Saturday 17 January 2009
Richard Ingrams’s Week: This is the worst time for a third runway at Heathrow
There is something very odd about the great third runway debate. The Government, supported by all kinds of business and City interests, insists that Heathrow has to expand as a matter of emergency. At the same time the industry is in a state of crisis with falling numbers of passengers, staff being laid off and in some cases national carriers going bust.
And you can't even blame it on the credit crunch because all this started happening long before the fall of Lehman Brothers. Nor is it solely an economic issue. The fact is that, thanks partly to the elaborate new security checks, people have been put off air travel and will now do anything they can to avoid it.
So how do you reconcile all that with the drive for bigger and better airports – not just Heathrow but Stansted?
To get the answer you have to look at the kind of language ministers use to justify the expansion. It is not remotely specific and suggests that to them an airport is merely a status symbol. To begin with, Heathrow is described as a hub. And not just any old hub. A vital hub. But what does it mean?
Then there is talk of maintaining London's access to world markets or the need to upgrade international connections. In the pre-crunch days we might have been impressed by that kind of talk. But nowadays people have less and less confidence in businessmen and bankers, let alone government ministers. The notion, for example, that the City is a vital magnet on which our prosperity depends now seems ludicrous.
For these and other reasons the anti-runway protesters will have massive support and I don't expect to see the third runway in my lifetime.
Who'd be a newspaper magnate?
In the course of a week's commuting to London, I have acquired a paperback novel, a desk diary, a Thermos flask and a handsome new umbrella. All free of charge, all courtesy of the Evening Standard, which generously gave them away when I bought the paper.
But will there be any more free umbrellas if the paper is sold, as has been reported this week, to a former member of the KGB, Mr Alexander Lebedev, a close associate of the one-time Soviet leader Mr Gorbachev?
Already there is muttering about the propriety of allowing one of our oldest newspapers to be sold to a foreigner.
We ought to bear in mind the fact that newspaper owners in this country have never been distinguished for their respectability. The most famous proprietor of all, Lord Northcliffe, was insane, while his brother, the Daily Mail's owner Lord Rothermere was a keen admirer of Hitler.
In our time, the Daily Mirror 's owner Robert Maxwell was a big-time crook who would have ended up in prison if he hadn't first jumped off his yacht, while the former proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, Conrad Black, is currently serving a long prison sentence in America for fraud.
These are hard times for journalists and we all should just be grateful that there are still a few rich men around who want to own newspapers, even if they may be crooks and fraudsters as the above. In comparison, Mr Lebedev the KGB man seems quite respectable, but if there are still to be free umbrellas, will there be poison in the tip?
It's a bird-eat-bird world, so keep the buzzards out
For some time I have been inviting controversy in this column by arguing against the reintroduction into this country of large birds of prey such as kites, eagles and buzzards, the point being that while small songbirds are on the decline, it makes no sense to encourage the spread of more and more predators that prey on them.
A vivid illustration came this week with dramatic pictures of a rare wading bird, the grey phalarope, being swooped on by a fierce buzzard and carried off to be eaten. The phalarope stood no chance against its predator.
Whenever I mention this issue, particularly with reference to my special bugbear, the red kites, colonies of which are now commonplace in the Home Counties, the birds' defenders write in to say that the kites are lazy, friendly creatures that feed on carrion and help to tidy up the environment in a helpful kind of spirit. The RSPB is particularly good at spreading this pro-kite propaganda.
Apropos this week's buzzard atrocity, an RSPB spokesman was advancing the same type of argument. The attack on the phalarope, he said, was a one-in-a-million chance as "buzzards are not really active hunters".
For information on birds, I prefer to rely on the great ornithologist and engraver Thomas Bewick. He writes of the buzzard in his famous book British Birds, "It feeds on birds, small quadrupeds, reptiles and insects", adding that, to help presumably with his artwork, he was presented with a dead buzzard that had been shot while eating a partridge it had just killed.
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