Killing the golden goose

I installed Adblock on my computer the other week. I’m well aware that this opens me up to charges of hypocrisy, given that online advertising is an essential part of how I earn a living – both in my day job, where we use advertising to get customers, and in my spare time business where I make money from adverts on my own websites. If everybody installed Adblock and used it in full, both of those would suffer considerably.

For that reason, I’ve made a point of setting Adblock to be disabled by default, and only enable it for specific websites. The websites that I enable it for (and it is still only a small proportion of those I visit regularly) are those which have egregiously intrusive advertising.

This isn't actually an ad. It's just a screenshot of one.
This isn’t actually an ad. It’s just a screenshot of one.

In particular, I enable Adblock on sites which have adverts that autoplay audio, that overlays the content of the page in any way, or that cause the content of the page to move, reflow or reformat after it has initially loaded.

I’m less bothered about autoplaying video, so long as it’s contained within a predefined border of an advert that doesn’t otherwise intrude into the rest of the page. But autoplay audio is a complete no-no. Do that, and it’s an immediate block. It’s also an immediate block if an advert causes the content of a page to shift or reflow after I’ve started reading it. Which is why I no longer see adverts on The Guardian’s website, for example.

One annoying form of advert in particular seems now to have become endemic on newspaper websites. It’s the one which doesn’t seem to be there to begin with, but then suddenly appears in the middle of the content as you scroll down. I’m sure you’ve all seen them. I’m equally sure that you all, like me, hate them. As it happens, they were mentioned in the Feedback section of The Times today:

I really don’t like the pop-up video adverts in the middle of articles on your website,” wrote AC Ruston. “There’s even one in the guidance on how to complain, for heaven’s sake. They’re an annoying distraction, and in some articles they are totally inappropriate.”

This complaint was followed by several others, and ended with an admission by the newspaper that using them was wrong:

We got the message and, as it happens, we agree. Advertisements shouldn’t interfere with the enjoyment of reading a newspaper or a website. We’ve asked the advertising department to remove this campaign.

Now, it’s easy to argue that The Times doesn’t need to use them, because, unlike most newspaper websites, it is subscription only. So advertising income is an add-on, and a fairly trivial one at that (since the paywall keeps most people out to begin with, and hence makes adverts far less valuable as the number of viewers is tiny by comparison with other national newspaper websites). Other newspapers, it can be argued, really need the advertising revenue.

The challenge of paying for free content has always been there. Research shows that up to 80% of users are unwilling even to consider paying for content. But even the 20% who are theoretically willing to pay rarely do, in practice. Traffic to The Times’ website now is less than a tenth of what it was before the paywall. News UK, owner of The Times, has backtracked on a similar “solid paywall” on the Sun’s website following an equally drastic drop in traffic. For news websites in particular, social media is an important driver of traffic – but there’s no point sharing a link to a story that most of your friends or followers can’t read.

The failure of pure subscription based models means that advertising is always going to be a key revenue source for the vast majority of websites. So maximising that revenue is important, and if another form of advert comes along which pays more – which these in-content video ads certainly do – then using them is very attractive.

If my experience, though, and that of the contributors to the Feedback column of the Times, is anything to go by, these adverts are almost universally disliked. And it isn’t a big step from disliking the adverts to finding a way of blocking them.

Unsurprisingly, use of adblockers has grown significantly over the past few years. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but some estimates suggest that usage increased by nearly 70% between 2013 and 2014, with anything from 5% to 50% of ads blocked, depending on the website.

That’s a problem. It’s a very real problem. And it isn’t just a problem for websites which have excessively intrusive ads. Because when people install adblocking systems, they are quite likely to just accept the default of blocking all adverts, everywhere. Which means is that sites which don’t have don’t have intrusive adverts – which don’t autoplay audio, or relocate/obscure content – get their adverts blocked as well.

If the trend towards more and more intrusive adverts continues, therefore, the websites which use them will end up killing the golden goose that they rely on. And in turn take down the advert-supported economy of millions upon millions of small-scale websites which don’t have the resources to find alternative income. If that happens, it won’t just be those of us who rely on the advertising economy who will suffer. It will be every web user.

Zero Thought

One of the subjects that cropped up in the Leaders’ debate yesterday evening was zero hours contracts. Ed Miliband wants to effectively abolish them. David Cameron’s response was that Labour have a “zero jobs” approach. In the double-header interview previously, Jeremy Paxman had repeatedly pressed David Cameron as to whether he could work live on a zero hours contract, finally eliciting the answer that no, he couldn’t.

Zero Thought Ed

So, what is it about zero hours contracts, and why are they a political hot potato?

To begin with, zero hours contracts are not a new thing. The phrase is simply the current jargon term for what used to be known as “casual labour”. As ACAS puts it:

The term ‘zero hours’ is not defined in legislation, but is generally understood to be a employment contract between an employer and a worker, which means the employer is not obliged to provide the worker with any minimum working hours, and the worker is not obliged to accept any of the hours offered.

That’s important, because to listen to some politicians you’d think that zero hours contracts are some recently invented device intended to exploit workers who would otherwise have “proper” jobs. But that’s not the case. Casual labour has always played a major role in employment, particularly in sectors where demand is variable and hence the need for staff is equally variable. Catering and service industries tend to be the main users of casual labour, but manufacturing and retailing also use it to meet seasonal demand.

The term “zero hours” became more popular as a result of the minimum wage legislation introduced by Tony Blair’s administration in 1998. A consequence of the new law was that employers couldn’t just pay casual staff for the work they did, because the minimum wage is based on contracted hours rather than actual performance of duties – someone sitting around doing nothing had to be paid at least minimum wage while doing nothing, so long as their employment contract considered them to be at work while waiting to be assigned a task. So casual employment contracts were changed to make a clearer distinction between “at work” and “not at work”, and made it equally clear that a casual employee was only at work when called on to actually do work.

