Monday, 14 June 2010

THE LAST POST: AN EDUCATION IN LIFE

Before arriving at university, I thought education was all about work. Working so you could work even more when you actually work. How wrong I was. Choosing to read Journalism Studies in Sheffield was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because not only was it an enjoyable course, but I’ve also had a fantastic three years of life. They say your best days are at university and - although it took me a while to get out of the 'workworkwork' mentality of GCSEs and A-Levels, into the 'funfunfun' mentality of a degree - there are insufficient comparitives and superlatives to describe how amazing it's been. But I'll try to find some...

My BA Journalism Studies course has been a wonderful education. I chose The University of Sheffield simply because it was the best place to read journalism at undergraduate level and I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been given the opportunity to develop skills in so many areas, including newspaper reporting, subbing, television & radio production, magazine writing, shorthand, website & print design and media law. So I've had quite a bit to do!

I’ve also met some fantastic coursemates, some of whom have already been offered jobs in local and national newspapers and PR. I was pretty enthusiastic about working in journalism when I started my course in 2007. But my lecturers have helped ensure I cannot wait to work full-time now, by being so passionate about their subjects and helping me nurture my skills and understanding of the media. For example, the media studies element of the course has been a sociological side of things that I'd never previously considered that much before I left school.

I had the chance to study in London after receiving offers from Goldsmiths and City University, but am so pleased on reflection that I turned them both down in favour of Sheffield. Something I never realised before coming north was how much of a divide still exists in this country. I even did a piece in my final-year broadcast portfolio on ‘northerness’ and what that concept means to people in Yorkshire. I never really thought of regional identity as being that important when I lived at home in Essex, but all of a sudden I became a ‘southerner’ in the north!

Aside from the north-south divide, which is obviously not only felt in South Yorkshire, Sheffield has been a great city to live in as a student. It has two universities and a number of colleges with young people from across the world, making it a vibrant and buzzing place whenever you go out. There is so much going on during term-time and a huge number of restaurants & entertainment outlets competing for student business, that prices are cheap and it’s easy to have a good night out for a tenner.

A fascinating aspect of Sheffield is its diversity over such a small area. You have the leafy, upmarket regions of Broomhill and Fulwood (Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s constituency of Hallam), and then poorer areas like Pitsmoor and Burngreave where postcode gang warfare between S3 and S4 is rife, with a number of murders over the last few years. This all contributes to making it a very eye-opening place to live as a student, whatever background you're from. With the university being a city (rather than campus) college, you really feel part of life here. I’d have just been in a comfortable south-east bubble if I’d never moved to Yorkshire, so I’m very glad I did.

The political world of Sheffield is rather removed from what I was used to in the blue corner of Southend West. There is not a single Tory MP or even a councillor on Sheffield City Council, in an area dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Let's just say the Conservative Future society at the University isn’t massive. It’s no surprise that a former manufacturing stronghold - and the most working-class city in the country - is generally left-wing. Add in all the students voting Lib Dem, and you can see why Clegg loves it up here.

University is a great time for finding out more about who you are as a person and developing your opinions on a wide variety of subjects. I’ve found my own faith as a Christian has been greatly strengthened by a fantastic church, St Thomas’ Church Philadelphia, which is very proactive in its community work both in South Yorkshire and abroad, whilst it continues to grow in reach. And I’ve been able to try out new activities I’d have never even thought about if I had missed out on attending university. I’ve re-ignited a passion I had as a young teenager for dance and got involved in a new type - swing dance - which has been great fun to learn. Add that into activities like salsa and samba drumming, and you can see why I've loved my time here.

Sheffield is well-known for its music and this excited me when I arrived. I’ve got to see so many bands over the last three years here, from Arctic Monkeys [pictured] to Groove Armada, Carmen Ghia to Coldplay and Chase & Status to Kasabian. There is a top music scene in the Steel City and I’ve found so many great smaller artists by going to random gigs and events. One thing that’s really stuck out has been drum ‘n’ bass, as there’s a massive scene locally for a music genre that isn’t very well-represented yet nationwide. I might have been brought up on classical and jazz music, and since then developed a taste for dance and indie, but there’s something unique and fresh about DnB that you just don’t find in other music. And if it wasn’t for Sheffield, I’d have probably never found out about it.

