The NewsFuror

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Virgin's Rock bid may be blocked

Northern Rock sign
Northern Rock's future is looking less bright, analysts say.
A main investor in troubled lender Northern Rock says that it will oppose Richard Branson's Virgin Group's bid for the bank because it is too low.

Virgin was earlier named as Northern Rock's preferred buyer, a move that had been backed by the Treasury.

However, Rab Capital, which is the second-largest shareholder in Northern Rock, said it would oppose the move.

Should a takeover fall through, then the bank could be nationalised or put into administration.

Rab, which owns about 6.7% of the bank, told the BBC that Virgin's offer was "cheeky" and that the value it put on Northern Rock was "too low".

BBC business editor Robert Peston said that opposition represented "a major obstacle for Virgin and an embarrassment for the Rock board".

Northern Rock's shares rose 29% to 110.1 pence, and had climbed as much as 48% during earlier trading.

This stock is not for the faint hearted and the range of outcomes for shareholders is very wide
Nic Clarke of Charles Stanley

Despite the big rise in Northern Rock's share price, some analysts cautioned that it was not yet certain whether it represented a good buy for investors.

"This stock is not for the faint hearted and the range of outcomes for shareholders is very wide," said Nic Clarke, an analyst at Charles Stanley.

New name

Newcastle-based Northern Rock hit funding difficulties in September after world credit markets dried up, and it was required to go to the Bank of England for emergency loans to cover its day-to-day funding requirements.

Northern Rock market capitalisation
1 Jan Northern Rock starts the year in apparently good order
14 Sept Markets react to the news of the Bank of England's support for Northern Rock
23 Nov Northern Rock's market value stands at £362m
26 Nov Virgin values Northern Rock at £200m

The Virgin offer proposes an injection of £1.3bn of new cash into the Rock, with half of that money coming from the consortium.

The remainder would be raised through an offer to existing Rock shareholders to buy new shares for 25 pence each.

On that basis, Virgin values Northern Rock at £200m, considerably less than its current market value of £362m.

Virgin would end up with 55% of the new company, leaving current shareholders with 45%.

The new business would be rebranded Virgin Money, though it would keep its existing stock market listing.

Under the terms of the deal, Virgin's would immediately repay £11bn out of the £25bn Northern Rock owes the Bank of England.

Virgin will then repay the remaining £14bn of Treasury loans over the next three years.

'Difficult times'

The Virgin-led consortium has also informed the Rock that it has no current intention of making "any material reduction" in employment in Northern Rock.

It also says that it intends to continue operating the business from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

BBC business editor Robert Peston
Branson could not profit from our misery, even though some will doubtless accuse the Treasury of using our money to help him make spectacular potential long-term gains

Northern Rock chairman Bryan Sanderson, described the proposed deal as "very good news" for the bank.

"Over the last few weeks and months we have looked at the issues from the perspective of all stakeholders," he said.

"I am grateful for the support that we have had from customers and employees who have stayed loyal to us during these difficult times - and pleased that a solution that firmly restores the company's prospects has been identified.

"Furthermore our retail depositors can be fully reassured that the government has said it will ensure savers' money is safe whatever the outcome."

Of the ten expressions of interest from financial institutions in taking control of Northern Rock, Virgin's was said to be preferable because it offered the best deal to the beleaguered lender's shareholders.

Not happy

A number of other shareholders also could create problems for the Virgin bid. The biggest shareholder is a hedge fund SRM Global, while at the other end of the scale is a group representing individuals with small holdings.

"If we feel that we are being entirely ripped off, ripped out, kicked out of the long term, then shareholders may not be happy to just to roll over and go along with these people who it has been reported are preferred bidders," said Robin Ashby of the Northern Rock Small Shareholders Group.

BBC business editor Robert Peston said Virgin has agreed it will only pay itself "normal" dividends from Northern Rock until all public money is repaid - thus avoiding the potential embarrassment for the Treasury of the group making spectacular profits with the help of the taxpayer-backed loan.

Yet our correspondent warned that if there was a severe housing market recession over the next two or three years, taxpayers may not get all of their £25bn back.

"The equity Sir Richard is putting into the business - including more than £200m of his own money - would be wiped out in those circumstances," Mr Peston said.

