Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The week in review

So perhaps Tuesday is an odd choice for a week-in-review type article, but these things tend to occur when I have a moment's peace to write them, which is become an increasingly elusive event these days.

Some noteworthy events over the past few days (not in any particular order)...

  • Tony Wilson dies. The music producer who launched the careers of legendary bands Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays and helped crystallise the "Madchester" music scene through the rise of the Hacienda nightclub ends up dying of a heart attack while waiting for cancer drugs that the local NHS trust couldn't afford to give him.

  • Stock markets nosedive. The world holds its breath as share values collapse under the weight of a million unpayable mortgages offered to Americans with lousy credit history. Why should one country's loan sharks be able to decimate the pension funds of the rest of the world?

  • Foot and Mouth strikes again. Will it be another summer filled with images of cow carcasses being forklifted onto burning pyres? Cattle farmers are bracing for the worst - i.e., another widespread cull - although the damage seems fairly limited so far. Prepare for an avalanche of conspiracy theories, though, as it looks like the virus could have escaped from a nearby government research facility.

  • Canada claims Arctic sovereignty. Bless! Just days after the Russians plant a flag under the North Pole, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises to beef up the country's defence of its northernmost territories, saying that the "increasingly attractive and critical" resources to be found under the melting ice required Canada to "protect [its] territorial integrity in the Arctic". Well quite, but how exactly are you going to do that when faced with the might of Russia and the U.S., both of which are also claiming a large slice of the pie? Now would be a good time to remind ourselves of just how many ships Canada has to patrol its vast Arctic fishing waters: Two. Oh, and one submarine.

  • Karl Rove resigns. High time, too. Byeeee!

  • Silly season begins. Hurrah! A chance for some much-needed summer levity, as displayed to brilliant effect in yesterday's underwhelming-yet-classic Evening Standard billboard screamer, "GORDON BROWN'S HOLIDAY SECRETS".

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bridging the gap

Some pretty terrifying pictures coming out of Minnesota over the last couple of days, real "there but for the grace of God go I" stuff. The collapse of the I-35W bridge into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis has so far left five confirmed dead, and more fatalities are likely to be discovered as cars continue to be pulled from the water. Upon watching the news last night, one witness made a comment that went something like "A bridge in America shouldn't just... fall." Unfortunately they can, and do. I'm no civil engineer, but I do know that most of the bridges (and indeed road infrastructure) in North America is at least half a century old and is crumbling fast. They're doing so at a faster speed than much older bridges in Britain partly due to harsher climate conditions and partly due to a lack of funding in outlying areas to carry out major repair work. Last year in Montreal, where I'm from, a concrete overpass collapsed, crushing to death five people in cars underneath. A civil-engineer friend of mine tells me that the city has a kind of top-10 blacklist of other bridges and overpasses that are also in need of urgent repair, but - surprise surprise - the list is kept secret from the public in order to avoid everybody freaking out. It's actually more likely to take 30 years before all the repair work is staggered and carried out. In the meantime, when I visit home, a growing number of bridges have got wire netting strung up underneath. To catch the big bits? It doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Still, it's just one small part of a vast continent, and there are bound to be worse examples out there.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


So much for my praising of the Bancroft family for not capitulating to Rupert Murdoch's overtures... after News Corp sweetened its takeover offer to a whopping US$5 billion -- translating into a US$60-per-share bid that was 67% higher than Dow Jones's share price -- they were hardly going to say no. Rupe will now own the Dow Jones & Co in its entirety, and the exodus of reporters from the Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones publications has already begun.

On the Channel Four news last night, reporter Sarah Smith argued the point that people concerned that News Corp's takeover of the WSJ would make its coverage more right-wing were forgetting that, due to its staunchly pro-market capitalism stance, it is already one of the most right-wing newspapers in the world. Okay, it's a valid argument, but it neglects the fact that Murdoch has well-known allegiances to certain political parties, particularly in the U.S., and that political parties in general are reliant on hefty donations from corporations - businesses that would de facto be covered regularly in the Wall Street Journal and across the range of Dow Jones media. With Murdoch almost certain to appoint his own choice of editor at the WSJ before long, will we still be able to count on the paper's unbiased portrayal of key business concerns? Somehow I doubt it.

I'm sure there are a million more things to be said on the subject but right now I'm just depressed. So much news controlled by one man? Ironically, it probably wouldn't be such a big deal if Murdoch himself wasn't such an interventionist, such a campaigner for his own political views. What news organisation couldn't do with a boost from someone with pockets as deep as his? The takeover is certainly expected to give rival paper The Financial Times a serious run for its money. But I can't help feeling that quantity will not be matched by quality. And for a paper with a reputation as grand as the WSJ, it's a sad state of affairs.