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Comment... And a Bit of News

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There has been a lot of discussion at the Leveson Inquiry about the desirability of having a much clearer distinction in our print media between what is news and what is comment. Lord O'Donnell, Alastair Campbell and Andrew Marr have all given their thoughts on this over the past few days and I hear it's already standard practice in America for such a distinction to be made. Having been on the receiving end myself of a few comment pieces masquerading as news, I'm drawn to a media future in which it is crystal clear to a reader whether what they are reading is fact or fiction (however well informed that fiction might or might not be).

So, with that in mind, and hopeful that positive changes do result from the Inquiry, I'm going to write this particular article in a post-Leveson style. And I'm going to apply it to a current issue that lends itself to lots of comment but, I would argue, not nearly enough news; the very pressing issue of UK's airport capacity.

Firstly then, the news. It's a fact that Britain has slipped back into recession. We are now in a double dip. Our economy contracted by 0.3% in the first three months of this year, worse than the Office for National Statistics prediction of a 0.2% contraction. The downward revision is due to a bigger contraction in construction output than previously estimated.

In his recent Manchester speech on the economy, the prime minister said "we are doing everything we can to return this country to strong, stable economic growth." He went on to say, "I have a clear task: to keep Britain safe. Not to take the easy course - but the right course."

It's a further fact that the government has yet to publish its aviation strategy. It was due to release a consultation document on aviation in March but publication has been delayed until later this summer. (There is much speculation in Whitehall circles about the cause of the delay but as this is my news section I won't repeat it here). What is on the public record is the government's current position that all options for capacity expansion in the south-east will be considered apart from a third runway at Heathrow. A third runway at the UK's existing international hub airport is simply not up for discussion.

It's also worth me including - as a matter of news - that Heathrow already lags behind major European airports in terms of the number of flights it operates to China, Russia and Brazil.

According to the Evening Standard, China's biggest aerospace company has chosen to base its European headquarters in Paris rather than London because of the French capital's better air links. And the British Chambers of Commerce has stated that for every year the third runway at Heathrow is delayed, it costs the UK around £1 billion. It estimates that construction of the third runway would provide up to 60,000 jobs, with operations at the expanded Heathrow creating up to 8,000 new jobs by 2030.

News done. Now for the comment. The government's inability to make a rational decision (indeed any decision) on airport capacity is damaging the UK economy right here right now. At a time when our economy needs all the help it can get, the fact that we are losing out on millions of pounds of investment from abroad because of weak leadership and party-political dilly-dallying is irresponsible and indefensible. A decision must be taken and it must be taken fast. Until it is, it is simply not true for this government to say that it is doing everything it can to return the country to strong economic growth. Far from it.

On the specific issue of a third runway at Heathrow, the government must bring it back to the table for discussion. In these perilous economic times it is political folly to dismiss an option that: does not require large amounts of public money, would bring thousands of construction jobs to west London and permanent jobs in the longer term, would significantly boost UK's prosperity and be the quickest way of addressing our urgent need to increase airport capacity.

Whilst I am commenting, I will go as far as to say that I believe the Mayor of London agrees with me on all of this. Boris is nothing if not a cunning political plotter. When he talks about his island airport, he does it with his tongue very firmly in cheek. It's a fantasy. He knows it and he knows the public know it but that's precisely why he can wax lyrical about it in the full and safe knowledge it will never actually happen. His opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is not in London's best interest - but it is in his. It endears him even further to Conservative voters in leafy south west London and that's something he cares about with his next career move in mind. It also conveniently means that he can leave the real, tough decisions about airport capacity to someone else - at the end of the day it's not actually in the Mayor's remit.

Boris' stance is a calculated cop-out. Comments anyone?

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