"In other words, he could not profit from our misery, even though some will doubtless accuse the Treasury of using our money to help him make spectacular potential long-term gains."

Oxfam calls for drug firm action

Nigerian children wearing T-shirts with the Aids symbol
Many Africans do not get Aids treatment because of lack of funds
Drug firms are missing out on a huge potential market by failing to make drugs affordable for the world's poor, a report by charity Oxfam suggests.

Drug firms have made "halting progress" in increasing access to medicine, but much more needs to be done, Oxfam said.

The world's biggest drug firms have done little research into diseases that affect poor people, the report said.

And their overzealous protection of patents means many poor people cannot afford the drugs they need.

Priced out

Currently 85% of the world's population is priced out of the industry's market, the report said.

Those who cannot afford drugs often pay with their lives.

Malaria claims the lives of one million people every year, while two million people die annually from TB.

Tanzanian pharmaceuticals factory, TPI
Production of HIV/Aids drugs is already under way in Tanzania

Anti-poverty charity Oxfam says prices for essential medicines need to be tiered, in line with people's ability to pay.

Some companies do offer different prices but often "solely as a reflection of the publicity that surrounds the disease or the country", the report said.

Drug firms rely over heavily on donations to deliver affordable drugs and do little research into the drugs developing countries need, it added.

Between 1999 and 2004, there were only three new drugs targeted at diseases affecting the developing world out of 163 drugs brought to market, the report said.

Justify the cost

Leading pharmaceutical companies argue that they need to charge higher prices to justify the billions of dollars they spend on research and development.

High taxes and mark-ups by pharmacists and dispensing doctors also push medicine prices higher, they point out.

In addition, their drugs and brands are often ripped off in countries with poor copyright protection.

But, by refusing to offer prices that suit the pocket of its poorer consumers, drug firms are losing out, Oxfam argues.

These economies offer huge market potential but industry needs a "vastly different approach: one which reflects the significance of massive income disparities", the report said.

"The industry is operating in a short-sighted way because it could gain enormous benefits from emerging markets, including lower development costs and cheaper manufacturing. Yet instead it continues to blindly use the same strategies in poor countries," Oxfam's head of research Sumi Dhanarajan said.

South African miners eye strike

South African miners
Nearly 200 workers die in South African mines every year
South African mine workers are planning a one-day nationwide strike in protest at poor safety in the country's mines.

About 240,000 workers may take part in the strike, scheduled for 4 December, the first countrywide strike by miners.

More than 180 workers have been killed this year in the country's mines, slightly fewer than 200 deaths in 2006.

Unions and miners will meet with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) on Tuesday ahead of a final decision on the strike.

"We expect a final decision today," the National Union of Mineworkers' general secretary Frans Baleni said.

The CCMA has the power to permit a strike.

South Africa is Africa's biggest gold exporter and the strike would stop work at global firms such as AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony.

The world's top platinum producers Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum also have operations in South Africa.

A miner was killed at Gold Field's Driefontein mine on Saturday, while another worker died at the firm's Kloof mine on Friday.

New twist in Airbus share probe

Aerial shot of Airbus A380 plane
Delays to the Airbus A380 have cost the firm billions
Managers at defence and aerospace firm EADS were aware of problems affecting A380 planes before they sold their shares, a businessman has claimed.

The BBC's Dominic Laurie has learned that the new allegations will be given to an investigation of insider trading at EADS, the parent firm of Airbus.

The trading in shares occurred shortly before news about delays to the A380 superjumbo were made public last June.

EADS denies it knew about delays when millions of euros of shares were sold.

The announcement wiped 26% off the value of Franco-German EADS.

New evidence

German investigators are investigating the extensive sale of stock options by certain senior managers and key shareholders before the problems with the plane were revealed.

Key French politicians in power at the time have been called in front of parliament to give evidence of what they knew about the dealings, and when.

"EADS says it has not been accused of any insider trading, that investigations are still continuing, and that it is cooperating fully with stock market authorities," said Dominic Laurie, the BBC's correspondent in Brussels. "And executives who did sell shares at that time have also always said the timing was merely unfortunate - and that they had no privileged information," he added.

However, French businessman Jean Galli-Douani told the BBC that this was not the case.

Mr Galli-Douani claims that senior executives at the firm knew about serious problems with the A380 project long before they made that information public.

