Tweets of endurance: Peter Jukes publishes new book on phone-hacking scandal

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

The phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, and five others, at the Old Bailey in London, was billed as the trial of the century. It was never going to live up to such excitable claims and for many of the reporters and broadcasters covering the legal wrangling, it came to seem more of an endurance test than a thrilling joust. Between the sensational revelations were hours of legalistic longueurs.

But one man documented every detail and in the process reinvented court reporting and established a possible new way of funding journalism.

Author and screenwriter Peter Jukes began blogging during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. It is fair to say he later became consumed by the scandal over the so-called ‘dark arts’ of tabloid journalism in the UK.

He was initially dubious about asking complete strangers to fund him to sit in court every day after day tweeting the progress of the trial, yet that is exactly what they did. Using a crowdfunding website he raised £4,000 to keep him at the trial until the end of last year, followed by a further £14,000 which allowed him to carry on until the verdicts, and sentences, were delivered this summer.

Last night, in a unseasonably warm venue in south London, he launched his account of the trial in a more traditional format – a paperback book. Beyond Contempt is published by Canbury Press, founded by journalist Martin Hickman who co-wrote Dial M for Murdoch, another account of the criminal behaviour at News International.

“I am very proud to be the publisher of this book,” Hickman told the 100-plus crowd at the Mernier Gallery. “When Peter told me about his the idea I thought he’d be gone a few days.  But he is a dramatist and this trial was full of drama. There were 21 barristers in the court – it was the most bewigged trial I have ever seen.”

Peter Jukes paid tribute to Guardian journalist Nick Davies whose lonely and obstinate investigative journalism chipped away News International’s denials until the truth emerged.

Davies could not attend the launch as he was giving a lecture in Verona (a reporter’s life is not always spent meeting shady characters in waterfront locations).

Jukes said his book is dedicated to Alastair Morgan whose brother, Daniel, was murdered in south east London in 1987. Campaigners claim that police corruption prevented the case being solved despite six separate investigations.

Jukes said: “This was the cradle where the dark arts were born. Alastair has been fighting for justice for 27 years.”

Bologna – a city on the edge

Bologna's main square

Bologna’s main square

At bus stops across Bologna, posters for the latest news magazines featured the gap-toothed grin of a bespectacled middle-aged man alongside the valediction “Ciao Maurizio”.

The face, I was told, belonged to the city’s popular councillor and former mayoral candidate Maurizio Cevenini, who killed himself last month by throwing himself from a balcony of the civic offices on Via Fioravanti.

According to the Bolognese daily, Il Resto del Carlino, Cevenini’s suicide was due to illness and thwarted political ambition rather than the financial crisis. But in the days following his death, the widows of Italian businessmen who killed themselves because they had been ruined by the recession made their grief public. The women waved white flags and marched from the city’s hospital where Giuseppe Campaniello, 58, died after he torched himself in his car in front of the tax building.

To these signs of the economic fault lines running through Emilia-Romagna was added a vivid reminder that its topographic nature is also unstable. During my four-day visit, the walls of the Hotel Corona d’Oro, our group’s elegantly appointed hotel in the historic heart of the city, were shaken by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake. No damage was done in the main towns and cities, but in the countryside six people were killed and thousands of homes were evacuated.

A stone-hearted ironist might note that our claim to heritage and continuity rests on flimsy foundations.

Proof of human persistence in the face of fickle history was provided at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, near Modena. Here Davide Leonardi, a wiry, dapper man, showed our group around his traditional balsamic vinegar house and explained how the product is derived from cooked grapes, aged at least 12 years. The best stuff is aged for a quarter of a century or more. It has a kick like a dirty martini but proved surprisingly tasty on ice cream, a bitter streak balancing the sweet vanilla.

A talent for culinary eclecticism, of course, runs in the Bolognese veins. At Cantina Bentivoglio we tried the famous ragu with tagliatelle and learned that the search for the typical Bolognese sauce is as quixotic as the hunting of the snark. Every mother worth her salt has her own version and the reputations of chefs have been made or lost on combinations of bacon, sausage, carrot, celery, onions and tomato puree.