This made no difference to the actual practice of how casual labour is organised. It was simply a way of making sure that employment contracts were compatible with the new legislation.

The second key fact is that there hasn’t been a huge growth in zero hours contracts under the current administration. Again, if you listen to certain politicians you might get the impression that all the growth in employment over the past five years has been insecure casual work. But this simply isn’t true, as an article on the BBC website makes clear. Zero hours contracts make up only around 2.3% of the workforce.

Interestingly, though, the article does show a significant increase in the number of people reporting that they are on zero hours contracts – up from around 586,000 to 697,000 people. But a lot of these are people who had been on the same contract a year before. So they were on a zero hours contract, but didn’t call it that the previous time they were surveyed.

That goes back to my first point. Zero hours contracts are not new. It’s just a relatively new name for a long-established system. So a lot of the apparent growth in zero hours contracts is simply a result of more people using the term – quite possibly as a result of being misled into thinking that it’s somehow different to casual work.

Having established that zero hours contracts are neither new nor unduly numerous, does that mean there’s no problem with them?

Well, yes and no. Obviously, there are people who actually want to work casual labour. And there are many reasons for that. Casual labour is an established first step into the first step into the employment market for teenagers after leaving school, often as a means of gaining experience that will stand them in good stead for getting a better, and more well-paid, job afterwards. Seasonal casual labour is also a common source of top-up income for students during the holidays. Some people want to work part time, and are happy with a flexible arrangement which means they aren’t tied to fixed hours. And casual work is not necessarily badly paid – while a lot of it is at the lower end of the salary spectrum, there can be good money to be made doing casual skilled work if you have the skills.

Anything which effectively abolished casual labour would, therefore, clearly be a bad thing. A lot of the zero hours jobs which currently exist wouldn’t convert into full time jobs, they would convert into no jobs. It would deny flexibility to the people who want to work like that, and it would make it much harder for businesses with variable demand to meet the needs of their customers. So it would be bad for consumers, too.

There are, though, some people on zero hours contracts who would prefer to have full time jobs – or, at least, to have guaranteed hours on a part time job. These are obviously the people that Ed Miliband is hoping to appeal to with his promise to make zero hours contracts automatically convert into fixed hours contracts after a set period of time. And there are issues with lower paid casual jobs and benefits, particularly in the way that they interact with housing benefit, working tax credit and jobseeker’s allowance. It’s a lot easier to get employment-related benefits when you’re on fixed hours than it is when your hours, and hence your earnings, are variable.

Again, this isn’t new, and it isn’t a growing problem. It’s one of the downsides to casual work, and always has been. But it is, nonetheless, a problem for some people, even if not as many as you might have been led to believe. So how do we address it?

Well, one option is to do something with the benefits system so that it doesn’t penalise casual workers. This is the approach which I would expect a concerned Labour politician to take. It fits in with the basic principle that benefits should be on the basis of need, and avoids affecting people who are in casual work by choice and are not suffering financially because of it.

The downside, of course, is that doing so will cost money, because it increases the total welfare bill and adds to the complexity of administering it. And that’s a very good reason why Ed Miliband doesn’t want to go down that route, because he knows that he won’t be able to afford it. So, instead, he’s intending to fix the problem by loading the costs onto businesses, consumers and workers and hoping that nobody will notice.

Neither of those, though, is the ideal solution. A better approach is to look at the reasons why there are people in casual work who would prefer a full time, or fixed hours, job.

Apart from the small number of people who are reduced to low-grade casual work simply because they are too incompetent for anything else, most people who are doing casual work but would prefer fixed hours are doing casual work as a stop-gap while they look for a better job. So the best solution is to make sure that there are plenty of better jobs available.

One of the biggest weapons an employee has against an exploitative employer is the ability to look elsewhere. The freedom to hand in your notice and take up a better offer elsewhere is fundamental to a healthy labour market. By contrast, where there is a shortage of jobs, unscrupulous employers can treat their workforce badly in the knowledge that their staff have nowhere better to go.

In the long run, therefore, the only effective solution to the problem of too many people being unwillingly on zero hours contracts is a healthy, prosperous economy with plenty of jobs – of all sorts, at all levels, full and part time, flexible and fixed hours, skilled and unskilled.

That’s the solution that I prefer. I think it’s the solution that most people who actually care about making things better for people who want a better job would prefer. And I think it’s extremely telling that Ed Miliband doesn’t prefer it.

When did the word “cash” stop meaning cash?

I have long been irritated by the Coinstar scam machines in supermarkets, which proudly proclaim “Coins in. Cash out” on the front. Their website gives the impression that they have even registered the phrase “Coins to Cash” as a trademark, although there’s no trace of that in the IPO’s trademark database.

This despite the fact that what they actually do is the precise opposite. They take cash, in the form of coins, and then give you vouchers that – at least at my local Morrisons – have to be spent there and then in the store as they expire in 24 hours. And they deduct a “handling fee” for taking the cash off you, so you end up with less than you started with.

I’ve often been tempted to print off a new slogan and stick it on the front of the machines:

Cash in. Vouchers worth less than the cash you paid for them out.

That would, at least, be honest. It would also retain the traditional meaning of the word “cash”.

More recently, though, I’ve encountered another abuser of the word “cash”. At least, in this case, the perpetrators aren’t misusing it to deliberately deceive you, unlike Coinstar, but it is still annoying.

This time, it’s one of the car buying websites, WeWantAnyCar.com (not to be confused with the somewhat better known outfit with a very similar name using the word “buy” instead of “want”). WWAC, as I will now call them for reasons of simplicity and laziness, are currently running radio adverts for their service. After extolling the virtues of their car-buying service, they end with the promise that they will “pay cash directly into your bank account”. They make similar promises of cash payment on their website.

