Ashok Kumar MP (1956-2010)

I was very sad to hear of the death of Dr Ashok Kumar MP today at the tragically young age of just 53.

I remember Ashok when he was a local councillor when I lived in Middlesbrough in the late 1980s. He was a passionate campaigner and a genuine, gentle man, who always had time for people and was willing to discuss political ideas. I recall him being particularly keen to encourage young people and I’m sure that he influenced many on Teesside to get involved with politics and to campaign to change things for the better.

Ashok Kumar, pictured with Redcar steelworks in the background.

He was one of the few engineers in Parliament and I also remember him attending various industry-related functions in the House when I worked in the construction industry as communications director with the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. Ashok helped the association make contacts with supportive MPs and was always willing to fight the corner of engineering in the Commons.

I also think that Ashok may have been one of the first Indian men ever to win a by-election in the UK when he won the Langbaurgh seat in 1991. Although he lost the seat to the Conservative candidate in the 1992 election, he returned to Parliament when he won Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland at the 1997 election and held it until his untimely death today.

Ashok was also a great supporter of the British Humanist Association, an active member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and a self-described life-long “liberal humanist”. He campaigned prominently in Parliament for a national holiday on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, to honour one of the fathers of modern science. As a chemical engineer, science was one of Ashok’s great passions and he took every opportunity to promote it during his time in the House.

When I knew him, he always had time to talk to people and even when he did not agree with you he was still willing to debate and argue in a friendly and fraternal manner. His death at such a young age is truly a tragedy, for his family and for all who knew him.

Gooses and golden eggs at the News of the World

So, Max Clifford has accepted £1m from the News of the World in return for him dropping his legal action against the paper over them intercepting his voicemail messages. That’s illegal phone tapping to you and me – an offence that would see us prosecuted and probably sent to prison quicker than you could say: “press three to delete”.

A profitable relationship: Max Clifford and the News of the World

Clifford and the News of the World’s cosy cover-up (sorry settlement) means that the downmarket tabloid may now avoid having to disclose court-ordered evidence that was likely to reveal the involvement of its ‘journalists’ in illegal information gathering (phone tapping of celebrities and others) by shadowy private investigators.

So far so grubby. It’s par for the course for a so-called newspaper that apparently believes it can buy the silence of people who had their phones hacked. Apart from wondering whether the paper will now hand back the various awards it has won over the years for ‘investigative journalism’, I can’t help wondering about Max Clifford’s motivation in helping the News of the World avoid further embarrassing disclosures.

Over to you Max. “I’m now looking forward to continuing the successful relationship that I experienced with the News of the World for 20 years before my recent problems with them,” said Clifford after the settlement was announced. I’ll bet he is.

Gooses and golden eggs anyone?

In defence of the BBC

I’ll declare an interest from the off. I’ve always been a BBC man. One of my earliest memories was sat on the stairs at home, aged four, ignoring Zebedee’s “Time for bed” instruction from The Magic Roundabout so I could sneak a listen to Kenneth Kendall or Richard Baker reading the early evening news. Listening to the news aged four? No wonder I ended up working in PR!

We were a BBC family in our house, you see. Blue Peter not Magpie for us. David Coleman not Brian Moore. Frank Bough not Dickie Davies. Robin Day not Bryan Waldon. Look North not Calendar. TV choices were much easier back in the day. Our old Rediffusion wall clicker switch hardly ever moved from position Beeb. No multi channel, multiple choice then. It was all so simple.

Would you trust this man with the BBC?

I like the BBC. At it’s best it provides quality entertainment, sport, documentary and news output that is rightly the envy of the world. Yes, it has its faults. What massive organisation that has existed for years and years wouldn’t? And of course it can be improved. But the latest statements coming from the BBC’s current director general Mark Thompson represent something much more than a corrective trimming of the Beeb in the face of difficult economic times.

Thompson’s plans, cheered on by a voracious pack of vested interests in the commercial, terrestrial and satellite media, represent an assault on public service broadcasting as we know it and should be resisted. Do we really want to see the increasing Murdoch-ification of our media? I don’t and I hope there are enough ex-followers of Peter Purves, Valerie Singleton and John Noakes who keep the faith to stop this madness.

If you feel the same, register your opposition here and join the fightback!

Can supporters really run football clubs successfully? Germany says “yes we can”

Following the ‘green and gold’ protest by Manchester United fans at the League Cup Final at the weekend and Portsmouth being the first Premier League club to go into administration, the issue of fan power is firmly back on the agenda.

On Saturday, I attended a “Beyond the Debt” rally at Bury’s Gigg Lane organised by FC United of Manchester, the fans’-run and owned club formed in 2005 in the wake of the Glazer take-over of Manchester United. Over 300 supporters of various teams packed into the Bury supporters social club to hear a range of speakers arguing the case for fans’-run clubs.

No debt here: Fans at FC United of Manchester own and run their club.

