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May 11, 2009

They're not all scum

I think the Telegraph, and others, have gone too far with MP’s expenses now.

Yes, some of them are money-grabbing little sh*ts who deserve the marching orders they’ll be given at the next election.

But some of the MPs who’ve had their expenses splashed across the newspapers really have done nothing wrong.

The Daily Mail have the news that Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under his tennis court. His response that:

I was served a statutory notice by the water company to repair the leaking pipe, which runs underneath the tennis court and garden. No improvements were made to the tennis court or garden.”

seems to have been pretty much ignored – the paper’s still run the story and painted him as an expenses cheat in the process.

Another overblown example is the Prime Minister – yes his cleaner seems to be flipping expensive, but suggesting he was siphoning off public money to line his brother’s pockets is pretty close to an outright lie, and yet it’s the impression most people will now have.

I’m not too worried about individual MPs being slandered though – their electorate will see through the media bluster at the next election.

But I think the general ‘they’re all at it’ mood of the press is going to be really damaging. With a change of government more than likely, you’d expect turnout at the next election to be higher than 2001 and 2005.

But if the public think politicians are universally a breed of tight-fisted, public money-stealing good-for-nothings then it wouldn’t surprise me if turnout actually dropped. What, after all, is the point of voting for anyone if every politician is bent?

Gordon Brown’s claim that the system is at fault is nearly half-right, but it takes a certain kind of person to exploit that system.

However, the media’s completely over-the-top wall-to-wall coverage of the 650+ liars, cheats and bastards will do nothing for the public’s faith in democracy. And if that breaks down, we really are screwed.


February 24, 2009

Jack Bauer – A shadow of his former kick–ass self

Oh Jack Bauer, how much I loved you in the old days when you were blonde and had a daughter that kissed you goodnight and a wife who wasn’t, you know, dead.

Jack Bauer. Half the man he used to be.

I started watching Season 1 of ‘24’ again yesterday. The wave of nostalgia emanating from the TV screen was awe-inspiring. Remember the days of Standard Definition? Of dodgy sound editing? Of bad haircuts?

Remember when 24 was actually good?

The experience was depressing. Because it made me remember just how face-crunchingly abysmal 24 has become. We’re now on Season 7, and the show should be on a life-support machine.

Every plot twist is recycled from an earlier season. Even characters Just. Won’t. DIE. and keep making miraculous returns, presumably to cut down on the need for casting directors.

But worst of all, the show just doesn’t know where it’s going, what it’s doing or what it’s about.

Villains come and go faster than Jack can say ‘sonofabitch’. Their dastardly plan changes from one minute to the next. Civilians die in their hundreds and the fictional CNN seems to forget about it ten minutes later. And Jack has to defeat his arch enemy Every Fricking Hour just to keep the audience happy.

Well I’m not an American simpleton with a thirst for blood and a desire for Jack to win every round.

There is literally a scene in the first episode of that first season when a character tells Jack exactly what will happen for the whole season. Terrorists will try and kill a Presidential Candidate. That’s it.

Now, the writers would be hard pressed to sustain an idea that simple for ten minutes, let alone 24 hours.

In Season 1, Jack had a team. Yes, two of them were moles, but he had relationships with people. Now he is, to quote Judi Dench’s M, a “blunt instrument”.

24 was revolutionary, and not just because of the way it was told in real-time. It led to hundreds of drama serials which rejected the traditional one-episode, one-story format of CSI, ER and Law & Order. Lost and Prison Break were just two of the more successful attempts to tell one story across six months of television.

And it was also the show that gave us hacksaw decapitations.

24’s not just a lurking shadow of its former self.

It’s as blunt as a spoon.


January 15, 2009

The wacky world of newspaper ownership

Ordinarily, the news that a Russian billionaire is buying one of Britain’s best-known newspapers, the Evening Standard, would be cause for surprise, and maybe even concern.

But Alexander Lebedev is no ordinary Russian billionaire.

True, he is ex-KGB, as almost any successful Russian seems to need to be nowadays.