Except, of course, that they don’t pay cash. They pay directly into you bank account. That’s what we techies like to call “Electronic Funds Transfer”, or EFT. It’s more commonly known in the finance industry as a BACS payment, or sometimes CHAPS. Or, more recently, Faster Payments, which doesn’t seem to have got abbreviated yet. Either way, it’s very much not the same as the traditional way of paying for a used car, which is to hand over a wad of twenties which the seller then painstakingly counts before giving you the keys.

Now, I’m not so much of a linguistic luddite as to argue that words should never be allowed to change meanings. But this use of “cash” to mean “not cash” does irritate me, not least because in at least one of these cases it’s deliberately being misused in order to mislead. It’s the sort of thing that ought to be covered by the Trade Descriptions Act, but, as far as I can see, actually isn’t. You can’t sell something that is black and call it white, or vice versa, but you can advertise that you pay in cash when, in reality, cash is the one thing you will never pay. That seems wrong to me.

Incidentally, if you do have piles of coins that you need to get rid of, don’t put it into Coinstar machines. If you’ve got really large amounts, take it to the bank, where they will conveniently weigh and sort it for you and then either pay it into your account or give it back to you as notes. Or, if it’s a relatively small amount (up to around twenty quid or so), tip it into the coin hoppers at a supermarket self-service checkout. The machines will take what they need to pay for what you’ve just bought (which could be as little as a bar of chocolate or your lunchtime sandwich), and then give you change.

Even better, the change will be in the smallest possible combination of notes and coins. So if you buy a sandwich worth £1.95 with a pile of coins worth £19.51 in total, then what you will get back is a £10 note, a £5 note, a £2 coin, a 50p coin, a 5p coin and a penny. Which is a lot less cumbersome than what you started with. Try it, it really works.

Evesham town centre retail – a few thoughts

shops
At last Monday’s town council meeting, we were given a brief report by Shawn Riley, of the Evesham Market Town Partnership, about the town centre retail areas. The MTP has recently gone to the effort and expense of obtaining a lot of useful data about Evesham’s retail areas and how that compares to other, similar towns around the country. As a data nerd myself, I found it highly interesting. Here are some of the key findings.

Probably one of the most important things to note is that the vacancy rate – the proportion of empty shops – in the town centre, excluding the Riverside Centre is, at 13.2%, a little worse than the UK average of 12%. But it’s significantly better than the regional average of 15.3%. And, overall, Evesham has a higher proportion of independent shops than the national average (71% in Evesham compared to 66% nationally).

On the face of it, that looks like reasonably good news. Where it goes pear-shaped is when we add the Riverside Centre into the equation. The Riverside Centre has a whopping vacancy rate of 47.2% – that’s nearly half empty. And that drags down the town’s overall vacancy rate to 16.2%, which is not only worse than the national average but worse than the regional average as well.

So, what’s the problem? Well, we don’t really have too many shops overall. There are 358 retail units in Evesham town centre (that’s excluding the edge of town retail parks), which gives us an average population-to-shop ratio of around 55. That’s in the same ballpark as Pershore (57 people per shop) and Stratford-upon-Avon (56 people per shop), a little higher than Tewkesbury (47 people per shop) and a lot lower than Kidderminster (170 people per shop). But Kidderminster is the regional sore thumb, with an overall vacancy rate of 19.5% – we’re doing much better than that. We also have a lot more shops than Droitwich, despite being very similar sized towns. But I suspect that their retail centre suffers from being much closer to Worcester than we are (and Kidderminster is in easy reach of both Worcester and Birmingham, making it much harder for retailers there). Droitwich doesn’t have many shops, but it has a lower vacancy rate, suggesting that it’s never been a particularly retail-heavy town.

Looking at the Riverside Centre in detail, a number of things become obvious. One is that it has very much lower proportion of independent retailers, at only 33%. And the national retailers that it contains are almost all doing badly at a national level. We already know, for example, that Burton won’t be renewing their lease when it expires. But looking at their national figures, that’s not surprising – they’re in close to free fall across the country at the moment. Carphone Warehouse are also closing shops, as are New Look, Superdrug and H Samuel. Only three of the Riverside Centre’s chains are showing significant national growth, and one of those is one of the most recent newcomers, Sports Direct.

So the Riverside Centre’s problems are certainly not all related to Evesham. Having originally been targetted at national brands, the centre is now suffering along with them. Another problem is that, despite being aimed at national chains, the Riverside Centre’s units are mostly too small for them. That’s why M&S moved out, and didn’t return to the town until something more suitable at the Worcester Road retail park became available.

There are other, more local, issues, of course. The lack of access to the Riverside Centre car park from the centre and north of the town is certainly a major factor. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Riverside Centre’s problems are mostly of its own making: badly designed in the first place, and dependent on a dwindling pool of national brands that can use its shops. It also means that fixing it is not easy, and for the most part – with the exception of the access problem, which really does need to be sorted out – beyond anything that can be done by local government.

Leaving aside the Riverside Centre for the moment, though, what about the rest of the town? The data obtained by the MTP does give us some clues.

Firstly, a brief diversion here into explaining terminology. Retailers can, broadly speaking, be divided into four main categories: Comparison, Convenience, Service and Leisure. Taking those in reverse order, Leisure is fairly easy to understand: it means things like cafes, pubs, restaurants, entertainment (including cinemas) and stuff like that. Service is also mostly self-explanatory: it includes estate agents, travel agents, banks and other financial institutions, hairdressers, laundrettes and the such like.

Convenience shops are those which people tend to use on a regular basis for repeated supplies of much the same thing. Supermarkets (of all sizes) are the obvious example, but other food retailers such as butchers and bakers also fall into this category, as do newsagents and petrol stations.

