Mugabe’s magician proves there’s still life in Zimbabwe

An article on Zimbabwe in The Times on Friday made me smile for the first time in the two and half years that I have been reading about this ruined African nation. If it weren’t for The Times’ paywall, I’d happily link to Jan Raath’s article, but in lieu of that, I’ll briefly summarise.

Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe Oil Petrol Pump
Zimbabwe is desperate for diesel

Nomatter Tagarira, a spirit medium aged 35, was jailed this week for 39 months. Her crime was fooling Robert Mugabe and his officials into believing that she had supernatural powers to conjure diesel from a rock near her home, north of Harare. So successful was her deception that she was hailed as potential solution to the country’s energy problems by government ministers. Furthermore she managed to maintain her audacious con for over a year.

This was a sly, calculated ruse, including a secret signal given to an assistant, a length of piping concealed within the rock and £1.7million in largesse lavished on her by the government. At one point she was even supplied with a 50-vehicle convoy to help her travel on her night-time rituals, The Times reports. The officials were so taken in by it all that they employed an armed guard to stand watch and make sure no-one stole the supposedly blessed stone.

The reason this story makes me smile is not because I like reading about Zimbabwean citizens being imprisoned by Mugabe’s infamously brutal regime, far from it. The reason I reacted with mirth, is that the story of Ms Tagarira proves that there is life in Zimbabwean citizens yet. Rather than being downbeat and despondent after 30 years of reckless autocratic rule, there are still jokers, knaves, tricksters and opportunists trying to make themselves a sneaky fortune.

Furthermore, the sentence handed down was surprisingly lenient. Zimbabwe is the kind of nation where political allegiance is enough to get you thrown in prison, so the fact that serious fraud, which made fools of government officials, got such a moderate punishment seems to me as evidence that the judge may have even seen the funny side of this debacle. Ignatius Mugova, the magistrate handing down the sentence, freely admitted that “many people became gullible.”

True, it might have been a different case if Ms Tagarira had been white rather than black, but still the moderate sentence (which she undoubtedly deserved) adds a certain levity to this story. The enterprising spirit of chancers and renegades is alive and well in Zimbabwe, and it is a greater nation for it.

Election 2010: How Cleggmania Turned Into Henmania

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg and British Tennis Player Tim Henman
Clegg and Henman: Separated at Birth?

So Thursday night’s election results were quite the anti-climax for the Lib Dems, worthy of England’s most disappointing tennis player. Feverish polls which had predicted a 30% vote share proved wildly inaccurate, with the third party even winning fewer seats than in 2005. It seems that the impact of the television debates has been grossly overstated, as The Times’ chief leader writer Daniel Finkelstein predicted at the very start.

There are a few key points to conclude from this. Firstly, that voter allegiances run too deeply to be significantly affected by three televised debates, which, lest we forget, less than 20% of the country actually watched. Secondly, that for the Lib Dems to ever stand a chance of unseating Labour, we will need drastic electoral reform, probably in the form of proportional representation. Thirdly, that faced with the option of voting for an unproven party in the middle of an economic downturn, the electorate bottled it, and understandably so. No time for a novice, indeed.

However there are a few silver linings. Firstly the Lib Dems could achieve significant gains from a hung parliament. As I write this, the Yellows are believed to be considering a power sharing deal from David Cameron which could see Lib Dem MPs in the Cabinet and even limited concessions on electoral reform. Secondly the fringe parties such as the BNP, UKIP and Respect failed spectacularly. Nick Griffin polled third and was verbally tarred and feathered and chased out of town by Margaret Hodge, Nigel Farage’s plane crashed, George Galloway even wimped out of hearing the verdict of my constituency, who roundly rejected him. Thirdly the Green Party took a big step forward by taking Brighton Pavillion to make Caroline Lucas their first ever MP.

At the end of such an extraordinary election it is easy to see this as a victory for those same two parties who we’ve been stuck with for 80-odd years. But the more you inspect the results and consider the implications of a hung parliament, it becomes clear that politics in the UK just became a lot more open and far more interesting.

UK Election 2010: First Televised Leaders’ Debate brings ‘Presidential Politics’ to UK

“Presidential Politics arrive in Britain tonight” yells the cover story in The Times today. It’s hard not to get excited about the first televised leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, but this description is indicative of a general confusion amongst the electorate.

