Social welfare, photo ID and non-nationals

Mary Hanafin, Minister for Social and Family Affairs, was on Morning Ireland today to talk about a new requirement for those claiming social welfare payments to produce photo ID when collecting their entitlement at the Post Office. The plan itself is perfectly rational – the surprise is rather that this requirement wasn’t always in place. Her explanation as to why photo ID will be required henceforth, though, was..odd, and, dare I say it, (yup, I do), racist.

Said she:

‘In recent weeks people will be familiar that (sic) we did a crackdown on the border areas, so on foot of the success of all that in early March we took a targeted approach…particularly on people who are non-nationals in the country’

This seems a little strange: on foot of the discovery of people resident in the North of Ireland claiming the South’s more generous social welfare payments, Hanafin’s department decided to investigate…’Eastern Europeans and other non-nationals…because our targeted approach showed up that these are the category at most high-risk (of fraud)’. Huh? The implication of ‘a targeted approach…particularly on people who are non-nationals in the country’ is that the investigation was into nationals and non-nationals, with the empahsis on the latter. In fact, 2,227 non-nationals were investigated, as against 45 Irish nationals. That’s not an approach ‘particularly’ targeted at non-nationals, that’s an approach almost entirely targeted at non-nationals. To imply that this investigation was anything but one into fraudulent claims by non-nationals is entirely disingenuous, the 1.98% of the total made up by Irish nationals notwithstanding. Comparing 45 Irish nationals with 2,227 non-nationals and concluding that the latter is ‘at most high risk’ of fraud is absolutely and unforgiveablely ludicrous. It’s like comparing the GDP of Ireland and China and concluding that we really need to step up to catch up.

Even if you were to follow a kind of logic that allows comparison of two groups that differ by such a huge order of magnitude, as Hanafin does here, the figures she’s quoting don’t back her up. Of the 2,227 non-nationals, 270 (12%) were found to be fraudulently claiming social welfare, while 5 of the 45 Irish people (11%) were doing so. Which would mean that in fact Irish nationals who are at least as ‘high risk’ when it comes to indulging in social welfare fraud*.

Asked if the production of photo ID was to be mandatory, or if Post Office staff could exercise some discretion if the person claiming was known to them, Hanafin replied:

‘We’re making sure that in all categories it’s the right people (claiming)…but obviously Eastern Europeans, and other non-nationals wouldn’t be known to the staff…these are the ones who would be included in this’

Obviously. I’ve lived in my current home for two years and I’ve been to my local Post Office once, to pay an ESB bill. The staff there have absolutely no idea who I am. Of course, there are people who have better relationships with their local Post Office than I do, but many (I’d venture to say most) Irish people don’t. And I’d venture to say that there are probably a few Eastern Europeans and other non-nationals that do.

For a Minister of State to come out with such a blithely racist statement is truly gobsmacking. It’s the result of trying to hitch two subjects which should be entirely unrelated together. Requiring photo ID to collect money in the Post Office is one thing, non-nationals defrauding the social welfare system is another. The reasoning behind lumping the two together seems to have run thus: ‘We found lots of people from Northern Ireland claiming unemployment benefit in the South, so we surveyed lots of the dread Eastern Europeans and other non-nationals and found 12% of them were making fraudulent claims, we have no comparable figures for fraud amongst Irish nationals, so that figure is fairly meaningless, let’s introduce ID checks in Post Offices, oh look, a bee!’

It’s not just Hanafin dropping a clanger in an unscripted interview with Morning Ireland, the official statement released to coincide with the introduction of a photo ID policy for social welfare payment gives us this beauty:

Of the over 2,200 claims targeted for investigation, the vast majority were in the high risk category of non-Irish nationals claiming a payment. These pose a high risk because of their mobility between countries, they may not in fact be resident in this country. However, risk of fraud is always a factor for a system as large as social welfare, and ongoing investigations cover both Irish nationals and non-Irish nationals.