So that’s it, three years of being a student finished. It’s been full of great memories, friends and general learning. Although I wouldn’t like to live here for the rest of my life, Sheffield has been a wonderful city to be in as a student and I’m very glad I decided to come here. I’m sad to be leaving but it’ll be good to get back to the seaside in Leigh-on-Sea for a bit and take a break over the summer. The last three years have been pretty crazy, so I feel like I deserve a rest now!


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I'm sorry to announce this will be my last regular Monday evening blog post. I've really enjoyed blogging during my time at The University of Sheffield and getting so much feedback from readers. Many thanks to you for generating the 8,000 hits I've had from 94 countries on my 98 posts in the last 15 months. I'm now going to properly embrace Twitter and post my views on life at http://twitter.com/markdavidduell, so please follow me as I move into my post-university life! Thanks for your support :)
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PICTURES: University of Sheffield; University of Sheffield SASI; Wikimedia; BBC

Monday, 7 June 2010

WORLD IN MOTION: THE MAIN EVENT

The flags are out, optimism is sky-high and the Carlsberg is in the fridge. But before you get too excited, let me just say: England are not going to win the World Cup.

If you compare our team to the likes of Spain, Brazil and Argentina, it’s not great. Remember that we’re up against the likes of Torres, Kaka and Messi [pictured] here. And whilst possessing Rooney, Gerrard and Terry in your side is certainly not an embarrassment, Fabio Capello’s men are simply too one-dimensional to succeed. We’ve seen that enough during recent friendlies. But the World Cup is not just about England. It’s a wonderful occasion when the best international footballers come to compete on the biggest stage. And I, for one, can’t wait.

So if England don’t win, who will? I believe this could be a World Cup where workmanlike performances grind out results. There are going to be many teams not used to playing in such humidity and high temperatures that may suffer, which is why preparations are crucial. But this is unlikely to affect top sides such as Brazil and Argentina - or even Spain or Portugal - so the factor that this plays might be minimised. However, sometimes progression in the World Cup is not about playing entertaining football. It’s about getting results and knowing how to close down your opponents.

This is why my two outside bets this year are Germany and Italy. You can still get pretty good odds on both from William Hill (14/1 and 16/1), which is primarily because they have already been written off by most of the media.

Italy are, of course, the current holders - and although no team has retained the trophy for consecutive competitions since Brazil in 1958 and 1962; the only other side to do so was Italy themselves in 1934 and 1938. The reason I’m backing the Italians is that they are so strong defensively, have the capability to become very tough to break down and can grab difficult wins when necessary. Players like Cannavaro, Buffon [pictured] and Zambrotta are a defensive wall that will shut up shop to allow the likes of De Rossi and Pirlo to get forward and cause problems. It might not be pretty and it might be 1-0 defensive football, but that’s what the Italians specialise in, and is why they won the tournament in 2006.

Germany are an industrious and reliable team. You always know what to expect from them in a penalty shootout. Their group - like Italy’s - is pretty straightforward, although Serbia, Ghana and Australia could all cause a few problems. Their coach, Joachim Low, was assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006, and has a team that will not be pushed over. It includes the likes of Podolski, Schweinsteiger and last tournament's top scorer Klose [pictured], who must be taken seriously and shut down by opponents. But I just think Italy are such a strong all-round side that they will concede fewer goals and have a better ability to stop opponents scoring.

