October 17 2006


Tale of two stories

Some of you might be wondering why there was such a huge disparity between what appeared in this column last Tuesday evening regarding Milford Haven Port Authority's accounts ( See Jacks of all trades) and the upbeat assessment in the following day's Western Telegraph.
Well, it is true that the two reports paint a rather different picture, but that is because they came from two different sources.
Mine was written after a careful study of the port authority's accounts, while WT's report appears to have been derived from a press release issued by MHPA's public relations consultants.
As these PR people are paid to paint a rosy picture of their client's activities, and I am not, it isn't the least bit surprising that we reached different conclusions.
The Western Telegraph reported: "Despite the authority making a loss before tax of £2.2 million - put down to adjustments in investments and placing extra funds into pension schemes - MHPA saw a 29% rise in assets."
If they had studied the accounts they might have noticed that these seemingly innocuous "adjustments in investments" involved writing off £1.5 million in respect of the port authority's ill-starred adventure with Ledwood Engineering, and the "extra funds" paid into pension schemes was an attempt to plug a £2 million increase in the fund's deficit.
As for the £11.3 million (29%) increase in asset values, that, being a capital item, has nothing to do with the profit and loss account.
Indeed, that increase is entirely due to a revaluation of the authority's assets, though it is not clear from the accounts how much of it is due to the upgrading of buildings with government and lottery grants.

Easy street

Of course, the reason newspapers like the WT steer away from proper investigative reporting is that it is time consuming and potentially risky, while printing press releases (spin?) is both cheap and safe.
After all, press releases come readily packaged (often with a nice photo) and nobody is going to sue you for spreading their propaganda.
Take last week's WT for instance where on page 8 you can find an article on healthy eating featuring education supremo Cllr Islwyn Howells.
If you go to the council's website (www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk) you will find the same article, almost word for word, in the section headed press releases.
Similarly, on page 17 you are invited to "Drop into the Blue Lagoon".
This is a slightly shortened version of what appears on the council's website under exactly the same headline.
But for sheer brass neck you need to go page 21 for a piece that is billed as being written "By Telegraph reporter".
This features those two well known local Tories Peter Stock and David Bryan posing with highways director Ian Westley alongside a new railing in Scarrowscant Lane.
By a remarkable coincidence, the words attributed to 'Telegraph reporter' are exactly the same as those that appear in the council's press release dated 6 October 2006 - five days before the WT was published.
As almost all the staff in the county council's press and PR department were formerly employed by the WT it would have been more in keeping with journalistic accuracy if the bye-line had read "By ex-Telegraph reporter"
The upshot of all this is that you are paying twice for this "news".
Firstly through the council tax for its production and secondly at the newsagents shop for the privilege of seeing it in print.
But there is a more sinister side to all this because if you check through the council's press releases you will be hard pressed to find a single article or picture involving a member of the opposition.
So, not only is this propaganda, it is publicly-funded party political propaganda designed to give the impression that the featured members of the IPG are terribly important people.
It will be interesting to see which of the present crop of press releases make the short journey from the council's website into the "news" pages of tomorrow's WT.


You can understand why newspapers might want to toe the party line if they worked in "democratic" Russia, where Anna Politvoskaya recently became the 13th journalist to be murdered since Putin came to power in 2000.
Last week, the "Today" programme ran an interesting interview with one of Politvoskaya's friends, the writer Alan Judd .
He said she was aware of the risk she was running.
"She was not without fear" he said, "but she believed that the truth was of vital importance in a democracy."
Truth is essential in a democracy because, at root, a democracy is a free market in ideas.
And just as consumer choice in a competitive free market in goods and services requires the dissemination of accurate information - witness the page upon page of adverts in the WT - voter choice in a democracy requires the dissemination of ideas.
How can voters be expected to pass judgment on their politicians if all they are ever told is the ruling party's side of the story?
The main difference between democracy and a free market in goods and services is that the latter is governed by the law of contract.
That means that, if you are persuaded to buy something by a misrepresentation, you can have the contract rescinded and your money back.
Unfortunately, once you vote someone into office, you are stuck with them for the next four years, even if you later discover that that your vote was cast on the basis of the sort of misrepresentation that would land a businessman in court for a breach of the Trades Description Acts.
So, while adverts are important both for the proper functioning of the market and the newspaper's financial survival, the media should never forget that its first duty is to present its readers with the truth.