Again, the disingenuous ‘vast majority’ – this was a non-targeted (because that would be racist) targeted investigation. On a side note, the 45 Irish nationals investigated were all in the North-East, which region, uniquely, seems to have been investigated twice


No of Investigations

Payment suspended

No of Investigations

Payment suspended


Irish nationals

North East





North East1





















Thomas Street Local Office2








Perhaps the first investigation in the North East was the earlier one, which involved vehicle checkpoints – in other words, a different investigation lumped in with this one to allow phrases like ‘vast majority’ and ‘particularly’ be bandied about so it won’t seem like the government is, in this instance, cracking down on instances of social welfare fraud amongst non-nationals.

What’s really strange is that neither an investigation into welfare fraud amongst non-nationals nor a requirement to produce photo ID when collecting social welfare payments is particularly controversial (especially when, as they say, investigations are ongoing into fraudulent claims by Irish nationals). It’s odd, then, that the Minister and the Department of Social and Family Affairs should tie themselves into such knots about it.

*I’m not condoning the comparison at all, you can’t compare groups so dissimilar, but if Mary Hanafin is using this flawed logic, it deserves to be pointed out that even her use of it is, well, flawed.


Walter Isaacson doesn’t know how to save your newspaper

Walter Isaacson, writing this month’s Time cover story, hopes that 2009 will see the dawn of ‘a bold, old idea’ for funding newspapers online.  Micropayments.  It is an old idea, it’s true.  Clay Shirky made the case against micropayments back in 2000, and Andrew Odlyzkow in 2003.  Isaacson makes the point that Apple have made a success of a micropayment system through iTunes:

Steve Jobs got music consumers (of all people) comfortable with the concept of paying 99 cents for a tune instead of Napsterizing an entire industry

and neatly elides the point that illegal (free) downloading far outstrips any kind of legal, micropayment driven download service.  Making the point that iTunes makes money from micropayments; ergo, newspapers should charge per article ignores the fact that music isn’t one kind of orange, and newspaper content just another kind of, slightly cheaper, orange.  While, say, the work of star columnists might be comparable to music – as in, something a consumer will seek out, and consequently might be willing to pay for – the constantly shifting product of news desks is not something people will seek out, and pay to keep.  That 99 cent for an iTunes track is a payment for something you can listen to again and again.  A news story isn’t something you rediscover when your ipod’s on shuffle six months down the line.  Paying half a cent for it is half a cent too much, and not only because of its built in redundancy.

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Media Revolution: Stop Press? Stop this..

One does wonder sometimes.  Why a half-hour piece (Media Revolution: Stop Press?, BBC2, Feb 5th) about the decline of the newspaper industry should open with Janet Street Porter pretending to deliver newspapers to South London houses; ‘Ooh, there’s a dog in this one’.  Did I miss the line in the listings that read this was a Newsround special?  After a nail-biting encounter with a recording of a barking dog, JSP gave us the figures: circulations down 10-20%; advertising down 20% over ten years; hundreds of journalists made redundant; 50 or more titles closed in the past year.  What can be done, Janet?

Take a trip to El Vino’s on Fleet Street – the latter described, over romantic archive shots of newspapermen in shirt sleeves, as having once been ‘the beating heart of the world’.  El Vino’s, meanwhile, ‘was like a second office’ to many of those newspapermen.  Fine.  Great, in fact.  But harking back misty-eyed to the halcyon days of print isn’t going to get anyone out of this mess any time soon.  (‘To the newsagent!  We must buy a newspaper so the chaps on Fleet St can drink the day away!  It’s our civic duty!’.  Nah, didn’t think so.)  Derek Jameson, a man who surely knows his online onions, is asked what he thinks the future holds (no jokes about retirement homes and liquid food, please – bit of respect).  He doesn’t think there’s much of a threat from the internet – newspapers have been through revolutions before, and survived every time.  Like with radio after World War II.  Quite.

Then to News International’s new printing presses in Hertfordshire, the biggest in the world.  They can print 86,000 newspapers an hour, up from 30,000 in Wapping.  An interview with Rupert Murdoch fails to have him answer the question ‘Why?’, the answer to which would surely have been an interesting one.  Instead, JSP speculates that the facility to print in full colour afforded by the new presses might be the answer to declining circulations and advertising.  Yes, yes, that’s it.

McFly are interviewed.  I’ll leave that line there unexplained a minute for comedy bamboozle value.