UK Election Debate Graphic
Tonight's Line-Up (graphic by timesonline.co.uk)

After the last election, I asked a close relative who she voted for. “I voted Labour,” she told me “because I like Tony Blair.” As sound as that sentiment is, it was largely pointless in a consituency where Labour came a distant third with less than 10% of the vote. The glamorisation of the leaders, their wives, their houses etc. only serves to add to this general impression that we vote for the leader who we like/trust/admire the most. But in fact, depending on your constituency, you may be unable to effectively support the party of your choice.

I am a natural Lib Dem, but in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse they lie a distant 4th. A vote for them would be nothing but symbolic. But, to come full circle, that makes tonight’s debate even more interesting. For my vote to count, I need to decide in my mind between Labour and The Tories. Oh the joys of being a floating voter in a swing constituency…

Product Placement – Is It Really That Bad?

So news came through over the weekend that the government has finally ceded to pressure from broadcasters and decided to drop the ban on product placement in commercial programming in the UK.

This is news that can be taken in one of two ways – at first I recoiled in mock horror, imagining the potential sway corporate brands could be granted over the public’s subconscious, but it is becoming more and more apparent to me that this is a necessary evil.

The name of the game's placement, product placement (photo: guardian.co.uk)
The name of the game’s placement, product placement (photo: guardian.co.uk)

It’s easy to get all riled up over the intrusion of brand names into your favourite films and TV shows, but think back to these most blatant examples of product placement – James Bond’s latest mobile phone or watch, Pepsi in Back To The Future, even the humble Sara Lee gateau in Peep Show. The most likely response in each case is mild derision, not an uncontrollable urge to go out and by the product in question.

Product placement is cheesy and obvious – it’s not brainwashing, it’s not even subliminal messaging.

It will be interesting to see how the ad men attempt to take advantage of this change in policy. Will Jeff Stelling start prominently drinking PG Tips on Countdown? Don’t worry, the BBC isn’t eligible due to its publicly-funded status, so we won’t be seeing punters in the Queen Vic drinking Strongbow (liquid refreshment) or eating McCoys (man crisps).

David Elstein argues persuasively that product placement is nothing to be feared in this column for The Times, but then again he would, being a former chief executive of Channel Five. He makes a good point – the government’s nannying intervention is condescending to us as viewers who can be trusted to think for ourselves. But I shudder when Elstein refers to us all as consumers.

Don’t be fooled – there is an inherent threat to the integrity of programmers in this decision, which will have to be stoutly resisted by those in charge, but if this is what’s needed to keep ITV and Channel 4 afloat, then so be it. The long-term, lingering issue is how to ensure ad revenue as viewers head online for the on-demand convenience of iPlayer and channel4.com. That is a serious dilemma for all major media providers at the moment, but that’s another blog post for another time…

N.B. This blog is not commercially supported in any way by any of the aforementioned brands… yet.

Telegraph vindicated by MPs’ expenses blackout

House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)
House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)

When we look back on the main British news stories of 2009, the MPs expenses scandal will undoubtedly stand out. It will take a lot to eclipse the bombshell that hit Westminster in May. The latest twist in this story seems to have sealed the reputation of both our current crop of MPs and The Daily Telegraph. On Thursday morning, the long-awaited publication of the MPs expenses in full showed how perfectly justified The Telegraph were in paying to have exclusive, advance access to the expenses documents.

The story broke whilst I was on work experience there, and I had mixed feelings about the revelations, not least because they spiked a couple of my stories. For me, the public interest in publishing the expenses early seemed to wane in relation to the potential financial gain of such a scoop. The Commons Fees office had long promised to publish the expenses in June and if the information was going to come into the public realm anyway then the only real reason the Telegraph could have for buying the documents would be the monetary windfall from getting the scoop out there first.

Whilst the financial boon of the story cannot be denied, yesterday’s official publication confirms, once and for all, the public interest argument in The Telegraph’s decision to buy the expenses documents. If they had not shelled out thousands of pounds for this story, then the full details of the scandalous expenses may never have seen the light of day. On reflection I can now give my unreserved praise to The Telegraph for breaking the story of the year with consummate flair and timing, and for bringing a truly important story into the public realm.

