Clickbait Journalism

Local rag – the Echo – carried a big story on local gangsters John Haase and Paul Bennett over the holiday. It was viewed editorially as good enough for a full page feature splash in both the weekend hard copy and on line. The by-line was credited to a Tom Duffy, a journalist of whom I have never heard or ever met. I certainly have no beef with him because, in all probability, he was not around when this story broke into the news. Undoubtedly, however, the senior editorial staff at the Echo were around; and they were, presumably, the people who approved the piece for publication.

Now, I may be an old fogey, but I well remember the days when there were highly reputable journalists – award winners – on the Echo staff, people like Peter Phelps and David Hope. They knew what was happening across the city-region; and where they were in ignorance, they set out to inform themselves. I recognise that those days are long gone, and that since the departure of Marc Waddington, the standard of the Echo’s reportage of local matters has gone into a very steep decline. This is entirely due to the paper’s editorial quality – or lack of it. The lesson to be learnt is that the Echo does not render a public service, but a disservice, in its copy.

The Haase-Bennett story sums it all up very neatly. The piece conveys the impression of a “news” story. Well, the “news” content came from two court cases conducted years ago, one in 2008 and the other in 2012. The author has lifted most of his information from those trial transcripts. This in itself is somewhat ironic as the Echo did not accord any real significance to the trials at the time when they were being heard. The first being held in Southwark Crown Court, the editor did not wish to waste the valuable time of his Westminster correspondent in covering the case. Instead, he sent a young and inexperienced freelancer to cover it. She had no background knowledge at all (I know of no coverage by anyone of the second trial). It sounds remarkably similar to the present policy of giving young and inexperienced (therefore, cheap and malleable) journalists the task of monitoring the political upheavals and corruption bedevilling our city-region.

Compounding the felony, you might say, in this account of the Haase-Bennett case, is a completely distorted narrative rather than the truth of the matter. For example, the on-line report is spun to suggest an active Merseyside Police investigation, and that the “complex police investigation” was down to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst there were plenty of honest cops at the time of the crimes – and we are talking about nearly twenty five years ago – the police institutionally were happy to simply take the credit for guns being removed from the streets without asking the obvious questions.

There is also the agonised exculpation of the Customs and Excise officer who was the handler of Haase as an informer. I was on stand-by, at the request of the CPS, to be a witness against this Customs officer at his trial. I was never called. Indeed, I only discovered that the case had been disposed of long after it was done and dusted. There was a side to his involvement that was never heard, and he walked away free as a bird. The “good name” of the Customs and Excise was thereby protected.

Finally, the roles of both the then Home Secretary (Michael Howard) and the presiding judge in the case went unexamined. There would have been much to say, but only if the right questions were asked before the courts. It meant that these pillars of the Establishment – the police, the judiciary, the government, the Customs and Excise – were left untarnished and unpunished despite each having had a part in that disgraceful abuse of the criminal justice system. Haase and Bennett and their crew of criminal confederates were sent down, whilst the Establishment remained blithely untouched.

I know all of this because the much-quoted confession was made to me on a visit to Haase in Whitemoor Prison. I was also the principal witness for the prosecution in the 2008 trial, having pursued the truth of the case for over twelve years whilst the Echo and Merseyside Police did nothing. Therefore, I urge you not to rate any story coming through the Echo as any more reliable, original, or worthwhile than a tweet from Donald Trump.

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A Christmas Caution

What a run-up to Christmas it has been. Most attention, apart from the annual festive frenzy, has been focussed on the near total breakdown of national government within both the United States and the United Kingdom. However, the Liverpool City-Region has also had something of a rocky road of late. For example, as we watched on national television the demolition of pay booths on the Severn Bridge, Halton Borough Council was announcing a further twelve months of closure of the Jubilee Bridge, due, we are told, to “the weather”. This is far from reassuring to hard pressed commuters who can only look forward to charges on both bridges and tunnels.

Meanwhile, Sefton Borough Council’s attempts to reduce public protest over the proposed relief road through the Rimrose valley, was dealt a blow when their legal action failed in the courts. I can foresee transport issues hardening in the run-up to the 2019 local elections, in the way that green-field arguments developed in recent years. The two are often related; and there is no local authority which is immune to their potency with the electorate.

Nevertheless, Liverpool City Council once more ends the year way ahead in the embarrassment stakes. No sooner had the mayor announced the dismissal of litter enforcement agents, Kingdom, than the city was named in a national report, as the country’s fly-tipping capital. Despite the constant public relations campaigns mounted on behalf of the council, promising jam tomorrow in the form of ever-more problematic development, I believe that voters who actually live in the city are far more concerned with the effective provision of public services. Such services have a far more immediate impact on their lives.

