Only the threat of jail will curb the greedy bankers

About 26 years ago came ‘The Big Bang’ – no, not the one that created the universe, but Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the stock market, unshackling the City – a banker told me, ‘This means we’re free to go shooting fish in a barrel.’

Thatcher wasn’t wrong: the London financial market was in danger of being overrun by New York and the ‘Old Boy’ bowler-hat brigade had a comfy, Corinthian attitude to doing business amongst themselves, to the exclusion of real talent. Nepotism ruled, brains took a back seat.

However, with every revolution, good comes hand in glove with bad. So fast forward a few years and the can of worms known as the Pension Mis-selling Scandal exploded into the headlines, after unscrupulous middlemen chivvied many financially-naive workers into switching from safer, better-performing company schemes into ‘private’ plans that promised punters less and sellers fat commissions.

The scam wasn’t redressed until after 2000, when the Financial Services Authority stepped in and hundreds of thousands of mis-sold victims were rightly recompensed.

For the first time the ‘fish in the barrel’ had some teeth to bite back.

I cite the example to underscore the greedy, grasping, amoral culture that started with Thatcher’s Big Bang and continued to fester in the City, under the wilful connivance of generations of banking bosses, whose chief aim has always been to make a fast buck.

Using deliberately arcane jargon, their institutions created products so intricately complex – like derivatives and insurance credit default swaps – one banker admitted to me not so long ago, ‘Sometimes we don’t even understand them ourselves and our customers take it on our say-so they’re all right.’

The US sub-prime mortgage travesty, which saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers, should have heralded a long-overdue rethink by regulators and a thorough cleansing of the international finance industry’s Augean Stables. But efforts were feeble, largely due to the omnipotent power of the banks.

BARCLAYS’ DIAMOND: ‘Period over for banks to apologise’

Hence we’ve witnessed a floodtide of scandals, one of the latest being the scam to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), for which Barclays were fined £290M, peanuts of a penalty in terms of their uber-rich coffers.

And, just emerging, is news of yet another scam, with banks – chiefly Barclays (yet again!), HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group – arm-twisting small business clients into buying complex products, supposed to offer protection against rises in interest rates, without the customers fully grasping the downside risks.

None of these are victimless crimes and, as Bank of England head, Sir Mervyn King, described them, ‘deceitful manipulation’.

We need banks to provide money at reasonable cost, the lifeblood of any economy. What we don’t need is banks acting like shysters, whose personnel, from the CEO down, net obscenely huge, annual bonuses for dreaming up scams to fatten their institutions’ balance sheets and bolster their share price.

The way to stop this serial malpractice is not by a Leveson-style inquiry or wrist-slapping fines, but for boardroom heads to role – as in the case of Barclay’s Bob Diamond, who had the chutzpah to tell a Common Treasury select committee in January, 2011, ‘There was a period of remorse and apology for banks, that period needs to be over.’

It’s clearly not. And only the fear of prosecution and jail will threaten to curb the greedy excesses of amoral bankers.

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Football? More like ‘bore-ball’ from winners Spain

For a normally vibrant, garrulous nation, don’t the Spanish produce yawningly tedious football, effective though it is in terms of results?

It might be brimming with neat, intricate triangles of passes which the father of geometry, Euclid, would have applauded. But – notwithstanding the rare, mazy dribble from Iniesta or, still less, one of his team-mates – last night’s Euro 2012 semi final against Portugal was the soccer equivalent of Nitrazepam, my recommended cure for insomnia.

In fact, I’ve seen more tantalising fare dished up in my grandkid’s X-Box Pro Evolution soccer videos. And, at least the inadequates of England had viewers on the edge of their sofas occasionally.

All right, all right! I know Spain won, but how woefully so for reigning World and European champions. And they had to rely on a Russian roulette penalty shoot-out to do it.

CHEERING FANS: But Spain’s stars deserved jeers for their yawning display

By that time Portugal, who provided a smattering of genuine thrills in the first of the three halves – I count extra time as the third – were looking for the bus to the knackers’ yard, so fatigued were they.

Their man-mountain of a centre-back, Bruno Alves, whose spot-kick hit the woodwork and allowed Cesc Fabregas to clinch Spain’s win, was like a punch-drunk heavyweight praying to be carried from the ring. And why wasn’t the still animated Ronaldo allowed a crack?

Maybe had Portugal a striker other than the lumbering Almeida, who couldn’t hit a barn-door with a shotgun from five paces, it might have ended in tears not cheers for the metronomic Spanish.

Still, for a feisty, little nation of 10.5M people – a quarter of Spain’s population – I take my baseball cap off to the Portuguese.

Vicente Del Bosque’s side tested their goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, just once in the first 90 minutes, which underpins why Spain has scored one goal or fewer in three of their five Euro 2012 games, and they won the 2010 World Cup thanks to four consecutive 1-0 victories.