There are a few other possibilities worth looking out for and maybe having a flutter on. Japan, who have only appeared at the World Cup three times before and only made it past the group stage when on home soil in 2002, are 5/4 with Ladbrokes to finish bottom of their group (against Holland, Denmark and Cameroon). How about Holland to finish top of the same group on 4/6 (Skybet) - and maybe combining those odds for a better payout. Looking at top scorers, Arsenal’s Dutch striker Robin van Persie looks well-priced at 16/1 (Paddy Power) to be the tournament’s top scorer, and England’s penalty-taker Frank Lampard is 6/1 (Coral) to score the most goals for the Three Lions.

Two surprise packages to look out for could be Serbia and South Korea - both sides with a relatively average past in the World Cup and few star players - but workmanlike and capable of causing a few surprises. You can get good prices on both to cause an upset in their groups - with South Korea 10/1 (Skybet) to beat Argentina and Serbia 3/1 (Boylesports) to defeat Germany. Both of these results might be unlikely, but upsets do happen - and you can at least get a good price on both of these sides finishing second in their groups. How about a semi-final between South Korea and North Korea? OK, I’m getting carried away now...

I can’t possibly describe how excited I am about the World Cup. My life as a student is set to expire this weekend and what better way to celebrate moving into a new stage of life than watching the whole tournament? The anticipation really has been building up since Euro 2008, with fans around the world wondering whether Spain can clinch the world title too - or will Brazil’s flair and creativity outdo the likes of Xavi and Fabregas? Holland have never won the World Cup, so maybe it will be their year. Or perhaps we’ll get a complete shock, like when Greece were victorious in Euro 2004. One thing’s for sure - and I’m sorry to say it, but I’m only being honest - England won’t be lifting the trophy come July 11th.

PICTURES: BBC Sport

Monday, 31 May 2010

EUROVISION: TIME TO SIGN OFF?

They tried their best. Electric violins from Moldova, another out-of-tune UK entry and a song about apricots by Armenia. But once again the Eurovision Song Contest 2010 represented everything that is wrong and embarrassing about Europe to us in Great Britain. And once again it proved that very few of our neighbours like us - with the UK finishing bottom for the third time in eight years. Josh Dubovie [pictured] was not really any better than Andy Abraham (2008) and Jemini (2003), and what is even worse is that he got past a number of competitors in a contest to make it that far.

Eurovision is something of a joke in this country now, as everybody knows the voting is political and rarely based on the song. This year’s winner from Germany - Satellite, by Lena - is already quite well-known in Europe and that helped its success, but it’s not a particularly good tune. It sounds generic and, like most entries, is about two decades out of date. The irony about this is that the UK has one of the best music industries in the world, and it fills the radio schedules of many stations abroad - but when it comes down to it, however good the entry is, we just won’t win.

The pre-scripted jokes and awful outfits were a source of fun for Terry Wogan over the years, and Graham Norton is doing a reasonable job as hosting it nowadays, by poking similar humour at the contestants and presenters. But the whole style of Eurovision is so cheesy and clich├ęd that you wonder whether we should just quit now to save the embarrassment of finishing behind countries that most people couldn’t pinpoint on a map and certainly didn’t even exist when the competition first started.

The Conservatives in government can’t really enjoy the whole ‘embracing European-ness’ idea either, with the Eurozone in such dire straits at the moment thanks to our friends in Greece. Whether being in the European Union has been beneficial for our country or not - and that’s a whole different topic - nights like Eurovision just sum up why we don’t get on very well with our continental neighbours. I believe the money spent on it by the BBC each year could be better invested elsewhere. How about relaunching Top of the Pops?

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Sandwiched in between Aslan’s Kebabs and Popeye’s on Sheffield's West Street, Bargain Beers is not a great place to be on a Saturday night. Unless you happen to be a drunkard looking for your fix of dry cider - in which case it’s paradise. But it doesn’t just share a similar name to that of Bargain Booze, a chain now operating 630 stores across Britain, and given a glowing review in yesterday's The Sunday Times. It also shares the alcohol pricing philosophy that by charging consistently low prices, you will build up customer loyalty and generate stable sales.

