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Hung Up on You [Apr. 18th, 2010|08:41 am]
The Agitator


Considering voting Liberal Democrat after Nick Clegg's maradonian performance on ITV? Perhaps you are weighing up the possible outcomes and considering that a decent antidote to the draconian whipping system that bribes, blackmails and strongarms independent thought from elected representatives might just be a hung parliament, with no overall control? Steel yourself.

A certain echelon of the politcal and business clases are about to speed drip feed horror stories about the danger to the economy of such a reckless arrangement. This will essentially be reduced down to one bleat: "The credit ratings agencies won't like it".

Who are these ratings agencies who will simply not tolerate our democratic expressions, and will render our great nation to the unedifying status of a penniless student perched outside The Money Shop at 8.48am on a wet Monday morning?

They are the very same global ratings agencies who classified Lehman Brothers, AIG, RBS and HBOS and other rotten monoliths with the very highest "triple A" credit rating days before they all went bust,almost sucking entire national economies in their oily wake. To this day, the agencies remain largely unregulated and entirely open to, em, vested interests.

So next time you see or hear about the danger to the UK recovery of a Lib Dem / Labour coalition government (and this is what it would be, Charisma Clegg could never share power with the tories who totally reject electoral reform), keep in mind that the source of caution is about as reliable as the 10.48 to Exeter and as trustworthy as an adult fox, dressed in a raincoat, selling face value tickets outside Wembley Stadium.
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Over on the Integrity Channel..... [Mar. 11th, 2010|12:04 pm]
The Agitator


“I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” Not my words alas, but those of Groucho Marx. I endorse almost every syllable, though would have to insert “in”, “4 hour” and “bath” at the end to be completely happy.

I and others in the Instigate project have long argued for a mainstream cultural revolution of sorts - yes including TV; generated by a floating conglomerate of credible, popular individuals who might make palatable interventions on issues that matter, rather than perpetuating clichés on the plug circuit to flog next book/film/fashion line.

Often the media outlet is the problem if one wishes to present a perspective on a vital issue. In mainstream terms, I can only think of Jonathan Ross who gave over 10 minutes to Dame Vivienne Westwood; not to crudely plug but to delicately bug viewers into opening their eyes about the realities of climate change and turbo-consumption.

I am delighted to see Dame Vivienne is at it again, but this time, potentially, in a more cogent, entertaining and strategic manner.

Dame Vivienne is planning a new television show, the pilot of which is called “Get a Life” and focuses on the work of the environmental organisation Cool Earth (http://www.coolearth.org/). The broader concept it seems is to consolidate art, culture and environmental issues together in a fresh, engaging but non-hectoring format.

Other channels have attempted this up to a point; the Community Channel dabbles and of course Current TV consistently broadcasts varied, interesting, educational and often ethically based content.

But the “Get a Life” idea could be different in that individuals like Westwood will always magnetise other artistic or creative people; that is to say a greater number of credible artistic faces could be stimulated into participation. A form of participation that can travel far further than signing a petition or endorsing a campaign is long overdue.

Lamentably, TV programmers cannot seem to fathom that entertainment and education/issue based content are not mutually exclusive. They patronise viewers by diluting content and compartmentalising and making esoteric things that really matter. They have missed a commercial trick. The horse has bolted. Viewers from all demographic groups are more than ready; in fact many are famished for new, stylish, dynamic but informative televisual nourishment.

In the meantime, back to my Groucho bath.
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An Ode to Alistair Campbell [Feb. 10th, 2010|09:12 am]
The Agitator


There once was a spin doctor called Campbell
Whose conscience was opaque with scandal
But that to one side
With the fact that he lied
He was also a literary vandal

This author of dossiers so dodgy
Penned a novel quite crude and stodgy
Drawing on his past form
Of producing soft porn
For “Forum” readers desperate and podgy.

He turned up on TV’s “Loose Women”
To deliver his hard brand of spinning
Not this time for a vote
Just a book to promote
Which he needed to do without grilling

You see old Andrew Marr had not listened
And the sweat on Ali’s brow it did glisten
Our man lost his thread
At the mention of “dead”
And imperilled his promotional mission.

