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Archive for August, 2010

No, I’m not looking to buy some cannabis, or even encouraging the smoking of illegal substances.

But if you do know of a place you suspect is being used to cultivate cannabis the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) would like you to let them know about it – anonymously of course. And they are spending £25,000 on a campaign to publicise this call for help from the public.

SCEDA has warned that cannabis factories are a serious fire and electrocution risk because electricity supplies are interfered with and powerful lighting is left on for long periods of time. Can’t rely on the Scottish summer weather then?

Director General of SCEDA, Gordon Meldrum, said, “These illegal and highly dangerous cultivations are quite literally on people’s doorsteps. These are not the kind of neighbours anyone wants or needs.”

Cannabis farms have been found across Scotland in both rural and urban settings and in a variety of properties, including flats, houses, farm buildings and industrial premises.

So how can you tell if there is an illegal crop being prepared in a flat near you?

Well, we are told that good indicators include blacked-out windows, occasionally with condensation on them, or curtains or blinds that are permanently closed.

Another sign is when premises appear unoccupied most of the time but there are people, often of south-east Asian appearance, seen visiting late at night.

And I suppose long queues at the sweetie counter of the local all night garage are a bit of a giveaway too.

Over the past four years, police in Scotland have found 278 commercial cannabis cultivations and seized 130,716 plants valued at £39.2m. A total of 304 people have been arrested, 74% of them Chinese and 22% Vietnamese.

So, if you do have any information, get on the phone to Crimestoppers. The police will be happy to hear from you, as they are keen to weed out cannabis factories.

And that’s their bad pun, not mine!

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What Do We Watch OnTV?

After writing about the funding of television yesterday, I decided to look into what we actually watch. And the results, while perhaps predictable, do make interesting reading.

So if I asked you to name the most watched TV shows of 2009 in the UK, which programmes would immediately come to mind? No googling now.

Figures from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) for last year show that the most watched programme of the year was the final of Britain’s Got Talent (with18.3m viewers), followed by the final of the X Factor (15.0m).

And with episodes of Dancing On Ice (11.3m), I’m A Celebrity (10.8m) and Strictly Come Dancing (10.1m) all in the top ten, it is clear what the public seems to like.

As someone who doesn’t watch any of these shows, I find it all rather depressing in a Grumpy Old Man sort of way. Surely there are better ways to spend a Saturday evening than watching some celebrity judge mock a bunch of contestants in yet another variation on the same old played out theme?

The soaps are, again perhaps predictably, up there too. Eastenders comes in third (11.5m), one place above its ITV rival Coronation Street (also 11.5m).

So we have five reality shows and two soaps in the top ten so far. Bonus points if you can come up with any of the other three shows on the list.

Again, no googling is allowed.

In seventh place is the ITV show Doc Martin (10.3m). Can’t say I know anything about it and I don’t think I’ve ever watched it. Making up the top 10 are charity night Children in Need (10.1m) and the long running series Doctor Who (9.9m).

That makes it six shows from ITV and four from the BBC in the top ten, if anyone is counting.

I was surprised that not a single sporting event made the top list. Wimbledon was the most watched in that particular category with 8.6m viewers. The Champions League final was the top football programme at 8.3m.

It would appear then that TV audiences in the UK have a preference for what might euphemistically be called light entertainment.

And while I didn’t expect factual or current affairs programmes to top the list I must admit to being a little disappointed not to see more high quality programming. And where are the comedies? Or the feature films?

Will this year’s figures look any different when they are eventually release? Sadly I doubt it – although the names of the reality shows at the top of the list may well have changed.

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How To Fund The BBC?

Arguments on the funding of television continue to rumble on between the BBC and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB Television.

Mark Thompson, Director General, of the BBC, has defended the license fee that funds the public sector broadcaster, while also stating that Sky should invest more of its millions in homegrown programming.

And Thompson also argued against a fall in the license fee, which is expected to be on the government’s agenda. He believes that any loss of funding for the corporation would permanently damage the UK’s capacity to create television programmes.

The Director General fears that Sky could become the dominant force in British broadcasting. He concedes that the company invests heavily in sports and news, but believes that it does not invest in commissioning new British television programmes.

And Thompson also attacked the Murdoch empire’s powerful position in the media with its extensive television, newspaper and publishing interests.

Sky executives meanwhile have questioned whether the BBC provides value for money to license payers given the amount it pays its top staff, and see the whole notion of a license fee as a “misconceived intervention in the commercial marketplace”

The current television license fee is £145.50 or just over £12 per month. Everyone who watches or records live television programmes should have a license, regardless of the device they actually use. In theory, someone without a television set who watches TV on a laptop or even a phone should have a license.

If you only ever watch satellite programming you still need a license. Getting caught without one could mean a fine of up to £1,000.

