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Deciding what's in the public interest

April 12, 2016

 

I don’t know about you, but I’d always assumed the most noteworthy thing about Panama was that you can register a ship there quite cheaply.

 

Oh, and the canal, I suppose, and hats?

 

Anyway, as we’ve since learned, there are other things you can pick up in the isthmus state, namely flexible banking arrangements which allow clients to launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax.

 

International repercussions from the leaked release of the so-called Panama Papers have been considerable, not least of all for Downing Street.

 

Yet, when you strip away all the hoo-hah, what I pick up is that there’s not a lot of surprise that David Cameron’s father had offshore investments or that his family benefited from them. In fact, most seem to have expected as much.

 

The big issue for we mortals is that it took a major leak for us to learn about it.

 

And it’s ‘major’ in the fullest sense.

 

Some 11.5m documents were obtained by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

 

In all, details of 214,000 trading entities, including companies, trusts and foundations, were leaked. That’s something like 2,600 gigabytes of data in case you were wondering.

 

The ICIJ farmed out the details to journalists working in 107 media organisations in 76 countries, including the Guardian. It’s taken over a year to analyse the documents.

 

Experts tell us the reason behind the method is that distributing a leak of that size and complexity among many not only spreads the workload it also hinders attempts by third parties of halt publication.

 

It may be stating the obvious, but what this episode highlights is that blowing the whistle is only effective if someone in the media is willing to bang the drum.

 

This carries risks as sources don’t always act with the best of intentions.

 

One example was the action of Andrew Wakefield who caused panic with the 1998 publication of what turned out to be a fraudulent research paper.

 

His work implied health problems associated with the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Assuming that this was scientific fact being hidden from the public, the media repeated his claims which in turn led to a dramatic downturn in measles vaccinations.

 

Further investigative journalism uncovered that Wakefield had manipulated the evidence to benefit financially. It took some newspapers quite a while to admit they had been misled.

 

The secretive nature of institutions means that we will probably always rely on leaked revelations to get another perspective. Equally we have to accept that there can be other motives involved, and that goes for some sections of the media too.

 

Maybe what should worry us more is that the National Union of Journalists fear new state surveillance powers could put an end to whistleblowing and make investigative journalism more difficult.

 

The Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill which is intended to monitor online activity can also be used to suppress publication of information if deemed “not to be in the public interest”.

 

One thing you can bet on is that it won’t be the public who make that decision.

 

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Regional strategy now vital

 

The situation at Tata Steel is a bitter reminder of the fragility of our manufacturing base. It not only underlines how decisions which affect us are made on different continents but also that the dynamics involved are global in nature.

 

 

 The solutions to this dilemma are no less complex than the factors that created it. Clamping down on cheap Chinese steel imports alone is addressing the symptom, not the cause.

 

We’ve heard the warnings from bodies like the European Investment Bank about the weakness of traditional investment patterns.

 

Innovations such as the City Deal and ARCH projects are already central. The changing stakes now affecting industry make them crucial.

 

These are not handouts but a means to boost growth in a way that safeguards economic sustainability and commercial resilience.

 

Maintaining a strategic steel-making capability is vital. But it has never been more important to ensure that we put full-time commitment and resources into these associated key projects.

 

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Parking versus prosperity?

 

We Baileys enjoy an evening out in the city. We have our favourite haunts but we also try to visit different restaurants and pubs.

 

There one place we like. Unfortunately, parking is a bit restricted but there’s a council-owned car park located opposite.

 

One evening, having arrived for a family meal I went to feed the meter. Looking at the opening times, I paid for two hours and decided against coughing up an extra £1.10 for fifteen minutes. I mean who checks parking tickets at 8.45 at night in a car park that closes at nine?

 

Well you can guess the rest. It ended up costing me £25 and there’s no argument that it’s my fault – as the response to my appeal pointed out. My guests were less than impressed though.

 

As one of them observed, there needs to be some thought put into how you balance a stringent enforcement regime with a vibrant night-time economy. Taxi!

 

 

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