Concerned Parents March on Downing Street

In my day job, I write a weekly newsletter for the Advertising Association. This one was picked up and published by my friends and yours, at Media Week.

Today, after a year’s work, two major reports, countless meetings with government, innumerable meetings with brands, media owners and agencies, a big-hitting Leadership Panel, a raft of industry-backed measures to protect children and a lot of public debate about an issue which everyone has a different view on, concerned parents from AA towers went to No.10 to talk to the Prime Minister about advertising and children.

Mark Lund, head of the AA’s Children’s Panel, introduced the new Advertising Association guidance designed to stop companies using under 16s as brand ambassadors or in peer-to-peer marketing. Here’s the wording,  fact fans:

“Young people under the age of 16 should not be employed and directly or indirectly paid or paid-in-kind to actively promote brands, products, goods, services, causes or ideas to their peers, associates or friends.”

So that’s that then.

Nearly 20 major brands have already signed up, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Pepsico, and the pledge has been backed by Facebook and countless trade associations, many of which have written it into their codes of practice for members. If you don’t want your brand to be left behind, you need to speak to Sue or Nick, right now.

Emerging from Number 10 this evening, the AA’s Tim Lefroy said that industry’s responsive attitude to the Bailey Review agenda had been praised by the Prime Minister, who had been impressed by the speed with which it was tackling technologically complex issues like online adult content.

At the same meeting, Guy Parker from the ASA and Mike Baker – of Outdoor Media Centre fame – updated the PM on the advertising industry’s moves to restrict the use of sexualised imagery in outdoor media, particularly near schools.

The OMC has given advice to its membership (over 95% of outdoor advertisers), and offered the ability for concerned advertisers to request their work is not displayed within 100m of schools or other sensitive locations.

The ASA – advertising’s regulator – has also been busy. In conjunction with the regulatory mums and dads at other acronym-based bodies like Ofcom, the PCC, ATVOD et al, they have built a website for parents worried about the media content accessible to their children. Add ParentPort to your bookmarks page now and you can follow a step-by-step guide which shows you where to direct your complaint, or contribute to the discussion yourself.

Finally, BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin will offer new customers an ‘active choice’ as to whether to activate adult-content controls, which would screen out pornographic websites.

The Daily Mail website covered this delicate issue in its own inimitable style, placing a story on ‘internet sleaze’ next to pictures of an oiled and muscular Jodie Marsh in a bikini, an upskirt shot of Pixie Lott’s bottom and a photo of a topless Mischa Barton eating steak out a man’s hand. The steak, disgustingly, was uncooked.

As David Cameron reminded everyone today – there is still more to do. But as another Conservative Prime Minister said, undoubtedly referring to the ongoing debates around the “commercialisation and sexualisation” of childhood:

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The Cloudy Uplands

My sketch of David Cameron’s conference speech, originally written for those sinister Blairite entryists at Progress |

David Cameron went to Manchester, to talk to the people. He went there to speak about the spirit of Britain. To discuss his leadership. And your credit card. And his leadership of your credit card. But most of all, he went there to talk about the things he came into politics to change. Hacks had been briefed that this speech would set out a renewal of his political priorities. The deficit? Definitely. The economy? Of course. But this coalition was about so much more than that. It was about big ticket items. Fairness. Freedom. And diabetic drivers, free schools in Norwich, GP consortia, Ed Balls, highlighter pens, Dostoyevsky, Nigeria and cats.

Before we got into the canned meat of his speech the prime minister handed out some dog-eared jokes to delegates. Like Ed Miliband’s last week and Nick Clegg’s the week before that, these gags emerged wheezing and knackered into the stale air of the party conference hall; a perennial breeze of hot, brown guff, blown forever into the grateful faces of the assembled fish-eyed party apparatchiks, hungover journalists and sociopaths. Ken Clarke’s eyelids began to droop in protest and my heart leapt in sympathy. It was like watching paint talk.

Unabashed, Dave continued his canter through his top team. George Osborne? Ambitious. Teresa May? Feline, inexpert. And Boris? Over familiar with the ladies. He went on, but left his audience behind; at the mere mention of the Mayor, hundreds of stout Tory women shuffled excitably on their tremendous bottoms and fanned their seamy brows. The name Boris Johnson evokes a more confident Conservatism and for a moment the minds of delegates drifted back to Brighton, in 1982. There were no green trees, blue skies or gay weddings in those days. Back then, Tory leaders stalked the conference halls of seaside towns, raining scorn on weak Labour leaders, cartoon trade union barons and dreamt armies of single mothers. Young Britons would wave flags and sing songs about Argentineans. Champagne corks would pop as delegates danced patriotically. There were arms dealers and xenophobic jam stalls and nuclear-tipped shoulder pads and Willie Whitelaw. And the Liberal Democrats hadn’t even been invented.