Apart from the online threat, freesheets are hacking into newspapers’ circulation base.  But would people pay for them?  Of course they wouldn’t, they’re purposely as rubbish as it can get away with because they’re free.  Regardless, this question can only be answered by a vox-pop in a busy train station.  A breathless JSP corrals commuters to get them to give the answer she wants: ‘No, I wouldn’t pay for it’.

The clock is ticking down – almost twenty minutes in and so far we’ve learned: newspaper circulations are in decline.  Advertising revenue is in decline.  El Vino’s seems like a cosy spot.

With ten minutes to go JSP addresses the camera, saying newspapers are, ‘Embracing the web as a platform for reaching readers’.  I make a mental note to check if the credits close with © BBC MCMXCVI.  ‘For all its futuristic allure’, we’re told, ‘There’s a problem with online media’.  It doesn’t pay.  JSP is stunned that the Telegraph is pouring resources into its online operation: ‘Can a posh paper like this turn itself into a serious player in the online world?’ she asks.  The rich, you see, having hooves rather than fingers, making keyboards difficult to negotiate.

Finally, a talking head with some dedicated online chops.  Cameron Yuill is an ad exec who has helped the Guardian and the Telegraph, amongst others, create a system that allows location dependent advertising be shown on their sites.  The Guardian, it’s noted, has 7 million unique readers in the US every month.  By targeting advertising at an ever growing global audience, British newspapers may be able to secure at least some part of their future.  Huzzah, an insight!

Then: fin.  This show was never going to be an opus.  But couldn’t it have been just a little bit better?

(McFly released their last album via a free CD giveaway with the Mail on Sunday.  The stunt boosted circulation by 300,000.)

On special tonight: Sea kitten souffle, Omaha steak, and Publicity stunt – p’wned and lightly braised

PETA’s, to be honest, fairly odious campaign to have fish renamed as ‘sea kittens’ has generated a lot of publicity for the organisation; they are masters of the art of whipping up controversy with their PR stunts (see here for a rundown), so it’s hardly surprising.

It’s a deeply stupid idea:

Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called sea kitten sticks? Would sea kitten soufflé be a hot seller at the local seafood restaurant? Does fillet o’ sea kitten sound even remotely appetizing?

and, while the campaign has a high profile, it doesn’t seem to be garnering much support – just over six thousand people have signed a petition for the name change.  The intention, presumably, is to be provocative, but the problem with this kind of provocation is that more often than not, people fail to see any worth in the message because they’re rolled their eyes to heaven already.  Anyone who doesn’t give up at this stage will probably just provoke right back (the nyer nyer dialectic) and sure enough, a couple of pranksters have registered the domain name and mocked up the site to look exactly like PETA’s Save the Sea Kittens page, but with an ad for Omaha steaks in the banner.  The stunt was professional enough to take in AdAge,the Wall Street Journal (‘We looked at today and found atop the page an ad for Omaha Steaks. To our mind, steak is a much better argument against eating fish than kittens are’) and Silicon Alley Insider, for a couple of hours anyway.

The art of the shoe-thrower

A statue honouring Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw his shoe at George Bush back in December, has been unveiled in Tikrit.  It was created by Baghdad artist Laith al-Amari, and features a poem dedicated to al-Zeidi inscribed on the side.  Subversive genius at work?  Perhaps, but Tikrit was Saddam Hussein’s hometown – is the statue dedicated as much to Hussein as al-Zeidi?  Not so, according to the artist, as reported in the Huffington Post:

Laith al-Amari, said the work honors al-Zeidi and “is a source of pride for all Iraqis.” He added: “It’s not a political work”

Good, that means I can laugh along with the peeps in the picture.

Prime time for Time Life

American prime-time tv has been taken over by infomercials, The New York Times reports:

The two-minute commercials, for a DVD set of “The World at War” and a CD of relaxing classical music, both from Time Life, ran during almost every show on the (CBS) network’s recent Saturday nights.

It is a sign of just how bad the advertising market is: infomercials are running during network prime time, filling slots that automobiles and banks once owned.

Time Life are running twice as many prime-time ads as they did this time last year, the piece reports.  And newspapers are filling their ad space with stuff that would previously have been relegated to a 3 x 3 square in the classifieds: USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have both been running full-page ads for an Amish room heater.

