren’t we all?).

    I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m a mother in full-time paid employment. I know that there are particular reasons why I don’t want to be in the office day in, day out. I want to spend more time with my children. I worry about all the hours they spend in wraparound care. I panic about how quickly they’re growing and how much I’ll regret not having been at the school gates at 3:15 every afternoon. Sometimes I feel a failure. Are you happy now, right-wing press? I wish things were different but there we are .It’s all a bit of a fudge. Only a person who’s been raised with an absurd sense of entitlement could believe his or her family is owed the perfect work-life balance.

    And yet the sheer breadth of media responses to the ONS report suggests that saying “it’s a bit of a fudge” isn’t enough. “Working motherhood” remains deeply political and divisive in a way that “working fatherhood” is not. When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular. Pressure groups such as Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM) still push the idea that you’re either with stay-at-home mums or against them, yet for many of us, the decisions we make regarding our working lives are simply more pragmatic and personal than that.

    I know, deep down, that things aren’t as they should be. We’re dealing with an economic system that no interest in recognising the value of unpaid domestic labour. The balance of power between employers and employees is appallingly skewed, making it harder and harder to ask for change. Low pay and high childcare costs exclude some potential employees from the workforce altogether. For these reasons working motherhood needs to remain a political issue, not least as part of a broader discussion on how we improve the social and economic position of all carers.

    Right now, though, we don’t really talk about this. The needs of the many have become subordinate to the self-serving debates of the few. Working motherhood becomes all about Sheryl Sandberg-esque self-realisation or “I don’t know how she does it” comedy self-hatred. Meanwhile, stay-at-home motherhood becomes an exclusive club for the “right” kind of family (MAHM is very clear on standing up for the rights of “single-wage families” who “manage on one income”. Families who manage on one parent -- those who, if ever they earned enough to begin with, will be hardest hit by the child benefit cuts MAHM criticises so much -- don’t seem to get a look in). Social stereotypes that don’t reflect the experience of most families dominate political debate and media analysis.

    It’s all very well to claim life should be fairer. Of course it should. Even so, I don’t think we should assume that “fairness” is synonymous with middle-class women being at liberty to depend on the incomes of their middle-class partners in order to care for their children. That’s just confusing fairness with something that, personally, we might like for ourselves and our children. It’s a shame that we can’t have it but there it is. It’s all a bit of a fudge but if we want things to be better, let’s at least be honest about who it is we’re asking for.


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    In whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms.

    Judging by certain Tory op-eds, you could be forgiven for thinking the Red Army has been given permission to water its horses in the River Thames. On the loose is a fanatical "demagogue [who] wants to fuel tensions and the politics of envy", according to City AM editor Allister Heath. Britain is on the "road to tyranny”, according to Iain Martin of the Telegraph.

    Believe it or not, red revolution is not imminent, and Lenin remains safely encased in his mausoleum in Red Square. Over in Cuba, Raul Castro is pressing ahead with free-market reforms, and to my knowledge there have been no recent sightings of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    Mild-mannered Labour leader Ed Miliband has, however, pledged to freeze energy bills for 20 months should his party win the 2015 election. And these days, that’s apparently all it takes for a red scare.

    At some point during the past 30 years, the mildest hint of social democracy became a symptom of innate Jacobinism. Fastened like glue to a dogma which dictates that one can never interfere in markets without catastrophically distorting them, the fact the country escaped financial catastrophe five years ago only because of massive state intervention has entirely passed the right by. A Labour leader has said the state must intervene to ensure that people can adequately heat their homes; therefore the country is on the road to serfdom. Such is the level of public debate in much of the Tory press.

    In noisily whipping itself into a frenzy over Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices, the right has turned a blind eye to mounting revulsion over private firms bloating and sating themselves on public money for the benefit of the few who are good at guessing on the stock exchange. Not only is public opinion increasingly at odds with socialism for the rich - in 2010/11, Network Rail, the private owner and operator of most of Britain’s rail infrastructure, was subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £3.96bn - but voters are significantly more red than 'Red Ed' when it comes to state intervention in the economy.

    In 2009, for example, data showed that 31 per cent strongly supported the renationalisation of electricity, gas, water, railways and telecommunications, with 36 per cent slightly supporting renationalisation. According to a ComRes poll taken earlier this month, 69 per cent wanted energy renationalised.

    The trend is similar in other sectors of the economy too. Seventy per cent are against the sell-off of the Royal Mail, according to a recent Sunday Times poll, while 53 per cent believe private sector involvement in the NHS undermines the health service. As for the railways, a poll conducted last year found that over half the public supported full nationalisation, with even Conservative supporters preferring nationalisation to the status quo (Mail on Sunday stalwart Peter Hitchens wants the railways returned to public ownership, for crying out loud).

    The politicians’ mantra of public bad, private good has become just that: an empty mantra, espoused by a political class that is increasingly at odds with the views of those they are supposed to represent.

    The mistake would be to draw from this an unrealistic, romanticised image of old-style state ownership, which in reality could be just as unaccountable and inefficient as the very worst of the private sector. Despite what his detractors say, Ed Miliband is not advocating a return to state ownership, nor is he planning to introduce 1970s-style price controls; he is proposing a freeze on the price of energy lasting a mere 20 months. In other words, a very temporary brake on fat cats getting fatter while the elderly shiver in homes they can no longer afford to heat (in March of this year, five Centrica executives pocketed£16.4m).

    But public enthusiasm for a reassertion of government control over essential services should give the left heart even if it would be a mistake to pretend that it is 1945 all over again. Public disaffection with the private ownership of large natural monopolies provides ample public space to promote other, more democratic models of ownership in which workers participate fully in the running of their enterprises and, just as importantly, have a say when it comes to divvying up the profits. Democratic socialism, I believe it is called.

    Appropriately, it was Karl Marx who once wrote that the tradition of all dead generations "weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living". In this respect, the zeal for privatisation that reached a zenith in the 1980s has left an indelible impression on our political elite, many of whom came of age during Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiastic attempt at dismantling the post-war consensus. While the public has long since moved on, many conservative commentators remain marooned in the 1980s, instinctively horrified by a reality that sits uneasily with many of their most basic assumptions.

    Today it isn’t corrupt bureaucrats or incompetent state managers that people are fed up of, but private sector fat cats who jack up the prices of things we cannot do without and then hold the country to ransom when anyone has the temerity to question it. No wonder Ed Miliband was so quick to reply in the affirmative when asked if he was "bringing back socialism": he might well be on to a vote winner. 


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    Cyber-liability: new and fast growing.

    Cyber liability insurance is a newly-established insurance category in the UK, estimated by the industry to represent GBP3–4 million, or just 0.01 per cent of the country’s non-life gross written premiums. However, this belies the market potential, with an estimated 4.8 million private businesses registered in the UK and growing use of the internet among these firms.

    Indeed, it is developments in the use of information technology for business that have highlighted the issue of liability in cyberspace. Firms collect, manage and store data electronically, social media interaction has increased and portable computing devices are growing in popularity. This technological evolution means UK firms are increasing their exposure to cyber threats such as hacking, extortion, data leaks and business downtime, all of which could result in an onerous financial burden to resolve.

    A number of high-profile data leaks during 2011 and 2012 highlighted the costs involved when personal data is exposed. Beyond the obvious monetary costs of launching an investigation and settling compensation payouts comes the costs which are more difficult for underwriters and businesses to quantify: damage to reputation, business disruption and lost business all have to be taken into consideration. A joint industry and government report, the Information Security Breaches Survey for 2013, calculated that in the aftermath of its most serious data breach, the highest cost to a large firm (more than 250 employees) stemmed from damage to reputation, followed by response costs and business disruption (see chart, below). For smaller businesses the cost of business disruption is, on average, eight times higher than any other resulting cost.

    Average cost of a large organisation's worst cyber incident (GBP, 2012)

    Industry surveys suggest a low awareness of cyber liability products among UK businesses. In all likelihood, managers believe these intangible risks are covered by their existing commercial liability insurance policies, yet traditional policies do not tend to address issues related to the internet or electronic data.

    If the growing risk in the impalpable world of cyber data does not provide the catalyst for uptake of cyber liability insurance, regulatory changes will likely prove the strongest incentive for British businesses. The European Commission (EC) aims to harmonize laws on the protection of personal data across the EU. In the event of personal data being exposed, firms will be mandated to notify national authorities - the Information Commissioner's Office in the UK - and will face fines for non-compliance. The new law is slated for introduction in 2014 and is expected to be the primary growth driver of cyber liability insurance over the next five years.

    This piece first appeared on Timetric


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    Someone’s sitting around a table and saying, “Rape jokes?” “Yeah, great. We could sell that”, then, “I’ve got a thing about blacks too.” “Racism? Jesus, what sort of company do you think we are?”

    Which clothing is the most offensive? Image: Getty

    I’ve always thought the best thing about clothes is prejudice. In fact, I’d go as far to say the entire purpose of getting dressed in a morning is that it allows you to say something that in non-cloth circumstances, people would call you a bigot for. Say it with words? You’re an arsehole. Say it through your clothes? You’re a genius. Other people merely use clothes to prevent themselves getting cold or arrested. Not you. Whether it’s on it, or through it, you use clothes to be offensive. Or maybe ironically offensive. Or zany. (You haven’t decided yet.)

    You know the sort of thing. Clothing that says someone with a mental health problem is going to kill you or that sometimes women deserve a slap. We’ve seen it many times before with ‘Nice new girlfriend: what breed is she?’ t-shirts in Topman and domestic violence apologist 'You provoked me' tops. We’ve seen it again this week with ‘I’m feeling rapey’ t-shirts on eBay and ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward’ Halloween costumes from both Asda and Tesco. “Every one will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume,” Asda promised, optimistically. It was designed to look like a straitjacket, and included "a torn bloodstained shirt, bloodstained plastic meat cleaver and gory face mask” for subtlety.

    I’m thinking of getting into the bigoted clothing business myself. Based on the fact that, despite consumer protest, these pieces of clothing keep being produced and sold, there’ll be plenty of companies willing to buy my idea. Not just the odd market stall, either. International brands like Amazon or eBay and huge supermarkets like Tesco or Asda. Except, I’m not sure they would. My clothing is going to be racist, you see. It might include a joke about Jews. Or maybe Muslims. I’m still at the ideas stage but right now but I’m thinking of a t-shirt with a really big nose on it, or a fancy dress outfit of a Bolton terrorist. If I’m feeling particularly ‘edgy’, I might just print a load of t-shirts with different ethnic slurs on it. They’ll even be available in a range of colours (geddit?) I can’t help but fear that retailers – up to this point quite happy to stock certain offensive clothes – might reject my ideas though. Times have changed. Jew jokes just don’t seem to have the zany appeal that mental health stigma does.

    A person doesn’t need to spend their spare time on Twitter to be wary of anyone who ranks their level of persecution (or privilege). Bigotry isn’t comparative. It doesn’t comfort the woman being called a slag in the street to be told at least she’s not a black man being called a word I don’t want to type. “I’m considerably more oppressed than you” gets no one anywhere, and ignorance isn’t the sort of thing that can be scaled.

    The fact that the ‘mental patient’ and ‘rapey’ clothing was ever on sale suggests judgements are being made about our bigotry all the time. Companies are ranking our prejudices. Whether it’s the suppliers or sellers, someone’s doing not only doing the equivalent of sitting around a table and saying, “Rape jokes?” “Yeah, great. We could sell that” but, “I’ve got a thing about blacks too.” “Racism? Jesus, what sort of company do you think we are?”(Unless of course, no one is even pitching racist t-shirts – which in itself, might tell us something.)

    It shows the ethics of the consumer that, due to pressure on the companies, the items in question have now been removed. But I can’t help but think, if these clothes had been peddling hate and ignorance of anyone but women or the disabled, they wouldn’t have been sold in the first place.

    What is it about women or people with mental health problems that says their oppression is funny? That they’re fair game and a target sellers can get away with? Supermarkets and global websites have just about reached the point where they understand racism is wrong. Sexism or disablism? Well, it’s not great. But they’ll give it a go. Some bigotry is just worse than others. The world of prejudice is prejudiced like that.


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    Here's why.

    Creative destruction is no fun if it is your livelihood or beloved newspaper that is being destroyed. But my researches have convinced me that journalism is being adapted, rethought and reconstructed in thousands of ways in far more places than can easily be grasped. In short, there is enough experiment in train to be optimistic that economic sustainability will be found even if the experiments have a high failure rate.

    In open societies, this takes the form of new communities of interest, new market players, new suppliers of news. Even in some closed societies, information can often flow down different routes in informal, unpredictable ways. Some of those new flows are – or may become – journalism. New ways of dispersing information do not mean that ‘everything changes’. Here are some examples of the variety of what does and does not change:

    Journalists worrying about "paradigm shifts", "network effects" and "post counts’ can often forget that, in many parts of the world, adapting journalism to disruption is not the big issue. Keeping reporters and cameramen alive and out of jail remains a priority for many news organisations. In 2012, 70 journalists were killed worldwide in direct relation to their work, making it one of the worst years since records began to be kept. The imprisonment of journalists reached a record high in the same year, with 232 individuals behind bars because of their work. In many places, journalists confront risks, obstruction and threats that are a feature of any society not accustomed to press freedom. The Russian deputy minister of communications Aleksei Volin recently told journalism teachers in Moscow:

    Human beings like reading words from paper. For many, paper is both optically more attractive and carries greater authority. The internet creates potential business-model problems for newspapers, magazines and books since all of these rely on cumbersome and expensive distribution systems. But the impact has been felt first at daily newspapers, whose heavy reliance of immediacy once a day was most easily upset by the internet’s ability to send information without a regular timetable. That in turn caused advertisers to be increasingly sceptical that daily newspapers were holding the attention of their readers, and particularly younger readers; the scepticism predated the internet. Magazines and books remain effective ways to send information that readers value.

