Sunday, 29 May 2011

Brave or Stupid?

South Tyneside Council has made the news today, having forced Twitter to hand over the details of a user who has, allegedly, libeled three Councillors and an official.

Coming hot on the heels of the Ryan Giggs superinjunction affair, this is a noteworthy development which will clearly have an impact on the use of social media. But, once we have allowed ourselves a wry smile at a small, English local authority beating the expensive solicitors who have so badly advised Giggs to get the information they were seeking, we should ask whether South Tyneside have done the right thing? How will we reflect on their action in a few months' time?

When I was communications manager at Sheffield Wednesday, we had ongoing issues with a number of fans who were posting abusive and, yes, libellous messages about our chairman and others on a public message board. The case even ended up in court before being resolved.

There were three main reasons why I argued that the most useful course of action for those who were offended by the posts was simply not to read it.

First, the practicalities. Is it really feasible to monitor all the social media outlets available, 24/7, just in case someone has a go at you online? Even if it is possible, is it right to spend all that time and money on an extreme form of media monitoring? Isn't it better just to get on with the important tasks at hand, instead of being diverted by your critics - which after all, is what they want to happen.

Second, as Giggs found out to his cost, once you take the legal route, public interest grows exponentially. How many people knew, or cared, about these South Tyneside tweets before today? No one? A handful? Now, you can be sure, there are thousands of people out there looking into the Council's frankly petty goings-on.

Finally, once you've found out the user details of the person who has libelled you, what do you do next? Write to them? Ask them to stop? Sue them for all they're worth? Spending yet more time and money on lawyers, gathering evidence, further monitoring - "less than £75,000" according to South Tyneside's spokesperson, so far.

This is the thing - whatever the Council gets out of this data, it's going to be at the cost of its reputation. At the very best, they are going to be seen to be wasting thousands of taxpayers' money on a petty squabble, at a time when they are cutting services and making people redundant. Even worse, if they continue to pursue this action, they will be seen as the big, bad Council, bullying the little man with the full weight of their local Government armoury.

I suspect South Tyneside won't be the last organisation to go down this route, but it's not one that I'd advise. Surely it's better to keep your head down, get on with your vital work in these tough times, and avoid presenting yourselves as a vindictive bully? If you don't like it, just don't read it.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

What Do We Really Think About The NHS?

Please pardon the pun but are we, as a nation, more than a little schizophrenic about the NHS? Barely a week goes by without one media source or other carrying "damning" statistics about "postcode lotteries" or the heart-rending tale of an aggrieved patient. Routinely, one aspect or another of our health care system is compared unfavourably with most EU nations. But when radical change is proposed to improve patients' experience, the rage of the nation is palpable.

My family and I are very grateful to have the NHS; I alone had three operations under general anesthetic before the age of 35, all free at the point of delivery by competent and caring staff. Now I have a young family, the comfort blanket it provides is even more valued.

But the NHS is by no means perfect. It can be easier to get a ticket for Glastonbury than a doctor's appointment before all the slots have gone at 8.31am. And having to travel to hospital (and pay to park) multiple times for a series of assessments which could have been done on one visit is infuriating.

I don't know the answer. I'm sceptical about giving GPs control of budgets - have you seen the state of some their surgeries, levels of customer service, and amateurish clipart clutter everywhere? But changes are needed and the hysterical reaction to most new proposals are unhelpful and contradictory.

One final thought. No matter how good our health care system, and how much of our taxes we spend on it - I'm afraid people are still going to receive different levels of service. And, at the end, they will still die. It's sad but it's a fact of life.

Serving Your Country

I was encouraged, but sad to say, surprised at Pat Nevin's reaction to England goalkeeper Ben Foster's "sabbatical" from international football yesterday.

Nevin, a former Scottish international whose wing trickery promised much but didn't deliver what it should, espoused the increasingly rare opinion that footballers should view the chance to represent their country as an honour for which it is worth sacrificing two years' wages at the end of your career.

I haven't heard this view put forward by a footballer for years but it's one which is innate to me. Maybe it's a generational thing (I've just re-read that and feel very old now!) but, growing up in the 1980s, playing for England in the World Cup was all I wanted to do. Even now, if my country asked me to play tiddly-winks in the Olympics, I would gladly pay for the privilege.

I know there are massive riches on offer for Premier League players nowadays but surely Mr Foster will have made all the money he needs to long before he is 35. I have some sympathy with players who travel the world and need a break every now and then to ensure they are fresh for the challenges ahead. But this doesn't seem to be his motivation.

Playing for England, singing for England, arrivaderci it's one on one - there shouldn't be anything to beat it.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Who Deserves My Vote?

This week, for the first time, I think I'm having a bit of a dilemma about how to cast my vote in the local election. It's not that there is any change in my political views or the parties open for me to vote for. More a quandary about what the decision-making factors should be for local elections.

This thought has been prompted by a very good piece of campaigning by one of the parties contesting my ward. They've gone further than the traditional leafleting and newsletters (which they've also done). Their candidate has actually gone to the trouble of finding out my name, handwriting it on an envelope with my address, and enclosing a print of a handwritten letter outlining the reasons I should vote for them. Most of the leafleting that comes through my door goes straight in the recycling bin. But I have to say I was impressed by this.

So now I'm wondering what criteria we should use to decide on which way to vote in local elections. I've always gone the way I would vote nationally. But is this fair on the neighbourhood level candidates who have no control over their national party's policies and appear just to want to make their community better?

Should I vote based on my opinion of local services? I terms of the services I really care about, I've been very satisfied with my Council. But I've felt that way in all the time I've lived here, under two different parties. Or should I make a proper effort to ask the candidates what they will do for me and my family?