His allegations stem from March last year, when Mr Galli-Douani was trying to solve a contractual dispute and he claims he could not get hold of any senior management at EADS to sort it out.

Mr Galli-Douani alleges that recently a senior executive admitted to him that at the time they could not take his calls because they were busy trying to resolve problems to do with the A380.

This followed a previous conversation in November last year when another executive had suggested that management had been caught up with "general problems at Airbus".

African nations in EU trade deal

Textile factory in Nairobi
African nations are looking to boost their exports to key markets
The five countries that make up the East African Community will open their markets to the European Union (EU).

An EU official said the deal will create a stepping stone to open trading relations between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the EU.

The new agreement will replace preferential trade obligations, which are due to expire in December.

A number of other nations in Western Africa, and some Pacific nations, have yet to accept the new arrangements.

EU preferential market access deals with many of its former colonies have been heavily criticised by other nations, particularly in Latin America.

These have been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organisation and the 27 member bloc has until the end of the year to establish new arrangements.

But concerns have been raised that the Economic Partnership Agreements could damage poor African countries by cutting their customs revenue.

EU to pressure China on currency

A bank worker counts Chinese yuan
Europe is calling for the yuan to be strengthened
The European Union (EU) is expected to pressure China to allow its currency to strengthen more quickly at a bilateral summit in China this week.

The weak yuan has buoyed exports to Europe, which has seen its trade deficit with China soar.

"We will have a large tour d'horizon on all matters, including of course the currency question," European Central Bank boss Jean-Claude Trichet said.

But China wants to loosen control of its currency at its own pace.

On Tuesday, Mr Trichet will meet with central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan.

And on Wednesday, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao will meet Mr Trichet, Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU's monetary affairs commissioner Joaquin Almunia.

Holding its ground

In talks earlier this week with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the Chinese view of a slow and carefully-handled currency reform.

"China will unswervingly follow the principles of initiative, controllability and gradualism to promote foreign exchange reform in an orderly manner and to increase continuously the flexibility of the yuan's exchange rate," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao quoted the premier as saying on Xinhua news agency.

But the Chinese view will fall on stony ground.

Earlier this month, Luxembourg's Mr Juncker said the yuan was undervalued by 20% to 25%, a level that gave China an unfair trade advantage.

Advantage China?

The yuan has risen 9.8% against the dollar since a revaluation in July 2005.

But critics of China's monetary policy say, that when measured against currencies of its main trading partners, its value has barely changed.

The weak Chinese currency has contributed to the boom in Chinese exports to Europe.

The 13 countries in the eurozone area saw their trade deficit with China rise by 25% in the first eight months of the year to 70bn euros (£50.23bn; $103.9bn)

A stronger yuan may help China as much as it helps Europe, argued EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.

"Even if revaluation would not, in itself, solve our trade deficit, it would cool an overheating heavy industry sector that is swollen with overcapacity and artificially cheap capital," he wrote in Tuesday's China Daily.

Full agenda

China's record on food and product safety as well as its weak protection of intellectual property rights are also likely to be discussed.

Millions of Chinese-made toys were recalled earlier this year amid concerns about high levels of lead and loose magnets.

Last week, a European Commission report found that China had made "considerable progress" in improving the safety of the toys it exports.

The booming Chinese economy has presented opportunities to European businesses as well.

French industrialists visiting China with President Nicolas Sarkozy this week finalised trade deals worth almost 20bn euros ($30bn; £14.5bn).

Abu Dhabi lifeline for Citigroup

Citigroup tower (far right)
Citigroup is in the process of assessing the impact of the credit crunch
US bank Citigroup has agreed to sell shares worth $7.5bn (£3.6bn) to an Abu Dhabi-owned investment company.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority will become the largest shareholder in Citigroup with a stake of up to 4.9%.

Citigroup has been hit hard by US mortgage-market problems and needs a fresh injection of capital to expand its business, the bank explained.

The problems led to the resignation of Citigroup's chief executive this month, and a slump in the bank's share price.

Citigroup's cash reserve has suffered after it had to write down the value of its loans made in the US sub-prime market by $7bn, and the potential for between $8bn and $11bn of further losses.