    Newspapers are very reluctant to die. They may cut staff, hollow out their content, be a shadow of their former selves and change their readers − but actual extinction, taken as a whole across developed societies, still remains rare. Printed newspapers will be a lower and less important layer of the news system in many countries, but it is not likely that they will vanish entirely. It has happened at more rapid rates in some places in the past than it is happening in the second decade of the 21st century. News readers, particularly over the age of 40, are readers of habit; even if they use a tablet to read newspapers, they will adapt most easily to reading apps that mimic structures and layout in print. The readers of the Daily Mail on paper are among the most enthusiastic users of its site Mail Online. The DNA of printed journalism will alter over time, but at a slow and evolutionary pace. Any potential audience contains ‘lean forward’ readers – technologically adept, engaged, interactive – and ‘lean back’ readers who enjoy the journalism more passively for its writing quality, sense of humour or character. Some readers have both of these approaches at different times, on different subjects and in different moods. News publishers must adapt their strategies to the temperament of the audience they have or they want, because members of their audience can switch so easily.

    The internet will often carry the widest-ranging and quickest comment because that is what the web is often best at. Newspapers – printed or online – have specialised in trying to produce news that no one else has. The ability to see a story – to frame selected facts readably – produces bad results when it goes wrong. But at its best, it sharpens the attractions of information. Julian Assange paid tribute to this skill, despite his loathing of mainstream media, when explaining why WikiLeaks had partnered with several major newspapers: "We see actually that the professional press has a nose for what a story will be – the general public becomes involved once there is a story."

     What may appear revolutionary is better labelled as evolutionary. The sites experimenting with different ways of producing sustainable journalism have significant quantities of journalism in their bloodstream. They may hire journalism experience when confident of an audience, they may train their own people, they may institute rules for editorial quality and integrity. A high proportion of founders of new journalism operations have been journalists themselves before striking out on their own. They are living proof that journalism is not being reinvented without any legacy from the past. The past is part of the mix.

    The hunger for video and the switch to mobile devices are the two major trends that business strategists must adapt for in the second decade of this century. But none of that sweeping change alters the fact that the internet is a universe of words. That means that writing − and the editing that inspires, sifts and improves it − will matter in what people choose to read. Since there is no space constraint on the web, long-form writing may flower. Much long-form will continue to appear in print, but there will also be sites specialising in writing of length and depth outside of academic journals. A few such sites for a general readership already exist.

    It has taken time but we are now seeing the emergence of multichannel news outlets, which are competing against each other as global players. This group ranges from business-oriented sites such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Bloomberg to those with broader agendas such as the BBC, Al-Jazeera (in English), CNN and China’s CCTV News. The BBC currently runs the world’s largest news-gathering organisation, employing 6,000 people worldwide. CCTV’s global operation, when fully developed, is expected to overtake the BBC total. These organisations have the levy income (BBC), the state’s resources (Al-Jazeera, CCTV) or subscription income (Bloomberg, Financial Times) to keep expanding well outside their original core market. Several newspaper websites such as the New York Times and The Guardian would like to count themselves as in this group, but it is not yet clear if either paper can overcome its financial weaknesses to expand to compete in the long term.

    Journalism’s platform is moving, in a literal sense. In Britain, print circulations have fallen at an average of 3.08 per cent every six months in the five years to 2012. If that rate of decline continued, the 10-year drop would be 45 per cent. Compare that with smartphone data. In 2012, the volume of data exchanged on the world’s smartphones was estimated as 0.9 exabytes. By 2017, that figure is expected to be 11.2 exabytes, a compound annual growth rate of 66 per cent.Journalism does not have to abandon its original purpose or values; but it does have to adapt. If information flows like liquid in and out of devices 24 hours a day, journalism’s value lies in something it has done before: sifting, distilling, taking the signal from the noise. A 2011 survey asked people to describe how they felt about the information flow from the internet. More than two-thirds (72 per cent) picked the description ‘a roaring river, a flood or massive tidal wave’.Journalism’s function has often been to organise information so that what is most important is available and accessible. The world’s information flow creates a demand: it is up to journalism to supply it.

    The evolutionary renewal of journalism has many precedents. The age of mass media will leave an imprint on the coming era of social, dispersed media. But the last century, when journalists were part of industrial oligopolies, may well have been historically unusual. Journalism cannot survive without adapting again. The determinants of success or failure are the quantity and quality of experiment. Journalism’s recent history has shown that existing institutions have been slow and cautious to experiment radically and disruptively enough inside their own organizations. Experiments have not been numerous enough nor good enough. Agile challengers have done better. The size and stability of many legacy media companies have insulated their journalists and managers from having to consider precisely how to deliver a value that will be recognized in the new era. These newsrooms have precious expertise if journalists can come to see how the value of what they do can be adapted and refashioned.

    This blog post is taken from Out of Print: Newspapers, journalism and the business of news in the digital age - published by Kogan Page. George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

    It also appeared on Press Gazette.

     


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    In progressive circles, testing now inspires a lot of scepticism, if not outright hostility. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that exams bolster learning in a way that studying can't.

    This piece was originally published on the New Republic website

    In high school, we used to moan about Mr. Koonz’s chemistry class. Every Friday, Mr. Koonz required his students to turn in a worksheet and take a test. Every single Friday. We begged for a break from the constant assessments. But nothing swayed him.

    It turns out Mr. Koonz was on to something really important. In progressive circles, testing now inspires a lot of skepticism, if not outright hostility. With so much riding on test scores for both teachers and students, the standardized exams required by No Child Left Behind seem to encourage more cheating than learning. At best, they foster memorization, but at the expense of originality and critical thinking. In the modern era, when information can be more easily—and accurately—Googled than mentally recalled, old-fashioned testing strikes its critics as obsolete. (That is what a bunch of students caught cheating at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School tried arguing.) But it turns out that the right kinds of assessments—frequent, short tests—can actually yield big educational benefits. It’s called the “testing effect,” and policymakers are missing an opportunity by not doing more to take advantage of it.