These discount stores - which offer nothing but alcohol and a few nibbles - battle with supermarkets for the £14billion market of alcohol sold in the UK outside the pub trade, and are very successful in doing so. It seems that you can build up customer loyalty by undercutting supermarkets on average price - even if they do beat you with special deals on multipacks from time to time. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) will this week recommend government ministers to launch a minimum price on alcohol per unit. This could see the price of cheap wine especially soar - and this will hit the supermarkets and cheap off-licences.

The problem with the argument of putting up the price of alcohol is that it will not deter people from drinking if they really want to. When you go into a pub, the price of a pint will usually be somewhere between £2 and £3, and it’s unlikely you would change your opinion of whether to buy it or not. Similarly, if you’re having a house party and want to get a certain amount of beer or spirits, you’ll buy them whatever the price (within reason). And for alcoholics, this is the case even more so. I doubt that the price elasticity for alcohol is what Nice understand it to be, but they are the economic experts, so we’ll see what happens.

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As regular blog readers may guess, I do like football a bit. I managed to get to 49 matches this season, including midweek trips to Shrewsbury, Tranmere and Scunthorpe. And that’s supporting Southend (200 miles from Sheffield) and Newcastle (150 miles away). So it’s absolutely no surprise to me that a Heineken survey last week showed British men spend more time watching, playing, reading and talking about football than anywhere else in the world. The figure is 11 hours 12 minutes a week, which I reckon I could easily surpass in one day.

With the World Cup only 11 days away now, it’ll be a great excuse to watch even more of the beautiful game than usual, and I can’t wait for it to get going. The two-week break between the official end of the domestic season yesterday and the start of the tournament in South Africa will hopefully pass pretty quickly, and then the pubs, bars and betting shops will be full with noisy Englishmen. Wonderful. It’s a tribute to our nation that we get behind our team so much and are the most football-mad country in the world. It’s a great time for the country to come together in praise of 11 men kicking an inflated pig’s bladder more than 5,000 miles away from home.

PICTURES: Digital Spy; Bargain Booze; Reuters/Mail

Monday, 24 May 2010

THE BEST TYPE OF JOURNALISM

Journalists are often asked whether they would enjoy ruining somebody's life with an article. The honest answer for most would be 'no', but some things have to be said in order to bring public figures to account, and we've seen that again this week [Sarah Ferguson, pictured]. The great investigative journalists of our time like Nick Davies (The Guardian) and Mazher Mahmood (News of the World) have brought to account so many companies and individuals, who would have got away with malpractice and hypocrisy for many more years had they not been caught.

Last week, we saw the Football Association's Chairman, Lord Triesman, lose his job after claiming Spain and Russia would try to bribe referees in the World Cup, in a private conversation reported by the Mail on Sunday. Now we've got Sarah Ferguson getting a right royal spanking for putting access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, up for sale to a News of the World reporter (incidently, it was Mr Mahmood).

I often hear the tabloid press lambasted as being nothing more than profit-driven gossip junkies who love ruining celebrity's lives. But this clearly isn't true. They have such amazing contacts and budgets for investigative journalism, that without them our society would be much worse off. And it's not just the tabloid press. Our broadsheet papers like The Sunday Times continue to invest in quality journalism that holds politicians to account (just look at their Patricia Hewitt piece).

You would have thought that politicians, celebrities and royalty would have realised by now that any conversations or exchanges they have with anybody can be recorded. Max Mosley's reputation was certainly damaged by the bondage session he took part in, even if he sued the News of the World for claiming it was 'Nazi'-related. There is an argument that this was private - and that Lord Triesman's conversation was private - so neither should be let out into the public domain. And there is a difference here between Mosley's sex life and Triesman's comments directly relating to his job, but both men are public figures who should know better.

Without investment in quality investigative journalism, we would know a lot less about the failings of important people in our society. So keep supporting it by buying those newspapers!

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"If Ben put his head in the oven, would you do that too?," Sue asked Karen. "Don't be silly," Karen said. "There wouldn't be enough room for my head if Ben's head was in the oven, unless you chopped it off, and then I'd be dead, so I wouldn't be able to close the door."

Karen from Outnumbered is one of the funniest television characters I've ever witnessed in my life. This might sound over-the-top as Ramona Marquez is only a child, but as an actress she's up there with the best. The third series of Outnumbered has recently been showing on BBC1, and her improvised delivery is something else.

It's difficult to know how much is scripted by a behind-the-scenes team and how much she comes up with herself, but the Britain's Got Talent sketch earlier this series was simply brilliant - especially when she 'sat on Ant and Dec' by mistake. I've seen Hugh Dennis (her father in the series) perform comedy live and think he's pretty funny, but it's refreshing to see such a young actress with an incredible sense of humour and perfect delivery.

So well done, Ramona (by the way, doesn't she looks more English than Spanish?). It'll be interesting to see whether she goes onto comedy as an adult, or if she finds it hard to shake free of that 'cute' stereotype that has exemplified her performance in Outnumbered. But I'll enjoy watching it while it lasts.

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England have two warm-up friendlies this week to get them ready for the World Cup. It's Mexico tonight and Japan on Sunday, in time for the naming of the squad next Tuesday (1 June). Manager Fabio Capello must use these games wisely to ensure: a) nobody gets injured; b) he has a clear idea of the 23 men to take to South Africa; and c) confidence remains high after an excellent qualifying campaign.

There are serious concerns that the pitch at Wembley still isn't up to scratch, and this was certainly evident during the Championship Play-Off Final on Saturday, when players were dropping like flies. Blackpool's Gary Taylor-Fletcher went home on crutches after the game, and he'd tried out three different pairs of boots before one got caught in the ground and he went over on it.

It is key that England don't get any injuries to key players. I'd rather we lost 5-0 to Mexico and Japan than lost a big name footballer now, as June and July in South Africa is obviously more important, and nobody really cares about results in friendlies - even though it would be nice to win. So, a message to Capello: please make the right decisions on who to take to South Africa. And a message to the FA: sort out that pitch now!

PICTURES: BBC

Monday, 17 May 2010

OUR VERY OWN COMEDY DOUBLE-ACT

Watching Nick Clegg and David Cameron give their first press conference as leaders of our country last week was somewhat reminiscent of the Morecambe and Wise Show. They just seemed so relaxed about it all and even had time for a little laugh with reporters, which suggests to me that the next few years are going to be great fun. Compare that to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who, as The Guardian pointed out today, were never able to pull off such an informal and friendly co-appearance despite being in the same political party for decades.

The mention of ‘Cameron’s favourite political joke’ from Five News reporter Andy Bell will be replayed over and over for years to come. It’s a perfect start to a future news report on ‘where did it all go wrong after it started so well’; but hopefully it won’t go wrong and we can have good fun with our new leaders. Maybe they will come up with a new coalition logo - perhaps a blend of blue and yellow to create green - as a sign that they want to make this work? Maybe not.

There were some great moments during the election like Gordon Brown v Gillian Duffy, Alastair Campbell v Adam Boulton and Joan Collins v Andrew Neil. But in many ways it failed to deliver. We thought the TV debates had been successful in stirring up a huge increase in seats for the Liberal Democrats, but that never materialised. We thought turnout would rise dramatically, but it was only up 2 per cent on average. And only a few months ago we thought we would get a Conservative overall majority, but that was to prove unfounded too.

A Clegg-Cameron coalition should be good for this country. It will certainly mean fewer rash policy decisions are made as the two parties will always be debating everything together, and this can only be good for plurality in our political system. The Tories and Lib Dems may well reinvent a ‘centre’ politics, where they come to compromises on some of their more right or left ideas, and that could be very interesting.

We have two people now leading our country that were born after England last won the World Cup in 1966, so the hope is that their youthful and innovative approaches to politics will work together for the good of this nation.

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The camera pans over Canary Wharf and the City. The Financial Times is being read in a private helicopter. Some businesspeople in smart suits are walking across a bridge carrying suitcases on wheels. But... hold on... aren’t they a bit, um, small?

The best thing about getting the General Election out of the way is that The Apprentice is back, thank goodness, and we will all once again have something to do for an hour at 9pm on Wednesdays. However, all is not as it seems - this new version of the main show, entitled Junior Apprentice, features teenagers. But don’t worry, as their egos are all just as big as the real contestants. If not bigger.

The first episode made me cringe, to say the least. There were girls crying for no reason whatsoever, boys who were so boastful they were an embarrassment to themselves and Lord Sugar [pictured - no longer as 'Suralan'] cracking jokes about Facebook.

But, with all of that, it was still quite enjoyable to see cocky Jordan De Courcy fired after the first-round for making a loss in a cheese selling competition. Credit to the 16-year-old for already owning his own business, but he’s clearly got a lot to learn. I also enjoyed Tim Ankers complaining that he couldn’t package crackers and cheddar because there was too much wind. And he works as a farmer.

This is clearly going to be lots of fun, but it made me feel slightly like I was watching The Inbetweeners. It’s difficult to sit in front of the television because what’s unfolding makes you want to cringe so much, but it’s actually quite good entertainment.

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The FA Cup Final on Saturday between Chelsea and Portsmouth was a feast of football, compared to the 2007 debacle which Mark Lawrenson referred to as ‘a good advert for the cricket season’. It was played how a cup final should be played, full of commitment and desire to win. The gulf between the sides was massive, but it could have been a wholly different story had Kevin-Prince Boateng converted a penalty shortly before Didier Drogba netted the decisive goal.

I think everyone feels quite sorry for Portsmouth at the moment. It would almost have been better to see them lose 5-0 than 1-0, as at least then they would be comfortably defeated rather than having a sniff of glory. It’s been a sorry state of affairs on the south coast all season, and manager Avram Grant doesn’t deserve it. He’s favourite to take over at West Ham United next season, and I hope he does a good job there if appointed. Portsmouth are likely to lose most of their squad this summer, and must ensure they don’t get relegated again next year. Stability is vital.




PICTURES: Daily Mail/Financial Times; The Sun; Daily Telegraph

Monday, 10 May 2010

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER: BUT WHAT NEXT?

Between the hours of 9am on Wednesday and 2am on Saturday last week, I accumulated just seven hours' sleep. But it was worth it, as I followed and reported on a fascinating General Election. Now the most undemocratic part of the whole business is taking place as the three main parties decide how a coalition will be formed to govern the United Kingdom. Will it be a ‘Con-Dem-Nation’ (great headline) as the Daily Mirror announced? Or are we set for a Lib-Lam tie-up? From a policies and electoral reform point of view, it would seem sensible for Nick Clegg to side with a new Labour leader, now Gordon Brown has stepped down. But a common policy programme is possible with David Cameron that would get an emergency budget in place and overall be more popular with the electorate.

There have been many debates raised over the last few days about whether our electoral system is fair. Suffice to say, it is fair in individual constituencies where the person with the most votes will represent their area in Parliament. But then you look at the percentages of votes and see that if we had Proportional Representation the Lib Dems would have 99 seats (Alternative Vote), 123 (Alternative Vote Plus) or 163 (Single Transferable Vote). No surprises that they favour the latter.

The main argument against PR is that it doesn’t lead to strong governments as there is no clear majority. But, of course, that is exactly the situation we now find ourselves in after election day delivered a hung parliament. Electoral reform is certainly needed, however, as a situation where a 6 per cent point difference in votes leads to 201 more seats for Labour against the Lib Dems certainly does not sound not very democratic.

It was almost unbelievable when the exit polls were released, that the Liberal Democrats were forecast to suffer a net loss of seats. Shadow chancellor Vince Cable laughed it off and I thought they must have got it wrong too at 10pm on Thursday. But as the night continued, the exit poll was proved to be almost spot on. In fact, it was being generous as they got even less.