I realise that all councils have been hit by government imposed austerity, but this is a reality that we all have to live with. That is, until there is either a change of government policy or a change of government itself. Neither seems to be on the immediate horizon. Meanwhile, in the absence of meaningful local media, more and more voters rely on social media for their information about what local councils are doing. Rightly or wrongly, the social media in turn, is increasingly fed by information gleaned via Freedom of Information requests. That is, when any realistic response can be levered out of local bureaucracies wedded to secrecy – I have been stalled on two such requests throughout 2018.

One tenacious questioner has circulated on social media the responses to her queries that she has received. They make intriguing reading. This year has seen LCC approving over 200 air flights alone by its councillors and officials. That is, over £100,000 worth of air travel without hotels and other expenses. The answers were heavily redacted but it would be fascinating to see exactly how such expenditure is justified in these difficult times. We all must recognise that there will always be some necessary travel on city business, but much of it raises further queries. For example, why was a first class journey to Germany approved?  For whom, and for what purpose?

While a whole mob went to expensive Cannes for the MIPIM developers shindig, why did twenty people go by Eurostar to Strasbourg last February? Which country and western fan needed to fly to Nashville? What necessitated Cllr Alice Bennett flying to Naples and Bahrain?  Why did the two Gladden councillors need to visit Paris, Marseilles, and Helsinki?

The most puzzling was the case of Mr Frank Hont. He had been elected on to the council in 2014, and was quickly promoted by Mayor Anderson to his cabinet. However, the meteoric rise of the former Unison union official came to an abrupt end last May 4th when his electorate threw him out after just one term of office. On May 20th, over two weeks after losing his seat, he seems to have flown to New York and Pittsburgh via Dubai!! An incredibly circuitous route if the FoI answer is correct, but unanswered is why a member of the public should be on such an expensive trip at the expense of the taxpayer. It could not have been connected to the job given him by the mayor – head of the council’s new housing company – because at the time of the trip, he had not been treated to the mayoral largesse of the newly created post.

One can only hope that 2019 will be an improvement on 2018. It is notable, however, that the two boroughs within the LCR – Knowsley and St Helens – with new leadership this year have been relatively gaffe-free.  Wirral will have a new leader after the forthcoming local elections, so we must wait and see what effect, if any, that will have within Wirral Council. If there is a moral in all of this, it is surely that it is a prime responsibility of local authority Members to ensure that there is quality of leadership within their boroughs together with transparency and accountability.

Dodgy Company

A ‘Sunday Times’ report last weekend was a timely reminder of the dangers of cosying up to the Tories. The government, it was reported, has unilaterally decided to drop the funding promised to connect Liverpool to the HS2 rail system. Little wonder, then, that Mayor Anderson moved quickly to finally recognise that the so-called Northern Powerhouse was a waste of time, as was his previous enthusiasm for the Big Society – another Tory bluff. He has wasted so much political capital hobnobbing with Tory ministers and selected “businessmen”, betraying an alarming lack of political acumen.

I also recall that the mayor signed over a six-figure cheque to Tory insider Phillip Blond for making Liverpool’s case for connection to HS2. Obviously, this was more money wasted in a vain attempt to persuade the authors of austerity that the city had a special case to plead. Not just the city but the city-region. Mind you, the mayor always contrives to bounce back, like one of those dolls which rights itself no matter how many times it is knocked over.

Our local leader has deftly moved across the river, in the hope of resolving the difficulties at Cammell Lairds. He is at least positioned well in one regard. He has been a close ally of Peel ever since he became council leader; and Peel are the owners of Cammell Lairds. However, the reality is – as always – that the dispute can only be resolved by agreement between the employers and the unions involved. We all must hope for a speedy resolution to the matter, but it will be interesting to see what eventuates at the end of the four week truce (that is, until after the holiday) which the unions and management have agreed.

There is another angle to this. The mayor’s imposition of himself into the dispute is an illustration of his sheer arrogance. He has no limit in his refusal to respect other politicians’ areas of competence. Politically, one must assume that he believes that there are brownie points in projecting himself as a man for all seasons – an industrial relations expert one day, an entrepreneur the next. Yet skipping from one public relations opportunity to the next will do nothing to resolve the challenging situation facing Liverpool Council, nor will it assist the mayor personally if he seeks re-selection as Labour candidate for the mayoral job in 2019.