The appeal of his work is a mystery
Whether writing or levelling cities
So don’t be a sap
Reject these Campbell attacks
And make his sexing up history

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Charges Upon the People [Jan. 25th, 2010|01:35 pm]
The Agitator


This morning I witnessed an odd exchange in the Public Bills Office of the House of Commons, where one of our less errant MP’s attempted to table a Private Members Bill to change the state of play with the National Minimum Wage.

Prior to the recession, the TUC estimated that employers could be expected to be investigated by NMW compliance investigators on average once every 333 years. Now it appears that despite the unique downturn in the economy, growth in the informal economy and the predictable upsurge in non-payment of the NMW to the most desperate - evidenced by a BBC Newsnight investigation and further revealed in a front page expose by this newspaper in July 09 ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/revealed-scandal-of-britains-fruitfarm-workers-1740207.html ) – no extra NMW enforcement resources will be allocated to police the upsurge, so the temptation/opportunity for rouge employers to undercut the NMW is greater than ever.

As things stand, if you were (criminally) underpaid at less than the national minimum wage rate, first recourse is to your rouge employer (fat chance), secondly to ACAS and an industrial tribunal (fine if you are a time-rich lawyer with a comprehensive understanding of the workings of such procedures; though not many lawyers receive less than the NMW last time I looked), and thirdly, to regional government enforcement teams. Present waiting times are 6 weeks to be allocated an investigation officer, and then anything up to 12 months (average is around 9 months) for a decision.

By which time – if you are subsisting at the bottom of the labour market – your power may have been cut, bailiffs could have entered your property or CCJ’s been served upon you.
So the Private Bill in question sought to re-order the process; setting up a very small fund for the government to immediately remunerate the victim frantically throwing scraps to the wolves at the door, then use its own savage incisors rather than the victim's milk teeth to re-claim money from the law breaking employer. Fair enough right?

Nope. Our archaic old walnut panelled parliament does not allow MP’s to introduce bills that may result in “a charge upon the people”; i.e.: cost something to do. So an attempt by a decent MP to prevent horribly unfair charges on the people was blocked by an ancient rule preventing charges upon the people. So as long as your bill does not cost anything, you can introduce it! Powerful device eh?

How warped that those who did least to cause the economic catastrophe can be most harmed by it. The government holds a figure of £29 million as the amount “identified” as underpaid to employees since NMW law was introduced. Extraordinarily though, “Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not keep separate statistics on the amount of arrears paid or not paid to workers.”

So no-one has a clue how much is actually ending up back in the empty pockets of the exploited employee. Given that hairdressing is amongst the very lowest paid professions in the UK; I hope those I saw grooming members resplendent barnets in the parliamentary salon this morning are paid ok. Or tipped into the 21st century.
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The Hugle Principle [Dec. 22nd, 2009|12:00 pm]
The Agitator


After turkey gorging, uncomfortable family silences, savage hangovers, the slow animal loathing for the return to work and waking up on the sofa to the credits of Love Actually, will come boredom and detatchment; a hangar of empty time, atrophy and solitude. Challenge that vacuous time this Christmas. Fire up your synapses and deploy the Hugle principle.

The acceleration of information technology, compounded by the cloying anchor of general dumbing down in modern Britain has allowed in through the intellectual backdoor a lack of knowledge of the world we live in, and reduced engagement with other folk to hateful battles with call centre staff.

Any fizz of curiosity, the necessity for any form of information or any leap of wonder can be instantaneously satiated with a Google search. But what if, for instance, the national grid failed this Christmas, even for an excitingly transient period of 48 hours? Where would the nation’s cooks and students, mothers and receptionists, dependent shoppers, interviewees and new employees, and an entire army of every form of citizen turn to? Each other of course, human Google: hugle.

So, using factual propositions that would impact your day and night, go out into the street, and against the silence induced by the snow lisping down, ask another human being to solve any common query that might usually be typed into a search:

How do I make Turkey Soup? What is the process and what are the principle ingredients?

Good morning. Where are you going? Oh, so what is the call to prayer? Do you hear and jump to this daily?

Why is the sky this colour at this time?