The crown prince of post-modern molecular gastronomy is Massimo Bottura and his court is Osteria Francescana hidden down an unprepossessing alley in Modena. The place has become something of a temple for foodies and has received three Michelin stars. A meal for two with wine won’t give you much change from €400.

We were treated to a tour de force of flavorsome legerdemain by the much-lauded chef.

One course, entitled ‘Five ages of Parmigian Reggiano in different textures and temperature’, was Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch revisited.

A 24-month-old Parmesan was beaten into mousse, a 30-month-aged came as a foam, the 36-month was a sauce, while the oldest, at 50 months, was presented as a burst of Parmesan air.

Treating ingredients as bric-a-brac to be light-heartedly jumbled in the same pot seemed an apt approach in Emilia-Romagna, where the architecture also exhibits a mongrel heterogeneity. In Ferrara, we puzzled over a cathedral that combines Romanesque frescoes and Gothic statues on its exterior with a unabashed Baroque interior. At Azienda Hombre, a vintage Maserati collection nestled within a working farm. Commachio, a tiny town linked by 13 bridges in a lagoon where the Reno meets the Adriatic, bears the scars and signs of sackings by Goths, Lombards and Venetians. The region is nothing if not contrary.

Back in Bologna, our tour guide threaded us through the city’s crepuscular canyons while teasing out its knotted history. As unforgettably documented in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Bologna was bombed remorselessly by the Allied forces during the Second World War. That so much of its medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings survived is due more to capricious fortune than to the accuracy of the airmen.

If you are pushed for time, the Basilica of Santo Stefano, known to locals as the “Seven Churches” is a kind of ecclesiastical theme park, which will bring you up to speed on the most important architectural developments in one spot. The cobbled square where it sits is a lovely place to have a drink.

The city is a maze of porticos and alleyways where pools of light penetrate only periodically. But any sightseers who get lost amid the monuments can orient themselves by finding the famous Two Towers, situated at the intersection of five roads. The taller of the two at 97 metres is the Asinelli while the smaller, leaning, tower is the Garisenda.

They have survived attacks from arsonists and lightning bolts from the heavens – fitting emblems for an ancient city which seems forever to tremble on the verge of extinction

 

This article was first published in The Argus on July 2, 2012

Revealed: Brighton council spends millions on staff payouts

King's House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

King’s House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

A city council spend more than £6 million pounds over four years to compensate former employees.

Figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request  show that between January 2010 and March 2014, a total of 436 employees at Brighton and Hove City Council have received compensation for loss of office under a settlement agreements.

The cost of ‘releasing’ these individuals was £6,333,944.90.

 

Compensation for loss of office is  made in cases where the council’s compensation panel considers that:

  • the level of legal risk indicates settlement of an issue should be considered;
  • there is a clear business case from a financial and organisational perspective that demonstrates the benefits and why alternative solutions are not viable
  • a settlement agreement is both necessary and proportionate in the circumstances




About one third of agreements entered into each year relate to employees who were employed in schools. The council says a “significant number” of the individuals took voluntary redundancy under its  voluntary severance scheme offered to staff in 2011/12 and again in 2013/14.

 

In  accordance with the statutory requirements, the council has, since the 2010/11 financial year, published in its annual accounts the amounts paid to employees in connection with the termination of their employment, if their total remuneration is over £50,000.

 

The requirement is to publish these amounts by job title if the total remuneration is between £50,000 and £150,000 and by name if it is over £150,000. Links to the relevant parts of the Council’s Statement of Accounts for the financial years 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 and 2013/14 are given below.