Back in the hall, the prime minister pressed on. He wanted us to solve the problems of Britain, using our leadership, not his! Yes, there was a problem with growth – but all we needed was a small tot of the Spirit of Britain™. Not too much – Brits don’t deal sensibly with spirits – but a big enough glug to keep us warm through the forthcoming winter of discontent.

It ended, as these things must, with an imploration to come together. A reminder that Britain was a fighting dog, not a dogging fight. And a vision of slightly better country. There would be no truck with gloomsters, and no truck with optimists. It shouldn’t be raining in those economic uplands, but you’d better pack a jacket just in case. This was the promise of Britain. Let sunshine and clouds rule the day!

The Ronnie Campbell Parliamentary Question Generator Alarm Clock Radio


This week’s sketch for Progress | Originally published here, and soon to appear on the Huffington Post. Perhaps…

Before PMQs today the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, set out two choices for Ed Miliband.

First, Ed could attack from the high ground, wrestling the PM statesman-to-statesman, armed not with partisan putdowns but with the righteous anger of the people. And it would not just be the people of Tufnell Park this week; oh no Mr Cameron. Today the leader of the Labour party would make it personal for all of the people who buy Britain’s newspapers in a shop (at least a dozen) and all of the people who half-read them for free on the internet (about 12 million).

Or, James suggested, Ed Miliband could attack from below. I licked my lips. Forget worthy sentiments about the illegality of phone hacking, the plight of victims, the obstruction of justice – that’s for wimps. He should be political. A real leader of the opposition would step up to the dispatch box, toe caps winking under Commons lights, and with the lusty war cry of an angry Harriet ringing in his ears he’d arc back a long, left leg and kick the prime minister straight in his Coulson.

Nobody knew what would happen – and before the Landale Theorem of Binary Choices could be put to the test, Ronnie Campbell was on his feet. Mr Campbell and his question were confusing and magnificent. The preamble was extraordinary – touching in its tribute to the armed forces (in which his son serves) before swerving off suddenly into a knotty rhetorical thicket full of prickles and Grecian discontent. Some in the House held their breath and wondered if the question would ever end. Others wondered what the question might mean. Snotty linguists said that it wasn’t really a question at all. But we Campbell admirers who watch the Commons week in, week out already knew what Ronnie was talking about. It was about bailouts, and Greeks. But most of all, like always, it was about sacking bloody spivs. When an enterprising technician eventually builds the Ronnie Campbell Parliamentary Question Generator Alarm Clock Radio, I’m going to order a job lot from Argos. The Commons needs more like him.

With Ronnie back in his seat, Ed Miliband began by speaking for the people, in words they’d use themselves and with a tone they wouldn’t hate. This sorcery worked; within seconds he’d winkled out a phone-hacking inquiry from a tired looking prime minister. Somewhere nearby, aides were dispatched to fan the giant, sweating brow of Tom Watson. Today will surely rank as the best day of Tom’s life; better than when he was named backbencher of the year. Better than when he got married. Better than when his child was born. And nearly on a par with that day when Tony went.

Unflappable, Ed pressed on. Soberly, skilfully, he ripped up his own office’s missive that BSkyB and phone hacking should not be linked in public by Labour politicians. And then, for good measure, he called for Rebekah Brooks to resign. A Clause IV moment, as some excitably claimed? No – but it will reset relations between Labour and News International for the foreseeable future. Though given their current state we can’t be sure if anyone will notice.

Finally, Ed asked the Coulson question. The prime minister couldn‘t answer. Labour MPs went berserk. The Landale Theorem was disproved. And there, in the midst of it all, Harriet Harman was gently nodding her head; for years, she’s thought that the personal is political. Today, more than ever, she was right.

The Party of the Grafters


Sketch for Progress |

From the TV studios and newspaper offices came forth the commentariat, not to praise but to bury him. From the social enterprises of south London (and perhaps from 39,Victoria Street) came forth the activists, rooting for the reverse.

People from the top and people from the bottom came to hear a man from the middle talk about all three. Ed Miliband did not come for praise or burial, but to staple some prime cuts of political flesh to the brittler bones of his policy programme. To articulate where he’s taking Labour. And to remind everyone who read a Sunday newspaper that he isn’t David Milliband, or Gordon Brown. And certainly not Ed Balls.