Which way is Aldgate station/Canterbury Cathedral/the Arndale Centre/The nearest newsagent that is open (as appropriate)?

Why is .... st called .....st?

Where might I find Penelope Cruz naked?

Are particular fresh flowers dangerous to cats or dogs?

And so it goes. Unite problem and solution with the bridge of real conversation. Welcome to the hugle community. Not sponsored by Talk Talk.
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“Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me”. [Dec. 15th, 2009|02:05 pm]
The Agitator


For once, it is not about the money. It truly isn’t. All those cynics (I am a perennial offender seeking seasonal respite) who say that the campaign to make the terrific “Killing in the Name Of” the Christmas number one will merely profit Simon Cowell and/or his like have missed a critical point, including possibly a factual one.

The music industry is an especially cut-throat, rapacious swamp and to be frank, whether it is Cowell or some other overweight, rich malcontent who cannot grow up popping the Krug in the Groucho with your proceeds is for once irrelevant.

This campaign is about resistance to cultural homogenisation. It is about cultural identity being achieved and discovered, not superimposed by colossal commercial force.

It is about every saccharine, prosaic commercial radio station being forced - arm behind back, bone cracking style - to play something different this Christmas, something raw and unpolished, something political and spirited. Something that matters and was manufactured in a human mind, a human heart and forged by a shared passion; not a vapid product of audition, production timeframes and an omnipotent, highly choreographed PR strategy.

Resistance is fertile sometimes, even if it is largely palliative. If “Killing in the Name of” is number one this Christmas, many of us would have learnt how to kick, after years in plaster. So, all together now for a festive sing along: “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me”.
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The New Brand Heavies. [Dec. 9th, 2009|07:56 pm]
The Agitator


The late publishing magnate Lord Northcliffe defined news as what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising” and in times of diminishing circulation and free content, the latter is now an understatement.

Advertising constitutes around three-quarters of newspaper income; without it local and national newspapers alike will die. In this context, public trust in newspapers could be jeopardised, so when fusing a workable business model hard-pressed editors and managers really need to be circumspect in their distinction between advertising and editorial.

This crucial delineation is being encroached by the growth of “advertorial” advertisements. Often using recognised staff reporters for copy, they are presented in a format so similar to the house style including font of the title paper that they can easily be confused with surrounding independent content.

All national and many local newspapers encourage the advertorial to bolster revenue, but the stakes for reader faith are extremely high. Last year the Advertising Standards Agency recorded for all media a 27% increase in overall upheld complaints, with the issue of misleading claims covering 45%.

Often lines are so blurred that the offence is stupidly glaring to both reader and watchdog. In August the ASA upheld a complaint against the Daily Express where the top half of a full page featured a “news” article by Alison Coleman, a journalist writing regularly for the Express on health and lifestyle issues. Her piece referred very positively to a Goldshield Healthcare product called “Rozip”. The bottom of half of the page contained a paid for advertisement from Goldshield Healthcare with an order form for “Rozip”. Nowhere did the words advertising or promotion appear.

Unsurprisingly the ASA found the piece misleading, stating disconcertingly that they found “a conditional relationship involving supporting copy between the top and bottom halves of the page, and that the ad in the bottom half of the page was booked by Goldshield on the understanding that Ms Coleman's article would appear above it.” But even if there is no “conditional relationship”, at a time when public scepticism in journalism is very high, titles have much to lose by affiliating editorially to news features.

In another, more opaque example: the Guardian Media Group has an ongoing editorial relationship with the drinks company Courvoisier. Having established what the Guardian website describes as “An exclusive members club” which is “bringing together the most talented, the most inspirational and the most forward thinking people in the UK” called the “Future 500”. This relationship - no doubt generating thousands of pounds for GMG coffers - manifests itself in a jointly branded publication in The Observer of a list of Britain’s brightest, updated annually and presented almost as an intellectual, creative and critically, ethical version of the Sunday Times “Rich List”.