This investment reflects our confidence in Citi's potential to build shareholder value
ADIA's managing director Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahayan

"This investment, from one of the world's leading and most sophisticated equity investors, provides further capital to allow Citigroup to pursue attractive opportunities to grow its business," said Win Bischoff, Citigroup's acting chief executive officer.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) has agreed not to own more than a 4.9% stake, and will have no special rights of ownership and no role in the management or governance of the bank, Citigroup said.

Worst affected

Citigroup is one of the financial companies that have been worst affected by a crisis in global credit markets, which stemmed from a meltdown in the US sub-prime mortgage market.

The sub-prime sector lends money to people on low incomes or with poor credit ratings, and has suffered record defaults as a result of successive interest rate rises.

Banks had been heavily issuing these loans over the past few years when interest rates in many of the world's main economies were at historic lows.

But the current higher borrowing costs and increased loan defaults have brought this lending to a sudden halt, and banks have been left with billions of dollars of debt that has lost most of its value.

Citigroup's boss Charles Prince was forced to quit his post shortly after the bank revealed a 57% drop in profits during its third quarter because of massive write-downs.

The company's share price dropped below $30 in New York on Monday, almost half the value of their 12-month peak of $57 set on 28 December last year.

Gulf saviour

ADIA will buy securities in Citigroup, which will offer an annual yield of 11%.

The bonds will eventually be converted into shares between March 2010 to September 2011, at a price of between $31.83 and $37.24 each.

This suggests Abu Dhabi is enthusiastic about the bank's long-term future prospects, expecting the share price to climb back to its previous heights, analysts said.

ADIA's managing director Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahayan said: "This investment reflects our confidence in Citigroup's potential to build shareholder value."

Abu Dhabi's move is the latest example of the financial muscle of the oil-rich Gulf states, which have benefited enormously from booming energy prices and are now looking for new homes for their wealth.

Earlier this week, Dubai's investment arm took a "substantial stake" in Japanese electrical giant Sony, which is nearing the end of a three-year restructuring process.

Jackson Five 'could tour in 2008'

Jackson Five
The band's hits include ABC and I Want You Back
The Jackson Five are to reunite for a tour, with Michael Jackson set to take part, brother Jermaine has said.

He told BBC 6 Music that concert dates have been discussed and could take place "sometime in 2008".

"Michael will be involved," the singer and guitarist confirmed. "We feel we have to do it one more time. We owe that to the fans and to the public. "

The group last toured as The Jacksons - with six members - in support of the Victory album in 1984.

Lead singer Michael, who had already released the million-selling Thriller album, was reportedly reluctant to go on the road with his brothers.

He told the audience on the last night of the tour that he was leaving the group.

Michael Jackson in concert
Michael will be involved - he was at the meetings
Jermaine Jackson
They released one more album, 1989's 2300 Jackson Street, before formally disbanding in 1990.

Rumours of a reunion have circulated for years, and Jermaine confirmed that the project was delayed by Michael's trial for child abuse in 2005.

"There's been so much going on, getting over all the hurdles that we all were faced with during Michael's trial," he told the station's The Music Week programme.

"But we are stronger than ever. I'm gonna say thank you, thank you, thank you so much to all the fans and the supporters of my family all over Europe, all over the UK especially, who came out to show their love and their support."

New material

Jermaine, who sang lead vocals for the band until his younger brother took over, added that Michael would definitely be part of the reunion.

"He has to be," he said. "He is a Jackson."

"He was at the meetings. Michael will be involved."

The star also hinted at new material, saying that the band was "in the studio at the moment".

The Jacksons - featuring brothers Tito, Marlon, Jackie, Jermaine, Michael and Randy, found fame in the 1970s with hits such as I Want You Back, ABC and Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) and Can You Feel It.

Michael's success eclipsed that of his brothers in the 1980s, while sister Janet also rose to prominence - racking up seven US top ten singles from her Rhythm Nation 1814 album.

In the UK, Jermaine Jackson was seen as a contestant on this year's Celebrity Big Brother.

Lily Allen discovers heart murmur

Lily Allen
Doctors discovered the condition at a routine check-up, Allen said
Singer Lily Allen has revealed that she has been diagnosed with a heart murmur.

The 22-year-old pop star told Grazia magazine that she found out about the condition three months ago, after switching doctors.

Her recent sudden weight loss was a result of exercise following the health scare, she said - and not because she wanted to be "some skinny minnie".