As at all such events, the speaking politician’s first responsibility is to ensure the waiting journalists could slake their thirst in a fountain of knackered clichés. They didn’t have to wait long; Ed’s speech was a rousing paean for the unsung heroes. A 14-hour night shift for hard working families. A kick in the pants for those who don‘t play by the rules. A bash for the bad bankers, but a boost for the better ones. Good people were thanked for what they do. Greedy executives were named and shamed. Responsibilities and rights refused to part company. And all over the country, those who cherish English cried out in pain.

Then from nowhere, a super line. A line which tied the speech together. A line which reconciled the New with the Blue. A line, at last, for both the newsmen and for the viewers. Labour, we heard, must be the ‘party of the grafters’. It was the sort of thing Tony Blair used to say, and really mean. And it’s the sort of thing that Ed Miliband should mean and really say.

He left soon after, not buried, but (sparingly) praised. The hacks went home with a headline under each arm. The activists felt warm inside. And even Dan Hodges liked it.

Ed’s weekend had been bad. But after a good morning’s graft, things were looking up.

Ed’s Bad Day


The government's NHS reforms had hit a snag

Originally written for those friendly Blairites over at Progress….

Ed Miliband is having a rotten few weeks. For sections of the press, the public and even some parts of his shadow cabinet, the political honeymoon is over. To make matters worse, so is his real one.  Welcome back to Britain, Ed, where opinion poll leads are narrowing, the IMF aren’t backing ‘Plan Balls’ and the government sails on, unimpeded by its mistakes and seemingly unruffled by the anaemic criticism of the opposition front bench.

On Wednesdays, PMQs brings our political process shimmying onto the centre stage – a glinting chance for Ed to bypass those flaky commentators and appeal straight for the country’s favour, soundbite in one hand, cap in t’other. This should be easier than it’s proving: the government, readers may recall, is implementing the biggest programme of spending cuts in decades. It is formed not of one party with a strong electoral mandate, but of two political groupings who whatever Nick Clegg might say, don’t like or trust each other. The cabinet contains half a dozen ministers whose careers lie paralysed, gasping for death in the twilight of the Whitehall Hospice. The government’s reforms of the NHS and criminal justice system – two of those strange, rare issues which throb with real electoral resonance – are in ruins.

The prime minister should not have won yesterday’s exchange, but he did so with ease. The prime minister should not have hopped effortlessly free from the molten wreckage of two terrible policies, but he did so without resistance. Ed Miliband helped him do both: he picked the right subjects but asked the wrong questions, in the wrong way. The problems in David Cameron’s in-tray are piling up – it’s just a shame for Labour that the leader of the opposition isn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, Ken Clarke basked in the rays of public prime ministerial favour, following Tuesday’s less convivial discussions over his reforms to criminal sentencing.  John Healey looked glum as he was subjected to another predictable slice of selective misquoting. And Sadiq Khan seemed to fidget with discomfort as David Cameron reminded us that Labour supported elements of the government’s liberal justice reforms.  Do they? Don’t they? Liberal? Tough? Nobody seems to know. If Progress readers can send the answer on a postcard then I’ll post you a Jiffy-bag of Alan Milburn’s toenail clippings.

As Cameron cantered home, delight shone out from the great round face of Patrick McLoughlin and his fingers twizzled a Biro in excitement. The great slabs of flesh at the end of the chief whip’s arms have hauled coal from the seams of Staffordshire, and for a second the pen seemed to buckle and bend in his grip. We mustn’t speculate on how many of the rebellious new intake have experienced those thick, rough hands on their plump, soft necks, but when it comes to PMQs McLoughlin has his charges roaring in harmonious approval.

By contrast, Labour MPs seemed muted. Most are desperate for their leader to start regularly winning the argument, in the chamber and in the country. Many still believe he will. But after another two u-turns go unpunished, and Cameron skips away from blame some ask in worried tones: if not now, then when?

Old Writing, About Anglia.

Pauls Malt

Four years ago I wrote a series of not-that-good short stories, poems and sketches about growing up in East Anglia. They were never meant for the eyes of anyone else (mostly because they were very bad) but I stumbled across them in a shoebox o’dross when I was moving flat a few weeks ago and had a good laugh re-reading them.

The only one of even questionable merit was about two epic road trips that I took across the pancake-flat fens of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk – both of which were accompanied and enhanced by the boyhood vices of Miss Black America and smoking. I’ve given up both since then, but this weekend I’m swapping London for Southwold to dip my feet in the North Sea and eat chips with my Dad so I thought I would revisit this piece. Man alive, it’s going to be just like 2002, which is where the below probably belongs….