One of the big winners were the Green Party, with Caroline Lucas gaining a seat in Brighton. She is a very clever woman with radical ideas who I’m sure will add something to the House of Commons. We also saw some excellent gains for the Conservatives in my home county of Essex, such as Castle Point and Basildon South & Thurrock East. In fact, Essex is now exclusively Tory apart from Colchester, which is Lib Dem.

I’m currently producing a radio feature on ‘northerness’ for my degree, and one of the factors used when you define a 'northerner' is that of voting patterns. It’s clear to see looking at the electoral map of England that there are serious differences in voting, which is of course very much traditional. But it’s interesting that the Tories simply have no chance in some areas, however well they’re doing, as many northern working-class areas just feel Labour will always do more for them.

As a general rule, you have the south-east and midlands dominated by the Conservatives, south-west by the Lib Dems, and then the picture is a lot more mixed in the north, with Labour having a much bigger presence. It’s important to note that in England the Tories seem to cover a much larger land area than any of the other parties put together, but this of course counts for nothing, as it doesn’t necessarily represent a much larger population voting for them.

Well that’s all interesting stuff. I think I’ll go to bed tonight and wake up next week to find out who’s in charge.

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Back in the day, the policemen who drew the short straw to cover Milwall, Leeds United or Cardiff City games shuddered in their black boots. And to some extent they still would today. But over the last few weeks we’ve seen three new sets of fans come through the ranks of hooliganism to give their teams a bad name. Violence and crowd trouble caused by Sheffield Wednesday, Luton Town and Grimsby Town supporters over the last 10 days has been simply unacceptable.

It doesn’t matter if your team has got relegated or failed in their promotion bid - this is no excuse for getting onto the pitch and putting players in danger. If you play professional football - or, indeed, play at any level - you should not have to worry about your own safety. At the end of Burton v Grimsby, the referee and some players actually ran off the pitch at the final whistle because they seemed so scared of what could happen. And it got nasty.

I have seen Southend United get promoted twice (once live, once on TV) and relegated twice (both live) - yet on only one of those four occasions has there been a proper pitch invasion. And on that one occasion - against Bristol City in May 2006 - I decided to stay in the stand. Not only because it was a criminal offence to get onto the pitch, but also that I wanted to stay with my grandpa up there and get a good view of what was going on. Yes, invasions looks really funny on the cameras, but if you’re in the middle of a melee it’s probably quite frightening, even if the fans are good-tempered.

The only way to solve this problem seems to be to put up fences again, and nobody wants that. There often simply aren’t enough stewards or police to stop fans getting on, and I suggest the Football League commissions a report before the end of next season to see what can be done. As if it’s a criminal offence but thousands of people still get onto the turf, what can you do? It would be a pretty busy Magistrates’ Court on a Monday morning.

PICTURES: Daily Mirror and Daily Mail/Getty

Monday, 3 May 2010

YOURS OR THE MEDIA'S ELECTION?

It's going to be a fascinating week. The media has put in years of build up to this Thursday, when the talking will stop and the action will happen. We'll find out who'll be running the country from the end of this week. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are going head-to-head in the tightest general election for a generation and nobody yet wants to call the result. But one element of this election which is of special interest is how the various newspapers have - as in previous years - taken different sides and tried to get you to vote for a certain party. In the blue corner for the Tories, we have The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun. The Guardian is following the Liberal Democrats, the Daily Mirror is backing Labour, and a hung parliament is supported by The Independent. I'm not sure who the Daily Star and Daily Sport are backing, but it probably won't have too much to do with policies on education, transport and defence spending.

So how much of an impact does a newspaper's political voice have on its readers? Some - if not all - newspaper owners are probably in the business not to make money but to gain influence through their position. An excellent piece by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian today looked at political support from papers since 1945, and how whereas some papers like The Sun and The Times have wavered, others like the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail have pretty much held firm on one side of the fence. He points out that The Sun is read "by the greatest number of floating voters", because many of them live in marginal seats. This shows how valuable Murdoch's support is to Cameron, and why The Sun shifting parties last year had so much significance. Voting intentions of newspapers' readers are often very much what you'd expect, which shows how much influence they have.

