A flag-lowering ceremony was held today in Basra to mark the official end of combat operations in Iraq.

But as British troops, 179 of which have died and countless more have been wounded, come home questions must once again be raised over what our troops were doing in Iraq in the first place.

British troops in Iraq (Photo: Flickr - creative commons)

British troops in Iraq (Photo: Flickr - Creative Commons - Liberal Democrats)

Arguably, the nation was deceived by Tony Blair’s Government into believing that there was a strong case for war in Iraq, based on the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction. 

Now, six years on and after no WMD have been found, many people seem happy to let the matter rest when a proper inquiry into the war should be well underway.

Granted, the government has announced that an inquiry will take place this summer, but it is unlikely to match the comprehensive nature of the Franks Committee investigation that looked into the 1992 Falklands Conflict. 

Someone should surely be held accountable for  deliberately misleading the country into believing that Iraq possessed weapons capable of threatening the UK and the investigation should start straight away, instead of being delayed to reduce its force and relevance. 

And, although the national outcry into the manner in which war was entered into has died down, there are certainly many people who feel that the time is right for a proper investigation.

Surely, a full, frank and independent investigation into the war is the least that British troops deserve after years of dangerous operations in Iraq.

State of Play

Russell Crowe at the State of Play premiere (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Andre Portfolio)

Russell Crowe at the State of Play premiere (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Andre Portfolio)

It’s refreshing to see a film like ‘State of Play’ go straight to the top of the box office in the UK, not just because it’s a bloody good film (which is rare these days), but because, perhaps more unusually, it portrays journalists in a positive light.

Russell Crowe plays  Cal McCaffrey , a crusading journalist of the old school, dogged in his pursuit of a story and determined to expose injustice.  I imagine that for many journalists McCaffrey represents someone we all aspired to be when we decided to become reporters.

Certainly, when I settled upon reporting for a career, I firmly believed that journalism, at its heart, was all about performing a public service.

However, this is something which many reporters, myself included, seem to have forgotten about these days.  With the advent of the internet and the increased competition for readers’ attention, we routinely resort to exaggerating or even misleading the public to sex up a story and thus increase circulation.

It is no wonder then that, aside from ‘All the President’s Men’, hacks are regularly portrayed in film as ruthless, distrustful individuals.

But if professional journalism is going to survive the advent of the internet, it is imperative that reporters return to these journalistic principles.

Rumours and gossip abound on the internet, but good journalism is expensive and requires hard work and effort.

It is only by proving our worth as accurate and reliable sources of news that readers, confronted with a multitude of news sources on the internet, will continue to buy papers and thus continue to fund our trade.

Oh dear.  Things just keep getting worse for Gordon Brown.  The budget, which wasn’t exactly a roaring success, has been and gone and ‘Smeargate’ and the Jacqui Smith expenses scandal have severely dented his government’s credibility.

But just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse for our embattled PM, his proposed reform of the Parliamentary expenses system has failed to win any support in the House of Commons. 

Gordon Brown: Smiling, but for how much longer? (Photo: Flickr: creative commons - World Economic Form)

Gordon Brown: Smiling, but for how much longer? (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - World Economic Form)

Not that this should surprise anyone: the plans, which would have enabled MPs to clock in each day to prove that they were in Westminster, would in some cases have enabled MPs to claim more than they do under the present system.

What is most embarrassing for the Prime Minister, however, is the speed with which the scheme has been rejected by many Labour backbench MPs.  It is this that signals that even his own party has now all but given up on him.

After a succession of damaging revelations and a poor budget, it finally appears that Gordon Brown has lost all credibility. 

Whilst even three months ago it was by no means certain that the Conservatives would come to power in the next General Election as they floundered around to offer the public viable alternatives to Labour’s economic policies, now it seems more and more likely that David Cameron will be our next Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown and his cabinet have done all the work for the Conservatives.  Indeed, the Conservatives have had to do very little to destabilise the present Labour government:  They have certainly not announced any policies of note in recent months which have given the public any greater confidence in their ability to govern.

Despite this, however, there has been a subtle change in the attitude of the mass media and the public over the past two or three weeks in relation to the Conservatives.

Now a Tory election victory suddenly seems almost inevitable.

The outbreak of what is potentially a pandemic of deadly swine flu is obviously both an alarming and tragic event, but are government’s around the world doing enough to stop it from developing into a global crisis? 