Comparison is probably the hardest term to explain. In essence, what it means is shops that sell products that you only buy when you need them – things like TVs, washing machines, bedding, computers, clothes and shoes. Unlike convenience products, where you generally know what you’ll be buying before you go to the shop, comparison products are usually selected after comparing different versions of the same thing – either within the same shop or at different shops – before buying. Hence the name.

Nationally, comparison stores are suffering far more badly than the other three sectors. And a major reason is competition from the Internet. You can’t go to the pub on the Internet, or get a haircut on the Internet. You can buy food on the Internet, but the biggest suppliers of that are the supermarkets who are not competing with themselves. And independent grocers, bakers, butchers etc offer the ability to select and purchase fresh food in a way that a web-based retailer cannot (yet) match. The service sector is generally flat nationally, a reflection of the fact that some aspects of it (such as banking and travel agents) can easily be done online, while others (such as hairdressing) simply can’t. Convenience shops, on the other hand, are generally showing growth across the UK, while leisure is soaring ahead. All of the twenty fastest growing chains in the UK are in the leisure sector, and all of them supply food and drink in one way or another.

What that means for Evesham is that town centre retail growth is likely to come predominantly from the convenience and leisure sectors, with leisure being the largest contributor. And, in fact, we’re already seeing that to some extent. Evesham’s leisure vacancy rate is only 5.4%, which is not only much better than the retail average for the town but better than the national average for the leisure sector. The term “cafe culture” is probably over-used, but it’s clear that the future of traditional town centres like Evesham lies in a thriving leisure market. Convenience and leisure shops are also footfall generators; if you’re going into the town centre every day to get your lunch or to the butchers every week for bacon then you’ll be passing other shops and may be attracted into them.

Finally, one other point is worth noting. When we compare Evesham with similar sized towns across the country, then one particular statistic stands out. Irrespective of where a town is located, those which have a Waitrose not only have a lower vacancy rate than their regional average but also a lower rate than the national average. I’m a savvy enough statistician to know that correlation does not necessarily imply causality, but this is, nonetheless, significant. It doesn’t actually matter whether a Waitrose attracts other retailers (the so-called “Waitrose effect”), or whether Waitrose’s management are simply good at picking locations that are on the up (or even if there’s some entirely different cause which attracts both Waitrose and other retailers). What matters is that town centres which have a Waitrose are, statistically, far more likely to be successful than those which do not. So the fact that Waitrose are still on course to open a new store in Evesham is very welcome news.

Don’t spoil my enjoyment

I’ve just finished reading the script from the first episode in the new Doctor Who series. It’s pretty good, actually, apart from a rather large and pointless MacGuffin that initially threatens to derail the plot and a tendency (which, frankly, has been part of the show since the beginning) to rely a bit too much on Deus Ex Machina solutions to tight situations. But the primary plotline is well drawn, and we begin to get an indication of how the new Doctor’s character will develop. The ending is a particularly neat (and intriguing) twist that’s hinted at just enough in the preceding dialogue to make the savvy viewer (or, in my case, reader) grin when it happens.

A screenshot of the first page of the PDF

Apparently, though, letting me read the script is a bad thing. The BBC has issued a statement saying that

We deeply regret this and apologise to all the show’s fans, the BBC and the cast and crew who have worked tirelessly making the series.

While I appreciate the BBC’s concern, I have to say that, at least in my case, it’s entirely misplaced. I really don’t share the fear of spoilers when it comes to drama. And I think that the hysteria over leaks like this one (and the previous times that it’s happened) are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both visual drama and the people who consume it.

Let’s look at that BBC apology in a bit more detail. Why are they apologising to fans?

There seems to be an implied belief here that fans of the show a) are incapable of resisting spoilers if they’re available, and b) will have their enjoyment of it damaged by reading them if they do.

The first of those is clearly wrong, at least as far as the vast majority of readers are concerned. Everyone who has ever read a book has all the spoilers they need right in their hands. It only takes a moment to flip to the last chapter to see how it all turns out. Most people don’t do that, though. They don’t have to consciously resist the temptation to skip to the end, they just want to enjoy reading the book all the way through.

The idea that people are incapable of resisting spoilers is deeply insulting to their inteligence. The fact that the Doctor Who scripts have been leaked isn’t going to make anyone read them who doesn’t want to read them.

It’s also not true that knowing how a story unfolds in advance spoils the enjoyment of it. If that were the case, then there would be no point making a movie or TV adaptation of a book, or one based on a well known real life event. But it didn’t hurt the box office takings that everyone knows the Titanic sinks. JK Rowling managed to keep us wondering precisely which side Snape is on throughout the series (at least until the last book, when anyone who wanted to know could just take a peek at the end), but nearly everyone watching the last movie already knew. And even movies and TV series based on original scripts can still be enjoyed the second or third time around, despite having already lost every possible element of surprise.

So there are two big falsehoods here: the idea that the fans are incapable of avoiding spoilers, and that their enjoyment of the programme will be damaged as a result. Neither of these stands up to anything more than cursory consideration.

There’s more in the BBC apology, though. After the fans, it mentions the cast and crew. Here’s a bit more of the statement:

We would like to make a plea to anyone who might have any of this material and spoilers associated with it not to share it with a wider audience so that everyone can enjoy the show as it should be seen on 23 August.

Apart from the reiterated implication that people won’t enjoy the show if they read the scripts in advance, there’s another little bit of weasel wording there in the phrase “as it should be seen”.

Now, I fully accept that it’s up to the show’s makers to decide how it looks when it’s on the screen. That’s what we pay them for; their skill as writers, set-makers, actors, producers and all the other roles that crop up on the end credits. In that sense, I do want to see the show as it should be seen. But it’s a big, and entirely unsupported, leap from there to suggest that “as it should be seen” includes the absence of any knowledge about the content. My reading of the script in advance will not change the show. It will be exactly the same programme for me as it is for everyone else who watches it.