No wonder 62% of respondents in an on-line pole voted the Spanish ‘boring’.

Maybe all that matters to their coach and automatons are results.

If that were the case with Man City, Man United, Chelsea or Spurs, the terraces of the Etihad, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane would be graveyards.

So, roll on the shove-ha’penny season. At least we’re guaranteed some thrills.

Why I don’t want Facebook’s unsolicited email address ‘gift’…

It’s not Christmas or my birthday, but I’ve just discovered I’ve been sent a prezzie. It’s certainly not one on my list of a thousand things I’d chose before I die – in fact, it’s not one I want at all, in common with countless others, who received the self-same, unsolicited prezzie.

The ‘gift’ in question came from Facebook and it’s an email address. Or, to be more precise, a facebook.com email address. And, so far as I’m concerned, it is neither use nor ornament.

What’s more, I take great exception to Facebook brazenness and lack of prior consultation before inflicting an extra Internet contact detail on me, which quite possibly may confuse people I’m regularly in touch with via my usual on-line, postal portal.

Happily, Facebook’s assumption of the role of Big Brother hasn’t gone unnoticed and, like yours truly, some of the US-based social network’s users have reacted angrily, as the Press Association reported yesterday.

UNSOLICITED PREZZIE? A facebook.com email address

Facebook’s arbitrary act of replacing/downgrading the email addresses users chose when they first signed up is defended by their spokesperson, Jillian Stefanki, who said the site was rolling out a setting which allows people to decide which email address to show on their personal pages.

Well, Jilly, I know which one I want – and it isn’t yours, which is why I’ve blocked it (I’ve tried expunging it altogether, but failed).

I’ve no truck with Facebook’s worthy aim of providing users with a platform to swap gossip, ideas, photos and news with friends, family and business contacts, but there are attendant dangers with any social media site, which you don’t need me to spell out.

So don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And if you don’t want a new, imposed and unsolicited facebook.com email address, you know what to do about it.

 

A salute to birthday boy Frank, one of Mallorca’s finest

We band of brothers, The Portals Press Club (PPC) of Mallorca, are nothing if not a generous, compassionate lot, so we came together, en masse, this morning to celebrate the forthcoming birthday (tomorrow) of our upstanding-when-sober member, Frank Leavers.

Money being no object, we pushed the proverbial boat out and bought him a candle to blow on in a croissant borrowed from a neighbouring table at Chameli’s, the legendary Portals Nous watering-hole that is the PPC’s spiritual home each Tuesday a.m. (guests welcome only by prior appointment).

Island-dwellers are familiar with Frank’s wit and wisdom from the weekly column he scribes for the Daily Bulletin and his commitment to his personal, journalistic dictum, ‘Never use 10 words when a thousand will do.’

‘Show me the space,’ he adds diligently, ‘and I’ll fill it.’

It should be noted this maxim has no connection whatsoever to Frank’s days at sea, when he took The Queen’s shilling and – according to malicious gossip – rose without trace from cabin-boy to stoker second class, before gaining entree to the wardroom at the captain’s port side.

Salt water courses through Frank’s veins, for he hails from Eastleigh, Hampshire, the village (sadly now reduced to a suburb of Southampton) where the wily locals are once said to have constructed a three-foot high, wattle-and-daub fence to keep the cuckoo in.

Other landmarks in Frank’s illustrious career are the sterling work he did in making the Liberal Democrats unelectable – he was a paid, party agent – before moving into PR and coining the immortal slogan: ‘Cardiff is the world’s most exciting waterfront.’

Understandably, denizens of Shanghai, Sydney, San Francisco and Hartlepool may cavil a tad at that boast.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS: Frank celebrates his birthday with a borrowed croissant – Photo: El Hammondo

Some untold number of years ago, Frank and his partner – the striking, raven-haired Julie – founded the highly-successful My Majorca Wedding; hence it’s not unreasonable to conclude he has assisted in arranging the nuptials of more brides than a serial bigamist.

And let us not forget his selfless efforts for Majorca Cricket Club, where, in one tight match, he heroically fielded a sweetly-driven off-drive with his teeth. Such are the wonders of modern dentistry, you can hardly see the join.

Still boyishly handsome, urbane and one of nature’s gentlemen, his brethren at the PPC fraternally salute Frank as he celebrates, by his calculation, the big Six-Oh (‘You know what liars journalists are!’ – Ed).

So, old friend, may you never flounder on the rocks of life and long may you regale us with your telling observations and gripping tales of….er?

Is the ‘leaky’ image of Saint Julian of Wikileaks blown?

Update on ‘Saint’ Julian Assange, the liberal elite’s favourite fugitive, and his bid for political asylum in Ecuador, by hiding in that whiffy and genuine banana republic’s London embassy…

It appears that the Wikileaks founder and crusader for ‘free journalism’ isn’t too fazed about climbing into the political sack with Ecuador’s odious, tinpot dictator, Rafael Correa, who has a fiery passion for curbing Press zeal.