Paul’s Malt

I still know that route better than any man alive. Five fags, 37 miles, 51 minutes down the A14. Out past the hospital where I was born; past the sugar beet; the pigs; the malt; each smell running, mixing, overlapping in the smoke. The car would sing to the road and the road would sing to the car and my fingers would search for lighters and drinks and gum whilst the sun set, or rose, or hid. I could do it now, blind, deaf and dumb, without signs or clocks or compass as long as I had pouch and papers. I never measured Anglia in miles or minutes. I measured it in cigarettes.

The first time I went to hers I missed a turning. She had called, of course, and told me more than once to “drive safe, and get here in one piece. I know they’ll like you, they’re more nervous than you are!” But, I was scared and young and drove further than my quota, chewed gum and panicked and fiddled with the radio. Lorries kicked up October sludge, masked my car’s maiden polish, and rumbled on. That first time, unfamiliar signs led to unfamiliar places and I cursed and blushed and rang my Dad for bad directions and tried not to think of his advice. “Arrive punctually and look your best. Be yourself and be polite. Eye contact! Don’t have too much to drink with dinner. And sleep on the sofa.”

Dinner passed off fine of course, and I didn’t let him down. For the rest of that first weekend we just smoked and drove, but didn’t see the future. Ahead of us, a graduation from the sofa to the bed, extended families, Christmas, jobs and dreams of other countries were strung out silently down Suffolk roads.

One weekend we drove to Southwold, stopping only for petrol and tobacco. She made cigarettes and I read the map as we wove a web of fumes across the east of England. One rollie started the engine and pushed us out of Newmarket. It burnt whilst we coiled through muddy, shallow valleys, past furrows, farms and oil-seed rape. A second fired us over lunar fields, across bored rivers, through the copses guarding Britain’s floral town. Three pointed us down wide A roads, scalpel true, past the mere where a kid drowned in ’91 to the spires of a village by the sea. Beyond there time unwound; loosened like shingle at high tide, undressed and swam off.

We stopped on the seafront and stretched our legs. The bonnet felt warm as it popped and buckled under our weight. We paused, lit cigarettes and stared at the sea. She clasped my hand and whispered something filthy in my ear. I smiled. We’d arrived.

Flashman Buried Under Steve Hilton’s Patio

This week’s sketch for Progress 

Regular readers of this column will know that we have been demanding the demise of Flashman for months. We said the prime minister’s alter ego was arrogant. Patronising. Out of touch. Much as they used to in happier times,Downing Streetagreed – Progress were right all along.

And so, in a private ceremony on Tuesday night Flashman was encased in fifteen foot of concrete, bound tightly in lead and buried deep under Steve Hilton’s patio. The Combative Cameron had been decommissioned. On Wednesday the Polite PM would return.

Ignore everything else you’ve read on the subject, forget your preconceptions and admit the dirty truth. Yesterday’s PMQs was more boring than it’s been for weeks. I hated Flash intensely but I miss him now he’s gone – in small doses an angry, shouty Cameron was a devastating debating weapon and the stuff sketch writers’ dreams are made of: waspish, haughty, indiscreet and brash. He brought twice as much life to the chamber as the previous PM ever managed. He was funny. And admit it: who here hasn’t woken clammy from that dream where you are standing at the dispatch box, leaning menacingly forward onto your elbow and with the full might of HM Government cheering you on, you fix an enemy MP with a cool stare before quoting Michael Winner adverts to universal media opprobrium?

Ed Balls should take most credit for the death of Flashman, but the fact that it’s him and not Mr Miliband who so haunts the PM serves as a reminder of both men’s strengths and weaknesses. Mr Balls inspires extraordinary loyalty from those who are close to him, balanced by real hatred from some of those who aren’t. He doesn’t care – every time the prime minister was provoked into unappealing irritability the shadow chancellor would think of the evening bulletins, realise he achieved a little victory and wriggle with delight, grinning, growling and gesticulating all at once.

Yesterday the other Ed won well against a man who seemed to have one hand tied behind his back – but the Labour benches should beware the prime ministerial relaunch. Those of us old enough to remember the 1990s recall a likeable guy, who one day tired of the PMQs parlour game, remembered the great prestige and power of his office and finally started talking like the man at the top should do.

He dominated the chamber for a decade. Four Tory leaders barely laid a glove on him. And there was hardly a grumpy moment. Let’s hope Cameron isn’t about to do the same and give the public what they like: a PM who sounds like a prime minister.


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