A heart murmur is often harmless but can also indicate a hole in the heart or a heart valve problem.

The singer sparked concern when she shed 19lbs (8.6kg) and dropped from a UK size 12 to a size eight in just six weeks.

"When they asked me how much exercise I did, I had to be honest and say hardly any," she said.

'Hardcore routine'

"I used to love nothing more than sitting in front of the telly with two packets of Ginger Nuts and two bags of milk-bottle sweets - and I'd devour the lot."

"But this heart thing has made me cut back on all that kind of crap. I now find that, because I am looking after myself, I don't feel like eating the bad stuff so much," she said.

I don't want to drink so much, I've been cutting back. I should also give up smoking, but haven't quite managed that yet
Lily Allen

Allen said she now went to the gym three times a week and had a "hardcore routine" that lasted an hour and a half.

"I really want to stress that I haven't done this because I want to become some skinny minnie - I will never be like that," she said.

"I was going pretty crazy back in the summer, drinking way too much and partying loads. But now I don't want to drink so much, I've been cutting back.

"I should also give up smoking, but haven't quite managed that yet."

The singer recently landed a deal to present her own BBC Three TV show, based on the social-networking phenomenon that helped to launch her music career.

TV rivals form on-demand service

Ugly Betty
Channel 4's Ugly Betty is one of the shows likely to be on the service
The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are to launch a joint on-demand service, which will bring together hundreds of hours of television programmes in one place.

The service is set to go live in 2008 and will offer viewers access to current shows and archive material.

Plans will have to be approved by the BBC Trust and the other broadcasters' boards, and a name for the service will be unveiled ahead of its launch.

The three broadcasters currently offer their own separate on-demand services.

The BBC's iPlayer, ITV's catch-up service and Channel 4oD will continue to exist along the new online "aggregator", which will provide a complement to the established providers.

Programming from all three broadcasters will be available for free download, streaming, rental and purchase via the internet, with expansion on to other platforms planned.

Michael Grade
The joint service has the potential to become an important shop window for UK broadcaster content and a great destination for viewers
Michael Grade, ITV executive chairman

John Smith, the chief executive of BBC Worldwide, said the venture was a "historic partnership" between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

"The new service will contain some of the very best of the UK's content for consumers to view in one place, which will be both easy to use and great fun," he added.

Michael Grade, ITV's executive chairman, described the project as having the potential to become "an important shop window for UK broadcaster content and a great destination for viewers".

For Channel 4, chief executive Andy Duncan said further innovation in the area of on-demand would "give viewers ultimate control over what they watch and when they watch it".

"Partnering and sharing expertise is the best way of doing this," he added.

The BBC and ITV's on-demand services launched earlier this year, with the commerical broadcaster initially concentrating on soap opera catch-ups.

Channel 4's service offers hundreds of hours of programming from current series such as Ugly Betty to classic shows including Father Ted.

Other on-demand services are offered by other providers including Five, Sky, BT Vision and Tiscali.

Billie Piper to return to Dr Who

Billie Piper in Doctor Who
Piper first joined when the Doctor was Christopher Ecclestone

Actress Billie Piper is to return to Doctor Who, the BBC has confirmed.

She will star in three episodes of the sci-fi drama, reprising her role as the Doctor's companion, Rose Tyler.

Rose's return will mean the Doctor has three assistants in next year's series - Donna, played by Catherine Tate, and Freema Agyeman as Martha.

The new series begins in March and will run for 13 episodes. There will be three special editions in 2009 before the show takes a break until 2010.

Piper left Doctor Who last year, when she was transported into a parallel universe.


Her character had proven a hit and the star won a number of awards for her performances. She was named most popular actress at the National Television Awards in 2005 and 2006.

A separate show based on Rose had been planned by writer and series producer Russell T Davies, but was scrapped when Davies decided the programme was "a spin-off too far".

Filming is currently under way in Cardiff for the new series of Doctor Who, which sees the Doctor meeting an old group of enemies - the Sontarans - 35 years after first encountering them.

Before that, the programme will return to television screens at Christmas with a special episode set on the Titanic, which will co-star singer and actress Kylie Minogue.

Quiet Riot rock star Dubrow dies

Kevin Dubrow
Kevin Dubrow was noted for his on-stage presence
Kevin Dubrow, the frontman with metal band Quiet Riot, has been found dead in his Las Vegas home at the age of 52.

