The playful Chancellor?

The final Brown Budget was the preoccupation of many bloggers this week

The Chancellor took a battering in the blogosphere this week - part of the fallout from his Budget. Some may have seen this final performance as a display of prowess from a man whose character - on this occasion at least - came across as jolly and playful. But some bloggers thought otherwise.

Curly’s Corner Shop showed a picture of Bart Simpson doing lines at school, writing: "I must not think that 2p off is cleaver, I must not think that 2p off is clever, e.t.c." Yes, this was tongue in cheek, but it makes an interesting point. Many people saw through the Chancellor’s effort and blogs were of course leading the front line analysis of this Budget.

A reader at Iain Dale’s blog pointed out something very devious in the budget. For people on tax credits, the cut in income tax from 22 - 20 per cent is cancelled by the increase in tax credit withdrawal from 37 - 39 per cent.

Birkenhead Labour wrote in to say: "Is this what budgets are for these days, to help one megalomaniac achieve his political ambitions? This sort of thing reduces Britain to the level of a banana republic though thankfully, much of the media and the public are now cottoning on to Brown's con trick." At least some one is paying attention to the small print.

Guido Fawkes joined in with many who saw the Chancellor shed a layer of skin this week, evolving into someone who knows he is close to taking power. He said: "He is a completely changed man, we are being spun, in time for the coming of the feared dark days of his premiership."

But the Budget overshadowed another huge move in the political world this week as the Government finally published the Lyons Report on local government spending. Dizzy
points out how a “pay as you throw” tax on the rubbish we make adds to what will hit low income families when their council tax bills go up after their houses are revalued.

He said: "All those low earning families hit by the budget and likely to be hit by a rubbish tax need to make one simple investment of about £50 for an incinerator bin. Don't worry about the pollution, it's called the law of unintended consequences, something this Government specialises in."

We must give credit where credit’s due said Recess Monkey this week. He said Barry Beef’s interview with actor Guy Siner was the political blog interview of the year. Decide for yourself – watch it here.

And I leave you with news of Jeremy Scahill’s new book about Blackwater and its private contractor mercenary army in Iraq. Teambio says: "Blackwater charges $950 per day per soldier to the US government, and they pay the majority of their mercenaries $350 per day." This is quality journalism which has been painstaking meticulous in its research.

Adam Haigh studies on the postgraduate journalism diploma at Cardiff University. Last year he lived in Honduras and worked freelance for the newspaper, Honduras This Week.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder