Thursday 25 May
I know a woman who could reasonably be described as an inveterate gossip. She is not malicious, in the sense that she does not deal mainly in unkind stories about the failings or misfortunes of others. Rather she seems to have a compulsion to pass on any snippets of information, however trivial, that she picks up in the course of her daily life. Some people dive for cover whenever they see her, having no wish for an update on Mrs White's painful bunions or Mr Black's fancy new car. If we are honest, however, most of us are not averse to a bit of gossip, though we generally hope for more interesting material.
There are those who are fascinated by royal gossip, and eagerly devour accounts of Prince Harry's love life or the Duke of York's latest tantrum. Others find political gossip more to their taste. Reports of establishment hypocrisy or financial self-interest surface regularly and serve to reinforce public contempt for powerful people. Gossip columns in newspapers are widely read. Whereas the tabloids focus principally on 'celebrity' figures from the worlds of popular music and television, the broadsheets are more likely to carry stories featuring upper-class gatherings – posh parties and dinners, where aristocrats, the super-rich and political fixers mingle. There are always insiders willing to pass on items about their friends or enemies.
The editor of the diary column in the Times, an upmarket purveyor of gossip, has recently claimed that readership of the newspaper increased by 50,000 when, after a four-year gap, the feature was reintroduced. His sources 'skulk in the shadows at events, picking up titbits from careless lips'. He gives the example of the Labour MP who was overheard at a book launch, recounting that a famous actor had been telling people they had gone to bed together. Not so, complained the MP: 'He says we've had sex in Clapham. I've never had sex south of the river.' Isn't it comforting to know that metropolitan snobberies remain alive and well in the Labour party? Presumably sexual encounters in Hampstead or Notting Hill would be quite acceptable.
Friday 26 May
In the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, many column inches have been devoted to the question of what causes some young men to adopt the perverted belief that killing innocent people is somehow justified. Among the many factors identified are internet grooming by jihadist groups, the influence of extremist preachers, and political indoctrination at training camps in the Middle East. But what makes them susceptible to these pressures in the first place? The explanation needs to include psychological as well as ideological elements.
It would be convenient if a clear profile of potential suicide bombers could be constructed, identifying a consistent set of character traits that might mark them out as suitable material for the fundamentalist recruiters. Ben Macintyre, in an interesting article in today's Times, states that what unites them is a narcissistic personality, feelings of victimisation and alienation, and a sense of weakness disguised by their willingness to commit terrible acts of violence. But he also draws attention to the many differences among those who have followed what they see as a path to martyrdom: 'Some are highly intelligent while others are breathtakingly stupid; some are brainwashed and others embrace mass murder alone; some are angry and others chillingly calm; some are poor and desperate, others middle-class and comfortable. A surprisingly large number are, or have been, criminals.'
What this suggests is that, despite the best efforts of the intelligence and security forces, they are never likely to be able to identify all those 'triggers' in the personal histories of potential terrorists which steer them in the direction of hatred and destruction. Suicide bombers are deeply damaged people, adrift from humanity, exhibiting what Adam Lankford, author of 'The Myth of Martyrdom', has called a poisonous cocktail of 'fear, failure, guilt, shame and rage.
Saturday 27 May
Surveys indicate that a significant minority of people are dissatisfied with the quality of service provided by their local council. Since 2013, all Scottish local authorities have been required to deal with complaints in accordance with guidelines produced by the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (SPSO). There are two stages – frontline (stage one) and investigation (stage two), the latter relating to more complex cases which involve detailed enquiries. There are recommended time limits for each stage. Councils are also required to produce annual reports on their performance in handling complaints. These are variable in quality and detail, and it appears that some councils have not yet made their reports for 2015-16 available on their websites.
The figures for Glasgow make interesting reading. In 2015-16 a total of 17,324 complaints were received. Of these, 12,227 were either upheld or partially upheld at the frontline stage, and 986 were either upheld or partially upheld at the investigation stage. Less than a fifth of the complaints were not upheld. Contrast the Glasgow figures with those of a much smaller council, East Renfrewshire. During the same period, East Renfrewshire received 1,677 complaints. Of these, 1,075 were either upheld of partially upheld at the frontline stage, while 28 were either upheld or partially upheld at the investigation stage. Just over a third of complaints were not upheld, significantly more than in Glasgow. Whether this indicates that residents in East Renfrewshire are more inclined to lodge unjustified complaints, or that the council has a tougher approach to assessing their merits, cannot be concluded without further evidence.
All councils claim that they are keen to learn from the complaints process, with a view to improving services. One conclusion to be drawn from the Glasgow figures is that if staff recruitment and training were improved, the council might have to deal with fewer complaints, a majority of which are subsequently upheld. All the annual summaries are self-reporting documents produced by council staff and should, therefore, be treated with a degree of scepticism. Organisations reviewing their own performance are inclined to put a positive gloss on it. It would help if there was some consistency in the format of reports, particularly in relation to the way in which statistics are presented, so that meaningful comparisons could be made. Perhaps the new head of the SPSO, Rosemary Agnew, could give some thought to this.
Sunday 28 May
On this week's 'Points of View', the BBC programme which tries to give the impression that TV executives and producers are actually interested in what the public thinks, there was a comment that struck a chord with me. Someone who had been watching the coverage of the Chelsea flower show complained that too much time was taken up with 'presenter waffle'. This is now a feature of many programmes, where presenters clearly imagine that they are as important as the subject they are introducing. Thus, we have lots of 'advance padding', featuring short clips of what we are about to see, and assurances from well-groomed presenters, with unbelievably perfect teeth, that it will all be very 'exciting', or even 'awesome'.
Excessive gushing is now commonplace: the intention is presumably that the enthusiasm of the presenter will be communicated to the viewer. In my case, it has precisely the opposite effect, producing a 'please pass me a sick bag' moment before I switch channels. I want presenters who are knowledgeable and articulate but not too obtrusive. They don't have to have film star looks or the insincere charm that often accompanies them.
SR depends entirely on the support of its readers for the magazine's continued survival. Please become a Friend of SR by donating £30 or more. Click here