Christopher Booker's notebook
Tomorrow will see an event for which this column has been waiting for 12 years, ever since I first began reporting on the social, economic and ecological catastrophe of the European Union's common fisheries policy (CFP). I have probably written more articles than any other national newspaper journalist about the astonishing bureaucratic disaster which, in the name of European political integration, has seen not only the wholesale destruction of Britain's fishing industry but also the devastation of what were once the richest fishing waters in the world. This has primarily been caused by the obscene "quota" system, which forces fishermen to "discard" literally millions of tons of fish by dumping them dead back in the sea.
Having to write in such relentlessly negative terms about this politically-engineered tragedy has not been pleasant. What made it even more depressing was that there seemed not a flicker of hope in this story: not one expert or politician who could analyse what had so obviously gone wrong and come up with a properly thought-out and practical alternative.
Yet that is what has emerged at last in a paper on the future of Britain's fisheries to be launched tomorrow by the Conservative front-bench spokesman, Owen Paterson. In the past year Mr Paterson has visited all those countries round the Atlantic where, in striking contrast to the unrelieved disaster of the CFP, fisheries are flourishing. In the US, Canada, Iceland, the Faroes, Norway and even the Falklands, he has seen how it is possible to run an effective management regime, based on sound science, that allows fishermen to prosper and fish stocks to grow.
More than any other British politician, he has seen at first-hand the horrifying consequences of the CFP, such as the laws which force the few remaining Fleetwood trawlers to discard millions of immature plaice in the Irish Sea, because the "one size fits all" rules have been drawn up to benefit trawlers from other countries, fishing for other species.
Now, in a detailed consultation document, he sets out for the first time how the practical methods used so successfully elsewhere in the world could be applied to the waters around Britain. The quota system should be scrapped.
Discarding would be banned. Fisheries management would be taken down to a local level and run on a "days at sea" system, to ensure a constant balance between fishing effort and local stocks. The use of sophisticated selective fishing gear would be mandatory rather than, as so often under the CFP, discouraged or made illegal.
Although these proposals will be cheered by many fishermen, scientists and those experts in other countries whom Mr Paterson consulted in drawing up his paper, the problem is that there is no way they could be adopted by the EU. He is in fact giving practical expression to what has been official Tory policy since 1998: that a Conservative government would pull Britain out of the CFP, which, in Michael Howard's own words, is "emptying our seas of fish and has utterly failed our fishermen". "If necessary," Mr Howard has pledged, "we will legislate in Parliament to make it happen."
The political implications of such a course are enormous. But the choice is now clear. If fish stocks and what survives of our fishing industry are to be saved, here is the only policy to offer hope of a way out of that ramshackle, corrupt, unreformable system that has been arguably the EU's greatest single blunder. Let the debate begin.
A further blow, it seems, is about to be dealt to John Prescott's dream of completing the balkanisation of the UK by dividing England into eight "Euro-regions", each with its own regional government. Following the overwhelming rejection of his planned elected assembly for the North-East, a leaked report for the Association of North-East Councils (Anec) suggests the rug should now be pulled from under the existing, unelected regional assembly as well: by sacking its two most senior officials and disassociating the assembly from Anec, which has been underwriting it to the tune of £850,000 a year.
The consultants' report, leaked to the Newcastle Journal, recommends that the posts of chief executive and head of the assembly's Brussels office should be scrapped. Their holders, Stephen Barber and Stephen Howell, should be made redundant, at a cost to ratepayers estimated at £350,000.
This follows the embarrassing revelation before Christmas by Neil Herron, director of North-East Against A Regional Assembly, that, as members of an "unincorporated association", assembly members could be personally liable in law for the body's financial obligations, including the pension rights of its employees. Until now the assembly has shared its offices and 32 employees with Anec. The report recommends that this arrangement be discontinued.
If Anec withdraws its support, the assembly will be left as no more than a meaningless appendix of central government, without premises or staff. It seems Mr Prescott's dream may be finally about to crumble into dust.
Last week we were subjected to one of the most extraordinary examples of one-sided news management of modern times, as most of our media, led by the BBC, studiously ignored what was by far the most effective and dramatic response to Asia's tsunami disaster. A mighty task force of more than 20 US Navy ships, led by a vast nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, and equipped with nearly 90 helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft, were carrying out a round-the-clock relief operation, providing food, water and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of survivors.
The BBC went out of its way not to report this. Only when one BBC reporter, Ben Brown, hitched a lift from one of the Abraham Lincoln's Sea Hawk helicopters to report from the Sumatran coast was there the faintest hint of the part that the Americans, aided by the Australian navy, were playing.
Instead the BBC's coverage was dominated by the self-important vapourings of a stream of politicians, led by the UN's Kofi Annan; the EU's "three-minute silence"; the public's amazing response to fund-raising appeals; and a Unicef-inspired scare story about orphaned children being targeted by sex traffickers. The overall effect was to turn the whole drama into a heart-tugging soap opera.
The real story of the week should thus have been the startling contrast between the impotence of the international organisations, the UN and the EU, and the remarkable efficiency of the US and Australian military on the ground. Here and there, news organisations have tried to report this, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany, and even the China News Agency, not to mention various weblogs, such as the wonderfully outspoken Diplomad, run undercover by members of the US State Department, and our own www.eureferendum.blogspot.com. But when even Communist China's news agency tells us more about what is really going on than the BBC, we see just how strange the world has become.
One real lesson of this disaster, as of others before, is that all the international aid in the world is worthless unless one has the hardware and organisational know-how to deliver it. That is what the US and Australia have been showing, as the UN and the EU are powerless to do. But because, to the BBC, it is a case of "UN and EU good, US and military bad", the story is suppressed. The BBC's performance has become a national scandal.
Another ludicrous example of how the BBC now pushes its own cock-eyed agenda was an item on Radio 4's You and Yours last week on wind turbines. The message was that, if you install your own turbine, you can make money by selling the surplus to the National Grid.
All five contributors, including the energy minister, Mike O'Brien, were wide-eyed lobbyists for wind power. A man from Kent who has erected a 45-foot turbine at the bottom of his garden, at a cost of £25,000, was asked how much electricity it produced. He admitted that, thanks to the vagaries of the wind, it did not average more than "two or three kilowatts".
The BBC carefully did not explain that this is only enough to power a couple of electric fires, or boil a few kettles. Not a huge return for his £25,000 investment – but now the Governmnent hopes the whole country will fall into the same self-deception.