Inauspicious start to 2019

A family custom we fastidiously observed when I was still living at home with my parents and siblings was to listen to the local lunchtime news on Radio Gibraltar. Much as Brexit now worries us, in the late 1970s we were concerned about what the future held for the Rock in the uncertain post-Franco era.

Initial optimism that the death of the Spanish dictator in 1975 would lead to improved relations and a swift reopening of the border soon subsided. The Strasbourg process that began in 1977 resulted in little more than the restoration of telephone links, and it gradually began to dawn on us that newly democratic Spain might seek to exact a sovereignty price for reopening the frontier gate.

It was against this background that Foreign Office minister Sir Ian Gilmour was despatched to Gibraltar in July 1979 to put across directly to the Gibraltarians the views of the recently elected Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Many drew comfort from his comment that Her Majesty’s Government considered the continuing Spanish restrictions to be “unjustifiable”. But it was another word he used, as reported by GBC in that 1.30pm radio news bulletin, that sat ill with me: the minister said it was “inconceivable” that the frontier should remain closed in an enlarged European Economic Community.

Spain had already applied to join the EEC and the UK had said it would fully support the application, irrespective of the Gibraltar dispute. Therefore, Sir Ian’s apparent linking of European Community membership with the lifting of restrictions did not go down well in Madrid. But what stuck in my mind was that word “inconceivable”. If you really mean “impossible” why not say so? After all, what’s inconceivable today may be quite feasible tomorrow. Just ask Theresa May. The frontier of course did eventually reopen, but not for another five and a half years.

What evoked this memory was the announcement by Jyske Bank that it intends to sell its Gibraltar subsidiary. There are no longer, the bank said, “any crucial synergies between the operations in Denmark and Gibraltar … (nor) the same strategic match between the subsidiary bank and the Group”. But another factor was the risk posed by Brexit. Gibraltar, Jyske’s statement added, “will follow Britain out of the European Union and may be subject to legislation different from the rest of the Jyske Bank Group”.

Yet, shortly before the European Union referendum, the bank was upbeat about the future of its local operation regardless of the outcome of the referendum. In an interview with me in March 2016, CEO Christian Bjørløw said Jyske had diversified over the years and was well placed to survive a Brexit. “I’m not afraid for our operation at all” he asserted, before concluding that the local subsidiary was “as solid as the Rock”. There’s “inconceivable” for you. By the way, the interview is still available on YouTube.

It’s been rather an inauspicious start to the year hasn’t it?

Besides the Jyske Bank blow we’ve seen:

  • Major trade union discontent on the issue of agency workers.
  • Government warnings that, in the event of a no deal Brexit, Gibraltar European health insurance cards will cease to be valid throughout the EU, the use of Gibraltar ID cards for EU travel purposes may no longer be allowed and surcharge-free mobile roaming would no longer be guaranteed.
  • The withdrawal of Sky Television’s channels.
  • Tragically, the discontinuation after existing stocks have run dry of Gibraltar’s very own ‘Brand 5’ lemonade.

Here’s hoping that, as per the title of D:Ream’s smash hit (Labour’s 1997 election campaign song, incidentally): Things Can Only Get Better.

Sky Falls

Memories fade with time, but few of us who lived it will easily forget the impact that the arrival of satellite television had in Gibraltar.

Right up until the early 1980s our viewing options were limited to GBC, a handful of Spanish terrestrial channels and Moroccan TV if you were lucky. Then along came MTV, and suddenly everyone wanted to watch music videos. Unsightly satellite dishes sprouted from rooftops until the entrepreneurial masterminds of today’s communal systems took over and removed many of them. The likes of Sky News and CNN transformed the way we consumed news with their 24-hour rolling coverage. A veritable smorgasbord of specialist channels blossomed catering for pretty much all tastes: “adult” films to cartoons, TV shopping to documentaries, movies to sitcoms.

Arguably the real game changer, though, was Sky Sports.

It introduced me, and I imagine many others, to the delights of test cricket and more arcane sports like rugby league. Boxing, as well as the golf and tennis majors could now be enjoyed on a regular basis.

Most significantly, Sky brought live UK club football for the first time ever into our living rooms. In the past, English footie on the box was restricted to the FA Cup Final and recorded highlights of the previous weekend’s top-flight matches. That changed dramatically when Sky Sports was awarded the exclusive rights to broadcast up to 60 live Premier League matches a year from the 1992/93 season. It seemed too good to be true.

And that’s precisely what my GBC management colleagues and I were told it was by a visiting Sky executive not long after I was appointed news editor in 1996. As GBC sought to adapt to the brave new world of satellite TV one avenue we explored was the possibility of simulcasting the programmes of UK channels such as Sky News during certain hours of the day. That didn’t prosper and we were further warned that Sky would soon pull the plug on the broadcasting of its sports, films and entertainment channels by local operators who were not paying for the full rights to do so.

Given that this conversation took place more than 20 years ago, the only surprise for me about losing Sky’s channels – with those of other providers likely to go the same way – is that it’s taken so long; I guess Gibraltar’s small size made us not worth bothering about. But that was always going to change once an entity seeking to offer a properly licensed service objected to competitors who made hundreds of channels available to their customers for a relative pittance.

I’m as unhappy as the next person at the prospect of seeing my viewing choices drastically reduced, but I’m also realistic enough to acknowledge that as a community we’ve had it too good for too long. My hope now is that a way will be found to enable us to continue to receive the most popular channels, even if it means paying more for them.