    The problem with the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind—as well as with the SAT, A.P., GMAT, MCAT, bar exam, medical boards, and the rest of the standardized tests undergirding the U.S. credentialing system—is that they’re built on what researchers call the “dipstick” view of assessment. They assume that there’s a fixed amount of knowledge and ability in a student’s head, which the test merely measures. But that’s not what science has shown. Done properly, testing is not inert. Rather, it can be much more like the physical phenomena underlying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In the act of measuring students, you can actually affect how much knowledge they absorb and how well they retain it.

    Though it doesn’t get a lot of mainstream attention, the research documenting the testing effect goes back nearly 100 years. In one experiment, three groups of high school students were given reading passages to study. The first group did nothing other than go over the material once. The second group studied it two times. The third group was given an initial test on what they’d read. Two weeks later, the students in all three groups were brought back and given an identical quiz. While the group that studied the passages a second time scored better than the group that just studied them once, the students who were initially tested performed best. The results held up when the students sat for follow-ups five months later. The testing had enhanced learning and retention more than just studying.

    A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

    A key to triggering the testing effect is timing: The sooner students are tested after encountering new material, the more it sinks in, while waiting just seven days to test students can substantially reduce performances. On the other hand, the more testing a student gets on a given set of more information, the greater the benefits. With the first few tests, students show dramatic gains. With further testing, the positive effects on retention taper off. But surprisingly, there is no plateau. Even after 20 or 30 tests, students’ performances progressively improve with each additional assessment.

    As for why all of this happens: No one is entirely sure. The most plausible explanation is that connections between neural cells are the subject of a brutal natural-selection process. When you fail to engage them, they seem to wither away; brain power is a classic case of “use it or lose it.” Because the recall process involved in test-taking requires real mental effort, it bulks up the brain’s neural connections and may force the brain to create multiple, alternative retrieval routes for accessing the same piece of information. Frequent mental struggle strengthens intellectual wiring. This may be why, for all the SAT’s drawbacks, SAT prep courses featuring lots of practice exams can boost vocabulary and math skills—by forcing students to retrieve the information on all those flash cards, they provide helpful mental workouts.

    So why isn’t there much more testing in U.S. schools? Teachers’ schedules are one major obstacle. Developing good quiz questions—not to mention grading them—is labor intensive. For the classes I teach at the University of Pennsylvania, it takes me and my co-instructor, aided by our two teaching fellows, about an hour a week to develop just five multiple-choice questions to give our students. Mr. Koonz’s tests were on yellowing sheets of paper that he reused year to year. That time-saving approach now has a significant drawback: In the Internet age, students would just post the questions on the Web, which would tip off other students to exactly what’s being tested, eliminating the organic recall that is key to the testing effect. Today’s teachers would need to develop new test questions each week for each class, but few teachers have that kind of free time.

    This piece was originally published on the New Republic website


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    The party needs to show how new 'guarantees' will be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets, could win the all-important female vote.

    Earlier this week, Labour retook the initiative on childcare with the announcement of a major extension in free care for three-and-four-year-olds. Having been the party that established childcare as a new frontier of the welfare state when in government, Labour’s lack of a clear policy direction over the last year had left room for the coalition to creep in with its proposals. A YouGov poll for the Resolution Foundation conducted before the announcement revealed that even Labour supporters felt that the Lib Dems had better ideas on childcare than their own party. But Labour has come back with force. Will its ideas on childcare help it reclaim the all important women’s vote – a major battle ground at the next election? And will the Tories try to reclaim the initiative next week in Manchester?

    Children aged three and four are currently entitled to 15 hours of free early education and care. Labour's plan would extend that free entitlement by a further 10 hours for families with working parents. One of the central complaints about the existing free entitlement is that it is just too short to help second earners – usually mothers - to work part-time. This is because when it was introduced it was designed around child development not the labour market. But with living standards now the dominant issue for all political parties, the extension to 25 hours is intended to make a part-time job possible.

    Labour also set out a bold offer for parents of primary age children – a guarantee of childcare before and after school. While childcare for under-fives is more expensive, parents of older children struggle with the mismatch between the school day and the working day. Unless childcare can be easily wrapped around the school day, keeping a job can be a challenge.

    Despite a decade of investment by government, the cost of childcare is still a major issue for families. A poll of 1,000 users of the parents’ website Mumsnet for the Resolution Foundation in advance of Labour conference found that nearly half of all respondents said that they found it more difficult to manage the costs of childcare in the past year compared to only one in 10 who thought the situation had improved. In fact, those who can are increasingly relying on grandparents or other types of informal care to reduce their childcare bill.

    More free hours of childcare, as Labour has proposed, will definitely help to make work pay, particularly for lower-earning women for whom the costs of childcare eat up a large chunk of every extra pound they earn. The extension of the free entitlement and the guarantee for older children are also clearly distinct from the coalition’s current proposal announced at this year’s budget to create a new childcare voucher for better-off parents. The coalition has chosen to put more money in parents’ pockets; Labour to ensure more free provision is available.

    With competing proposals in place, there is a lot to play for politically. When asked which of the parties has the best ideas on childcare, four in ten Mumsnet survey respondents said "none of them" and almost as many (38 per cent) answered "don’t know". Only 11 per cent named Labour and four per cent both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as having the best ideas on childcare.

    If Labour can deliver on its announcements and communicate them to parents, it has a clear opportunity to win over the undecided majority. Here the concept of a 'guarantee' is a useful approach. But it will only work in Labour’s favour if parents can get the childcare to which they are entitled. This is where the risk lies for Labour. There are long-standing problems with access to the existing 15 hours entitlement because it is underfunded. Labour needs to ensure that any new entitlements and 'guarantees' can be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets could grab the all-important female vote. 


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    Remember the Hyundai suicide advert? Or the campaign that suggested Flora margarine could strengthen your heart against the shock of having a gay child? Josh Lowe investigates why these deeply offensive campaigns ever see the light of day.

    In April this year, Holly Brockwell, an advertising copywriter who blogs as Copybot, wrote a searing open letter to the car company Hyundai and one of their ad agencies, Innocean, about how they had made her sob to the point of nausea with an ad.

    The one-minute viral video was based around a simple gag. A threadbare older man has decided to end it all. We know this because we see the taped-up windows of his car, the exhaust feeding in, billowing around him. We assume we are watching a promotional film for MIND. But then, aha! It turns out this tool is even more pathetic than we thought. He’s trying to top himself with his squeaky clean Hyundai ix35, the moron! Didn’t he know, as a line of copy subsequently informs us, that it produces only “100% water emissions”? Our poor sap trudges back to the house, presumably to stick his head in an electric oven or something.