Under closer inspection however, it becomes very, very difficult for either The Observer or Courvoisier to justify lofty claims of these “most inspirational” individuals. Categories include “Science and Innovation”, “Public Life”, “Art and Design” and rather incongruously “Drink”? And who might a national newspaper approve to discern the greatest talent the UK has to offer? Of the four judges, one is a columnist for celebrity photo-fest Grazia, one the head of computer games advertising consultancy, and another the brand manager of, em, Courvoisier.

Despite a high profile sprinkling of ethical individuals from household name NGO’s, the integrity of a list of the most forward thinking people in a nation of 60 million must be called into question by the inclusion of the general manager of Prince Harry and many Russian oligarchs champagne bar of choice Boujis and a company called ESPI group who offer employers “substance-abuse testing” and can “mount covert surveillance operations both within places of business and following subjects outside of business premises”.

Disproportionately PR heavy, the list lauds CEO’S of PR firms representing the likes of Johnson and Johnson, MTV, Roche, and the former HBOS loudly commended. Astonishingly, in the “Public Life” category - amongst leaders of ethical names like Friends of the Earth and organic food producers - even more PR professionals make the cut, with Blue Rubicon, who represent monoliths Cadbury’s, Glaxo-SmithKline and McDonald’s selected.

The business category is in itself a baffling rouges gallery. Selected for praise here are senior representatives of accounting giants Ernst and Young, whom the US stock market regulator say "engaged in improper professional conduct" in a previous merger; Smith and Nephew, another FTSE 100 company, presently subject to ethics monitoring by the US government and fined £14.3m for paying kick-backs to surgeons to get them to use its products; and taking the biscuit, the Guernsey based investment bank Investec; who in the past have been fined $740,000 for permitting customers in Mexico to wire $156 million in suspicious fund transfers without making any stock trades.

In fairness to GMG as opposed to others, it states in visible font on its webpage (though less prominently on the publication itself) that the relationship is an advertisement. But this in "100 best"/Rich List culture, the fact that a highly credible newspaper associated with social justice and high brow issues also describes the list and process as “in association with” an advertiser, rather than the other way around could be misleading; it is a paid for advertisement and its content is skewed enough as to not meaningfully recognise the true best thinkers in Britain.

Without insulting the intelligence of any reader, the trend of advertisers and editors either to dovetail “conditional relationships” with news stories or to simply imitate the style of the host mag or paper in advertorials so closely that they are virtually indistinguishable, is a potentially fraught business. Our most esteemed publications, including this one, must set clear parameters if the integrity of national media is to be preserved.
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I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them. [Nov. 2nd, 2009|02:55 pm]
The Agitator


The 2nd of November, like each of its 364 essential cousins of calendar, is almost inevitably twinned with an historic anniversary snoozing somewhere in the catacombs of history. TV Producers and feature writers will today lazily shake awake the anniversary of the first section of the M1 being opened back in 1959. I think they have roused the wrong recollection.

On the same day fifty years ago, American intellectual and writer Charles Van Doren completed a visible fall from grace by confessing to a US Congressional hearing that the producers of a popular TV quiz “Twenty One” had supplied him in advance with the correct answers to questions he would be asked as a contestant on their show.

Hitherto his confession, Van Doren had been on something of a gold run on the show, trousering $129,000 in prize money and receiving great publicity, including an appearance on the front cover of TIME magazine. When whispers of cheating first reached the wind, Doren countered: "It's silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." Old Chas was promptly dropped by NBC and resigned his professorship of Colombia University.

Yesterday, on the 1st November, in the present day in England, I watched a popular show people have lots of faith in: X Factor. I had never watched the programme before. In fact at first glance, I would rather slowly push used hypodermic needles sourced from a hazardous waste basket in my local Whitechapel pharmacy under my finger nails than endure its dignity stripping processes and weekly lionisation of participant/panel mediocrity. But I watched.

Only one of the contestants - a 17 year old girl called Rachel – had any semblance of a singing voice, or could perform a song tolerably within her range. A blonde, wisp nutted, slightly boss eyed teenager who (like all of the male candidates) appeared to be permanently on the verge of tears was an embarrassment even to contemporary standards of popular entertainment.