The rapid spread of the virus from Mexico, which has already killed 86 people, with cases suspected as far afield as Israel and Scotland, is cause for considerable worldwide concern and naturally governments around the globe, including the UK are preparing for the worst.

Precautions are being taken in Mexico to halt the spread of the virus (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Sarihuella)

Precautions are being taken in Mexico to halt the spread of the virus (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Sarihuella)

 But in an age when the proliferation of viruses is increased manifold by the ease with which people can now travel around the world, the question must be asked, why have commercial flights into and out of Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak, not been restricted or cancelled?

Surely taking more stringent precautionary measures to quarantine the most severely affected regions is the most logical course of action to stop this turning into an international disaster?

Today, Michael Gove revealed Tory plans to turn thousands of primary schools into independent, state-funded academies if David Cameron wins the next General Election.

The ambitious plans, which would be implemented within two years of a Conservative election victory, would represent sweeping reform of the primary school education.

Accusing Gordon Brown of  “slow strangulation” of the academy programme Gove said:
 “we are carrying forward the Blair agenda in education to where he would have wanted to take it.”
Michael Gove (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons -Steve Punter)

Michael Gove (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons -Steve Punter)

Whilst these plans have been criticised in some quarters for being ill-thought out and signalling a move towards deregulation and consequently social segregation, it has to be said that these plans may well have an extremely positive impact on British education.

City academies, the brainchild of Tony Blair, have been successful in turning around under-performing schools in disadvantaged areas.  At a time when, according to the Tories at least, 34,000 11-year-olds have a reading age below that expected of a six year old and a lack of education is thought to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of violent youth crime, these plans are to be applauded.

Children from disadvantaged areas and who lack an education face incredible obstacles on the path to a successful career and many end up ‘falling off the rails’.  A good and comprehensive education must start when children are young, and I firmly believe that primary school education plays a vitally important role in child development.

Any moves to implement much-needed education reform, despite the dire economic crisis, must be welcomed and are imperative if we are to ensure that a generation of British school children is not failed by our education system.

Budget 2009

Today’s much heralded budget was, well, a bit of an anticlimax really.  Commentators who said that this was a make-or-break day for Alistair Darling and Labour will, most likely, conclude that the Chancellor did not succeed in delivering a budget that will pull the UK out of recession.

Alistair Darling: Bearer of bad news (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - HM Treasury)

Alistair Darling: Bearer of bad news (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - HM Treasury)

The Times, quite rapidly it must be said, certainly came to this conclusion early this afternoon and the Telegraph soon followed suit.  Darling, it seems, has not fulfilled the expectations of a nation. 

Indeed, many of the announcements made today indicate that the Government has almost admitted defeat in the face of the global slowdown.  Certainly, the 50% tax on the highest earners will do little to improve the economic situation and comes across as a token effort on behalf of Labour to clamp down on some of the City Boys who helped get us into this mess.

However, despite David Cameron’s clear derision for Labour’s plan for healing the financial wounds of the country, the depth and scale of the crisis and inability of leaders around the globe, not just Gordon Brown, to implement a workable strategy to bring the world out of recession suggests that a Tory government would not do much better.

Interestingly, both yesterday and today The Times has led on an investigation into the Paula Gilfoyle murder case.  On Friday, the paper revealed that it has uncovered fresh evidence which suggests that the original murder conviction of her husband Paul Gilfoyle, made 17 years ago, is unsafe. 

Yesterday's front page

Yesterday's front page

Today, as a result of the piece, the CPS have announced that they will review the original judgement in light of The Times’ discovery of what appears to be considerable police malpractice and negligence during the original murder investigation.

Some of my fellow journalism students expressed surprise that the paper led with this story; after all, the investigation didn’t make for the most visually arresting front page yesterday, carrying as it did a poor quality photo of Paul and Paula Gilfoyle on their wedding day.  But, from my perspective of a young reporter trying to crack into the nationals, I find it comforting that The Times decided to give this story such prominence.

Firstly, special investigations such as this one certainly aren’t cheap: they are time-consuming exercises which won’t always produce anything particularly newsworthy.  In an age when papers are increasingly cutting back on investigative journalism, it’s good to see that The Times is still willing to invest time and effort in a story like this and have the confidence to give it so much space in the paper (two double-spreads and two front pages).

The story also demonstrates just how powerful newspapers can be in their capacity as the so-called ‘Fourth Estate’.  If what The Times has revealed is true, than the original investigation into Paula’s murder was obviously extremely dodgy and a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred.  As today’s CPS decision demonstrates, papers can be incredibly influential and, as long as that power is put to good use, they certainly continue to perform an important function in our society.