    Brockwell didn’t feel able to get in on the joke, as her own father had killed himself in a similar way years before. As she put it in her letter:

    I understand better than most people the need to do something newsworthy, something talkable, even something outrageous to get those all-important viewing figures. What I don’t understand is why a group of strangers have just brought me to tears in order to sell me a car.

    This has all been discussed before - the ad provoked massive controversy, leading Hyundai to pull it. Their defence, though, was interesting. The FT reported a spokeswoman as saying that the car company had not commissioned or approved the film. The agency chimed in: they had been looking for “consumers’ feedback on creative ideas employing hyperbole to dramatize [sic] a product advantage.” Their only misstep was to do so online, in a prominent place, with people all over the world at the same time.

    Once you start to look for it, you realise how pervasive this problem has become. A recent campaign by Lowe and Partners South Africa which advertised Flora margarine as strengthening your heart against the shock of having a gay child was an embarrassment to parent company Unilever, who stressed that it “was not approved”. At the beginning of this year, JWT India produced caricatures of women being abused to great outcry. Ford, for whom the ads were made, denied signing off on them.

    “Ad creatives exist in a strange world,” Brockwell tells me. “Their boss wears jeans, the head of HR uses the C-word... making a hilariously tasteless joke ad and sticking it up on the wall in the agency can be a way of letting off steam during a stressful week.” In such a insular, pressurised environment, the responses of outsiders can be a shock: “Those jokes would be perceived extremely differently outside the agency, and when they’re leaked... it’s often only then that the creators see their joke through everyone else’s eyes.”

    Ten years ago, Gordon Young, editor of communications and media magazine The Drum, noticed a similar issue. Advertising creatives were increasingly bending or breaking the rules of competitions in order to get tasteless or provocative work entered and make a splash. In response, he created the Chip Shop Awards which recognises “creativity with no boundaries” - it looks for the most offensive work possible. “Why try and ban it?” reasons Young, “why not create a platform where they can show it and everybody knows exactly what they’re looking at?”

    Why not indeed? Winners of the last awards include a poster of the queen taking a dump to plug Immodium ("Spending Too Much Time On The Throne?") and a spot for popular kids’ boredom-averter Top Trumps depicting a fictional classic entertainers’ set (think Savile, Glitter) and the slogan "Played With Since The 70s". The site carries a hefty disclaimer, meaning that onlookers are likely to view entries and winners with a permissive eye.

    When playful platforms like these are available, it’s odd how many other avenues creatives find for releasing their work. One popular forum is adsoftheworld.com, an advertising archive and community which allows anyone to post examples of creative work and receive feedback.

    Founder Ivan Raszl found himself at the centre of the aforementioned JWT India/Ford controversy. Creatives from JWT India posted work on the site which demonstrated the capacity of the Ford Figo’s extra-large boot with a cartoon showing Silvio Berlusconi peace-signing to the camera from the driver’s seat with three scantily clad women hogtied in the back, one of them weeping. Another showed Paris Hilton winking while, behind her, grotesque caricatures of the Kardashians struggled to slip their bonds. The internet was not happy.

    In a blog written near the time, Raszl explained: “I feel in India... the celebrities and politicians portrayed in the campaign are seen as only comical characters, not as integral players of [sic] the society.” The problem, however, was that “in America the suggestion of sexual exploitation with criminal intent and kidnapping is no laughing matter in any context.” I’m sure many Indians would beg to differ, but his basic point should be familiar to us by now. Out of context, these things blow out of proportion.

    So why take the risk of posting there? Raszl thinks creatives often get carried away and misunderstand their superiors: “the client may say on [sic] the meeting; ‘bit risky, but I like it’. And creatives may take it as approval.” His site offers an individual creative or teams of creatives a chance to generate instant publicity. He tells me that “many people [get] new jobs or promotions” as a direct result of uploading ads.

    Blaming a tasteless ad on the bravado of art school grads dizzy from consecutive all-nighters is tempting, but everyone I speak to is clear that there is often a darker force at work. “I'm sure these things don't happen by accident as agencies would be too worried about losing clients and agencies and production companies normally have NDA's in place which have heavy financial penalties,” one agency head points out. Often the client, less closely associated with a piece of work than the agency, reaps a double benefit from a leak. They get a publicity spike driven by the off-colour material, followed by a chance to look decisive when they deny all knowledge and condemn the mad men behind it.

    For Young, there’s a “checkered background”: sometimes the client is the victim. He suspects, for example, that “Unilever would have been appalled at the Flora campaign.” Sometimes, however, clients leak ads, or at least know they are being leaked, for PR benefit. How can we tell? “I think you’re looking at some of the stuff that works quite well,” he says. Without contradicting their official line, he does bring up Hyundai as an example of a brand he reckons benefitted from a backlash. “It made the brand seem a bit more risque than Hyundai is usually associated with being,” he says, and the ad clearly demonstrated a product benefit: “it was probably very good at getting their message over.”

    This is a digital-age phenomenon. The number of platforms available to creatives and the lack of money involved makes this kind of stunt not only infinitely easier, but also allows the client to maintain what Young calls “plausible deniability.” Since accidents do genuinely happen so often, clients can play on public acceptance of that to get away scot free. As Brockwell says, it “creates [a] perfect storm of low risk and high potential... if you can say ‘a bigger boy did it and ran away’ and actually get away with it, why wouldn’t you?”

    Is there necessarily a problem here? Young says that the threat of a social media storm makes the industry feel accountable. Nowadays, he points out, the advertising world is disparate and ill defined, and none of its regulatory bodies exercise full control over everything that could be deemed advertising. The possibility of online retribution keeps clients and agencies in check. In my own experience, the prevailing opinion in the communications industries is that debate and outrage are inherently good things anyway.

    But Brockwell thinks the industry should be aiming as high as possible. “Advertising contributes to culture in a major way,” she says, “A kid watching TV learns as much about gender roles from the deodorant ad in the break as from the programme on either side. That means advertisers are as responsible for social norms as the people making mainstream content – in other words, very responsible indeed.” Yet what makes advertising interesting to her is the low regard in which it is generally held: “writing for advertising is particularly fun because people hate ads. It’s that much more rewarding when someone praises your ad, because unlike an article or story, they started out hostile to it.”

    Brockwell’s point explains why this is more than a harmless case of marketers co-opting moral outrage. Advertisers using poor taste to drive traffic is an insult to the medium they work in. Agencies and clients see the distaste audiences have for being sold to, and rather than either holding off or trying to show them something positive, they bend that distaste to their own ends. At a time when clickbait lurks on our finest news sites and broadcast debate encourages shouting heads rather than talking ones, content creators across all media should take note. It might be easy to shrug off the disapproval of your viewers, but the results won’t be pretty. Besides, trying to change their minds is a lot more interesting.
     