The later appearance of a demented push-me-pull- you of blonde twins fooled me into believing that this was perhaps a preliminary round where viewers must compassionately tolerate every fame desperate torsion of limited gene pool family that rocks up, grins maniacally, drop its trousers, points to your chest and at the point when you look down, naughtily jabs your chin with their finger. It wasn’t. The push-me-pull-you of hair cliffs are tipped for victory.

The ultimate decision to eliminate “Rachel” fell to Simon Cowell, who at the point when asked to cast the judgement and having praised her abundantly the night before, stated that “you clearly sang better” than young tiny tears (her opponent in the sing off), but was way too mindful of a merchandise devouring /ticket buying public, and a market dominated by teenaged girls struck down with the emotional and sensory myopia of adolescence. So the best person didn’t win. The machine did. “Fix”, they (I) screamed!

Why does any of it matter? Because - much like British politics in 2009 - the letter and spirit of a national competition lacks credibility. Any public interface that generates vast interest and democratic participation needs conductors – in the political arena leaders – who need to support what is right, what has merit, not what those who shout loudest demand, or other, more mercantile self-interests.

The political equivalent is the mode of engagement of David Cameron, itself based entirely on the triangulation of New Labour. Premised on endless focus groups indicating what people want and clandestine meetings with corporate CEO’s/media magnates to ascertain their shopping lists, it is superimposed with the assistance of the latter into policy, and then onto the public.

To paraphrase the novelist Sebastian Faulks in his novel “Engleby”, it is akin to asking everyone pre-season which team is most likely to win the premier league – regardless of how dirty their tactics or dependent on gigantic spending sprees they are – and supporting that team, even when their tactics go beyond the pale, because they WILL win.

I find it spineless, and self-serving, and whilst it is extremely unlikely from such an omnipotent position, perhaps in time Cowell and his retailing monster-ship (and most certainly Cameron and his oily coterie) will learn, as Blair did and Brown will, that when you discredit a basic process of trust and allow the passage of outlying interests, you yourself become discredited. Or as silly old Charles Van Doren put it: I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”


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The Most Unbelievable Show on the Box. [Jul. 16th, 2009|03:30 pm]
The Agitator


Fellow addicts of the cult US television show “The Wire” will have been illuminated to see a little bit of Baltimore arriving in Britain this past week. For those not yet hooked, the show set in the troubled Maryland city strips back - series by series - the layers of corruption inevitably packed around crime, government and media and most pertinently, the private interface between the three.

 In a parallel, imaginary television series, one if you like set on a football loving island nation off the north western coast of a multi-lingual continent, the past week has seen the dramatic arrests of newspaper executives following a scandal tenaciously reported by an astute news media.

 Irresistible plotlines have unravelled; a key advisor to the PM in waiting, having been exposed as either totally incompetent or guilty of collusion in criminal activity has resigned, calling fundamentally into question the judgment of his boss; the safety net of regulation, policing and legislative scrutiny – themselves painfully revealed to viewers as toothless, complicit or totally distracted respectively – are now under forensic media and public pressure to justify their shortcomings in the fiasco; and the edge of your seat question at the heart of the story; the unhealthy power of a single media magnate over press, police and politicians has finally landed on the breakfast tables of this sleepy little country.

 I suspect that the most creative/cynical script executives at HBO would dismiss as implausible any scenario where a national newspaper patently broke the law, paid out a million in hush money to victims and the police, broad sections of the “free press” and craven politicians declined to meaningfully investigate further for fear of upsetting said media magnate. Welcome to contemporary Britain, the most unbelievable show on the box.

 All of which is symptomatic of a national media in deep trouble. Newspapers sack key reporters, instead hiring private detectives to tap the phones of public figures. And let’s be straight, 32 national newspapers and magazines, with the exception of The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times have deployed these tactics. Simultaneously, tabloid free-sheets are becoming the dominant source of news provision for ordinary people and budgets to support sustained investigative journalism evaporate. The power of media owners and advertisers to craft and shape what we read has become terrifying.

 It is totally accepted of course that any party leader with an eye on Downing Street must adopt certain steps to placate these little Caesars, last summer David Cameron accepted free flights to set out his stall to Mr. Murdoch aboard a yacht, slightly more edifying I suppose than Blair before him jetting halfway across the globe to sit before his highness. I have skipped Gordon Brown in this as it sadly appears from policy decisions such as 42 days detention he will do just as instructed, without the obvious necessity to be so indulged.