The cause of his death has yet to be established and a post-mortem and toxicology tests are being carried out.

Police said there were no suspicious circumstances, with no forced entry into his house.

The band's biggest hit was Cum on Feel the Noize, a cover of the Slade song which they are said to have grudgingly recorded in just one take.

Their 1983 release Metal Health was the first metal album to top the US charts.

Dubrow, who was renowned for his powerful, gravelly vocals, recorded his first solo album in 2004, while Quiet Riot's most recent studio album was released in 2006.

The band's drummer Frank Banali, wrote on his website: "I can't even find words to say."

"Please respect my privacy as I mourn the passing and honour the memory of my dearest friend Kevin Dubrow," he added.

Bollywood star Dutt granted bail

Sanjay Dutt at a Mumbai court (file pic)
Dutt has a huge fan following in India
Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, jailed for buying weapons from bombers who attacked Mumbai in 1993, has been granted bail by India's Supreme Court.

Dutt, who was sentenced to six years in jail by a court in July, has been in prison since 23 October.

The actor was cleared of conspiracy, but found guilty of illegally possessing a rifle and a pistol.

Dutt is the most high-profile of 100 people convicted in connection with the blasts which killed 257 people.

Dutt, 48, is one of Bollywood's most bankable stars, and found fame playing gangsters and anti-heroes.

His trial generated huge interest among Bollywood fans across India.

The son of a Hindu father and Muslim mother, Dutt said the weapons were necessary in order to defend his family during the Hindu-Muslim rioting of 1993 that followed the destruction by Hindu zealots of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

The Mumbai blasts were allegedly carried out by Mumbai's (Bombay's) Muslim-dominated underworld in retaliation for the riots, in which most of those killed were Muslims.

Mel B favourite for US dance win

Mel B and dance partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy
Mel B and Maksim Chmerkovskiy won the judges' backing
Spice Girl Mel B is the favourite to win US TV show Dancing with the Stars after a high-scoring penultimate round.

The pop star was supported by her bandmates in Los Angeles as she outperformed her rivals, including singer Marie Osmond.

Mel B's professional dance partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, called her "one of my prize students" who had "improved 100%" during their 10-week partnership.

The winner of the series will be announced on Tuesday in the US.

Ratings hit

Chmerkovskiy added: "She went from somebody who just had rhythm to having the guts to come out and do this."

The pair scored 55 out of a possible 60 points with their cha-cha and freestyle dances, closely followed by racing driver Helio Castroneves and his partner Julianne Hough.

Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton, Victoria Beckham, Melanie Chisholm
Mel B's Spice Girl bandmates were in the studio to support her

In the final show, one of the remaining three couples will be eliminated in the early stages, leaving the final two pairs to slug it out for the trophy.

The series began with 12 pairings of celebrities and professional dancers.

And the programme - the US version of Britain's Strictly Come Dancing - has proved a ratings hit, regularly capturing in excess of 20 million viewers.

The couples' scores are determined by a combination of the judges' scores and viewers' votes.

Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli act as judges on both the US and UK shows, which have been running concurrently for several weeks.

Hollywood's writers restart talks

Writers manning a picket line outside a Hollywood Studio
Protesters brought along cut-outs of Marlon Brando and James Dean
Hollywood screenwriters have returned to the negotiating table, three weeks after beginning strike action.

The first day of secret talks with studios concluded without a resolution but discussions are to resume later.

Writers went on strike on 5 November, demanding a bigger share of profits from DVD sales and the internet.

The dispute is threatening US TV schedules, with December set to be dominated by repeats and holiday specials unless a deal is struck.


If the strike runs into January, viewers will face a diet of repeats and reality shows as new material runs out.

Popular programmes including Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives are coming to the end of their current stock, while production on real-time drama 24 has been postponed so all 24 episodes can - eventually - be shown in the US on consecutive weeks.

Work on sitcom The Office: An American Workplace has been halted until a solution to the disagreement is found.

Screenwriters have been using blogs, videos and other online methods to galvanise their cause, and to reach out to the TV viewers who will feel the effects of the dispute.

Writers have also been using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to discuss the issues.

They have said that they will remain on picket lines until an agreement with the studios is reached.

