Issue 167: 2018 08 30: Lens on the Week

30 August 2018

Lens on the Week

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UK

GCSE GRADES:  This year’s GCSE results show an improvement on last year, with both passes and what are now passes at level 7 up by 0.5%.  That sounds good on the face of it, particularly bearing in mind that the exams were slightly harder this year, but much may be concealed behind the figures.  For example, The Times has exposed widespread manipulation of results by schools expelling pupils who were unlikely to succeed.  If the results from particular schools have been flattered in this way, the national results must have been flattered to.  What are we all, and particularly employers, to make of it, or indeed the suggestion that University degrees are the subject of grade inflation?  One possibility would be to change the basis of all grades so that, whatever the exam, the proportion of students who achieved a particular grade was fixed.  For example a University would award firsts to the top 20% of the students on a course regardless of the quality of the overall entry.  That would remove grade inflation and give employers a secure basis for comparing performance.  It would not tell you whether the standard as a whole was improving but that is not really a problem.  The marks awarded could be used to produce that information separately.

IRANIAN PRISONER:  It cannot be pleasant to be a political pawn and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, now sick and back in an Iranian prison following a three day release, has certainly had the rough end of it.  As the press debates whether the replacement of Boris by Jeremy Hunt has somehow softened the Iranians, it is important to keep reality in mind.  To Iran, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is simply an asset in a game of chess at the centre of which is Britain’s support for the non-proliferation/sanctions deal now renounced by the US.  Iran is desperate to break the sanctions blockade and will do everything it can to prevent the UK, and other European countries, from following the American example.  Any decision as to when to release Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe will relate to the way in which they can exploit their asset and will have nothing whatsoever to do with sympathy for her position, dislike of Boris, love of Jeremy Hunt or anything of that sort.

THE SHIT ON THE SHOE:  Sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t quite get rid of it and Mr Corbyn  must feel like that about the anti-Semitism row.  With every turn it seems to get nastier, the respected Lord Sacks comparing Mr Corbyn’s utterances to Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.  The trouble is that each time we shrug our shoulders at one disclosure another comes up and it now seems that Mr Corbyn has used anti-Semitic sneers in the past.  He shouldn’t have, of course, but we still need to question how deep this goes.  Many people use unpleasant abuse in the heat of debate, but it is no more than that: just “abuse”, and we should be wary about reading it too deeply.  Still, ever ready to pour petrol on the fire, Labour’s National Executive Committee are said by the influential Skwawkbox site to be considering penalties for those making anti-semitic accusations for factual reasons.  That would certainly release the furies.  Unwise perhaps, but great theatre.

International

USA:  President Trump’s reaction to the death of Senator John McCain was predictably grudging and as unsteadfast as many of the president’s other recent communications (would/wouldn’t).  At first he declined to pay his respects to the memory of a man widely considered to be a hero for his life of selfless service to the USA in the armed forces and in the Capital, but restricted his declarations to sympathy for the McCain family; he relented only days later, after much widespread criticism, and eventually announced respect for the fellow Republican who had nevertheless been a political adversary.  The Stars and Stripes flag on the White House was lowered to half-mast on Saturday but prematurely raised on Sunday; it was lowered again following complaints from the American Legion.

Mr McCain was the senior senator for Arizona; the governor of Arizona will nominate a replacement, pending elections in two years time.  The junior senator for Arizona, Republican Jeff Flake, recently quit his position following conflict with the president; the selection of the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate who will contest the vacated seat in forthcoming elections is underway.  A Trump supporter is likely to win the Republican candidature; but it seems that this may hand victory in the election to the Democrat’s candidate, as many Republicans may then choose to change party allegiance.  Arizona has had Republican senators for more than twenty years; but a victory for the Democrats would leave them only one seat short of a majority in the Senate.

President Trump attacked Google via Twitter, claiming that it manipulates its searches to prioritise ‘bad news’ about the president.  Only five weeks ago he praised Google as “one of our great companies”.

BURMA:  The United Nations International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that Burma’s commander-in-chief and other senior generals should prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for their actions against the country’s Rohinga Muslims.

The UN reported on crimes against humanity including arson, murder and mass rape, concluding that the army deliberately committed such atrocities to drive the Rohingya out of the country.  Last year, hundreds of Rohingya villages were burned to the ground, at least 10,000 civilians were murdered and 725,000 were forced from their homes.

The report also criticised the country’s civilian leader, Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to oppose the military’s actions.

It remains to be seen what action, if any, the international community will take to pursue the course of justice urged by this report.

Financial 

TRANSPORTS OF DELIGHT:  Boardroom battles are always a good source of entertainment – so long as you are not involved.  For the sake of those slugging it out at Stobart Group, we are pleased to report that the protracted struggle there  may be drawing to a close.  There is no space here for the history of what has gone on at Stobart – which does not operate the famous trucks (still owned by the Stobart family), but runs a logistics and transport business which includes Southend Airport.  Iain Ferguson will continue as chief executive and ousted chief executive Andrew Tinkler will not return to the board, but a number of changes and promotions will be made to bring Michael Williamson up as Finance Director, at least for the time being, (replacing Richard Laycock who has left).  Also appointed is a new Chief Operating Officer in the person of Nick Dilworth, currently commercial head.  Ginny Pulbrook, partner at the PR firm Camarco will join as a non-executive.  However, Mr Ferguson has agreed to leave by the end of this year and a search is already underway for his replacement.  Whether this will satisfy Mr Tinkler, who is a significant shareholder in the business, remains to be seen, but the company hopes it may – and it will please the other shareholders.

COMING DOWN THE ROAD:  Eighteen months ago it looked as though driverless cars would be with us by now; but following a sluice of legal questions and some nasty accidents, it looks as though it could be a long time before all the problems surrounding them are solved.  That though is not putting off Uber whose taxi service would be able to make some major savings if it could dispense with drivers altogether.  And they seem to have persuaded car maker Toyota that their vision is feasible – Toyota have just agreed to invest US$500m in researching the necessary systems (they committed a small stake in 2016) in pursuance of Toyota’s aim to change from a car maker to a transportation systems company.

COMING DOWN THE RUNWAY (AT LAST):  Ryanair created the modern airline industry by ruthlessly cutting fares – and costs.  This summer that policy has gone a bit wrong with endless strikes disrupting schedules, whilst the airline improves revenue by new extra minor charges.  But at least the flights might soon be back to normal – the Italian pilots have agreed to end their strikes and the Irish ones are rumoured to be about to do the same.

UNDER AND OVER:  A small ray of encouragement for those who would like to see much quicker roll out of fast broadband across the UK.  Virgin Media won its case against Durham County Council who were seeking substantial fees for use of council controlled verges and land to lay cables in the county.  Now Virgin has a blanket consent to use such land for a nominal payment, a precedent which it hopes will encourage other local authorities to open up public land to enable the connection of communities to modern fibre cable systems without undue costs or councils profiting from it.  Virgin have a target of connecting 4 million homes by 2020 – they are at 1.3m of that target so far and say that removal of this obstacle should allow substantial acceleration of their programme – and those of their competitors. From a consumer perspective it should enable the much faster connection of many smaller towns and suburban communities, so a real benefit for the private customer and smaller businesses, but it does not solve the problem of more remote villages and rural users.

 

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