The writing on the wall

Submitted by Anon on 18 June, 2003 - 1:00
  • Wrong number?
  • Black's dead, long live...?
  • Making the links

Wrong number?

According to a survey by government regulators, the all-new, competitive, market-marvellous telephone directory inquiry services give wrong answers to up to seven in ten inquiries.

The worst service, 118 355, gave 67% wrong answers to people with the simplest queries, for a British home number. On average over all the services, 38% of inquiries for British numbers got wrong answers, and 63% of inquiries for overseas numbers.

Isn't it wonderful how the free market ensures efficiency?

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When the national rail phone inquiry service, 08457 484950, was set up, a similar survey found over 80% of wrong replied to inquiries.

It is now the busiest phone number in Britain, and the train companies plan to set up a call centre for it in India.

Whether that is because the information has become more accurate is another matter.

The Guardian did a spot check last month, asking for London-Birmingham day return fares. The journey costs from £17 to £93 second class, depending on what ticket you buy.

The phone inquiry number failed to mention one of the cheaper fares. One of the two websites run by train companies for Internet ticket bookings failed to mention any return tickets which can be bought on the day for cheaper than £93, although in fact you can do it for £25, and two singles bought on the day can come to between £37.80 and £59.60.

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Another survey, by ZDNet UK, finds that call centres are taking longer to answer at all (correctly or otherwise).

Don't give up and try to do your inquiry by email instead. Replies from inquiry centres to emails are also getting slower. The average wait is now 22 hours, and there is no guarantee that the reply email is even relevant to the query, let alone correct.

The reasons are often simpler than the train companies' bizarrely complicated fare schedules.

Call centre workers' real pay has not risen since 1999, and averages just £15,000 across Europe, £14,500 in Britain, although fully two-thirds of British call-centre workers have union-negotiated pay agreements.

Low pay and stressful work conditions mean that 25% of call centre workers quit every year, and the percentage is increasing. Absenteeism is also high.

Black's dead, long live...?

It has been a good month for media billionaire and union-basher Rupert Murdoch. He got his younger son James shooed in as boss of BSkyB. The National Association of Pension Funds, representing big shareholders in BSkyB, grumbled but could not block the appointment.

And Murdoch's rival Conrad Black has been struck down by being caught out in a financial scandal.

Black has had to resign as chief executive of his company, Hollinger International, and may face investigation by the USA's Securities and Exchange Commission, after it came out that he took $7.2 million for himself, and $16.5 million for a private company controlled by him, as side-payments in deals where he sold off some US newspapers.

Black is likely to have to sell off his newspapers, which include the Daily Telegraph, key rival to Murdoch's Times for the hard-right, pro-Bush, anti-euro, higher-income newspaper market in Britain.

The money was in "non-compete" fees. These, believe it or not, are normal payments at that level of business - for doing nothing, that is, for not competing with the sold-off papers. The trouble with Black is not that the fees were paid, but that he pocketed the money personally rather than it going to the company.

Rupert Murdoch has just paid a non-compete fee of £10 million ($17 million) to Tony Ball, the man from whom James Murdoch takes over at the top of BSkyB, with complaints made by shareholders only about how big the sum is paid to Ball for not setting up or helping a rival satellite TV company.

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Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and James's older brother Lachlan, who now runs the New York Post and Fox TV in the USA, have between them received $528 million from the Murdoch business empire over the last five years, according to the Australian website crikey.com.au.

That's £225 million, or as much per day as an average call centre worker earns in eight years.

Lachlan's previous business ventures include the Australian telecom company OneTel, which collapsed with huge debts and huge scandals in 2000.

James dropped out of university; set up a record business which his dad's company then bought out; and ran a failed Internet business. Now he is supposed to have qualified himself for BSkyB by success in running the Murdoch satellite TV company in Hong Kong, Star TV.

According to Joe Studwell of the China Economic Quarterly, Star TV has moved from huge losses to a small annual profit in the last four years, but all James Murdoch did was "hold the tiller in the position it was already fixed".

"James's kow-towing to Beijing has been somewhere between risible and sick".

Following his father's line, he denounced Hong Kong's democracy movement and accused "the western media" of "painting a relentlessly negative picture of the Chinese government".

Making the links

Black's fall is good news not only for Murdoch, but also for George Galloway, who is suing the Telegraph for libel over documents it published about money from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government.

Anyone who thinks that it automatically vindicates Galloway should, however, think again.

In the first place, that Black is keen on grabbing shady millions would - all things being equal - deter him from publishing articles likely to bring costly libel suits.

In the second place, Galloway's answer to the Telegraph story - that he got no cash from Iraq, but his political operations were financed by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates - is as damning as the original claim against him.

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As damning. Or it should be. But not for some.

The current ("winter") issue of Resistance carries no fewer than three photos of Galloway and an editorial reassuring readers that Galloway's claim that the electoral coalition which he plans to lead will unite "socialists, liberals and conservatives" should not be "a barrier to participation".

And the great "lesson of the postal workers' walk-outs", according to Resistance, is that Galloway's appearance on a picket line with postal workers (cue: another photo of Galloway) "shows there is something new in the air".

Yes, but what does it smell of?

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