The £3.2 billion income that comes from the license fee means that the BBC does not have to sell advertising, which is supposed to protect the independence of its programming. The lack of adverts is certainly a plus from a viewers’ point of view, it has to be said. It’s great to watch a one hour programme without four ad breaks.

There are many who believe that the licence fee should be abolished and replaced with some sort of membership fee or subscription, much in the way that Sky sells its programming. They argue that a flat rate fee is unfair, as it is not related to ability to pay and that it doesn’t give any choice to the viewer.

Sky meanwhile has around 10 million subscribers paying anywhere from £19.00 per month for its basic service up to £70 per month for those who want all of the sports, movies and other pay channels.

In what appears to be something of an anomaly Sky does not pay the BBC, ITV, etc., a fee for carrying their channels on its satellite platform. In the USA, distribution fees are paid by the cable companies. And this came about after pressing from the owner of Fox TV – Rupert Murdoch!

The government, we know, is making massive cuts, and noises coming from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt would suggest that the BBC will not be spared. While a reduced license fee might be good news for those who pay it, the arguments about future funding of television will continue.

The growth of satellite and cable television means that our viewing habits have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In 1990, when we had just four terrestrial channels to choose from, the BBC had 47% of audience share. The 2009 figure was just 28%.

There are three models for funding television in the UK: the BBC license fee, Sky subscriptions and the advertising model of free to air commercial channels like ITV. But what will the future hold for the BBC?

Will it continue to provide quality on a reduced license fee or should a new funding model be brought in to secure the future of public sector broadcasting?

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My Top Ten Albums

It’s been a while since I last did a rock list.

Of all the 149 articles I’ve written so far for this blog, it’s the rock lists that keep turning up in search engines and getting hits, day after day. So what better for my 150th than another list?

This time I’m looking at albums. I decided to move away from the “best of” format and simply choose my own favourites from the hundreds of records, CDs and digital downloads that I have in my collection.

Firstly I compiled a long list of 25 albums – only officially released albums were considered, not bootlegs, outtakes or unreleased albums that I’ve managed to get my hands on.

I then chose the top 10 albums that mean the most to me for a variety of reasons. These are the ones I play again and again – and in some cases have been playing for more than 30 years. I think I now have them all on CD as well as the original vinyl.

They may not necessarily be the “best” albums, however that is defined, but they are the ones I would want with me if I was exiled to a desert island.

These are the 15 that didn’t quite make the final cut:

Let It Be – The Beatles, Plastic Letters – Blondie, Holy Diver – Dio, The Doors – The Doors, The Dirty South – Drive By Truckers, Rock And Roll Station – Joe D’Urso, Pearl – Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin IV, Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers – Lucero, Rainbow Rising – Rainbow, Never Mind The Bollocks – Sex Pistols, The River – Bruce Springsteen, Live and Dangerous – Thin Lizzy, The Sky Is Crying – Stevie Ray Vaughan and Who’s Next – The Who.

So on to my top 10.

I spent a while trying to put them into some sort of order, but they all have such different meanings for me that in the end I decided to cop out and go with the way my collection is organised: in alphabetical order by artist and chronological order within each artist. Well, what other way is there?

Heaven and Hell – Black Sabbath. When Ozzy left Black Sabbath it was hard to imagine who could take over from such an iconic figure. Step forward Mr Ronnie James Dio. This was the first album produced by the new line up, released in 1980, and was a massive seller, going double platinum in the UK. Heaven and Hell features the best of hard rock vocalists at the peak of his powers. The power and intensity of the songs makes this one still sound fresh today.

Southern Rock Opera – Drive By Truckers My friends in the US got me into this great southern rock band, who have a considerable following in the UK. This double album was a labour of love. It’s a concept album, a tribute to Lynyrd Skynard, although it also covers the issues and politics of growing up in the American South. Epic is the only way to describe it and loud is the only way to play it. And you have to play it from start to finish; that’s how concept albums work.

The ‘59 Sound – The Gaslight Anthem This is the most recent album on my list. I had heard of this young band from New Jersey so bought their second album to see what they were like. I became an instant fan. They deliver a fine collection of songs performed with style and passion. The Gaslights are building a reputation for themselves throughout the world and recently toured the UK to sell out audiences. And they are an excellent live band too.

Setting Sons – The Jam I got into The Jam in a big way in the late 70s and can remember buying this album on the day it came out. Paul Weller was one of the first songwriters I really got into and Setting Sons is full of great songs. I think this is the best of the Jam albums, combining Weller’s lyrics with great music.

Kids in Philly – Marah In a previous blog I described Marah as the best band you’ve never heard of. I first saw them live in New York City in 2001 on a recommendation, knowing nothing of them or their music. I bought this album the very next day.

