Statutory regulation a ‘very slippery slope’ for Britain’s free press

With the Leveson Inquiry findings imminent, Peter Preston, a former editor of the Guardian, has claimed that statutory regulation of the press would be a ‘very slippery slope’ to political interference in Britain’s media.

newspaper-photo-1Speaking at a special lecture at St John’s College in Durham, Mr Preston expressed fears of the consequences for the British press if it were to become subject to a regulatory body backed by statute.

He claimed that such regulation would endanger free editorial judgement and would give politicians the power to change any regulatory code in future to suit their own interests.

Instead he advocated an ‘upgraded’ Press and Complaints Commission (PCC), a body he helped to set-up, which would have an investigatory arm, a whistle-blowing hotline and powers to impose fines for transgressions. Mr Preston said that such an idea had wide support in the British press.

Mr Preston illustrated his point with reference to the BBC, arguing that too strong legal oversight could lead to the suppression of important news stories.

He cited the MPs’ expenses scandal and the phone-hacking scandal, the two biggest public interest stories of recent times, as instances where the BBC could not have broken either story because each required paying a middleman a fee to obtain crucial, confidential information. Mr Preston feared that similar future journalistic discoveries would be endangered in a world of overbearing statutory regulation.

Mr Preston also used the lecture to question the proportionality of the Leveson Inquiry. Without doubting the gravity of the offence of phone-hacking, he wondered whether an 18 month inquiry into the practice and wider press culture was an appropriate reaction to the situation.

In the same vein he criticised what he saw as a culture of knee-jerk responses to crises in British public life. He said that greater use of common sense, and not the passing of regulatory laws, was the solution to restoring faith in Britain’s public institutions.

And giving his prediction on the expected fallout of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, Mr Preston said that politicians would most likely ‘thrash out a consensus’ on reform before presenting it to the press for negotiation. He predicted that this consensus would not match exactly the Leveson formula but the politicians would eventually ‘cook up’ something that ‘may or may not be good.’

Lord Justice Leveson is expected to present his findings in the coming days. Further information on the Leveson Inquiry can be found at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk.

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 20th November 2012 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=30324

Speaking out for the disabled

Baroness Masham of Ilan, a champion of disability causes and health reform in the House of Lords, gave a moving address to students from Durham’s political societies last week.

Baroness-Masham-photo-1Speaking passionately about the issues facing the disabled in Britain today, Baroness Masham praised the positive reforms of the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act of 1970 but said that much remained to be done to tackle discrimination against disability in society.

She identified a lack of assistance on public transport and financial cuts to tailored employment programmes as just two of the key areas in which the disabled suffered in society today.

Baroness Masham also described the importance of constantly raising awareness about the difficulties faced by disabled people, something she does tirelessly in the Lords and her charity work, and she encouraged all the students present to do the same.

As an example of positive change, she cited this summer’s Paralympics as a triumph in changing societal perceptions of disability and she hoped the trend would continue.

In a question and answer session after the address the cross-bench peer then shared her insights into some of the big issues currently dominating British politics.

On House of Lords reform, Baroness Masham agreed that the current Lords was too large and that many peers did very little work. But she also said it was important to have a wide range of interests represented in Parliament which was helped by a sizeable second chamber.

Concerning reforms to the NHS, she expressed fears about the effects of closing some A + E departments and the prospect of a return of a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. Baroness Masham also admitted that working on amending the government’s new health legislation had been one of her major tasks this year.

She spoke in favour of Britain’s current assisted suicide laws, saying that the potential danger of economic pressures encouraging the vulnerable elderly to end their lives early made any change in the law unadvisable. She also praised Britain’s standing in the EU but agreed that Britain’s financial contribution to Europe shouldn’t increase.

Jonathan Duell, political officer of the Durham University Conservative Association (DUCA) and one of the organisers of the address, said: ’The DUCA team was delighted when Baroness Masham accepted our invitation to come and speak at Durham, but we didn’t anticipate the full extent of her unparalleled insight into the realm of the politics of disability.

‘She spoke not only with the authority of a veteran Parliamentarian but also with the intimacy granted by lifelong experience of representing the views of all Britons in spite of personal adversity.

‘Perhaps the most compelling message from Baroness Masham’s address was this: although disability presents many challenges, it also offers the opportunity for a unique perspective on life’s many struggles, seen in the countless instances of success in the face of impairment – of which Baroness Masham is undeniably a fine example.’