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    Before postal workers even have a chance to strike over the plan.

     

    Thatcherism lives on well into the new millennium it seems with the news that the government will rush the sale of Royal Mail before postal workers have a chance to strike over the plan.

    Nothing could be more polarising this week following the now seemingly heroic Labour bravely, although perhaps unwisely throwing down the gauntlet to the energy companies while the Con-Dems attempt to royally screw the nation out of its postal service.

    The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is balloting 100,000 of its members on a nationwide strike over the privatisation, as well as on changes to salary and pensions.

    Voting in the strike ballot will close on 16 October while Royal Mail should be privatised by 15 October. The earliest a strike could take place is 23 October, making the whole thing seem a little bit pointless.

    The depressingly low value of the post office has been placed between £2.6bn and £3.3bn after the government announced it will beginning selling shares between 260p and 330p each.

    Bear in mind the businesses profits to the 52 weeks to the end of March jumped to £403m, up from £152m for the previous year on the back of its growing parcel delivery service, while, admittedly, the letter industry dies a long, torturous death trapped under an ever growing pile of junk mail.  

    Despite its problems, many may struggle to see the upside of such a sale considering we are now seeing the long term affects of the utilities sell off. So what are the, hypothetical, pros?

    Business secretary Vince Cable has said that the Royal Mail needs the capital this IPO will bring in order to modernise. In a kind of confused agreement chief executive at Royal Mail Moya Greene said that the company would "not change" while being better able to compete in a competitive market. That’s a thinker.

    Vince and Moya are right in some respects; Royal Mail operates in an increasingly competitive market and, unlike the energy companies and the banks, the services on offer are not seen as one indistinguishable gelatinous blob, all giving the exact same service at the same price but with a different, just as ugly, face.

    It’s not just a question of picking a provider and sticking with them until you get so pissed off you switch to a different one where the cycle begins all over again (in a way painfully reminiscent of out system of government). Royal Mail has to compete to be the first choice everyday of private people and businesses when there seems to be more UPS and FedEx trucks on the road than ever.

    Perhaps privatisation is the way forward this time. If previous governments hadn’t done such a lamentable job the last few times, allowing big business overseas to take us all to the cleaners, maybe people would be able to see beyond the failures of the past to entertain the idea that this time it might work.

    But the fear of stagnation, greedy profiteering, shady board room deals are not going to be far from peoples minds and pulling a fast one on the CWU in the back is unlikely to be seen as a fair but shrewd business tactic.

    With the bull rush move of not allowing Royal Mail staff (who will be expected to carry a 10 per cent share of the company in less than a month) to have their say and, if they so choose to, call a strike, it seems the biggest government sell off since the early 90s is off to a bad start.

    But hey, something’s got to pay for that sinking ship called HS2, right?


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    The Labour leader is right to make defending consumers a mission of the left. But that means tackling failed state services too.

    People rarely lurch outside Westminster, unless they are drunk. By contrast, party leaders do it all the time, and quite sober, although in their case it has a specific meaning. (Lurchv. intrans - the movement of a politician in a direction simultaneously craved by his party and deemed by conventional wisdom to be where elections are lost.) Using that definition, Ed Miliband has lurched to the left because his party conference speech proposed big, heavy-handed interventions in the private sector. A vigorous debate followed about how lurchy the lurch really was given that governments intervene in all kinds of markets all the time. There is also an ancillary debate about whether these specific  interventions - particularly the proposal to freeze fuel bills -  will work.

    Less attention has been paid to what I think is a central political ambition of the speech – the attempt to change the way people talk about Miliband’s leadership. His obvious deficiency in opinion polls is the perception that he is weak and will never comfortably fill Prime Ministerial shoes. Already he is being discussed in different terms: a danger rather than a joke, which is short-term a win for Labour because a weakling is not a threat. If Miliband is now a menace, he must be less weak.

    But there was more to the leadership argument in the speech than simply firing off deliberately controversial policies so that everyone runs around dizzily talking about how bold – or Bolshevik – and decisive Miliband can be. His point is that David Cameron is strong because he has mighty friends – in the media, in big business, in finance. By contrast, the Labour leader wants to be strong on behalf of the defenceless. In a traditional left taxonomy of power that means the downtrodden masses, who have thus far in the parliament been effectively cordoned off from public sympathy as undeserving benefit claimants.

    Now Miliband has identified a new and much larger group of people who feel put upon, ignored and oppressed – consumers. The Labour leader is definitely onto something if can put himself on the side of the people who pay the bills, buy the rail tickets, wait on the hold to speak to an advisor, while a mechanical voice reassures them that the company considers their call important when plainly it doesn’t. And he is onto something even stronger if he can trap the Tories into being the mechanical voice on the end of the line.

    The reason it doesn’t make sense to compare Miliband’s moves to 1970s-style Socialism is that much of the infrastructure of our lives is run by the private sector and will be for the foreseeable future. The challenge for politics is how to meet the demands of citizens who feel the provision of those essential private services is inadequate. If electricity or broadband or transport or whatever are deemed too expensive and the market isn’t working to bring down prices, what is government going to do about it? The menu of options contains variations on control, regulation and liberalisation. You either stamp on the market, limit the market or create more market.

    A little-noticed feature of Miliband’s energy agenda is that it uses bits of all three. The freeze is a temporary measure to be imposed while reforms are introduced to make the consumer electricity and gas market more competitive. Labour people aren’t exactly boasting about that because the party faithful prefer the bit about bashing corporate giants to the bit about efficient markets, new entrants and competition being the best way to serve customers in the long term – and in technical terms that’s the least developed part of the policy. There are some Labour front-benchers who are keen to get that latter part of the argument out there but loyalty to the tone of the leader’s speech is the key this week.

    If some balance is restored – if it is made clear that Miliband is actually pursuing a new kind of consumer-focused, market-literate social democracy – he will have carved out a genuinely exciting space for Labour to talk about reforming the economy so it works for the majority. The problem is that consumers don’t just consume in the private sector. They also rely on the state and that is also a huge source of frustration, rip-off, neglect and computer-says-no demoralisation. If Miliband wants to be a crusader for the huddled, downtrodden masses of consumer-citizens, he also needs a story to tell about state reform. He knows this and indeed made the point to me in an interview earlier this year, saying that the “unresponsive state” was as much a matter for political grievance as failed markets. The question that naturally follows is how he will define himself in relation to failures of state power in the way he is currently defining himself as a scourge of failed markets.