I could write chapters on how the decision to go to that show quite literally changed my life. It led me to places I wouldn’t otherwise have been and to meet some of the best friends a man could have. Kids In Philly will always be special to me as it marks the start of so many adventures.

Bat Out Of Hell – Meat Loaf I remember hearing the title track for the very first time in Woolworth’s one lunchtime when I was at school. I had quite literally never heard anything like it before, and just had to have it. The incredible vocal deliver, the wall of sound production and the songs that everyone knows make this a classic. Unfortunately Mr Loaf has never quite hit the same heights since.

Blizzard of Ozz – Ozzy Osbourne This is the first solo album Ozzy made after leaving Black Sabbath and is probably his best. The song writing is tremendous, his voice is strong and he had a great band, featuring the late, great Randy Rhodes on guitar. I saw the band on tour to support the album (at the Glasgow Apollo) and it was one of my favourite live shows of the time, mostly for Rhodes’ incredible guitar work.

2112 – Rush Perhaps the definitive album from the Canadian three piece band. You’ve just got to love an album where the entire first side is one track. It tells a science fiction story through song, combining a theme based on an Ayn Rand novella with superb guitar and high pitched lyrics to create a rock masterpiece. And side two is pretty good too,

Darkness On The Edge Of Town – Bruce Springsteen. I’ve limited myself to just two albums from Bruce. Darkness came out in 1978 following a three year hiatus during which nothing could be released due to an ongoing legal dispute. It has a dark feel to it, telling tales of characters struggling against the odds to survive. And it gave us classic tracks like Badlands, The Promised Land, Prove It All Night and Racing In The Street, all of which remain favourites at live shows.

Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen. Released 35 years ago this week, Born To Run is simply the greatest rock n roll album of all time. Bar none.

I first heard Born To Run when I was 12 and that’s when I became a Springsteen fan. Every one of the eight tracks has great meaning. There are the uplifting anthems of escape in the title track and Thunder Road, but also the songs of loss and defeat in Backstreets and Jungleland. The latter is more of a symphony than a song and is one of my favourite live tracks.

Born To Run represents the beginning of a musical obsession that has so far lasted well over 30 years. I’ve travelled all over to see Bruce live and met some amazing people along the way. Springsteen’s music is a large part of my life and I simply can’t imagine being without it.

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So that’s my selection of the 10 albums that mean the most to me. I’m sure few would come up with the same mix of artists and albums, but then it was very much a personal choice.

And it was a great deal of fun to try to come up with this list. If I started again I might reach a slightly different conclusion, although many of the top 10 were obvious choices for me.

If you’ve got a few hours spare, it’s a great way of spending your time.

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Don’t Call Drug Users Junkies

The UK Drug Policy Commission has said that names such as “junkie” or “addict” stigmatise users and make it more difficult for them to get off drugs.

The Commission also suggests in a recent report that the policing of drugs on the streets and forcing users to go to chemists for methadone are “publicly humiliating”.

And one of the academics behind the report, Colin Blakemore of Oxford University, has stated that drug addicts faced stigma “as damaging as similar attitudes to gay people, and people with mental health issues, were 30 years ago”.

Stigma in both cases may well have declined but it still exists. I could quote a whole raft of statistics about the stigma associated with mental illness that would show exactly how bad it still is. But I digress.

Now, while I believe that language is important, this all seems a bit over the top to me.

Addiction is a complex business and there are usually a number of reasons for drug use, some of them a result of a genetic predisposition towards addictive behaviour. So to worry about name calling seems to be very much missing the point.

This latest report comes at a time when the government is considering stopping benefits for drug users who don’t accept treatment, a policy that many think would simply force users into theft and prostitution to pay for their habit.

And as part of the government’s spending cuts, drug treatment centres are to have their funding removed if they are unable to get addicts off drugs entirely. What could possibly make ministers think that the best thing for those unable to beat their addictions is to take away their treatment entirely?

No one disputes that drug use is a major problem in the UK, and not just in deprived inner city areas. It is a major concern in many rural settings too. And an increasing number of commentators are calling for the radical option of actually legalising drugs to be considered.

There are examples of countries dealing with drug policy differently from the UK and reaping good results. Portugal, for instance, has decriminalised personal drug use and treats addiction solely as a medical rather than criminal problem. Addiction problems have fallen since this policy was adopted.

Switzerland, too, with both soft-drug toleration and legal heroin being provided to long-term addicts has greatly ameliorated the drug problems it had faced.

In Scotland there were 545 drug related deaths in 2009, the second highest figure ever, following on from 2008’s figure of 574. And many believe this figure to be lower than the true number of deaths. The human consequence of drug use is enormous, as is the economic cost to the country.