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 15th November 2012 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=30012

Real tapas in Durham? You better believe it…

After a sun-kissed month in Madrid this summer delighting in the delicacies of Iberian cuisine, it was with a heavy heart that I returned to the grey North-East and the prospect of student cooking and bog standard English fare.

madrid2Indeed, I was only two mouthfuls through a plate of own-brand beans on soggy toast and already I was pining again for the tastes of Spain.

Paella, gazpacho, jamon serrano… such treats seemed all so distant now as I looked bleakly at my cupboard full of Tesco value tins and Uncle Ben’s rice. I’d try my best to recreate a little bit of Spanish magic at home – an ill-fated tortila de patatas being my first and only attempt – but alas my cooking skills proved woefully inadequate.

What to do? How to banish my withdrawal symptoms and satisfy that craving for one more experience of la cocina española? Fortunately I was in luck.

As all Durham foodies will know, nestled on the high street between Market Square and the Cathedral is La Tasca, a tapas bar that offers all the signature dishes of the Iberian Peninsula. It was here that I found hope of getting that one last fix of Spanish cuisine before resigning myself to an inevitable fate of Michaelmas microwave meals and bland pasta dishes.

But walking through the doors of La Tasca I still had my doubts. Would it be a disappointment? Could you really find a real taste of Spain in the heart of Durham? Or would it be a pale imitation of the real thing?

I needn’t have worried. The tapas at La Tasca were excellent, a mix of bold flavours and Spanish flair wonderfully washed down with a caraf of ice-cold sweet sangria. Better still, the portion sizes were slightly larger than the tapas you might find in Madrid (who said the English couldn’t do something right?) and hence it was great value for money.

If you ever get the chance to go to La Tasca then here’s a list of my top recommended tapas, complete with a bit of cultural background that you can use to pass yourself off as a connoisseur of all things Iberian.

la-tasca-durham-1-500x333Paella – this is a world-famous classic of Spanish cuisine and should be your starting point if you’re new to tapas. Be it cooked with seafood, meat or a mixture of both, paella is a delightful dish of saffron sticky rice and vegetables.

It’s traditionally cooked in great big dishes and for many Spaniards is the staple of a lazy Sunday lunch with the family. It can also be a source of fierce regional pride; ask a Valencian and they’ll tell you that real paella can only be found in their region, where the qualities of the water are said to give it its distinctive flavour. Indeed, I’ve been fortunate enough to try paella in Valencia and they have a point!

But to the uninitiated this shouldn’t be a worry. Paella is awesome full stop and it’d be a culinary crime not to give it a try.

Croquetas – you’ll find these in lots of different cultures but the Spaniards do particularly mean croquetas as a tapas dish. They’re little fried breadcrumbed rolls usually filled with potato, ham or cheese. The best croquetas will simply melt in your mouth and are unfailingly moreish.

A word of warning though – they may be small but they’re deceptively filling so be sure to savour every bite!

Calamares – don’t be fooled by their ‘onion ring’ style appearance, calamares are in fact fried squid in batter and are another hot favourite on the tapas scene. When in Madrid I got some envious looks on the underground as I tucked into a baguette filled with calamares. And who could blame them? Try calamares with a dash of lemon and they’re a treat.

Gazpacho – perhaps not best appreciated in Durham, gazpacho is a refreshing tomato-based soup-style dish widely popular in Spain. The locals usually have it chilled to cool off after a day in the sun. Of course you won’t get these benefits in the North East but it’s still tasty all the same and full of vitamins.

Tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) – good, wholesome, simple: tortilla de patatas embodies the best of no-frills Spanish cuisine and a tapas outing would be incomplete without it. It’s essentially a large omelette made with potatoes and onion, fried in olive oil. You can have it hot or cold and it goes great with gazpacho or salad.

Churros – strictly speaking these don’t count as tapas but I just couldn’t leave them out. Churros are rings of fried, crunchy pastry that you dip in thick hot chocolate and to a sweet-toothed simpleton like myself they’re irresistible. They’re particularly popular amongst club-goers in Madrid as a post night-out snack, the Spanish answer to the kebab if you will. More conventionally though you’ll see people eating them in cafes in the morning before work. La Tasca offers churros as a dessert and they’re a perfect way to round off a taste of Spain in Durham.

¡Buen provecho!

Published in The Bubble, Durham’s Online Magazine, 1st November 2012 – http://www.thebubble.org.uk/food/real-tapas-in-durham-you-better-believe-it