    Whether he likes it or not, part of that story will be told through the parable of his relationship with trade unions. Labour cannot reform the state without either getting the consent of or winning confrontation with the representatives of organised public sector workers. Miliband wants to present himself as the man who stands up to vested interests as opposed to Cameron – the man who is in the pocket of Big Money. To pull that off, he needs a satisfactory resolution to the confrontation he is already in with the “vested interests” on his own side.

    Two years ago, when I asked senior Labour strategists whether this was a problem, they dismissed the analogy. The feeling then was that unions were not hugely unpopular and that if the Tories tried to paint some equivalence between Unite and the City, they would just look ridiculous. Over time that view changed and since the Falkirk row it has been clear that people very close to Miliband see his party reforms as a prominent emblem of his willingness to tackle obstacles to change – “ripping up the rules” - on his own side too. It comes back to that ambition to re-cast Ed as the man of deep, intellectual courage and strength in contrast to Cameron’s insubstantial swagger. The forthcoming battle with the unions has thus acquired even greater significance in the light of Miliband’s conference speech. It is the symbolic counterpoint to his assault on failed markets; it is the chapter in the story that is meant to demonstrate that he has not lurched left after all, nor triangulated right as the old New Labour playbook dictated he should, but instead represents something quite new.

    In terms of the detail of any settlement with the unions, there is sure to be a slightly messy compromise. Miliband cannot afford to bankrupt his party by provoking a great schism. Union leaders will not want to damage the Labour leader so much in the haggling that they end up sabotaging the party’s election prospects. What matters most in broader political terms is that Miliband comes out of it with something that can plausibly be held aloft as a victory. No less important, since the Tories will denounce any deal as a capitulation to union paymasters and proof of reversion to the 1970s, it matters that the union leaders look defeated, even if in practice they are not. 

    Miliband’s political fortunes over the next few months depend substantially on whether he can embed in the public mind the idea that he is stronger than he looks. For that to work, he needs his enemies to look threatened. So far the Tories are playing along by sounding hysterical about the lights going out, as if insisting on lower bills is a threat to civilisation. The next test is whether the Labour leader’s adversaries on the left will be equally obliging.


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    I've been called worse than Hitler for being with the man I'm in love with. But to me, my boyfriend's religion is even more arbitrary than his fashion sense.

    Jewish women and men are often encouraged
    to marry a fellow 'member of tribe'. Image: Getty

    Since falling in love with a Gentile and betraying my religion, my heritage and thousands of years of Jewish tradition, I’ve compiled a rough list of the historical figures I have been told I am worse than: Hitler; the guy that started the blood libel; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

    While the nice Jewish girls I grew up with were busy trying to find nice Jewish boys, I found myself taking an altogether different path with an altogether different type of boy. Despite this act of incontrovertible depravity, I feel just as Jewish as ever. I baulk at the idea of living in Kent, I believe in the healing power of chicken soup, and I still think in terms of whether or not things are ‘good for the Jews’.

    But girls like me are not supposed to fall in love with someone outside of the faith. I know all the arguments: it’s my responsibility as a Jewish woman to find, marry and have children with another Jew. It is imperative my partner is MOT (member of tribe) to ensure the survival of Jews around the world.  I’m just not convinced by them anymore. And witnessing the fuss, frustration, false starts and the full-on heartbreak that the overwhelming desire to ‘marry in’ can cause simply affirms this belief.

    One only need to look at the stats: a heterosexual Jewish woman in the UK looking for love with a Jewish man has roughly 0.025 per cent of the population to choose from. Of that 0.025 per cent many will either be age inappropriate, a first-degree relative, secretly gay, a carbon copy of Alexander Portnoy or worse, already married.

    The imperative -- in the face of such unfavourable odds -- for young Jews to cop off and one day have Jewish babies has given rise to ‘Booze 4 Jews’ at universities across the country, plus a mosaic of youth organisations with the promulgation of Jewish genes as a prime concern.

    Then there’s the shaming of those who choose to marry outside the faith, like the tight-lipped matriarch who turned up to her daughter’s wedding an hour late and in a pair of jeans. From the moment she took her seat, she began to voice her disapproval. Then there are mothers who don’t show up at all.

    It’s not my place to judge those who only want to date other Jewish people. But it terrifies me that I might not have gone out with my boyfriend on the basis of his religious background. To me, it seems an even more arbitrary thing to object to than the colour of his eyes or his fashion sense.

    Yes, another Jew might have had a similar upbringing and thus have a similar perspective on life. Yes, they would want to bring up our children with full knowledge of our centuries-old tradition. Yes, that would bond us in a unique way. But I know that my Catholic boyfriend has the same values, morals and perspective on the world as me, despite the fact that he somehow thinks it is OK to eat shellfish.

    And partially because of our love and understanding, he knows that the Jewish tradition is special and something I want to pass on to our children. I know that what bonds us in a unique way is something more than a similar upbringing -  it’s deep, head-over-heels, schmaltzy love.   


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    Ann Dowsett Johnston's new memoir, "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol", re-examines the stigma surrounding alchohol dependency - and sees hope for Britain's drinking problem.

    “Red or white?” Red. “Pinot Noir, Merlot or Rioja?” Rioja. Welcome to sophistication, where knowing your wines is a marker of worldliness, where knowing your vodkas is synonymous with hip and drinking to excess is met with denial. And increasingly, the guilty subjects to whom this excess is attributed are female. Or so says Ann Dowsett Johnston in her new memoir, Drink. “The new reality: binge drinking is increasing among young adults and women are largely responsible for this trend.” This isn’t something we haven’t heard before. It’s all over the place – professionals slapping naughty women on the wrist for encroaching on male behaviour – the insolence of females! But while there is clear sexism surrounding the issue of the female drinker, not many people stop to point out the bitchy discrimination that clings to alcoholics of either gender.

    “In our society, would you rather be known as an alcoholic or a person who suffers from depression?” The answer to Johnston’s question can be found overwhelmingly in the use of fake names in her memoir, because that opening line: “Hi, my name is ______, and I'm an alcoholic,” is harder to say than Jerry Blank's declaration in Strangers with Candy. Scout, an example of the invisible alcoholic, illustrates this. She says: “I wish I could use my real name ... But I find anonymity important because people don’t understand about alcoholics. If I were to tell my colleagues that I was one, they would think I wasn’t up to the job. I tell no one – not even my family.”

    “For me, coming out is right,” remarks Johnston. “Coming out” isn’t language we associate with closet drinkers, the phrase usually followed by a statement about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But like the self-disclosure of sexuality, coming out as an alcoholic is to publically assert yourself as separate from the status quo. It’s a brave admission, and it deserves our empathy if Britain’s drinking problem is to be cured.