This year, with six of the nine national daily titles that take politics seriously, you would expect a landslide Conservative win. But in February 1973, the Daily Mirror was the only paper backing Labour and they were still elected. So this shows although newspapers have some influence, they cannot decide elections. The infamous 'It's The Sun wot won it' headline from 1992 was supposed to show how powerful the paper was, and it does indeed have a great deal of influence, but many people obviously don't vote according to what they read. The Independent likes to remain impartial, as that is a principle on which it was founded, but could this be a reason why it has the lowest circulation of any major UK daily? People like their prejudices and opinions reconfirmed by what they consume in the media - just look at Fox News in America. But it's simply a great thing about the British free press that we have such a wide variety of newspapers that back different partes. This election would have been a whole lot more boring if everyone had followed Cameron.

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Persecuted Christians have hit the headlines again, after the Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that a street preacher was charged with a public order offence for saying he thought homosexuality is a sin. It's a perfect Mail story as it's one of these things that 'certainly wouldn't have happened years ago in my day when people were more tolerant'. They know their target audience. But, choice of story aside, I think the debate to be had here is whether anybody should be allowed to say that homosexuality is wrong. Dale Mcalpine was not advocating some sort of new law where gay people should be punished for their sexuality, but just explaining to a PCSO that he thought it was a sin. The argument is not whether the Bible says being gay is wrong, but whether he should be prevented from having his opinion. I don't think preaching against homosexuality is the best thing to talk about on a street corner - as the Church should be doing more to incorporate gay people, and its message should be focussed on the Bible, not whether being gay is right or wrong.

But some might argue you could compare this to Mr Mcalpine shouting out that adultery or lusting is advised against by the Bible. He was not judging anyone in particular, just saying what he thought. It seems a coincidence that the Cumbria PCSO on patrol was a 'lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liaison officer', but that should not affect police handling of cases. It sets a dangerous precedent when you can stop certain people from proclaiming their beliefs on a street corner, under a public order act intended for football hooligans. If he was saying gay people should be killed, then that would should obviously be policed differently. But by saying it is wrong, he is simply expressing an opinion, to which he is entitled, whether you agree with him or not. I have lots of respect for anybody who will stand on a street and preach what they believe - whether that is for gay rights or promoting Christianity - and think the police should make clearer what should and shouldn't be allowed. And if a court rules that you're not allowed to say what Mr Mcalpine did, then that will be a shame for freedom of speech.

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Right, onto some football. The relegation battle in the Championship reached its climax on Sunday as Crystal Palace sent Sheffield Wednesday down after a battling 2-2 draw at Hillsborough, and it was great drama on the BBC. Everything came down to this one game, and it was such a wonderful spectacle for neutrals that it made me wonder. How about starting up relegation play-offs in the Football League, like we already do for promotion? The play-offs in the top-half give mid-table teams something to aim for every season, and this year have given sides like Cardiff City and Leicester City a real chance of making the top-flight. I have been involved with them twice with Southend United, and have to say they were incredibly nerve-racking and emotionally destroying but simply unforgettable if you made it up. So how about at the bottom?

We had Grimsby v Barnet in League Two on Saturday, which was effectively a relegation play-off too, but again this was only caused by the fixtures computer. The issue with play-offs is that they often don't represent a team's form over the course of a season - as it's based on only a few games - and some may argue that this therefore wouldn't be fair on a team that got relegated just because it was going through a bad patch. But it would certainly make it more exciting, and give sides a last-chance reprieve to stay in their division. Another model might be getting the third-bottom team in League Two to play the losing finalists in the Conference play-offs, to decide who is more worthy of Football League status. Either way, I think it would be a great way of livening up the end-of-season, and I can't think of a better way of staying-up than beating a team in a final day crunch match.

PICTURES: Sky News / Daily Mail / The Guardian