 As Churchill said, "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." After climate change, the second imperative for Britons who are already politically active and especially those who are presently too distrusting of the prevailing system to be engaged, is to wake up and begin to use all means at their disposal to haul into some kind of public transparency the relationship between government, police and a handful of omnipotent media empires.

 On Saturday at the Latitude Festival an Instigate Debate “speed- debate” will be held to discuss the state of Fleet Street, with among others our new Secretary of State for Culture and Media, Ben Bradshaw MP.

 Ben I know is someone interested in solutions, so here’s one to kick off the new job with; do as your political totem Tony Blair pledged to do pre-1997 and restore decent media laws that would prevent any single individual operating a monopoly over how and what we learn about the governance, reality and complexity of our nation and our world. 

From pensioners who cannot afford a subscription to watch their country play cricket live, to the student experiencing a flicker of interest in a current affairs class who is then greeted with front page stories about Jordan and Peter, this would be a vote winner, but more critically, it is the right, fair thing to do. Once in a while, that even happens in the fictitious, sensationalized Baltimore of “The Wire”.




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Shoot the messengers [Jul. 3rd, 2009|02:33 pm]
The Agitator


"Morality" explained Oscar Wilde "is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike." Since certain MP’s demonstrated contempt for those that placed them in power by squandering funds that they also provide in taxes, a mugged public has not experienced any real catharsis on the issue. Opinion polls and vox-pops still suggest the desire for an urgent plugging of the moral crater created by our porcine legislature.

This town must be cleaned up and fast. Given the gravity of the situation, the baying masses must receive reassuring, institutional examples of the utmost respect for democratic processes combined with a visible beacon of altruistic morality. Step forward the messengers; the owners and editor of the noble Daily Telegraph; Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay and Will Lewis respectively.

Following the remorseless exposure of those selfish enough to pick the public pockets for personal gain, Will Lewis stated in an interview that “That place has lost its moral authority and “We want that place cleared out and start again." Good heavens, go back to your constituencies and prepare for the moral job centre plus.

And these boys have form. In December 2008 the tiny channel tax haven Island of Sark held its first ever democratic elections. The billionaire Barclay brothers – with significant business interests on Sark – watched carefully from their gothic castle on the neighbouring island they own, Brecqhou, also a tax haven - and saw the necessity in any meaningful democratic process for balanced news provision and objective coverage.

The twins’ team set up the “Sark News” website which listed nine candidates said to be “safe pairs of hands", including their estate manager Kevin Delaney. In the interests of balance, the site also helpfully listed candidates hostile to Brecqhou and the Barclay monopoly. Published guidance included biogs of such candidates as Bertha Cole “her presence in Chief Pleas (parliament) would be a disaster” and Andy Cook “With the possible exception of his knowledge of the sea, this man has nothing to offer.”

Astoundingly, the people of Sark voted emphatically against the Barclay slate and even Delaney himself was not elected. Hey ho, this is of course the way with any competition and any free and fair election. What can one do? One accepts. But not the Barclay team. Kevin Delaney in response warned that the people of Sark "have effectively written the longest commercial suicide note in human history." And he was good for it. In a brilliant tantrum of spite at the audacity of the electorate, the brothers closed their portfolio of businesses leaving about 140 people, a sixth of the population unemployed, on an Island that has no social security.

Morality indeed. And at the exact time their newspapers were running daily stories about parliamentary snouts draining the public purpose because “it was not illegal” the brothers were joining a group of retailers happily exploiting a Channel Islands tax loophole (again, not illegal) to sell video games, DVD’s and CD’s online at vat free rates, in a move which sucks millions in revenue away from a beleaguered public purse and undercuts independent UK shops already fighting for survival in the recession.

A reality check is overdue: tax evasion is tax evasion which means someone else – most likely not anybody living on a car free idyll in the English Channel – has to pay more. The Telegraph may have got the scoop on expenses, but in terms of any kind of moral order or model of decency, they and other baying voices have slept through their alarm and missed their deadline.
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