I would rant further about what this tells us about the avarice and secrecy of Westminster, but Matthew Parris at The Times does a far better job than I ever could. The fallout is still continuing and the MPs responsible are being made to look less and less trustworthy every day. We will only know the true extent of the impact after a general election, which can’t come soon enough.

Ferrero Rocher – may contain nuts

There are many reasons why people read this blog. Some are just curious and stumble across it by the suggestive WordPress tags above. Many are loyal friends, press-ganged into reading by Facebook statuses and/or Twitter updates. Judging by the number of views of my CV, some may even be potential employers.

The most fascinating of all are people brought here by random Google searches. Some popular results which have lead people to my blog include:Ferrero Rocher

Chris Jefferies, Journalist (fair enough)

Jimmy Carr, Jade Goody, sick joke (one I’m particularly proud of)

Ferrero Rocher (sorry, what?!)

It seems that, despite my effort to ridicule Robert Mugabe and his taste in the cheapy dinner party chocs, they are still massively popular amongst Google searchers, with this image query bringing me hundreds of hits over the past few months. So in the spirit of overpriced chocolate that gets stuck in your teeth, I have great news:

Ferrero Rocher have been cleared of Hazlenut fraud

The relief must be palpable across Europe, since Ferrero are also responsible for the hazlenut deliciousness which is Nutella. Had this case gone the other way, I’m not sure how the French would have coped.

trufflesA fantastic example of an obscure angle being milked to lighten up the business section, (much like this blog post, you may say), so I salute the Beeb for their ingenuity. And they are not the only ones who were taken in by this nugget of a story, with The Times and The Scotsman following suit. So you can rest safe in the knowledge that Ferrero are not being dishonest in the hunt for nutty perfection.

Except for the fact that Rocher are tacky, unfulfilling and unimaginative. If you’re going to a dinner party and want to impress, take some time and make these instead.

The London Tube strike shows that RMT have lost touch with reality

Tube Strike crowds at Canary Wharf Underground Station (Twitter user @hey_dahl)
Tube Strike crowds at Canary Wharf Underground Station (Twitter user @hey_dahl)

Everyone knows how we British love a good queue, but over the past two days, scenes like this (left) have stretched London’s patience to the limit. I have had the good fortune of being largely unaffected by the Tube strike, but the extent of the disruption is clear to see and woefully avoidable.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, in his usual magnanimous manner, has chimed into the debate today in The Times by arguing that if he were still in charge he would have placated the RMT union and avoided the two-day total strike. However it only takes a glance at the current levels of pay and demands to realise that Bob Crow has lost touch with reality and this strike deserves to be met with harsh sanctions and little sympathy.

Let’s deal in facts for a while:

Tube drivers earn £40,000/year on average, 25% more than nurses for a 35 hours week.

The waiting list to be a Tube driver is over 18 months.

Bob Crow, head of the RMT union, is demanding a 5% pay rise for all drivers and a promise of no compulsory redundancies.

Britain is dealing with a painful recession, bringing with it deflation and job losses.

How on earth can anyone believe that this callous and greedy strike is justified? (We’re back into opinion now, in case you missed that seamless segue.) It seems like a brash solution, but why not just fire the striking drivers and give their jobs to the un-unionised folks on the waiting list? That may be the least left-wing thing I’ve ever said, but in times like these it is simply boorish not to realise how lucky you are. A £40k/year job pushing buttons and sitting down all day is not to be taken for granted. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, brilliantly explodes RMT’s argument in this article for The Times’ Thunderer column.

Perhaps voting out Bob Crow as leader of RMT would have a similarly desirable effect. His popularity is at a predictable ebb, according to this Comment Central poll, but he cannot take all the blame. Every striking driver has to take a long hard look at their reasons for letting down the entire city.

A quick Twitter search shows that one of the main upsides of the Tube strike seems to be that many Londoners have escaped the rat-race tunnels and taken in the delights of over-ground travelling in the capital. I am, by no means, suggesting that London’s businesses and industry could survive without the Tube network, but it is refreshing to be reminded of the joys of walking and boat travel, even if the buses provide a less than desirable alternative.

By 7pm tonight the latest in a seemingly endless series of strikes will be over and business as usual is meant to resume on Friday, just in time for a weekend of maintenance work. Oh, how I love living in the city!