So why shouldn’t I read the script before watching the programme? In what way is this different to reading a Harry Potter book before watching the film of the book? Who, precisely, is being harmed by this?

I’ll just throw in a couple of side comments here. The first is that reading the script is very different to seeing the programme in advance. There are cases where TV programmes and films have leaked to the Internet – not the script, but the video itself – prior to the release date, and it’s fairly easy to see how that could harm the makers. It may not harm them as much as they think (and this is the “sharing isn’t stealing” argument again, but that’s a different issue that I’m not going to go into here), but the potential for at least some quantifiable harm is obvious. In the BBC’s case, they make a lot of money by selling Doctor Who around the world, and if the show was readily available online prior to the transmission date then some broadcasters may be less inclined to pay for it. But the script doesn’t fall into this category.

The other point is that there is a sense in which reading the script in advance is definitely wrong: it involves a clear breach of copyright. But, oddly enough, this isn’t even hinted at in any of the comments either by the BBC as a whole or from Steven Moffat, the writer. Of course, there is the argument that an unpublished script has no commercial value and hence the infringement causes no financial loss. So there would be no point in the BBC trying to sue me, or anyone else with a copy, as it wouldn’t be worth anything in damages (although that argument disregards the possibility that the BBC may want to publish the scripts at some stage in the future, which is by no means implausible). Even so, I do think it’s telling that the BBC doesn’t seem to think that copyright law is a useful angle in this case.

Anyway, back to the question. Why shouldn’t I read the script before I watch the programme? It is’t hurting me to read it. It isn’t hurting anybody else if I read it. It isn’t hurting the BBC if I read it. And the one legal reason that the BBC could utilise to prohibit me reading it is not, in fact, being used.

There are actually two possible answers to this. The first is that this is just another example of corporate arrogance, of the provider forgetting who is the customer and who, ultimately, pays the provider’s salary. After all, if it isn’t doing any real harm, then why get so worked up about the leak of a few scripts? If people gain enjoyment (as I have) from reading them, then why try to stop them? It’s only an issue in the minds of those small-minded enough to make it an issue, and those small minds don’t control my mind.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis. It fits in with Steven Moffat’s own comments on previous leaks, where he expresses contempt for people who share them and makes it clear that, as far as he is concerned, a story has no value unless it is secret (so it’s a good job that he works on original drama, then, and not on adaptations). And his belief that “stories depend on shocking people” possibly explains why for me, and, seemingly, quite a lot of people, the revived series went downhill a bit after Moffat took over from Russell T Davies as lead writer. It’s fashionable to blame that on the departure of David Tennant, but it seems to me that the real problem with the Matt Smith era wasn’t Smith, but the material he was given to work with. It will be interesting to see if Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is more three dimensional. And it’s definitely believable that Steven Moffat really is so far up his own posterior that he genuinely feels deeply hurt by the leak of a script.

But still, why does it matter? There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as bad publicity. It has to be said that this story has given the new series plenty of publicity. And it’s not like it’s never happened before, either.

So maybe, just maybe, someone in the BBC’s publicity department, either with or without the approval of the show’s makers (almost certainly without, if Moffat’s comments are to be taken at face value, or even half face value), has orchestrated the leaks deliberately. If so, I have to hand it to them. There’s nothing like a good dose of viral publicity.

British Values: Ebenezer Cobb Morley and the Laws of the Game

Most people, other than the historically uneducated, will have heard of the first two names in my series, even if they don’t necessarily associate them with the same topics that I have. But today’s source of British values is far more obscure. And yet his influence is, arguably, far more widespread.

The original handwritten Laws of the Game, by Ebenezer Cobb Morley
The original handwritten Laws of the Game, by Ebenezer Cobb Morley

Ebenezer Cobb Morley was, by profession a solicitor. Alongside his paid work, he also served as a county councillor and a magistrate. And, in his spare time, he was a keen amateur sportsman. Originally from Yorkshire, one of his first acts on moving to London at the age of 22 was to found (or take control of; historical sources are unclear) the Barnes Club, one of the oldest rugby football clubs in existence. On the water, too, he was a skilled oarsman and founded the Barnes and Mortlake Regatta – an event which still takes place each year.

However, Morley’s biggest contribution came in a different sport. One of the issues which plagued the sport of football was the lack of any consistent set of rules by which it was played. The Barnes Club, as already mentioned, is now known primarily as a rugby club, but in Morley’s day it would play according to any set of rules, depending on who the opponents were and what could be agreed between them.

Morley was not the first to find this situation unsatisfactory. In 1848, Cambridge University Football Club had drawn up what became known as the “Cambridge Rules” for the game. This was the first significant attempt to standardise the rules, and many clubs subsequently adopted them. But many (including Sheffield FC, the oldest football club still operating) did not. The simple problem was that CUFC was just one club, albeit a prominent one, among many and had no authority to impose their rules on any club which did not adopt them voluntarily.

Morley’s solution was to create an official governing body for the sport, independent of any of the clubs playing it. In 1863 he set up a series of meetings which led to the founding of the Football Association. Morley was elected as the FA’s first secretary. One of his first tasks as secretary of the newly formed association was to draw up a set of draft rules.

Morley based his rules essentially on those drawn up by CUFC. The three key aspects of the Cambridge Rules which were adopted by the fledgling FA were: a prohibition on most handling of the ball, a ban on deliberate tripping and hacking as a means of dispossessing the player with the ball, and permitting forward passes (as with existing rugby rules, many early forms of football only allowed backwards or sideways passes).