Everyone is blogging these days (Photo: Flickr; Creative Commons - Viki's Pics)

Everyone is blogging these days (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Viki's Pics)

Well, it’s official.  The power and importance of blogging has finally been acknowledged by the mainstream media.  At least, that’s the conclusion I have drawn from this week’s Sunday Times feature on the top 100 blogs.  Alas, mine has failed to make into the article (I won’t take that personally) but despite this oversight the feature does make for interesting reading, partly because of some of the sites it recommends.  Of course, the obligatory celebrity blogs do appear, with the likes of Lily Allen and Paris Hilton winning predictable places on the list.  But there are other, more valuable gems, recommended by the paper. The chine.blog.lemonde.fr photoblog provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in China and the Agence Vu site also offers netsurfers a visual feast of fantastic photography. 

 What is most interesting, however, is the explicit way in which the article promotes blogging as a valuable form of communication whilst also implicitly re-affirming the importance of traditional journalism.

What do I mean (I hear you cry)?  Well, you wouldn’t find a blogger trying to do what the writer, Brian Appleyard, has done in the Sunday Times article.  You would never find a two thousand word article espousing the appeal of blogging followed by an enormously detailed and illustrated list of websites online because blogging doesn’t lend itself to such lengthy musings.  Blogging is, as Appleyard notes, the “spontaneous expression of instant thought”.  The article, by its very existence, demonstrates that there is still both purpose to and room for  long-form journalism, whether it is in a paper or on a news website, which has lost none of its value despite the rise of the blog.


On another note,  the Sunday Times also carried a very interesting article on the Asian investments of Robert and Grace Mugabe, which was one of the better examples of newspaper investigative journalism I have read this year.  This is  partly because of the energy and detail with which the topic had been researched, but also because it demonstrated that journalists these days aren’t afraid to get into a scrap or two in pursuit of a bloody good story.

Pigeon smuggler

This has to be the funniest and most bizarre story I have read so far this week.  A man flying from Dubai to Australia was found to have two pigeons stuffed in his trousers by customs officials in Melbourne. Australian customs officials say the live birds were wrapped in padded envelopes and held to the man’s legs by a pair of tights under his trousers. Officials also found two eggs in a vitamin container in the man’s luggage. 

A pigeon, in case you'd forgotten what they look like (Photo; Flickr: Creative Commons - Wolfpix)

A pigeon, in case you'd forgotten what they look like (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Wolfpix)

 I’ve been trying to think of a pun to go with this for the last, well, 10 minutes, but haven’t got any further than ‘pigeon post’ (because they were wrapped in envelopes, rubbish, I know…).  Conspicuous by its absence is the reason why he attempted to smuggle the pigeons into Australia.  Were they his friends? Lovers? Perhaps we’ll never know.  Hmm, maybe we don’t want to know either!

The BBC gallantly devoted a good two thirds of tonight’s 10 o’clock News to comprehensive, dare I say excessive coverage of the snow storm that has descended upon Britain ….well, some of Britain, it’s not quite reached my Mother yet. 
(Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Paolo Camera)

(Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Paolo Camera)

Now, whilst I really am no expert on how severe these “adverse weather conditions” (as TFL insisted on calling it this morning, perhaps because snow sounded a bit lame) actually are, but the BBC coverage tonight really did seem to scrap the barrel. 

(Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Carlo Nicora)

(Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons - Carlo Nicora)

Tomorrow, according to one reporter, passengers from London airports “can expect some delays”, perhaps one of the more speculative and pointlessly inane observations I have seen a BBC reporter make in all of my twenty-two years.  Another video package included, for the Great British Public’s viewing pleasure, a cockney making the magnificently sweeping statement: “it’s worse than a third world country today” whilst describing the conditions in the capital.  Has this anonymous gentleman ever been to a third world country?  Now, even though I haven’t, I’m pretty sure they’re worse than London on a chillier-than-normally February morning. 

Was there really nothing else interesting to report today?  Is it just me or was this some of the most banal coverage of what is frankly a banal news story.  I know that the weather conditions do indeed have direct relevance to the people of Britain, but couldn’t it have been covered with a bit more tongue in cheek, instead of having a shivering reporter inform me that the snow that fell today could turn to ice tomorrow.  I mean, come on…