A bulletin from the Organisation of American States reports: ‘Correa regularly uses an emergency provision in the country’s broadcast law to commandeer the country’s airwaves and denounce journalists as ‘ignorant’ and ‘liars’.’

In fact, El Presidente makes media censorship a flagship government policy, evidenced by how he has filed multiple defamation suits against critical journalists. Three executives and the former op-ed editor of the country’s leading newspaper, El Universo, have been hit with a $40-million libel judgment and could soon be jailed.

Contrast this with Assange’s assertion: ‘We (Wikileaks) are free Press activists. It’s about giving people the information they need. That is the raw ingredient that is needed to make a just and civil society. Without that you are just sailing in the dark. I have tried to invent a system that solves the problem of censorship across the whole world.’

Then there was this bizarre exchange in a TV interview Assange did with Ecuador’s despot.

Correa: ‘Let us stop promoting this image of poor, courageous journalists, a saintly media trying to tell the truth, and tyrants and autocrats trying to stop them.’

Assange: ‘I completely agree with your view on the media.’

Hence, it’s impossible to deduce whether the pair will make strange bedfellows or swap pillow talk in a meeting of like minds.

ECUADOR’S CORREA: Anti-Press, tinpot dictator and Assange’s ‘guardian’

Meanwhile, support for the plight of the allegedly persecuted Saint Julian appears to be peeling away, like an overripe Ecuadorian banana (for the record: the country exports five million tons of the fruit a year).

David Leigh and Luke Harding, of The Guardian – the newspaper that first championed Assange and publicised the Wikileaks dossier – describe the revulsion of staff at the far Left broadsheet at his beliefs, after one of the journos asked Assange if wasn’t worried that Afghan civilians, who’d co-operated with the coalition forces, could be exposed to danger by Wikileaks’ revelations.

Assange’s chillingly replied, ‘So, if they get killed they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.’

The New York Times, another early Wikileaks glorifier, suffered a similar rush of hindsight, reporting that several of Assange’s closest associates had abandoned him, exhausted by their publicity-hungry leader’s ‘erratic and imperious behaviour, and nearly delusional grandeur’.

As the public mood shifts towards the realisation that a world in which nothing is secret would be stark, staring, dangerously bonkers, schisms are appearing in Assange’s fan club – ‘a motley collection of socialites, movie-makers and human rights bores,’ as the Daily Telegraph describes them – several of whom have acted as sureties for the £240,000 bail, which he has now jumped.

Jemima Khan, the cause-sensitive, multi-millionaire heiress, admits she’s ‘on the hook for £20,000’, but expects Assange will finally go quietly to Sweden, which seeks his extradition on rape charges, a request granted by an English court.

Maybe some of those who once naively bought into the saintly vision of Julian – and his quest to torpedo Western security on the high altar of ‘Press freedom’ – may now be beginning to wonder if they’ve not actually slipped on a very nasty banana skin…and an Ecuadorian one at that.

Cherie, Jimmy and Julian: Spare us from the pomposity of fallen ‘angels’

I’m rather fond of the adage ‘Hoist by their own petard’, which, roughly translated means trapped by their own, overblown sense of piety and pomposity.

The phrase has a whimsically medieval ring to it – almost Shakespearean, don’t you think? – though I had to consult the dictionary on what exactly is a ‘petard’ (for the record it is related to the old French term to ‘break wind’, which is ironic given the circumstances).

This week we’ve been privileged to witness three perfect instances of it, provided by gobby Cherie Blair, crestfallen comic Jimmy Carr and Wikileaks’ uber-moraliser, Julian Assange.

Mrs. Blair had the brass neck to lambast ‘stay-at-home yummy mummies’ as if they were some abhorrent sub-species and the epitome of self-indulgence. With their 4×4 Chelsea tractors, designer wardrobes and kids at expensive preps, they represent an infinitesimally microscopic percentage of womanhood and are the softest target this side of Harrods’ Food Hall.

As a generalisation, it says zilch for housewives, who do a hard day’s labour looking after their families and receive few thanks for their sacrifice.

Criticising women who ‘put all their effort into their children’ instead of working nobly was a typical Lefty, I’m-always-rightie knee-jerk from the QC, mother of four and wife of one of the world’s consummate snake-oil salesmen.

Pity Cherie didn’t offer some explanation into her own ‘efforts for her children’, such as why she is under investigation for breaching planning rules on the £1.3 Westminster house she helped her son, Euan, buy and convert the basement into an extra flat to boost his income.

This isn’t the first time the roof’s threatened to cascade on the Blairs’ property wheelings and dealings, even though their bricks-and-mortar portfolio is now estimated to be worth £15M.