 

A spokeswoman for the council said: “The individuals cited in these accounts are not in addition to the 436 referred to above.  However, we should point out that in a significant number of cases it has not been possible, due to the way in which the information has been recorded, to identify the split between the contractual and non-contractual elements of the final payment made to these individuals.  This means that the figure of £6,333,944.90 will not accurately represent the compensation for loss of office for these individuals.”

https://foi.brighton-hove.gov.uk/uploads/attachment/file/628/Statement_of_Accounts_2012_13__Extract__3669_3_of_3.pdf

https://foi.brighton-hove.gov.uk/uploads/attachment/file/629/Statement_of_Accounts_2011_12__Extract__3669_2_of_3.pdf

https://foi.brighton-hove.gov.uk/uploads/attachment/file/630/Statement_of_Accounts_2010_11__Extract__3669_1_of_3.pdf

http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/sites/brighton-hove.gov.uk/files/BHCC%20Unaudited%20Statement%20of%20Accounts%202013-14_0.pdf

Brighton council gets coy over unpaid bills

Follow the money...

Follow the money…

 

A city council has refused to name business owners who do not pay their rates.

The man in charge of collecting unpaid rates said that naming the firms could damage their reputation.

National Non-Domestic Rates – to give business rates their bureaucratic name  – are a tax.

The council must take recovery action against any business that does not pay.

If the business fails to pay up after receiving a liability order, the council can apply for insolvency action and  the final stage will be a committal hearing at court which can result in the business chief going to jail.

Brighton and Hove City Council refused my request under the Freedom of Information Act for the names of all limited companies in the city who have had in the past six months, or are about to have, liability orders made against them for non payment.

According to the Government’s Information Commissioner, there is a public interest in disclosing some commercially sensitive information about private companies that is held by public authorities.

The Information Commission Office guidelines state: “In the course of its role as a regulator, a public authority may hold information on the quality of products or on the conduct of private companies. There would be strong public interest arguments in allowing access to information which would help protect the public from unsafe products or dubious practices, even though this might involve revealing information that is likely to harm the commercial interests of a company.”

Graham Bourne, head of revenues and benefits at Brighton & Hove City Council disagrees.

He  said: “I can confirm that we hold this information. However, we consider the information to be exempt from disclosure under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and we will not be providing it to you. This exemption relates to information where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person.

“We have considered the public interest test; it is our opinion that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. We consider that disclosing the names of property owners against whom liability orders have been obtained is likely to prejudice their commercial interests; it could damage their reputation and the confidence that their customers, suppliers or financiers has in them, and it could have an impact on revenues or threaten their ability to obtain supplies or secure credit.”

So know you know. Or rather, you don’t.

 

Brighton Council lives on borrowed time

Going up - and so are interest rates

Going up – and so are interest rates

The decision by Brighton and Hove City Council to borrow £36.2 million for the Public Works Loan Board to fund the building of the i360 has generated many column inches, not least by me.

But in February 2011 and February 2012, the council also borrowed money (for what we do not know, but watch this space)  from a High Street bank via a less publicised route. The weirdly named “lender option borrower option” (LOBO)  facilities have raised the eyebrows of financial experts because they contain a myriad of complicated clauses.

According to figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the LOBO loan agreements from the Royal Bank of Scotland drawn down by the council within the last five years, total £30,000.

In February 2011, Brighton and Hove City Council drew down a lender option, borrower option loan from the RBS totalling £10,000. The initial interest rate is 4.22% and the loan term is 60 years. The rate will be reviewed in April 2016 and every five years thereafter.

The council borrowed a further £10,000 in the same month at a rate of 4.20% and another £10,000 in February 2012 at a rate of 4.35% under the same terms as above.

 As Private Eye points out in its latest issue, working out whether these loans are a good idea or not depends very specialist know-how. Treasury rules state that a public body “using a new or non-standard technique should ensure it has the competence to manage, control and track its use and any resulting financial exposure which may vary with time.”

It may be that the council finance department is staffed with people possessing the savvy of a supremely successful spread betting expert. Or it may not.

Time – and the markets – will tell.