I know something of addiction. My drug of choice was alcohol rather than heroin or cocaine, but the principles are the same. Beating an addition is not an easy thing to do, believe me. And the fight is never finished; the risk of relapse is never too far away.

So while drug users definitely need the type of treatment, support and rehabilitation that is much harder to access than it should be, I’m sure very few are at all worried by being called names.

They have far more pressing things to concern them.

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Should Cold Calling be Banned?

Ever answered the phone only to find that there’s no one there? Or been interrupted of an evening by someone trying to sell you a new kitchen? And do you wish they would leave you alone?

Then you are in the majority who want cold calling banned, according to a new survey by consumer watchdog Which?

The so called silent calls occur because marketing companies use dialling machines. Gone are the days when sales staff were given a page torn from the telephone directory and told to work their way through it. Now a computer calls many numbers simultaneously and anyone who answers is connected to a salesperson. If there is no one available when you answer, you get a silent call.

And the more sophisticated diallers now record the fact that you have answered, so they will try again, meaning a second call.

If you do have the misfortune to get connected, it is likely that you will hear someone asking if you wish to participate in a survey, or to tell you about some great opportunity available because staff are in your area.

And the latest twist seems to be the Indian call centre callers who cheerfully ask you how you are and inform you that their name is Alan, Michael or something equally unlikely. Do they think that their name will make you more likely to buy their product?

Which? carried out a survey involving more than2,000 people. 75% said they would like to see cold calling banned, while 60% repowered that they immediately hang up. Two thirds of people said that they had received at least one recent cold call, and the average number was around six calls a month over the last three months.

It is perfectly legal for companies to seek new customers in this way. But there is a solution: householders can choose to opt-out of receiving cold calls

By registering with the Telephone Preference Service you can cut the number of calls you receive. By law, UK-based companies must not make unsolicited sales and marketing calls to TPS-registered home phone or mobile numbers, even if the call centre is overseas.

Unfortunately the law does not apply to foreign based companies or what are classed as market research calls.

To register with the TPS, call 0845 070 0707 or go to the TPS website at http://www.tpsonline.org.uk/tps/

Cold calling is a massive industry and companies must make sales through it, or else they wouldn’t bother. But many of us see it as annoying and intrusive.

As a lot of companies are trying to sell home improvements, I find a good tip is to tell them immediately that I don’t own my house. A lot will hang up right away.

Anyone got any other suggestions?

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IFS: Budget Was Regressive

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the leading independent economic think tank, has confirmed what many of us have known for months – that the government’s financial policies will hit the poorest in society the hardest.

Detailed analysis carried out by the IFS concludes that measures announced in June’s Budget are “regressive” and that low income families with children are set to lose the most as a percentage of their net income.

Back on 22 June, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, outlined the coalition government’s financial plans in an emergency budget. It was widely predicted to be a tough one, but with £11 billion of welfare reductions and a rise in VAT it was clear that it would hit many people even harder than expected.

And the IFS has now concluded that the government’s plans, “hit the poorest households more than those in the upper middle of the income distribution in cash, let alone percentage, terms.”

The details are simple: the VAT rise, combined with benefit cuts and massive public spending reductions leave the top earners largely unaffected, while those who can least afford it find themselves bearing the brunt of the government’s cuts.

The IFS concluded that the poorest 10% of families will lose over 5% of their income as a result of the budget measures. Non-pensioner households without children in the richest 10% of households will lose less than 1%.

It also stated that Labour’s plans for 2010-14 would have meant that the richest 10% of households would take the brunt of the less extensive cuts it had proposed.

The report also questions the government’s decision to change its calculations for some benefits by using the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) instead of the Retail Prices Index (RPI). The biggest difference is the removal of housing costs and Council Tax, a large percentage of many people’s budget, from the equation.

The Treasury has said it does not accept the report’s conclusions, calling the analysis “selective”. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Opposition politicians meanwhile have lined up to condemn the government in light of this new analysis. Amid the predictable cries of “told you so” there is genuine anger that the government has hit low income families hardest.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, called the budget, “a shocking and unfair attack on children and families”. The SNP’s Stewart Hosie said, “the coalition have created a perfect storm for the poorest households.”

And Fiona Weir, spokeswoman for the End Child Poverty campaign stated that, “It’s not fair that children should have to pay for the cuts and shocking that the poorest families are bearing the brunt.”

There had to be spending cuts in light of the massive deficit in the public purse. But the big political questions were whether immediate cuts were required and where should they be made.

The Tories, supported by their new friends from the Lib Dems, decided that the poorest families should be the ones to be hit the hardest, giving lie to their claims to be the party of the family.

The government has argued that its budget was progressive. This new analysis by a respected, and independent, body contradicts that assertion.

Who do you believe?

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