Maybe, in this election year, the government will ride to the rescue?

No Laughing Matter

The Metropolitan Police was the unlikely harbinger of Christmas cheer when it made public a selection of the funniest “emergency” calls it received in the year to 30 November.

Among the genuine 999 calls were a man in a stew because it was taking too long for his lunch to be served at a London pub and a woman who complained that her bus driver had been whistling throughout her journey. “What if everybody starts whistling or singing in the bus?” she fretted. Meanwhile, someone rang simply to say Happy New Year, while a prankster claimed that KFC had run out of chicken. He quickly hung up though when they told him they could see from where he was phoning.

The officer in charge of the Force’s call handling wasn’t amused. Chief Superintendent David Jackson pointed out that nuisance calls take away police resources at a time that police numbers and funding are stretched. The Met received more than two million emergency calls in the first eleven months of 2018 of which nearly 22,000 were time-wasting calls.

“Imagine if one of your friends or loved ones was in need of the police as quickly as possible and it turned out we could not help because we were having to deal with one of these hoax calls – I’m sure that you, like us, would be devastated and extremely annoyed”, Mr Jackson sniffed.

It’s a problem that afflicts the Royal Gibraltar Police too. Between October 2017 and March 2018 the RGP’s control room received more than three thousand supposedly urgent calls, but only one in six was deemed to be an emergency requiring an immediate response.

Time-wasting calls included:

  • Complaints about the noise of the fair – not ours: La Línea’s!
  • A resident who expected the boys in blue to remove a baby seagull from their balcony.
  • Ditto, demanding assistance because their boiler had burst.
  • Moans about a cockerel’s persistent crowing.
  • Requests for help because the housing estate’s communal satellite TV system had broken down.

Not to mention people dialling 199 just to ask the time or whether it’s raining.

Like his UK counterparts, Commissioner Ian McGrail will be hoping for far fewer dud calls in 2019.

DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH

A year ago in this column I set out some of my wishes for 2018.

Happily a couple of them came true: government projects cannot now go ahead without the approval of the Development and Planning Commission, a 2011 GSLP/Liberals election manifesto commitment finally honoured following the introduction of the Town Planning Act in August. And the parking situation at the parcel post office has greatly improved with the facility’s move from the North Mole to Europort.

Still no delivery, though, on another 2011 pledge: a sewage treatment plant. A contract for one was “placed” in October 2014 and last January an Advanced Works Contract was awarded. I asked the government about the delay in getting this project off the ground and was told that construction is expected to begin when the Environmental Impact Assessment is completed and contractual negotiations have been finalised.

While these are “currently programmed” during the first quarter of 2019, we could probably do worse than hold our nose, rather than our breath.

Good News for Once

A year and a half ago in this column I criticised the pervasiveness of television betting adverts during live sporting events, especially football matches. What most annoyed me was the way these ads attempt to cajole prospective punters who are, mainly, young men (as a Times columnist put it: “Women are too smart for this game”) into thinking that having a flutter on the result of a match, the goal scorers or things like the number of bookings or corners, is somehow cool or macho. I referred at the time to a study that found that a quarter of men between the ages of 18 and 24 had gambling problems of varying degrees of severity.

Happily, the penny has dropped.

Last month the UK Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG) announced a “whistle to whistle” ban on all TV betting commercials during pre-watershed (9pm) live sport, starting five minutes before the event begins and ending five minutes after it finishes. As the IGRG’s press release states, this will “effectively stop betting adverts from being shown in commercial breaks during televised live sport”. It’s expected that the measure will be introduced next summer, before the start of the 2019/2020 football season.

The ban is voluntary, but it’s in response to growing pressure from MPs on the government and betting companies to do more to tackle problem gambling. The Labour Party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said that: “With over 430,000 problem gamblers in the country, many of them children, the number of adverts during live sports had clearly reached crisis levels”. He sees the decision as recognition that the “proliferation of gambling adverts has got completely out of hand” and says the next step should be to curb the number of gambling advertisements online. According to the UK Gambling Commission one in ten children follow social media accounts run by betting companies, illustrating the extent of the problem.

The industry may also wish to consider whether, in the light of the forthcoming TV ban, it’s acceptable for football clubs to continue to endorse betting companies on their match-day shirts and for gambling adverts to still be shown on stadium publicity hoardings.

As a committed Manchester United fan, this season is proving to be a disappointing one for me. Maybe under a new manager our fortunes will improve. But even if they don’t, watching televised matches should be a more pleasurable experience come August, without the likes of actor Ray Winstone haranguing me to place an “in play” bet on whether a particular player will be sent off or how many throw-ins there’ll be.

NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS

 We’d discussed it at home some time before the announcement was made – all hell’s going to break loose this Christmas when angry motorists, their cars chock-full of presents, find they can’t park anywhere thanks to the residential parking scheme. They’re going to have to call an amnesty, I predicted.

Sure enough, up popped the minister for Planning on our TV screens to tell us that all residential and district parking zones were being temporarily suspended over the festive season. Until today in fact: be careful where you park tomorrow.

This, the minister told us, would allow everyone to celebrate with family and friends without having to be concerned about parking. So why not relieve us of those concerns all year round? After all, to paraphrase the UK Dogs Trust’s famous slogan, Family and Friends are for Life, not just for Christmas.