Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Silence for so long and when I do blog ... it's about Basildon.

Basildon council has erected a sign costing £90k which looks a bit like the one which looms over Hollywood.

"So what?" I hear you cry. As one commentator helpfully pointed out "It's not the angel of the north is it?". Well spotted Einstein.

What interests me about the story is the reaction, and what it says about our beleaguered democracy.

Bear with me, try not to yawn, I'll explain.

The story provoked the usual tooth-sucking tabloid furore with a healthy dose of predictable head shaking at a bonkers council out of touch with the public.

The Daily Mail, with it's usual rigour (or should that be rigor?) quoted the leader of the council. It was councillor type stuff, not really defending the spend or explaining where the cash came from. Now I'm a stickler for attribution when it comes to quotes so I went digging a bit. It is a quote but the dry bluster isn't a response to the Mail's precision questioning. It's from the council's press release. The Mail never spoke to him you see. It printed the quote as a response though and seems to have made it's mind up. You'd expect nothing less from The Mail. The slightly snide tone at the prospect of Basildon, of all places, doing a spot of re-branding. It's what makes The Mail the paper it is.

Have you ever been to a supermarket when you're a bit strapped for cash and bought the Bulgarian Merlot because it's £3.19? Ever felt slightly embarrassed because there's a guy standing a few feet away looking at the eye level shelf where the wine is all £10 a bottle and upwards. He is The Daily Mail. He'll look at you, judge you, and feel better about it.

If I can squeeze another analogy out of this already tortured metaphor then Basildon made the mistake of buying the Bulgarian Merlot and serving it to The Mail at a dinner party. (The Mail treated it like 'come dine with me' and had a conversation in the taxi on the way home about *those hideous curtains*. At some point he will have said 'gauche' without really knowing what it meant.)

The mail's not the only one sticking the boot in. Someone's started a Facebook page entitled "I LOL'd at Basildon's new sign". It is, as Facebook groups so often are, a crushing vortex of negativity and bad grammar.

One contributor posted;

"Local council obviously has too much spare cash floating around 90K is an extream (sic) when people are out of work and only get £64 a week !!! What a joke."

Now, I'll be generous and ignore the spelling mistake and multiple exclamations. There's another error which really worries me; She doesn't know the difference between central and local government. She hasn't a clue.

Local government don't do benefits. The leader of the council could paint his bum blue and jump off the public gallery of parliament and it wouldn't increase JSA payments by a penny. Neither Facebook nor the Daily Mail are going to tell her. They're not going to say, "don't worry love, it's not coming from your council tax". Neither are they going to tell her about the other £310 grand Basildon's got to improve street lighting and tidy up the main route in to the town.

She'll rumble on with her unfocused and terrifyingly arbitrary rage until next month (and here's the really worrying thing) when she gets to vote. Twice. Once for the council, and once for the government.

Her opinions will most likely be based on what she reads in the paper and what her friends say on Facebook, and neither of those are journalism.

Journalism is about truth (Stop sniggering at the back). It's about informing people about what's going on in the world. When I train journalists I tell them their job is to be the eyes and ears of people who are too busy living their lives. It's a sacred trust. It's what journalism does. I go to council meetings so you don't have to. That's the job of the press.

What we now have isn't a press though, it's a mangle, compressing everything down to a banal chant of "hell in a hand basket" where detail is irrelevant.

Life, the world, politics, economics are all freakishly complicated you see. For instance, the money that pays for the Basildon sign is central government tax money, so it comes from everyone with a job or who buys anything, theoretically more from people who earn and buy more, less from the rest. The Government gives the money to an agency to spend on stuff to achieve what the government wants, which is to see the south east get more business. Then a group makes up some targets for how to spend it and tells councils the cash is there. They then apply for it and a man in the agency, who's never met Gordon Brown or the leader of Basildon Council decides they can have it and gives them a cheque. No government minister ever said "Here's 9 billion quid ... see if you can tart up Basildon's welcome sign." but you'll never read that in the paper. Too complicated you see. Not punchy enough. Not what the punters want to read. You're also unlikely to read "Government earmarks 9 billion for south east regeneration". Not enough to lampoon there.

Here are two more nuggets of information our Facebook correspondent will never get to hear;

The money for the sign is coming from the Thames Gateway Fund, a pot of 9 billion pounds to boost business in the south east. That makes the £90k 0.000001 percent of the fund. The rest is going to build affordable housing and encourage investment to create new jobs. Not a penny came from the council tax in Basildon.

The Basildon cash is being paid to a local firm to make the sign. I don't know whether it's created any jobs because no-one bothered to speak to the company in any of the reports I read but I suspect the order was welcome.

So there you have it. My rant. About Basildon. You don't care about Basildon, I don't care about Basildon, neither of us care about the woman on Facebook. Neither does the Daily Mail. She's stupid, we're clever, she doesn't matter, it's all meaningless right?

Right. Go to bed, go to work, do what you do. It doesn't matter.

One more thing before I go though. In every general election since 1972 the party that won in Basildon was in Government the next day.


  1. Who would have thought a sign could cause so much fuss... Well, now you mention it, there has been rather a lot of disucssion about the proposed "Wellywood" sign to be erected so as to be visible when you fly into our capital city. Cost is apparently a small issue when pitted against that of destroying the view, providing a large area for graffiti and a proposed law suit from the Yanks who think they have a copyright claim! You gotta laugh!

  2. It's only eight letters, too. That woman would have gone spare had the sign been made for Chapel-en-le-Frith or Newcastle-under-Lyme. The hyphens cost four grand alone. Blah. Blah blah.