Things aren’t looking too good on this side of the world either.  The Sunday Times sold all of page 4 to the National Newspapers of Ireland (Association?), whose ad was a plea for more ads:

News, as the name indicates, is the essential component of newspapers…Press is the one medium that never fails to actively encourage information-seekers.  So if your advertising is in the newspaper, then it’s also in the news.  Make the news today.  With newspaper advertising.


Noticed any Amish room-heaters, or the like, occupying page three of your newspaper?  Tell us in the comments.

Voluntary or compulsory levies for music downloads, or neither?

Reported on Ars Technica on the 19th, in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune on the 25th, and the Guardian on the 26th, the Isle of Man plans to introduce a compulsory €1 charge on all ISP subscriptions on the island to allow unlimited music downloads via peer-to-peer systems.  The idea of charging consumers at source via a monthly fee channelled through ISPs and distributed to composers and publishers by a collecting society (or societies) is not a new one: in 2004 the Electronic Frontier Foundation produced a White Paper mooting voluntary collective licensing.  The concept, they say, is simple,

the music industry forms several “collecting societies,” which then offer file-sharing music fans the opportunity to “get legit” in exchange for a reasonable regular payment, say a total of $5-10 per month

and it has been done before, with radio.  The problem, from the music industry’s perspective, is that there is no guarantee that consumers would pay a voluntary levy.  A safer bet is a compulsory ‘tax’ on monthly ISP subscriptions.  The Songwriters’ Association of Canada proposed this a couple of years back, suggesting:

an amendment to the Copyright Act which would establish a new right: The Right to Equitable Remuneration for Music File Sharing.  We define Music File Sharing as the sharing of a copy of a copyrighted musical work without motive of financial gain.  Since the new right is limited to activities that take place without motive of financial gain, parties who receive compensation for file sharing would not be covered by this right. Therefore, this new right is distinct from rights licensed by legal music sites like iTunes and PureTracks.  The new right would make it legal to share music between two or more parties, whether over Peer to Peer networks, wireless networks, email, CD, DVD, hard drives etc. Distinct from private copying, this new right would authorize the sharing of music with other individuals.

In exchange for this sharing of their work, Creators and rights holders would be entitled to receive a monthly license fee from each internet and wireless account in Canada.

The first and most obvious problem with this system, were it to be implemented, is that it would set a precedent for other lobby groups – film, television, even newspapers – to demand simiar levies for their content.  A second, and equally obvious issue, is that people who don’t download music would be taxed unfairly.

The idea of propping up the music industry is anathema to some:

Forcing people to buy music whether they want to or not is not a solution to this problem. The incentives created by such a system are perverse – guaranteed revenue and guaranteed profits will remove any incentive to innovate and serve niche markets. It will be the death of music.

Music industry revenues will be a set size, regardless of the quality or type of music they release. Incentives to innovate will evaporate. There will only be competition for market share, with no attempt to build the size of market or serve less-popular niches. Forget labels building new brands and encouraging early artists to succeed – they’ll bleed existing big names for all they are worth and work hard to keep anything new – labels, artists, and songwriters – out of the market. New entrants just means more competition for a static amount of money. Collusion by existing players will run rampant.

Soon labels will complain that revenues aren’t high enough to sustain their businesses, and demand a higher tax. It will go up, but it will never go down.

As I said before, Asking the government to prop up a dying industry is always (always) a bad idea. In this case, it is a monumentally stupid, dangerous, and bad idea.


What you’re doing is setting up a big, centrally planned and operated bureau of music, that officially determines the business model of the recording industry, figures out who gets paid, collects the money and pays some money out. The same record industry that has fought so hard against any innovation remains in charge and will have tremendous sway in setting the “rules.” The plan leaves no room for creativity. It leaves no room for innovation. It’s basically picking the only business model and encoding it in stone.

These reactions seem to infused rather with bitterness at the music industry’s greed in the past.  But the point is well-made by both that a static yearly revenue for the music industry would very likely stifle innovation and lead the industry’s big players to try and shut out newcomers.  A voluntary license would at least have the advantage of being competitive – encouraging the industry to continue to innovate and seek out new artists in a bid to increase its uptake.

Whether or not the Isle of Man goes ahead with its compulsory levy remains to be seen, but, realistically, a music ‘tax’ of this nature doesn’t seem to be a viable or fair way to keep the recorded music industry alive.