Choose an English coach - Platini

Uefa president Michel Platini
Platini is concerned English football is losing its identity
Uefa president Michel Platini believes the Football Association should appoint an Englishman as successor to sacked national team coach Steve McClaren.

The FA has been linked with several high-profile foreign coaches since the dismissal of McClaren last week.

But Platini said: "If I am looking for the manager of England, I would try to find a good English guy who everybody trusts to make a good team.

"England is such a strong country that they have to take an Englishman."

Jose Mourinho, Phil Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Fabio Capello, Louis van Gaal, Jurgen Klinsmann and Northern Ireland's Martin O'Neill have all been linked with the England coaching vacancy.

Former England defender Tony Adams says the FA should seek the advice of past England managers as they look for a replacement for McClaren, who was sacked after the country failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

I would try to find a good English guy who everybody trusts to make a good team
Michel Platini

Adams, who won 66 England caps, said: "What Sir Trevor Brooking - and I have every faith in him because he is a good man - should be doing is speaking to people who have been there and canvassing their opinion, men like Bobby Robson, Glenn Hoddle, Graham Taylor and Terry Venables.

"I remember, when I was England captain, David Dein came to me before Kevin Keegan was appointed and I said the best man for the job was Venables.

"I said the same when he approached me about Sven-Goran Eriksson, but the point is they asked me.

"They should be doing the same with skipper John Terry, who has a fair bit of experience now."

Former England coach Eriksson believes the FA would benefit from speaking to former managers of the national team.

"It is a good idea," said the Manchester City boss. "But all we ex-England managers have been sacked by the FA, so I don't know if they want to talk to us or not.

"I'm sure everyone who had that job has strong opinions about what is right and wrong with the job."

Platini also feels the large number of foreign players in the Premier League is having a detrimental affect on the fortunes of England's national team.

"I like your football, I like the games, I like the fans and the passion, but I don't like the fact that it is too open in allowing in foreign players," said the Frenchman.

"In Arsenal now you don't have an English coach, English players, maybe not an English president soon.

"So why are they playing in England? Because of the fans, because of big business, because of the TV, because the clubs like that.

We run the Premier League and we are running it very successfully, in a way that is beneficial to the English game
Dan Johnson
Premier League spokesman

"When you lose with the national team, that is the soul of your football. It is my philosophy to protect the identity of the clubs and the country."

However, Dan Johnson, the Premier League's spokesman, rejected Platini's comments and said the Frenchman should "mind his own business".

Johnson told Radio 5 Live: "Uefa are a competition organiser and they should look after the Champions League, Uefa Cup and the European Championships.

"We run the Premier League and we are running it very successfully, in a way that is beneficial to the English game. That's our business, not Michele Platini's business."

Koreas begin key security forum

Composite image of South Korean Defence Minister Kim Jang-soo and North Korean Vice-Marshal Kim Il-chol
South Korea's Kim Jang-soo (left) is meeting Kim Il-chol
The defence ministers of North and South Korea have begun talks in Pyongyang aimed at reducing tension along the disputed border.

They are also expected to discuss a joint fishing area in the Yellow Sea to end gun battles over fishing rights.

This is the first inter-Korean defence ministers' meeting in seven years - and only the second in 50.

The talks follow last month's summit between the North's President Kim Jong-il and the South's Roo Moo-hyun.

Those talks sealed an agreement to expand bilateral economic co-operation.

Rail service

South Korean Defence Minister Kim Jang-soo said he felt a strong responsibility to help bring peace to the peninsula.

Rail links

"The South Korean delegation deeply understands the ardent wish of all compatriots to ease military tension, build up confidence and guarantee a permanent peace between South and North Korea," he said after arriving in Pyongyang.

Kim Jang-soo will hold three days of talks with his counterpart Kim Il-chol.

Before leaving Seoul, Kim Jang-soo explained his approach to the meeting.

"We should deal with the logical issues with a logical mind, and if that doesn't work, we should deal with the warm-hearted mind of 'we are one nation'. If that doesn't work, I'm afraid that there is no other way."

During the military talks this week, security measures for a cross-border rail service beginning next month are likely to be discussed.

Despite progress in North Korea's nuclear decommissioning in recent months, military officials from the US and South Korea have stressed that the North still maintains most of its army near the inter-Korean border, creating fears that the conventional military threat has not been reduced.