Let’s start with a couple of laughs, because there’s not many to come …
The long-running lethal farce called ‘The Coalition’s War against Terror in Afghanistan’ descends even further into the absurd as a top Taliban honcho, Akhtar Mohammed Mansour meets President Karzai and top Nato commanders. This is it, the tipping point, when the tide will turn, the West will be vindicated, the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of death and futility shines brightly, and Western values and culture will at last prevail in this benighted land.
The secret negotiations take place, the Mullah is feted, and leaves carrying oodles of goodwill cash. The world will soon be safe for democracy, Nato/US style.
But there’s bad news for Barack Obama and David Cameron. The Mullah wasn’t the Mullah after all, but The Conman from Quetta (in Pakistan) – a grocer - and he has simply vanished with the cash. The real Taliban fall about laughing in their hideouts in the mountains, Karzai, safe amidst his own mountains of coalition cash, shrugs philosophically, and the American military commanders utter unprintable - and most unchristian - oaths as they reflect on their future career prospects.
The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon, scratching around for anti-SNP stories to fill the gaps left by the dearth of real journalism at the Herald and the Sunday Herald - twin house organs of the Labour Party in Scotland - lights on the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill and a ‘story’ about the sybaritic highlife enjoyed by Scotland’s prisoners, already lying on beds of down, attended by maidens bearing grapes, soothed by soft music as they revel in the luxuries of incarceration in Scotland’s jails.
They are going to get flat screen TVs with built-in DVD players. This is bad enough, but – shock, horror – the Freeview tuners will be able to access the many porn channels now available. Why does this matter? Why will it be a gift to Richard Baker, Labour’s justice spokesperson, starved of raw meat since the Megrahi release?
Delicacy inhibits me from being too explicit, especially on a Sunday morning – let me just say that, for those with a long memory, it has something to do with rhyming slang and a film maker from the heyday of British filmmaking – J. Arthur Rank. I look forward with keen anticipation to Richard Baker putting his little mouth in gear at precisely the same moment that he puts his brain in neutral on this most sensitive of subjects. Perhaps he will link his indignant assault with the dangers of prisoners going blind. I think we should be told …
Bill Aitken, MSP has predictably already sounded off on this weighty matter – there is never a shortage of Tory rent-a-mouths to comment on justice matters.
Of course, the cold facts of the matter are safely tucked away at the end of the article, remote from the rabble-rousing and misleading headline and opening nonsense, something that has now become the Herald’s signature style, seamlessly replacing the objective investigative political journalism that used to characterise one of the world’s oldest English language newspapers. When Labour and the Union are threatened, anything is admissible.
TVs have been the norm in Scottish prison cells since 1999: this is simply an upgrade from CRT sets to the new, cheap flat screens with built-in DVDs as a routine inclusion. But with that money, Labour and the Tories could have bought whips, birches, thumbscrews, pincers, tongs, perhaps even budget-priced racks! It’s an outrage!
The strange ways of the Sunday Herald with hard news is demonstrated clearly today over fiscal matters – the tartan tax row and the Calman proposals – or what’s left of them.
Contrast the approach taken by Scotland on Sunday with the Sunday Herald -
SoS lead article today -
‘Retreat’ on new Scots tax powers – two levies not included in next Scotland Bill
Eddie Barnes’ opening paragraph encapsulates what has happened -
“Two tax powers that were destined to be handed to MSPs will not now appear in ground-breaking new laws designed to create a stronger Scottish Parliament.”
On page two, Barnes develops the theme under the sub-header Scotland Bill to leave out key Tax powers. The tax powers are “less ambitious than first proposed”. The SNP position and comments is fairly and objectively reported, with the Party claiming that the proposals fall far short of what is needed, that they are half-baked and damaging to the Scottish economy.
In other words, this is Calman minus – a hollow and ominous echo of Tavish Scott’s vainglorious posturing about Calman Plus.
But in the Sunday Herald? Buried away at the bottom of page four, we have a small headline Bill to give Holyrood new income tax powers, and a couple of hundred words which grudgingly include the following, by Tom Gordon – Scottish political editor.
“The Scotland Bill will omit several Calman ideas. including devolving the aggregates levy, which could raise £50 million a year, and air passenger duty, which could raise £100m.”
Well, not a lot on this fundamental issue for Scotland, Tom, but then you had to save your energies for a full-blown attack on the SNP and John Swinney (backed up by a Leader article) – The Week it all went wrong on page 20. Here, our heroically objective political editor, in what is an opinion article in the guise of political analysis, devotes an entire page to a non-issue – the tartan tax – and the attempt at the political lynching of a decent man of high integrity that disgraced our Parliament last week.
Here are a few choice examples of Tom Gordon’s objective journalism and political analysis -
After what I can only describe as a faintly contemptible lead-in referring the John Swinney’s three-week old son, Gordon opens with -
“Within 48 hours, he would be denounced and vilified, and within a week he would be forced into a grovelling apology at Holyrood.”
