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News Comment
a personal view from Erithacus

22nd November 2003 

Stock markets fell on Monday, but the week was set to turn from bad to worse as the FTSE100 index never really showed any real sign of reaching the previous week’s levels, fell heavily on Thursday morning with news of the terrorist bombings in Turkey, and finished at Friday’s close 78 points down at 4319.

Despite the falls, some analysts felt that the mood on Friday was optimistic with the FTSE100 climbing back hesitantly from its low of just under 4280 on Thursday afternoon, and in the U.S. market analysts were talking about "a sustainable economic rally" and "a robust rebound". However, this week’s falls in both the UK and the U.S. have left the levels of most of the major indexes virtually unchanged from a month ago, and the nervousness of investors and traders about the effect of terrorist threats, the uncertain economic outlook, and recent falls in the value of the dollar against other currencies is all too apparent.

With U.S. markets having a shortened trading week for the Thanksgiving holiday, London stock markets are not expected to show any major movement. "As long as there are no more terrorist attacks, " said one trader, "We can probably look forward to another gentle rise for share prices on Monday." The comment came before today’s news of the storming of the parliament in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia by opposition supporters.

 



The fiasco of the 118 telephone directory enquiries service hit a new high this week when Thus announced it intended to pull out of the business, following a survey by Oftel that found the Thus service on 118355 was the worst of all the services for residential numbers with only 33% of calls being given the right number.

It could well be argued that Thus has nothing to worry about. After all, Oftel’s survey revealed that over all the providers of the new service only 62% of callers were in fact given the right number and in many cases the service was more expensive than calling the former service operated by BT.

The public too, seem to be unimpressed by the new services, with seven out of ten people found to favour a return to a single-provider 192 service and figures for calls made to the new services showing that many consumers prefer not to use any of them if they can possibly avoid it. 

I blame the advertisements.

 



A favourite subject of mine, as anyone who has read a good few of these newscomment pages will know, is the advice given to us by experts.

Perhaps, then, it will be no surprise to learn that I smiled more than a little when I read today’s newspapers to discover it is no longer safe to stay OUT of the sun if you want to avoid cancer. In a complete reversal to years of insisting we all need to cover ourselves up and avoid exposure to strong sunlight, the experts are apparently now saying we stand much more risk of developing cancer if we do not expose our skin, unprotected, to strong sunlight on a regular basis.

It is not that simple, of course, and the varying reports in the newspapers tell only a part of the story which is all to do with types of cancer, vitamin manufacture by the action of sunlight on the skin and so on. I will not attempt to spoil a good story by trying to explain all the details which no doubt can be found by a little detailed research, even if most of the journalists and writers, like me, prefer the "good story" angle.

Another one to follow the "eat eggs : don’t eat eggs : do eat eggs", the "it’s getting drier : it’s getting wetter", and, of course, the "we know what we’re talking about: we’re experts"?

 



I wanted to write about George Bush in London, or perhaps his first taste of mushy peas at the Dun Cow pub in Sedgefield.


I thought about writing some words about the terrible bombings in Turkey, or to take a look at the on-going threat of terrorist attacks against British interests around the world.


 

I considered a short piece about Michael Jackson, and perhaps some comments on whether he really is just the little boy who never grew up.


 

Yet, somehow, not one of these worthy stories seemed to merit my attention. They have, after all, been discussed, dissected and dismembered ad nauseam by those with far more knowledge of them than I can possibly pretend. Not, I have to say, that I would normally be prevented from expressing my opinion on any subject merely by being aware of my own limited knowledge, but in this week when no newspaper has been short of a ground-shaking story I feel there are two particular events which have passed almost unnoticed and yet claw at the very foundations of British tradition.

Firstly, and most importantly, I hear that our Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has succeeded in his aim of legislating against one of our time-honoured traditions which forms an important part of London’s culture and has been enjoyed by Londoners, visitors and tourists alike.

Since Monday 17th November it has been illegal to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and to do so now risks prosecution and a £50 fine.

To make matters worse, Ken Livingstone is spending £55,000 a year for the services of a Harris’ hawk, a large bird of prey described by one newspaper as "a kind of airborne T rex.... with a beak that could open beer bottles and claws like antlers.... which swoops around the square and rips pigeons to pieces." Lovely. And this from a man opposed to foxhunting.

You may wonder, perhaps, who is the real pest here.

Secondly, I read that the fall of one of the great bastions of the British Empire will soon be upon us. More shocking even than a ban on feeding Trafalgar Square’s pigeons and this time thrust upon us by a "Captain of Industry" rather than by an obsessed and demented politician, two hundred and eighteen years of tradition are about to topple as The Times newspaper launches itself as a tabloid.

Ripples of amazement spread outwards to the furthest corners of the former empire on Friday when the announcement was made, and mutterings of anger echoed around The City, throughout the land and even further afield. There were even distinct tremblings to be seen in many normally stiff upper lips, even though the broadsheet edition will continue to be printed - at least for the moment.

"It is not tabloid," insisted the newspaper’s editor Robert Thomson. "It is the same size as a tabloid, but it will bring the values and the content of the broadsheet to its new shape."

Right. Of course it will. And it will be a more convenient size in which to wrap up the bloody fragments of mutilated pigeon falling from the sky all over Trafalgar Square, won’t it? 

22nd November 2003                        

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