I was particularly struck by a Schalke 04 representative who spoke about the membership and governance structure at his club. All German Bundesliga clubs are membership organisations; sporting clubs where the fans feel a part of what happens because they are members and involved in the decision-making process. As a result, ticket prices are generally much lower in Germany and a wider social mix is able to afford to attend matches. The cost of a standing ticket at Schalke is just 13 Euro.

Funny how we don’t hear about the success of fans’ involvement in Germany in the media over here. To listen to our TV and press, you’d be forgiven if you thought that the ownership and governance choice for football clubs was between rival sets of businessmen, usually from overseas. Well, it isn’t. There is a better model.

As the German example shows, football supporters can run their clubs – and very successfully too.

Media has a real case to answer over bullying helpline coverage

The news that The Charity Commission has launched an investigation into the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) after more than 160 complaints about its activities, once again raises the vexed question for some journalists of why they didn’t subject the group to much greater scrutiny when it first hit the headlines last Sunday morning.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no particular axe to grind against the journalistic profession. I quite like a lot of journalists, greatly respect what they do and think they often get a raw deal from the public and sometimes the PR profession. However the conduct of some members of the press and media on this story has been frankly shoddy at best and, to take a less charitable view, deliberately circumspect.

The Charity Commission website.

Having taken soundings from people with various political views who witnessed the story breaking last weekend, it’s clear that there was something not quite on the level about the NBH. Alarm bells should have rung for journalists. Even the most basic Googling and background research should have made them tread more carefully before reporting, almost uncritically, the organisation’s allegations.

Early this morning, the BBC’s Today programme dragged its political correspondent Carole Walker into the studio to breathlessly report the latest news that The Charity Commission had taken the decision to prevent the NBH from transmitting or disclosing information, including details about the nature and source of the confidential calls it has received, without the commission’s permission. Did she have anything to say about how and why her colleagues and associates failed to do a better job in investigating the NBH’s activities? Not a word.

Should the latest developments in this story come as such a surprise? I don’t think so. Journalists have a case to answer on this. I look forward to seeing the media run a news story very soon on why it displayed such a lack of scrutiny over the National Bullying Helpline.

My top ten sporting interview clichés

Sky News reporter Enda Brady has tweeted to say that he’d just heard Jonny Wilkinson use the phrase “going forward” in a radio interview. “Only in rugby!” Enda said.

Jonny, looking like a man ready to go forward.

This got me thinking about my top ten sporting interview clichés. Like Jonny Wilkinson’s above, some of the phrases below you might also have heard in a business or political context. Wherever you’ve heard them, they are all hackneyed clichés that should be avoided, dare I say it, like the plague . . .

1. At the end of the day.
2. As sure as night follows day.
3. We’ll be taking the positives out of the situation.
4. They’ll be disappointed with that.
5. We’ll just take each game as it comes.
6. It’s always been a dream of mine to play/work for [insert team/company].
7. To be fair . . .
8. We haven’t really talked about the competition.
9. He’s a legend.
10. Going forward, I’m confident about my future here.

I’d like to hear your sporting clichés too, so feel free to comment.

Bullygate: More balance from journalists please

Hands up all of you who had heard of the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) before its chief executive hit the airwaves yesterday to claim that Downing Street staff had used the service as a result of alleged bullying at Number Ten? This previously unheard of charity now finds itself at the centre of a media maelstrom over allegations, which if definitively proven, could bring down the prime minister.

When I first heard and saw NBH chief executive Christine Pratt’s comments yesterday, I have to say I was immediately suspicious. Her use of the term “Mandelson” when commenting on the business secretary’s denial of bullying in Gordon Brown’s office, showed a level of barely disguised contempt that no reputable organisation’s spokesperson would ever show, not publicly at least.

National Bullying Helpline chief executive, Christine Pratt, speaking to the BBC on Sunday.

On closer inspection of the NBH’s patrons and supporters, it was clear that the group had links to the current main opposition party. It had also failed to file financial records with the Charities Commission. While this in itself doesn’t disqualify the NBH from making allegations, it should certainly have set alarm bells ringing at the BBC who, given their vast resources, should have done a bit more homework on the organisation before allowing its chief executive to make those allegations live to camera.

Today, the NBH has been roundly criticised by many in the voluntary and charity sector for betraying client confidentiality in naming Downing Street as a source of calls to its service. Again, I would have thought that the media should have raised this issue much more than it did when the story first broke. In fact, it was left to bloggers and tweeters from the left and right of the political spectrum to bring the confidentiality question to the fore. Only then did journalists start raising it.

The woman at the centre of the story, Christine Pratt, has been portrayed, at best, as a PR car crash in slow motion and a maverick looking to boost her HR business and, at worst, as a politically motivated axe grinder who wants to damage Gordon Brown for party political ends. I have no doubt that there is more to come out of this story and it will be interesting to see what the media turns up over the coming few days.

Given the many unanswered questions about the NBH charity and the fact that it was hardly heard of before Sunday, I would expect journalists to dig a little more deeply into its activities and motivations. Hopefully, they will do so with the same degree of alacrity that they have shown in reporting the bullying allegations in the first place. That used to be what good, investigative journalists did and one hopes that there are still a few of those left.