The inclusion of these three rules had two significant consequences. On the one hand, it formalised the split between the handling and non-handling forms of the game, with the majority of clubs who preferred the handling form declining to join the FA and, instead, becoming founding members of the Rugby Football Union in 1871. But, on the other hand, by making only minor amendments to the Cambridge Rules, the FA made it easy for clubs who preferred them to join as they didn’t need to significantly change their style of play to do so. The FA wasn’t an instant success, but from the eleven founding member clubs – all based in and around London – it had grown to 50 members from across the country when the FA Challenge Cup was instituted eight years later in 1871. By the time the Football League was launched, with the FA’s approval, in 1888 that number had grown to many hundreds and the FA’s role in overseeing the rules was essentially unchallenged.

The original 13 rules of Association Football – known as the “Laws of the Game” – have changed remarkably little in the intervening period. The only major change has been the introduction of a ban on all handling of the ball, other than by a designated goalkeeper inside the penalty area – Morley’s rules had no provision for a goalkeeper, and instead allowed any player to block or catch (but not carry, throw or pick up) the ball with their hands. Other changes over the years have included tweaks to the offside system, the addition of goalbars and alterations to the definitions of fouls and their penalties. But these are all evolutionary changes, and a game of football played to Morley’s rules would still be recognisable as the same sport as the games being played in Brazil this evening.

But what has this got to do with British values? Ebenezer Cobb Morley wasn’t the first to codify the rules to a sport, nor was he the last. But this is where we see a pattern. Of the world’s most popular sports, the majority of them can trace the ancestry of their rules back to this island. As well as three forms of football (Association, Rugby Union and Rugby League), Britain is responsible for the modern forms of cricket, tennis, table tennis, hockey (both field and ice), golf, polo, badminton, snooker, darts, many variants of motorsport and several winter sports (including downhill skiing and bob-sled).

Of the world’s ten most popular sports, anything from six to eight (depending on how you measure popularity) originated in the UK, with Association Football being far and away the leading example. Among the exceptions, two (American Football and baseball) are themselves directly descended from sports first codified here. Only one major global sport, basketball, has no direct lineage to the UK. We may not necessarily be particularly good at playing sports, 1966 notwithstanding, but we sure as heck are good at writing the rules for them. And the principles we established have proved remarkably resilient. For all FIFA’s endemic corruption and overbearing commercial pressure, the Laws of the Game have successfully resisted excessive tinkering.

In any survey of what people consider to be important British values, the rule of law is always one of the most highly placed. When people give this answer they are generally thinking of common law and statute law, of things ranging from the Theft Act to the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations. But respect for the rule of law is exemplified in sport. Nobody is forced to adopt the rules of a sport. There’s no law, in the statutory sense, compelling it. But schoolchildren having a knockabout game of football in the park still conform to the Laws of the Game as far as their circumstances permit. A church cricket team playing against their neighbours doesn’t have to do as they’re told by MCC. But they do.

Ebenezer Cobb Morley may be only one of many people who exemplifies British enthusiasm for the rule of law. But his contribution to it has probably been felt more widely than any other. Now, if only the English football team could live up to that heritage…

British Values: Josiah Wedgwood and Philanthropic Activism

If you ask someone about the abolition of slavery in the UK, most people will come up with the name of William Wilberforce. To be sure, Wilberforce had a central role in outlawing slavery in Britain and beyond, but, of course, he didn’t act alone. Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp were two others who played a seminal part. But there’s a reason why none of them are in the title of this article. And yes, it is still (mostly) about slavery.

The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem
The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem. Photo by Slidewinder44.

Josiah Wedgwood is widely renowned for his pioneering work as a potter. As an entrepreneur and a designer he was noted for his innovative approach as well as his commitment to excellence. From relatively humble beginnings in a sleepy backwater of North Staffordshire, he built a company which put tea sets on the tables of royalty and helped make six towns into England’s own “capital of China”. He is also credited as the inventor of modern marketing, including techniques such as direct mail, money back guarantees and “buy one, get one free”.

What’s maybe less well known is that Wedgwood was also a philanthropist. He helped fund the construction of new roads, canals, schools and chapels (not churches; Wedgwood was from Dissenting stock, which may partly explain his commitment to social justice), as well as building a model village for his workers which predated the Cadbury brothers’ Bourneville by nearly a century. But, given that, it’s unsurprising to discover that Wedgwood was also one of the leading campaigners against slavery.

Unlike the majority of other prominent abolitionists, Wedgwood was neither a politician, a clergyman nor an academic. But his business acuity was invaluable to the cause. So, to be frank, was his wealth. A popular campaign is always easier to run if it’s bankrolled by a rich industrialist.

Probably his biggest contribution, though, was his marketing skill. If you’ve ever worn a “Help for Heroes” wristband, a pink breast cancer ribbon, or even a CND badge, then you can thank Wedgwood for coming up with the idea. As part of the campaign, Wedgwood mass produced ceramic medallions bearing the logo of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and donated them to the society for distribution. According to his contemporary, and founding father of the USA, Benjamin Franklin, their effect was as good as any written pamphlet. As Thomas Clarkson later wrote,

Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and this fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.

Promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom is, of course, a British value in itself. But Josiah Wedgwood’s contribution wasn’t just that. It was to harness the power of industry and marketing to promote the cause of justice, humanity and freedom. Wedgwood may not have invented philanthropic activism. But, like pottery, he reinvented and refined it and turned it into something that we exported to the world. And that’s a true British value.

British Values: Simon de Montfort and Representative Democracy

“British values” have been in the news recently. I was going to write a blog article listing my own choices for what British values consist of. But, instead, I thought I’d write about a few people that I think have done a lot to shape British values.

None of these people are particularly obscure, although they’re not necessarily the most famous in their field. And those that are better known are picked here for reasons that are not necessarily directly connected with their primary claim to fame. But I think they all deserve to be remembered for their contribution to British values.