 

October 16

Update: I asked the council to explain what the LOBO loans were for. They sent me this reply:

“The council had the opportunity to restructure it’s debt during a time of low interest rates in order to reduce future borrowing costs. The three tranches of £10m debt entered into in 2011 and 2012 were undertaken to re-finance cumulative capital programme investment funded through borrowing.”

The question is , of course, what happens when the interest rate goes up.

 

 

Why Owen Jones thinks the system is fixed – and we should break it

see sid

 

If you see Sid, tell him Owen Jones wants a word.

The fresh-faced, fiery-penned, polemicist has written a trenchant analysis of how the con-trick of ‘popular capitalism’ has become the only political game in town. His new book The Establishment aims to provide a forensic examination of how the bankers and business owners that drove the economy over a cliff in 2008 managed to walk away unscathed. They remain the biggest beneficiaries of Government spending.

I’m old enough to remember the British Gas ad campaign in 1985 which was trumpeted as the high-water mark of the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme. In reality, the share-owning democracy proved a damp squib – private investors now make up less than a 10th of stock market ownership. But the seed had been sown – “we are all in this together and if the ship sinks there’ll be no lifeboat for you lot”.

The neutering of the  trade unions underlined the notion that workers owed their souls to the company store, and the destruction of building societies fanned the flames of debt as a lifestyle choice.

I can vividly recall the wild talk of my twentysomething contemporaries about how the house they had just paid a fortune for would make them rich. My partner and I narrowly avoided catastrophe when one of us (it wasn’t me) had the good sense to insist we turn down a mortgage facility put together in a matter of minutes by a financial adviser on the other end of a phone. We were all neo-liberals – though few of us back then had heard of the term.

Many years later, I happened to be in New York when Lehman Brother collapsed. Grown men were running up and down Fifth Avenue yelling into their cell phones: “The  Dow is f*cked! The Dow is f*cked!”

But no senior figures  found themselves tossed onto a tumbril bound for the guillotine. Owen Jones wants us to understand why.

What I liked most about his previous book Chavs: the demonisation of the working class was his gumshoe reporting. He had clearly hit the road with his notebook in hand. Early reviews of “The Establishment suggest the same thorough approach has paid off again and I am looking forward to reading the new book. I might even go along when his rolling tour hits Brighton.

But I winced (and I bet the author did) when I read the blurb on the cover by Russell Brand hailing Owen Jones as “our generation’s Orwell”.  I’ll have to break it to him that my daughters (18 and 23) had never heard of him. They favour political action over polemics and they know that the current economic order offers them precious few opportunities.

Sid might want to give them a wide berth also.

 

Peyton and Byrne pledges to pay suppliers before quitting Brighton

Catering services at Brighton's Royal Pavilion have been put out to tender

Catering services at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion have been put out to tender

A catering company run by a celebrity restaurateur has insisted it has the cash to pay suppliers before it pulls out of a city’s iconic venues.

Last month Peyton & Byrne announced it will stop delivering catering and hospitality for Brighton Dome, the Royal Pavilion and Hove Museum.

Brighton and Hove Council said  the bars and cafes will return to in-house management, while joint tenders are sought for a new firm to run the catering and the cafe operations.

The GMB union is in negotiations with the council and the caterer over the future of its members employed at the venues.

According to the latest figures filed at Companies House, Peyton & Byrne has a negative balance sheet of £891,056 . It has a net debt of £1,192,751 and has issued a debenture with Barclays bank.

In the previous year it borrowed £300,000 from Olga Polizzi, the mother-in-law of BBC Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton. The loan has since been repaid.

A spokeswoman for Peyton & Byrne said:“The company is well funded and has had recent further investment from British Growth Fund to ensure its strategic aims are met.  This included a £6.25 million investment deal signed in November 2012.

“Brighton Dome and  Brighton Festival and Royal Pavilion and Museums will be working with Peyton & Byrne to best protect staff and the facilities during the transfers of the bars and the tendering process.  All suppliers will be paid by Peyton & Byrne, who are currently continuing to run the site as per normal.”