Numbers games

The investigation by ITV's "Wales this Week" into the activities of the building company "My Home is my Castle" touched briefly on the situation at Prospect Place Pembroke Dock.
Old Grumpy has dealt with this subject before (See Think of a number) and I regard it as one of the worst abuses of the planning system that I have come across.
And this in a very competitive field (See Enfield).
Briefly, way back in 1988, in response to a successful appeal against its refusal of a planning application to build in garden to the rear of Prospect Place, the former south pembs district council drew up a development brief designed to control future development in the area.
The gardens at the back of Prospect Place get progressively shorter the further you go up the street.
So SPDC decided to restrict development to Nos 1-32.
The nub of the issue is that a couple of years ago somebody put in an application to build in the back garden of No 38.
Clearly, as 38 is a bigger number than 32, this was outside the provisions of the development brief.
So somebody decided to forge the the development brief by overwriting the two in 32 with an eight.
In my time, I have seen many abuses of the planning system, but nothing quite so blatant as this.
What is even more amazing is that the members of the ruling Independent Political Group, a large number of whom profess to be Christians, appear not to be able to see anything wrong with this.
The result is that Mr Arthur Evans, who lives next door, now has his back garden permanently overshadowed by a large two storey house.
Mr Evans complained to the Ombudsman who found, in what must be one of the greatest cop outs of all time, that, while the council was guilty of maladministration, no injustice had been done to Mr Evans because he [the Ombudsman] could not be certain that the planning committee would have come to a different conclusion had it been in possession of the true facts.
It seems to me that the Ombudsman used the wrong test and the question he should have asked himself was whether any verdict based on patently false evidence can ever be regarded as just.
This issue came up recently when the council's corporate governance committee debated my notice of motion calling for all adverse Ombudsman's reports to be reported to full council.
The present situation is that only reports that find maladministration and injustice need be reported and I argued that, in the spirit of open, accountable democracy that the Leader constantly extols, maladministration, alone, should be sufficient.
Naturally, the ruling group, which has an 8-4 majority on the committee were not keen on this idea, particularly as it had been suggested by a member of the opposition.
During my attempt to persuade them of the merits of full disclosure, I made reference to the "forgery" of the development brief in the Prospect Place.
That set off an attack of collective apoplexy in the Independent Political Group's ranks (as I knew it would) with calls for me to withdraw my disgraceful remarks.
"I hope the member can prove these allegations" bellowed committee chairman, Cllr Alwyn Luke.
"Forgery I said, and forgery I meant" I replied, safe in the knowledge that the definition in my dictionary: "The act or instance of counterfeiting or falsifying a document" seemed to be on all fours with the Ombudsman's account of what went on at Prospect Place.
Not until afterwards did it occur to me why Cllr Luke should be so touchy about my use of the word (see Master forger).
By the way, Cllr Luke is the chairman of SACRE, which, for the acronymically challenged, stands for Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education.
Nice to know that someone in county hall has a sense of humour.

Irish smiles


Grumpette and I made a short visit to Ireland last week.
We arrived home safely early on Sunday morning, which just goes to show you shouldn't believe everything you see on Dragon's Eye.
Strangely, although Grumpette was born and brought up on the Isle of Man - Ireland's near neighbour, culturally and geographically - it was her first visit to the Emerald Isle.
I have been over several times, so Grumpette was eager to hear what it was like.
"Look!" I said, "I've been there five times - twice to play rugby, twice to watch rugby and once to play golf - so, unless you want my opinion on the quality of Irish beer, or a description of the curly 20 foot putt I sank on the 18th hole at Rosslare Golf Club to take the money off Les Goodchild and Ronnie Noott, I can't be of much help.
The shortest of these trips - across on the afternoon boat, overnight stay, 36 holes of golf and back on the night boat - was also the most memorable, and not only because brother Raymond and I took the money off Les and Ronnie.
As I recall, it was the inaugural sailing of the duty-free service and the ferry company was offering a return trip for five pounds.
With a large gin and tonic costing 70p (compared to two quid at home) an early decision was made to stay off the beer.
According to Les, who is a wizard at mental arithmetic, we had already saved the boat fare before we lost sight of Strumble Head.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached Rosslare, we had almost paid the hotel bill.
It was raining and the taxi drivers were on strike, and we must have made a sorry sight as we trudged (staggered?) the two miles or so the Kelly's hotel on the Strand.
The rugby playing trips, which it is hard to believe were nearly 40 years ago, both ended in defeat at the hands of Shannon at the famous Thomond Park.
As for the spectating that didn't turn out much better because, on the first occasion, England lost badly, and, on the second, organised by Haverforwest Rugby Club, I decided to take advantage of the patriotic optimism of my Welsh friends by betting on Ireland.
Sadly, Eric Elwood, normally the most reliable of kickers, hit the post from almost straight in front to allow Wales home by the odd point.