On a different subject, LCC sold a rather rundown property – 80 Rodney Street – to Mr Elliot Lawless in 2016. The total cost of the combined leasehold and freehold amounted to £485,000.  The property itself was listed with the Land Registry (care of solicitor Mr Michael Leo Murphy, of Hill Dickinson) as owned by The Global Property Agent Limited of the Seychelles. It is safe to assume that The Global Property Agent Limited is an offshore finance vehicle owned or used by Mr Lawless.

Mr Murphy and Mr Lawless are old business associates with a mutual interest in Birch House Estates. In April this year, Mr Murphy formed a company – 80 Rodney Street – and on August 1st, registered the purchase of the building in question for £1,100,000. After just 22 months, Mr Lawless appears to have made a profit of 123% (or £615,000). Not bad, eh, especially in these days of austerity? One small deal in the life of a local “developer”. There appears to be nothing unusual in this way of maximising profit and stashing it overseas but it does nothing for the city.

Sup With A Long Spoon

The spin doctors for the Liverpool mayor had a tricky week. Their task was to reconcile what might be considered irreconcilable. I am thinking of the message put out in their master’ voice concerning the mayoral line on the Cammell Laird’s dispute. Prior to this and in Trumpian fashion, the mayor had not been able to help himself in pontificating on the dispute. Never mind the fact that it is a dispute not in Liverpool ; nor perhaps should we worry overmuch that in normal circumstances, one would expect the Wirral leader to lead on this, with the active support of Members of Parliament. Such niceties have never bothered Mayor Anderson in the past.

What struck me was the careful wording used by the spin doctors.  Knowing that Unite and others were well aware of the true situation, they wished to square the circle between the mayor’s ostentatious support for the striking workers and his repeated support for Peel in their many local enterprises. The email sent to Labour Party members blithely commented that Peel “owned the land (where the shipyard is) and are a major shareholder”. It is almost as if Peel are casual bystanders in the matter. In fact, Peel  OWN  Cammell Laird’s through one of the many companies in the Peel group. Profits from the yard end up in the personal trust of John Whittaker, billionaire owner of the web of Peel companies, a man who is more of a land speculator than a shipbuilder.

Mayor Anderson appears to be doing all that he can to assist Peel in realising its Liverpool Waters investment (with a little help from Everton FC). As many will be aware, he has already bent over backwards to aid Peel in and around Prince’s Dock (not originally part of the Liverpool Waters fantasy).  In addition, one of the mayor’s financial misjudgements has been to invest in Peel-owned Liverpool Airport without the kind of scrutiny appropriate to the commitment of public money. This is the danger of dancing with the devil sometimes masquerading as a developer when they are, in fact, simple get-rich- quick merchants.

This was brought home with brutal clarity when “developer” Nigel Russell walked away from court this week when the case against him collapsed. The key witness against him was a senior council officer who was a convicted benefit fraudster. Naturally, he challenged her credibility and the CPS decided that they had no chance of securing a conviction, despite the huge concerns about Mr Russell and his activities in the city. It goes to show what can happen when you sup with the devil, but it also begs the question as to how Liverpool Council employed someone of doubtful probity in a key job. Once again, due diligence is an irrelevant phrase within the LCC.

I note too the repeated prominence of late of two other locally based “developers” – Elliot Lawless and Lawrence Kenwright. Whilst the former seems to be buying up the derelict sites deserted by the North Point Global con artists, the latter has spread his wings as far afield as Cardiff and Belfast whilst maintaining his high profile on Merseyside. Both are close to the mayor, and both appear to have come out of nowhere to success. They are well worth a study. Mr Kenwright was a bankrupt who has essentially become a property speculator. A trip to Companies House will show that his parent company pays its two directors a modest amount (the directors are Mr Kenwright and his wife). Their income as the two shareholders in the company, however, is very substantial – several hundred thousands of pounds as dividends. More than enough to pay off debts to HMRC if they so chose to do so. In the case of their contracting company, they chose not to, and, as a result, that part of their empire was wound up in July last in the High Court.

Mr Lawless is interesting in other ways. He began a few years ago – he is only in his early thirties – and rapidly rose up the developers’ ladder. Perhaps he is most notable for some of the local personalities he chose to both liaise with and to do business with. It is an old cliché that one cannot choose one’s family, but one can certainly choose one’s friends and business associates. Naturally, we must all be glad if derelict development sites are brought back on stream when they have been junked. However, the same cautionary note must be sounded if we are ever to clean out the more pernicious players bedevilling our city-region.