In 2002, when Euan was at Bristol University, it emerged Cherie had bought two flats there at a discount with the help of the convicted fraudster Peter Foster. And in 2009 she was probed by planning officers after complaints she ran an office from the family’s £3.65 mansion in Connaught Square.

Funnyman Carr’s boob was to pillory Barclays Bank at one of his gigs for using legal though iffy tax avoidance schemes, only for it to emerge he was involved in a little fiscal legerdemain himself – namely exporting his £3.3M earning offshore to Jersey and ‘borrowing’ it back from a fund called K2, thus mitigating his tax liabilities to a little over zero.

No wonder Jimmy’s face is now as red as his jokes are blue.

AN UNFAIR COP? Assange, before fleeing to the Ecuador embassy in a bid for asylum

Finally, to Assange, currently enjoying the b&b hospitality of Ecuador’s London embassy, while seeking asylum – and escape from an extradition warrant from Sweden, where he faces rape charges – in one of South America’s many tainted domains.

Political agitator, defender of free speech or maverick self-propagandist and illegal ouster of secrets, the smirky Australian’s revelations certainly caused a rumpus in 2010, though of the 251,000 diplomatic cables Wikileaks published, 53 percent were listed as  ‘unclassified’, 40 percent ‘confidential’ and only about six percent ‘secret’.

Quirkily, they didn’t quite have the intended anti-US impact Assange wished, as much of the chit-chat was diplomatic drivel and the countries at the butt-end of the comments were mainly beyond the pale of international decency.

Meanwhile, by his latest actions, Assange has dropped a fair few of his backers – i.e. the usual, hand-wringing suspects, like Jemima Khan, journalist John Pilger and film-maker Ken Loach – right in the excrement, since they acted as sureties for his £240,000 bail and are now likely to be a smidgeon less well-heeled.

But, maybe according to the gospel of Saint Julian, that’s what friends are for.

How cock-ups, ticket scams, racism and hypocricy have tarnished The Games

Sport, as we all know, has nothing whatever to do with politics, which is why the 2012 London Olympics will be an entirely blemish-free zone (well, a tad tainted, perhaps, by the arrival of some of the world’s most dodgy leaders and/or their reps).

As the competition’s motto – ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius…Swifter, Higher, Stronger’ – underlines, this extravaganza is simply about the ethos of peace, endeavour and integrity, a salute to the commitment of the countless fine men and women attempting to excel in their chosen events.

So, forget about the London committee’s serial ticketing cock-ups and the minor inconvenience inflicted on a million or more commuters, who won’t be able to get to work for a fortnight…small prices to pay for the honour of hosting such a grandiose junket – even if it costs up to £10bn Britain can’t spare.

And don’t be fazed by the rampant corruption over black-market ticket touting, mostly emanating from International Olympic Committee (IOC) member sources (54 countries are implicated, according to the Sunday Times). But if a promised IOC probe reveals any impropriety, take it as read the miscreants will receive a very nasty slap on the leg and told not to do it again – at least not until 2016 in Rio.

No, let me remind you AGAIN, it’s all about sport, sport, sport. even if pariah states, like Zimbabwe, are allowed to compete or Saudi Arabia has had its sole medal hopes restored, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport bizarrely lifted a ban on its top show-jumpers, despite their horses testing positive for illicit drugs.

And, while we’re on the subject, I don’t want to hear a murmur from the gender-equality lot over the desert kingdom’s refusal to field female athletes or, should it recur – after it did in Athens, when an Iranian got himself deliberately disqualified, rather than face an Israeli in the judo arena – a whisper about racism or anti-Semitism.

THE OLYMPICS: Sport rules – or does it?

So let’s stick to the script, however hypocritical it may seem to some…the global community of sport, respect between athletes, peaceful competition, blah, blah, blah.

That’s why the 40th anniversary of the cold-blooded massacre of 11 Israeli athlete and coaches at the Munich Games by the PLO’s Black September cutthroats won’t be remembered with a respectful minute’s silence at the opening ceremony, despite an international clamour to do so, sponsored by Australia’s Prime Minister and many leading US, British and Canadian politicians.

No, no, noooo! That would ever-so-slightly smack at the spectre of politics raising its ugly head. And all those cuddly tyrants littering the Middle East wouldn’t like that, would they (busy though they are, crushing any suggestion of reform in the most bloodchilling ways)?

Better still, expunge the slaughter from the collective Olympic memory and be content with IOC boss, Jacque Rogge’s glib overview: ‘What happened in Munich in 1972 strengthened the determination of the Olympic Movement to contribute more than ever to building a peaceful and better world by educating young people through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.’

I can only reiterate how Toronto Star columnist, Rosie DiManno, aptly summed up Rogge’s remarks.

‘What bollocks!’ she wrote.