I was originally going to do this as a single article listing lots of people. But, having written half of it, I’ve decided instead to split it over several posts and focus on one person (or maybe a couple of people) each time. If nothing else, it will give me something to write about for the next few weeks.

Simon de Montfort memorial in Abbey Park, Evesham
Simon de Montfort memorial in Abbey Park, Evesham

Simon de Montfort wasn’t even British. He was a French nobleman who became embroiled in the Second Barons’ War, taking the side of those who wanted to enforce the provisions of Magna Carta against Henry III. In the course of the war, de Montfort’s troops controlled most of southern England and left him the de facto ruler, having captured and imprisoned the king. As ruler, one of the things he did was to summon a parliament.

Neither parliaments nor democracy were an innovation in 1265. Ancient Greece was the cradle of democracy, and Iceland’s parliament is known by millions of pub quizzers as the oldest still extent. Previous English kings, too, had summoned ad hoc parliaments to offer advice to the monarch. De Montfort’s novel concept was to combine the two. As well as the usual (for the time) bishops, abbots, earls and barons, de Montfort also called for two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each borough. As well as being the first time that an English parliament had included members explicitly intended to represent their localities, de Montfort went a step further and stipulated that the representatives were to be elected, not appointed.

Simon de Montfort didn’t rule England for long. Edward Longshanks (Henry III’s son, and the future Edward I) escaped from captivity and assembled an army which later defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham. The barons lost the war, and Henry III resumed control. But their principles lived on. Edward had been sympathetic to the reformers and briefly considered siding with them against his father. Although family loyalty won out in the end, he retained his interest in reform.

Following his accession to the throne, Edward I instituted what is now referred to as the Model Parliament. As the name suggests, this was very much the template for future parliaments, and current parliamentary democracy is a direct descendant of it. But what was remarkable about it was that the model parliament itself was modelled on Simon de Montfort’s parliament, complete with elected representatives from the boroughs.

England has had an elected representative parliament ever since. It’s a model of government that we have exported to the world. Every democratic nation on the planet uses a form of representative democracy which can be traced back to Edward I and Simon de Montfort. There are few values more British than that.

A few random thoughts about the Newark by-election

Reading the runes from a by-election result is always problematic. The local nature of the event means that it’s hard to draw national trends, while protest votes and tightly focussed campaigns by all parties have an effect that won’t be present at a general election.

That said, who are the winners and losers from Newark? In many ways, none of the parties will be completely satisfied. Some, though, have lost more than most.

Starting with the Conservatives, they obviously have the most to celebrate since they won (or, rather, held) the seat. This is an achievement in itself, since the Tories haven’t previously won a by-election while in government for 25 years. It’s still a heavily reduced majority, which would be bad news if extrapolated nationally. But, overall, this is a reasonably satisfying result for CCHQ.

For UKIP, the glass is closer to half full. A huge surge in support lifted them into second place, but they were still nowhere near causing a genuine upset. The confident pre-election predictions from the UKIP camp that they were at least going to run the Tories closely, if not snatch the seat, have turned out to be rather more hubristic than they would like. Possibly more worryingly for UKIP is that their percentage of the vote was down compared to the nearest equivalent area in the European elections. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they’ve already peaked.

Labour, on the other hand, will definitely not be happy. Despite brave attempts to spin the result by talking of a tactical switch to the Tories to keep UKIP out, the reality is that for the main opposition party to lose ground in a mid-term by-election does not bode well for their general election hopes. Labour would have held on to second place if they’d at least retained their voters from the 2010 general election, and even a smallish increase would have made the Conservative majority uncomfortably close. Losing vote share and dropping to third place, even in a highly tactical election, is a bad result whichever way you look at it.

No amount of spin, though, can mask the disaster which befell the Liberal Democrats. Falling from a close third to a distant sixth, behind both the Greens and an independent, and shedding nearly 90% of their vote along the way is about as bad as it can possibly get. Tactical voting may well have played a part, but only a part.

Results for the other candidates were all much of a muchness. Independent Paul Baggaley came fourth, beating both the Greens and the Lib Dems, but none of the other minor parties and by-election bandwagon jumpers got more than a handful of votes. The Greens got a thousand votes, give or take a few, but a semi-rural seat in the Midlands is never going to be natural territory for their brand of metropolitan angst.

Stepping back from the individual parties, though, the overall voting pattern is worth looking at. The Conservatives lost around 10,000 votes, labour lost 5,000 or thereabouts and the Lib Dems lost 9,000. Meanwhile, UKIP gained 8,000. Given that the minor parties don’t amount to anything much in this consituency, that’s more votes lost than gained. So where did they all go?

The answer, of course, is that many of them were lost to non-voters. The by-election turnout was only 52.6%, compared to 71.4% in the general election. In 2010, the non-voters amounted to around 29% of the electorate, which is more than those who voted for second-placed Labour but a long way short of the victorious Conservative candidate. In the by-election, the “I don’t have an opinion” party made up 48% of the electorate. That’s the biggest proportion, by quite a large margin.

Another thing worth noting here is that if Labour had held on to all their votes from the general election, and picked up most of the lost Lib Dem votes – something which is not an unreasonable ambition – they would have won this seat. With UKIP splitting the right of centre vote, and the Lib Dem collapse removing the main left-wing competitor to Labour, Labour should have been quids in. But it didn’t happen that way.

To a certain extent, then, a significant number of voters seem to have been sufficiently fed up with the three main parties to desert them, but were not willing to vote UKIP in protest. That’s probably more true of Labour and the Lib Dems than the Conservatives, but even the Tories lost more votes than UKIP gained. That loss of voters to apathy is probably the thing that will concern the Conservative and Labour leaderships the most, since if there’s one thing that UKIP voters are not, it’s apathetic.

As we saw in the European elections, a low turnout benefits UKIP. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband need to find ways to reconnect with former supporters who have simply given up on politics rather than switched to another party. And that is probably a more pressing need than attempting to appeal to UKIP voters.