You got it right about the denunciation and vilification, Tom – a sad hysteria that Patrick Harvie had the good grace to try to offset by his genuine tribute to the Finance Minister, as he belatedly realised that he had become part of a political lynch mob. Describing John Swinney’s dignified and clear apology as ‘grovelling’ is a patent distortion of the facts, as anyone who watched and heard it knows. (I have the clip and I will post it on YouTube).
“First Iain Gray, in probably his finest turn as Labour Leader, accused Swinney …”
If that was his finest turn, God preserve us from his worst performance.
In the last column, there is a long list of what the Sunday Herald sees as the sins of the SNP government, then this, from Tom Gordon -
“Suddenly the gilt is peeling off the administration, and the opposition sees it.
‘This raise the whole issue of competence,’ sighed one senior SNP source. ‘It all came across as shabby. We’re supposed to have a team you can trust, but they were keeping people in the dark’ “
Ah, the ubiquitous ‘unnamed source’, Tom. What would your brand of political reporting be without it.
Well, two can play that game, Tom …
My unnamed source Holyrood Unionist opposition politician says “Even by our standards of desperately trying to marginalise the government elected by the Scottish people, regardless of their real needs, this was a new low in gutter politics – an attempt at the political assassination of a good man with the interests of Scotland and the Scottish people at his heart.”
Let’s look back in time for a moment and remind ourselves just what the Calman Commission was. Here’s what I said way back in the summer of 2009 -
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Playing Unionist politics with Calman
The Calman Commission, an invention of the Unionist Opposition Parties in Holyrood, specifically set up to strengthen the Union and frustrate the progress of the Scottish People towards full independence, has made its report.
Anyone who doubted the thrust of the Calman Report only had to look at who commissioned it (the Unionist Opposition Parties) and the composition of the Commission itself.
Its fifteen members included -
The three non-ennobled, knighted or gonged members included -
A youth activist and former member of the Scottish Youth Parliament
A professor of Islamic studies from Glasgow University
The Chief Executive of the Telegraph Media Group
I do go on a bit about the monumental waste of scarce taxpayers’ money by government on consultants. Well, I made my living for about twelve years as a freelance management consultant and trainer, and before that, as a senior manager and director, negotiated with consultants, so I’ve seen the game from both sides of the table.
But nobody in government seems to want to listen. I wonder why …
Today, the trams project is in trouble over consultants, and TIE says that they underestimated their consulting budget spending by a factor of 25 times. Yes, well …
Here’s a little fact to chew over -
The average industrial wage is somewhere around £21k, and that is also the watershed at which the pay freeze for public sector workers commences. Let’s allow a little licence and call it about £400 a week.
About the lowest day rate a consultant will charge these days is £500 a day – yes, a day … This would be the low end of individual freelance consulting rates, with £750 probably being more typical, and £1200/1500 quite common. But charge-out rates for the large consulting firms can easily be double these figures or even more, with £1000 a day being very much the low end.
Reflect on this. The bottom end trainers and consultants earn in a day one and a quarter times the average industrial wage. So their weekly earnings are six and a quarter times those public service workers who by current wage restraint figure highly enough paid to have their earning frozen, with no increases – in the national interest. And that’s the bottom end of consulting rates.
But the big consulting firms charge from twice to four or five times that as day rates, giving a multiplier on the £21k public service worker of twelve and a half to twenty five times their earnings.
Consultants and consulting firms can – and will – legitimately argue that they have overheads – office, pensions, holiday, other costs and benefits – and that not every day is a fee earning day. This is true, but it is grossly overstated. A generous allowance to cover all employee benefits would be 20/25% for an individual freelance consultant. There is cold calling and marketing when no fee is being earned, and this does bear on the freelance. But they do very nicely, thank you, in spite of it all …
A net working, fee earning year of about 150 delivery days (as against say, a working year of about 230 days for an employed person) would deliver £75,000 gross. Not bad for many of those at that end of the market, given their experience, qualifications and skills base. Most freelances would gross from £100k to £150k per annum , some much more, especially if they can get long periods of continuous fee-earning days from large public service organisations.
As for the big boys – well, the holy grail for them is to bill more fee days per consultant than there actually are in the working year – a holy grail that is regularly found, but rarely acknowledged. And many of them do not in fact maintain large numbers of salaried consultants on the payroll – they sub-contract out to freelances, but charge the client often as much as three times the day rate being paid to the freelance. (I myself have worked for many large organisations on exactly this basis.)
It’s called the fee law of thirds – the day rate paid by the client represents something like three times the rate they would have to pay to hire someone with equivalent qualifications and skills to do the job in-house, including all overheads.
What am I arguing for? Not for stopping the use of consultants – there are many ethical, competent and capable consultants and consulting firms, delivering value and charging reasonable fees. But there is also gross incompetence in resourcing consultants, in the failure to use competitive tendering, in the negotiation of fee and in the management of consulting contracts and delivery. If private industry is guilty of this, hell mend them – they should know better. But when government does it, it’s our money – our taxes – and it has to stop.
There are other malpractices in the use of consultants, some of them bordering on corruption – the use of consulting contracts as political patronage, of cronyism, of revolving doors, of jobs for the favoured boys – and girls.
But they are a matter for the National Audit Office and where appropriate for the polis!