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Sunday Telegraph

Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 08/05/2005)

The paper-boy is facing the final round

Could the selling of newspapers and magazines by your local newsagent, even their delivery to your door, soon be a thing of the past? In the name of bringing Britain into line with EC law, a document to be published this week threatens to strike a devastating blow at the system whereby all such periodicals are distributed. The industry fears that, without a change to the policy set in train by Patricia Hewitt, as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, up to 12,000 retailers may no longer be able to afford to handle newspapers and magazines, and as many as 1,000 periodicals could be forced to close.

At present wholesalers can bid for exclusive rights to distribute periodicals in some 100 "territories" across the UK. Although this system has flaws, its advantage is that it allows all periodicals, regardless of their sales, to be distributed on equal terms throughout the country. When the Office of Fair Trading was asked by Miss Hewitt to assess whether this system conformed with EC "competition" law, they concluded - as will be set out in an opinion to be published this week - that exemption from the EC rules could be given to newspapers but not to magazines.

The trouble is that, once one part of the distribution system is opened up to competition, the whole thing comes crashing down. If supermarkets can make their own arrangements for magazines, undercutting the monopoly, the wholesale distributors would have to make up their losses by charging more for the business which remains.

The two main trade associations representing the newspaper and periodical publishers commissioned Prof Hugh Dobson, a business economist, to carry out a study of the likely consequences, based on confidential trade data. He concluded that the increased charges resulting from this "supermarkets' charter" could so distort the market that it would no longer be economical for up to 12,000 retailers and 1,000 specialist magazine titles to continue.

This was precisely what happened when a similar system was introduced in the US. Although corner shops are often so frustrated by the inefficiencies of the present system that the National Federation of Retail Newsagents is backing the OFT's proposed changes, the publishing associations believe they would be swapping the frying pan for the fire.

There is a parallel here with what is happening to our system for delivering mail. The Post Office monopoly ensured that mail could be distributed to all parts of the UK for the same price. But now that EC law is seeking to "liberalise" the postal market, by opening it up to competition, private firms can afford to cream off its more lucrative segments, such as bulk delivery of business mail in London, thus depriving the Royal Mail of the profits which enable it to deliver to Stornoway at a uniform rate.

Similarly, without the corner newsagent or village shop, we may eventually have to rely for our daily and weekly reading on Tesco or Asda - all in the name of giving greater choice and better value to the consumer.

When Tony Blair was told about this at a recent meeting with magazine editors, he was clearly shocked and promised "personally to look into the issue". But when he discovers that it is being done in the pursuit of our "closer alignment with EC law", he may realise that there is nothing he can do about it.

Ukip scuppered the Eurosceptics

The untold story of the election was the absurdly disproportionate impact of the UK Independence Party. Although their vote may have looked derisory, in no fewer than 26 seats where the Tories narrowly lost, including Harlow yesterday, the Ukip vote was greater than the winner's majority.

If most of those votes had gone to the Tories (a fair assumption) they would thus have won 26 more seats, Labour 17 fewer, the Lib Dems nine fewer. This would have wiped out most of the Lib Dems' 11 net gains, giving them only two seats more than in 2001. Mr Blair's majority would have been cut to a mere 32.

Ukip's net effect may thus have been not only to cost the Tories a swathe of seats such as Battersea, Hove, Torbay and Westmoreland, but to deprive the Commons of strongly Eurosceptic MPs, while assisting the return of Europhiles. In Eastleigh, for instance, Ukip kept out the Eurosceptic Conor Burns, ensuring that it was held for the Lib Dems by Chris Huhne, a rabidly Europhile former Euro-MP.

An unresolved riddle of the 2005 election must therefore be what might have been the result of Michael Howard taking a more robustly intelligent line on the "European" issue, rather than stuffing it away out of sight. If the Tories hope to win next time, this is one of the first lessons they must ponder.

Brussels brings down the last Fortress

It seems curiously symbolic that this summer's celebrations of "Victory in Europe" will not include fly-pasts by Britain's last airworthy Flying Fortress. For those of us old enough to remember B-17s over the skies of southern England in 1943 and 1944, as they flew out for daylight raids on the Continent (rather fewer of them returning), it is poignant that the Sally B, owned and run at Duxford by a charity, should have been grounded by a regulation from "Europe".

The Sally B's website (www.sallyb. org.uk) tells the sorry tale of how, under EC regulation 785/2004, the B-17 must now be classified for insurance purposes alongside commercial airliners, prohibitively raising its premiums to the equivalent of 1,000 for each hour of flying time.

It is painful to read the letters from a British minister and the head of our Civil Aviation Authority, explaining how, since this is a Brussels regulation, they have no power to grant an exemption for the B-17, although it may seem absurd that the law has been drafted on such a one-size-fits-all basis.

So the last of the "Forts" that helped save Europe 60 years ago, and which serves as an official memorial to the 79,000 US aircrew who lost their lives, can no longer fly again. Bless you, "Europe".

UK looks away as bushmen are robbed of rights

It is now nine years since, through my friendship with the late Laurens van der Post, I was drawn into reporting the horrible drama unfolding in Botswana, whose government has been ruthlessly determined to evict the last bushmen from their ancestral home in the vast Central Kalahari game reserve. Their plight has only been made worse by the way that our own Government, in collaboration with the European Union, has connived in this persecution.

When Britain gave Botswana independence in 1966, thanks partly to van der Post, its constitution guaranteed the bushmen the right to live in the reserve for ever. But since 1996 the Botswanan government has used any method, including torture and blocking water supplies, to force the bushmen into a degrading settlement on the edge of the reserve which they call "the place of death".

One reason for this is that the reserve is now being prospected for more of the diamonds which make Botswana the richest nation, per capita, in Africa. The Botswanan government does not want the bushmen claiming any interest in them. Since the country is one of those areas of foreign policy that Britain has handed over as an EU responsibility, whenever our High Commissioner has visited the Kalahari he has done so with EU colleagues, happy to accept the government line that the evictions are only taking place to bring the bushmen all the benefits of modern education and health care.

Now, thanks to the interest taken by the outside world in this crime against humanity, led by the campaign group Survival International, a landmark court case is being fought on the bushmen's behalf, depending in part on that Article 14 of the 1966 constitution. But Botswana's government is so determined to get its way that it now plans to repeal that constitutional guarantee.

The US government may protest at such blatant skulduggery, but the EU will not, because it supports Botswana's official policy. And our own Government will continue meekly to agree with our EU partners, despite the fact that it was Britain which insisted on that guarantee being put into the constitution in the first place.