Information doesn’t just want to be free. It needs to be free.

Floods have been in the news a lot recently. We got away with it here in Evesham, where the highest level reached by the Avon just managed to creep over lower sections of Waterside but without closing the road or threatening any buildings. It was a different story elsewhere, of course.
Workman Gardens
If we’d had another flood like the ones last year (and I don’t count the river covering Workman Gardens or Crown Meadow as a flood – these are flood plains, deliberately intended to act as a reservoir for excess water when necessary. Which is why we don’t build anything on them at ground level) then it would, at least, have given people something else to talk about other than the ongoing saga of Abbey Bridge reconstruction. Having originally been scheduled for ten weeks summer, the closure of the bridge was first put back to autumn and then, once closed, extended twice so that we still don’t know when it’s going to be open to traffic again.

Going back to the flooding elsewhere, there have been various media reports today (28 December) about the Prime Minister’s visit to a flood-affected area. This, from the Guardian, is fairly typical. The focus of the reports is the confrontation between David Cameron and an angry villager who felt let down by their own local authority and the Environment Agency. As the Guardian puts it:

She complained that there had been only a couple of hours’ notice of the flood and no chance to get possessions to safety before the converging rivers of the Beult, Tiese and Medway burst their banks.

Now, up to a point, that’s not an entirely valid complaint. The possibility of flooding would have been known well before that, and anyone can look it up on the Environment Agency website if they’re concerned. But I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile, back here in Evesham, tempers have been fraying over the bridge. Rumours have been flying around the town as to the real reason for the continued delays, ranging from accidental damage to the new concrete to the contractor, Hotchief, going bust. The Evesham Journal posed a set of questions to Hotchief and Worcestershire County Council regarding the delay. Hotchief refused to add anything to a previously issued press release, while WCC referred the Journal back to Hotchief for most of the questions.

The link between the two stories is information. Or, rather, the lack of it. The villagers of Yalding didn’t get warned about flooding until it was almost on them. The townspeople of Evesham still haven’t got satisfactory answers to entirely reasonable questions about what’s happening to our bridge.

Now, it is true that the flood warning data is available on the Environment Agency (EA) website. So maybe it’s not entirely fair to say that the villagers of Yalding didn’t get a good enough warning, when they could have looked it up themselves. But I don’t think that’s a convincing response. Most people don’t necessarily know about the EA website, and even if they do know about it, it isn’t one of the most user-friendly sites out there.

What would have been far more helpful is if the local media could have published the warnings themselves, instead of referring readers back to the EA for them. For example, this page from the Journal would have been more helpful if it had included a detailed description of the relevant warnings instead of just having a fairly obscure link to a search page at the EA.

Unfortunately, they can’t do that, because the EA won’t let them. Or, rather, won’t let them unless they pay for the right to do so. And the amount that the EA charges for flood alert data is a pretty hefty fee. That means that not only media outlets, but also third party website operators are unlikely to be prepared to pay it unless they think they can recoup that in some way.

I’ve previously had a run-in with the EA over my own River Levels website, which I created precisely because I was dissatisfied with the lack of user-friendliness of the EA’s own site. Despite being asked by the EA to close the site, I’ve made the decision to keep it open, at least for now, as I think I have a strong argument for being able to use the information presented on it either at no cost or at minimal cost. I would very much like to be able to do the same for flood data. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish; the licensing costs of flood data are vastly more expensive than simple level data and the EA is far more protective about the former than the latter.

Back to Abbey Bridge. We’ve been promised more information “in the New Year”, but what we’re going to get is still anyone’s guess. The rumours that Hotchief UK has gone bust are false, but nobody from either WCC or Hotchief seems prepared to actually say so. I suspect that the rumour about damage to the new construction is false too, but without inside information I can’t be certain about that. I do know (because I’ve looked it up extensively on Google) that this type of work always takes longer in winter than summer because cold weather significantly extends the setting time of concrete. That’s probably the main reason why a ten week closure period would probably have been enough in summer, as originally scheduled, but wasn’t long enough in autumn and winter. But it would be nice to have had this confirmed by someone with access to real information.

In Yalding, David Cameron…

…pledged to make flood protection an increasing priority of the government and commiserated with villagers that the floods were “completely awful”.

That’s a fair enough response on the hoof. But when he gets back to Number 10, I’d suggest that the best thing he could do is to address the institutional tendency of government, and government agencies, towards secrecy. Flood defences are a fine idea, but they cost money, take time to construct and don’t necessarily solve the problem. But information can be made free now. More widely disseminated warnings wouldn’t have stopped the water, but it may have given the villagers of Yalding more time to prepare. And making the data open gives people the opportunity to improve the way it’s presented. Given access to the data, I could make a much better flood warning website than the EA. So could lots of people.

Equally, here in Evesham, we need some straight answers. It is true that we’re not suffering anything like as badly as the towns and villages which have been flooded. But the issue is the same: the organisations who have the information are far too reluctant to share it.

I’ve been reluctant to criticise Worcestershire County Council, or Hotchief, up to now because I do realise that the bridge reconstruction is a huge and complex task and there are often are no simple answers to some questions. I also recognise that the individuals who could answer the questions are not necessarily free to do so because they are bound by corporate and council policies. But the longer this goes on, the more obvious it becomes that we need a sea change in attitudes to openness, at all levels of government. It is no longer acceptable that a government agency should seek to restrict access to safety-critical data by imposing a fee for republication. It is no longer acceptable that a local authority should refuse to answer questions about the actions of its own contractors. The people of Yalding should be asking why their local media couldn’t carry detailed flood warnings. The people of Evesham should be pointing out that the Abbey Bridge buck stops at county hall. And all levels of government should listen to them.