It's an interesting dilemma, and one that more people may face around the country if more of the candidates seeking their vote used the personal touch.

The Last Stand?

John Higgins deserves total admiration for finding a way to win that snooker world championship. In the space of a week, he had to fend off the most talented player (Ronnie O'Sullivan), the new world number one (Mark Williams) and an unbelievably talented runner-up in Judd Trump. Higgins may not be the most spectacular of that quartet but he refused to lose, and that mental toughness separates the best from the rest.

Is that victory, however, the last stand of Higgins' generation? For the game of snooker, it would have been fantastic for the world champion to have emerged from the Ding v Trump semi-final. At 21 years old, Trump played such an attacking game, with such success, that he almost appears to have reinvented the game within a fortnight. If Ding were to manage to win in the coming years, with the world's most populous country watching in their millions, the game would really take off the planet over - the world title has still never been won by anyone from outside UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth.

A new generation is in the verge of breaking through. It promises to be exciting to watch the new era.

Bin Laden: What does it mean for me?

Unlike most of those I've seen interviewed in the masses of TV coverage about the end of Osama Bin Laden, I have no interest to declare. I'm not a politician, diplomat, security service or military worker and haven't been chasing him for ten years. I'm not a Muslim, or any other religion for that matter. No one I know has been killed or lost a loved one in 9/11, 7/7, Afghanistan, Madrid, or any other of Al Qaeda's atrocities.

I've followed the story with interest and enjoyed much of the coverage. Bin Laden got what he deserved, although I feel a little disturbed by the Americans I've seen celebrating as though they've won the Superbowl and the World Series on the same day. But this seems to have been a pretty flawless performance all-round by those actually involved in the killing - from the special agents who performed the execution, to Obama's decision-making, to the PR activity which followed.

Much is yet to be decided about how this all ends, in relation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda, et al. But the one thing I really want to know is the thing that nobody can tell me with any certainty. Am I more or less safe as I go about my suburban family life? Does this make any difference to the morale, motivation, or strength (or reported weakening of it) of Al Qaeda?

Or is this a political, military and popular catharsis which doesn't really make much difference to us in the long run?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

It Wouldn't Happen Under AV

With just days until the referendum on the Alternative Vote system, the irony is that a "don't care" option this Thursday would be likely to beat both "Yes" and "No" without the need to count second votes. It's a shame, because the issue of electoral reform is an important one. But it shouldn't be a surprise.

I enjoyed my A level in politics well enough to know my AV from my STV (single transferrable vote). And my Party List from my AMS (additional member system). I'm still very interested in national politics. But I just can't get excited about this AV debate. And if someone who has my level of interest can't get, well, interested in it, then I'm sure there are several million in the UK who don't care or don't even know about it.

The problem is, it doesn't really matter much. AV might have had an influence on some of the elections since 1945. It might have given a minor boost to some of the smaller parties, but probably only the LibDems or their previous incarnations. But it seems to me to be a lot of hot air for not much change, really.

The benefits of the current system are that, generally, it produces an overall majority, meaning a greater prospect of strong Government, albeit at the expense of minor parties. If we accepted the view that we need a much more representative and proportional system, and we genuinely need to take note of those who back the LibDems, Greens, UKIP and - let's be honest - the BNP, then let's have the debate on STV or the party list system which appears to have produced multiple elections in Italy every year since Berlusconi was a lad.

I suspect AV simply isn't enough of a change to spark the interest of the majority of those eligible to vote this Thursday. From reading the coverage since last Friday's big bash in the city, perhaps a Kate v Pippa poll would register a higher turnout!

Fans Can Get You Down

Former Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell has been out of work for over six months now. But I suspect his stock has risen as a result of what has gone on at Bramall Lane since he left.

The last year or more of his tenure at the Blades featured a growing disillusionment from Unitedites about their lack of progression and 'one-dimensional' football under Blackwell. They demanded a quick return to the Premiership and, turning a blind eye to the financial realities once they lost that play-off final to Burnley and their parachute payment just two years ago, their criticism of him grew to a crescendo after their unacceptable eighth-placed finish last season. The Board caved in to the terrace demands just TWO league games into this season (a none-too-shabby away draw with Cardiff and home defeat to champions QPR). If they knew the panic button was so close, why didn't they give someone else their summer transfer funds?

I well remember several conversations I had with moaning Unitedites at work last season, in which I warned them to be careful what they wished for. After a season of utter thinkable disaster, culminating in relegation to League One, it's worth reflecting on the benefits of the boredom of another mid-table finish.

It's not just United, it's the same with all football fans. We all want promotion and silverware and, if that isn't on, then at least to have some remote hope of the playoffs into spring. Goodness knows, across the city at Wednesday, some fools were still banging on about the top six when they hadn't won at home for two months and were in freefall.

Fans don't like mid-table mediocrity. But sometimes that is what is good for them, and it is directors who have to be strong enough to stand by managers (like Tony Pulis) who may not light up your stadium every week, but who will turn in a dependable level of performance come the end of the season.

The League Managers Association has produced research which shows that, statistically, a managerial change is not likely to lead to improved long-term performance. Like shares, an investment in a new manager can go down as well as up, and fans would do well to remember that a proven mid-table/occasional play-off devil you know is a better bet than the one you don't.

The SUFC fans I know were desperate to get out of the Championship. Well, now they've got their wish. But it's not the one they hoped for.

PS. There is a time and a place to change a boss who has clearly lost his way. And I'm delighted to have seen the effect Dean Smith has had on a Walsall side that was dead and buried when he took over and is now one win away from a truly great escape. Dean was a lovely bloke and a fine skipper during my time at Wednesday. I wish him the best of luck in an admittedly tough trip to Southampton, albeit that the Saints may already be up by next Sunday.