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Hugo Rifkind

Another good idea goes the way of all wheezes

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

Coercing the long-term unemployed into work placements is not a stupid idea. Nobody thinks it is. And by ‘nobody’ in this context, I mean Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, and Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, and they’re pretty much the only people worth listening to. Doubtless, quite a few of the actual long-term unemployed have differing views. But they would, wouldn’t they?

I’ll tell you what is a stupid idea, though. Telling a woman who already has a work placement in a museum that she has to quit it and go and do one in Poundland is a stupid idea. And telling a trained mechanic that he has to spend six months polishing furniture is another stupid idea. This week, a panel of judges ruled that two people who had been in just these situations were wronged. Clearly, they were. As a result, a plethora of left-wing voices who have been shrieking about ‘slavery’ for the past couple of years feel vindicated. But they haven’t been. It’s immensely vexing.

It’s a cock-up, but it’s not a unique cock-up. So many coalition failures have this shape. Worried that much disability benefit goes to people who don’t deserve it? That’s an argument you can win. Outsource its removal to a firm that gets it wrong more than a third of the time, with horrendous consequences? Oh look, you lost it. Announce you want universities to charge fees commensurate with the education they offer? Great idea! Blithely let them charge any damn amount they fancy? You look like fools. Fancy elected mayors? Cheer! Do nothing whatsoever about it? Boo, disgrace, disarray.

I could go on. In fact, I will. In the past three years this government has executed U-turns over new exam papers they didn’t manage to write in time, a new military budget based on an aeroplane nobody had invented yet, and a radical restructuring of the NHS based on GPs doing exactly what Andrew Lansley wanted them to, of their own volition, for no reason at all.

I’m all for big ideas. They excite me, geek that I am. But under this lot, they always fall apart. They leave their cheerleaders intellectually stranded, as the point-men for farce. Get it together, guys. Just for once, do the bloody legwork.

Leveson’s lost world

And so it begins. Or rather, it stops beginning, and starts actually happening. David -Cameron is proposing a royal charter on press regulation, turning last year’s bad idea into this year’s bad reality. This is probably preferable to regulation by politicians or judges. But it’s still daft. They’re about to regulate newspapers, and they don’t even know what newspapers are. Even newspapers don’t know what newspapers are. Because newspapers aren’t what they were.

In fairness, Leveson didn’t seem to know what journalists are either. He seemed to think they were like lawyers, with limitless resources, always able simply to bill the client. It doesn’t work like that. Maybe it almost did once, but it never will again.

In Leveson’s world, newspapers were publications with websites attached. But in the real world, increasingly, they’re the opposite. Leveson seemed to think that online voices would volunteer to be part of any future legislation, because the legal fees in case of mishap would be crippling if they weren’t. But I don’t think he ever quite grasped what online voices are. Some of them, sure, are newspapers without newspapers. Most are simply people with internet connections. They don’t expect to go to court, and they won’t take steps, beforehand, on the off chance that they do.

I wonder what he thinks of it all now, the judge. Whether he looks back with pride, or with a weary horror at the vastness of that which he failed to comprehend. His sidekick Robert Jay (him with the beard) seems to know that something went wrong. Speaking to the Singapore Academy of Law last month, he suggested that ISPs should be considered publishers, responsible for all content which passed through their info pipes.

Quite mad. Indeed, in the list I keep entitled ‘Deranged Things Confused Old Men Have Said About the Internet’, a system which renders, say, TalkTalk responsible for the output of every media outlet in the world (from the Daily Mirror to the Indian Express; from Netflix to Fox News; from Al-Jazeera to the Otago Daily Times) is a strong contender for the top ten. But at least he was recognising the problem. Now we’re about to have a new law — forgive me, a new royal charter — to regulate the past, while the future ploughs on regardless.

Miracle of the Pope jokes

Full marks for Catholics. Since Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down on Monday, the media has been flush with mirth at his expense. His resignation prompted cartoons in the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian (quite nice, very nice, quite nasty) and jokes across the world. The Huffington Post, indeed, ran a story entitled ‘Our Favourite Funny Papal Tweets So Far’. ‘The Pope has proved his credentials as a good Catholic,’ went my own favourite, ‘by pulling out before finishing the job.’

No fuss, though, that’s the thing. No knee-jerk outrage. Even when humour has veered into outright abuse (somebody should tell Richard Dawkins to get off Twitter; he sounds like he’s aged about nine) nobody in print or on the airwaves has seemed particularly bothered. Jews would complain, Muslims would threaten and Anglicans would join in. But Catholics seem admirably unflustered by rudeness, or uninterested in it. Quite Buddhist, really.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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