    “Most people who drink too much aren’t addicted to alcohol.” Johnston’s assertion is valid, but heavy drinking and binge drinking are both alcohol disorders that lead to a needy relationship with the bottle. The NHS defines a binge as three glasses of standard wine (six units) for women and four glasses (eight units) for men in a single session. To drink heavily is characterised by regularly necking more than eight units a day for men, and six units a day for women. Heavy drinking, then, is just the extended cut of binging. And while binging is usually preceded by the words “down it Fresher!” and followed by jagerbombs in vomit-splattered city centres, a bottle of Californian merlot during Downton Abbey is considered perfectly respectful. Drinking heavily at home is met with less social repercussions than knocking back White Lightning on a park bench, but it is still a contributor to the 20 per cent increase in liver disease over the past decade. It is still what Dame Sally Davies was thinking when she said “our alcohol consumption is out of kilter with most of the civilized world”.

    But is alcoholism a disease? Johnston is very careful to skirt around this issue without plainly committing herself one way or the other. “Harm reduction is bullshit,” says O’Flaherty of the Betty Ford Centre, “Addiction is a brain disease – if we cross into addiction, there is no going back”. But whether it is technically a disease or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we know alcoholism changes brain chemistry, physically altering the dopamine receptors in the brain to numb the stimulation of booze. In this sense, alcohol abuse is medicinal. This is key for understanding the addiction and reworking the stigma that taints it. Johnston cites Patrick Smith of Toronto’s Renascent treatment centre: “social drinkers have a difficult time understanding the physiological realities of alcohol dependence because it’s not part of their lived experience.” Like diabetes patients, or one of the 10 per cent of people in the UK who suffer from depression, we can’t all offer identification of alcoholism, only an understanding.

    Britain has a drinking problem, and it’s time we empathised with it. Breathalyser wagons or drunk tanks won’t cure the 9 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women who show signs of alcohol dependence, but merely offer a blue plaster to shield the issue of binge drinking. And like all blue plasters, it will inevitably unstick over time. “Risky drinking is normative in our culture,” writes Johnston, and the health consequences of this risky drinking need to be given a fair public acknowledgement. Heavy drinking at home might be more socially acceptable than catching the 2am booze bus, but it doesn’t detract from the £3.5bn a year the NHS spends on alcohol-related diseases. It doesn’t detract from the fact that drinking heavily makes you 3 to 5 times more likely to get mouth, neck and throat cancer, that you’re 3 to 10 times more likely to develop liver cirrhosis, or that your mental health will suffer as a result. In America, 60 per cent of individuals with drinking problems did not seek help in 2010 due to the stigma of alcoholics, because, and as history has taught us so well, with stigma comes closets.

    On Tuesday, Ed Miliband raised the issue of mental health, calling depression or anxiety something “you don’t want to talk about”, but something that needs early identification to avoid unnecessary spending and anguish. “It’s a One Nation issue”, the Labour leader continued, “It covers rich and poor, North and South, young and old alike ... we've swept it under the carpet for too long."

    When will our party leaders realise that the same applies to alcoholism?

    Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, published by Fourth Estate (1st October 2013)


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    The IPCC report has given the government a wake-up call.

    Today, one part of the climate change debate comes to an end. The scientific debate is over. The IPCC, a huge distinguished panel of international climate scientists, has concluded that to limit climate change, the world must make a continued and substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. No other scientific conclusion has been subjected to such prolonged,detailed, global scrutiny. Those responsible for our media coverage – particularly the BBC – should take note.

    Time should be called on a long, rancorous, and frequently very odd debate, in which a tiny number of individuals and small groups – frequently with clear vested interests - have been given equal weight to 97 per cent of climate scientists. The Flat Earth Society still exists, but that doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously.

    Of course it’s not just climate scientists – and green campaigners - who’ve recognised the pressing urgency of action on climate change. From the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who said climate change kept her awake at night, to 83 per cent of Global 500 companies which have recognised climate change as a serious risk to their operations, to the heavily at-risk inhabitants of fragile small island nations around the globe, there’s wide understanding. As Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General has said: “"The heat is on. Now we must act."

    Those opposed to “green” action in Britain often say that we can’t afford it in today’s economic climate. On the contrary, we can’t afford not to act for the sake of both economy and environment. And that’s not just because of the risk of the floods, the droughts, the heatwaves, are already having huge human and financial costs, but because of the weaknesses and the failures of the very foundations of our economy and everyday life, structures built on massive consumption of once-cheap fossil fuels that we can no longer afford.

    We have a huge problem with fuel poverty in Britain, the result in part of rising energy prices – almost all due to the rising cost of gas and distribution costs in our privatised system, but also of our leaky, poor insulated homes. With not a penny of government funds currently going into home insulation, we’re not only missing out on tackling that problem – but also creating tens of thousands of good, long-term jobs, as well as cutting carbon emissions.

    We have a huge problem with unemployment, under-employment and low pay in Britain. Investing in and developing renewable energy generation technologies – based around our rich wind and tidal power sources – offers the chance to generate.

    The Centre for Alternative Technology has calculated that together renewable technologies and energy conservation can deliver up to 1.5 million good new jobs.

    We have a huge problem with food poverty in Britain – with half a million people dependent, today, on food banks to get enough to eat. We need to bring food production back to Britain, restoring the ring of market gardens around our towns and cities, ensuring food security in our increasingly uncertain world, removing currency risk. We must end the dreadfully wasteful, destructive practice of air freighting fruit and vegetables, and cutting down our practice of shipping them around the world.

    We have a growing problem of “transport poverty” in Britain – fast rising rail and bus fares that are trapping our often forced commuters into further poverty. We need to develop a transport plan for England' built at its base around walking and cycling (worth noting that 1.3 million more new bicycles were bought last year in Britain than cars registered), with affordable, reliable, timely public transport available for longer journeys. Again, more good jobs, as well as cleaner air and better public health.

    There are also looming threats that we need to avert. Green MP Caroline Lucas has highlighted the economic threat of the “carbon bubble” – the unburnable fossil fuels whose valuation underlies the stock prices of some of our largest companies. We need to think long and hard about how to manage that risk, how we can keep more than half of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, not subsidise the potential new and risky operation of fracking for shale gas, as our government is currently doing.

    It’s not surprising that we’ve seen uncertainty about climate change growing in Britain, with a recent poll showing 19 per cent of people were not sure about the human cause of it. (Although of course 72 per cent were sure). With the government failing to take action, with a Lib Dem energy secretary saying he “loves” shale gas, some people understandably thought that perhaps climate change was something they didn’t have to worry about. But they, and the government, have today been given a wake-up call.

    Britain has been a leader, and we can, and must, be again. In passing the 2008 Climate Change Act, Britain stood out in declaring its collective intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now we need to match that with action.

    Natalie Bennett is the Green Party leader


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