But Lebedev also owns Novaya Gazeta – the newspaper that Anna Politkovskaya was reporting for before her assassination in 2006.

Lebedev’s fought back against a suffocating regime in Russia – he should have no problem dealing with City Hall and Westminster.

His bigger challenge will be trying to make money out of the Standard, whose finances apparently resemble a leaky bucket.


January 13, 2009

BBC–ITV marriage is probably a good thing

It’s looking more likely that the BBC and ITV are going to merge some of their regional TV news operations.

In a year or two, it’s more than possible that your local BBC and ITV bulletins will come from the same building, using many of the same pictures and one or two of the same staff.

I think this is probably the only way the duopoly of regional television news can be saved.

ITV is trying to shed some of its responsibility for producing public service television. I feel that’s partly because they’ve got a good point that in a country with 700 television channels, the iPlayer and the internet, ITV can’t maintain the level of service they had in the 1970s. But I think it’s also because they’re trying to be a bit cheeky and squeeze more profit out of what remains a privileged position.

This deal, if it goes ahead, could well prop up the status quo, and might even improve bulletins. There should be more pictures to go around. More small-scale events will find a cameraman is available, and you’re more likely to be featured twice on the telly, rather than once.

But some staff – particularly, I would guess – cameramen, will probably go as a result of this.

That’s more bad news for journalism – an industry that’s shrinking faster than Northern Rock’s share price did last year.

But the deal to share resources will give us two competing bulletins until 2016 at least. That’s good news – and should give us better news.

P.S. The technical aspects of this are hilarious. I’d imagine a merger of their operations will only work if they’re using the same systems. ITV use something called iNews. The BBC use something called ENPS. Both are completely different, and I’m not sure they can share things very easily while using two. In the short term, this deal could be more expensive than it looks.

P.P.S. The deal will be a bigger culture shock for the BBC than for ITV staff, I reckon. The number of press conferences that the BBC still sends three teams to is mind-boggling.


January 05, 2009

All hail homogeneity

It’s a sad day for radio today. The first of several dozen local radio stations are losing their identity and becoming Heart.

Global Radio bought GCap Media last year, and today some of the former GCap stations start using the new name.

I’ll be particularly sad to see Chiltern FM go. I grew up listening to it in the years that Radio 1 was full of loud rubbish. From today, it’s just Heart.

The changes go beyond the name though. There’ll be less local news, fewer local presenters and more ‘networked’ programming. The long and short of it is that it’s less likely the next Chris Moyles or Scott Mills will come from commercial radio.

Moyles presented a brilliantly funny show on Chiltern around ten years ago. Today a presenter on the station wouldn’t be allowed to talk for more than thirty seconds between songs, let alone try to be funny.

I’m not upset that Heart, as a national brand, is coming into being. It should have happened years ago. Commercial radio would have had a much more successful decade if it had a national, contemporary music station broadcasting on FM. All it has had up to now is Classic FM.

But using local radio frequencies to create this national brand is sad, and not what they were designed for. They might have been full of local people trying to imitate Radio 2, but at least they were local.


January 02, 2009

The future of news… BYOB

Time for a gaze into my crystal ball.

I think I’ve seen the future of television news… and it’s called BYOB.

Nothing to do with beer, though. It’s my acronym for Build Your Own Bulletin.

The more TV news bulletins I watch, the more frustrated I get. There’s next to never any technology news, increasingly little foreign affairs and too much speculative ‘cure for cancer’ health news.

TV news is also frustrating because I’ve got a fair idea how expensive it is to produce. The number of people sat in a room behind Huw Edwards or Fiona Bruce would beggar belief. Running a 24-hour news channel is a mammoth undertaking. BBC News 24 costs somewhere between £40-50m per year, Sky News a little less.

So, what’s the alternative?

Rather than a linear, 24-hour operation with 30-minute showcase ‘bulletins’ at regular intervals, the televisual equivalent of RSS feeds. Seamlessly stitched together in a Flash video (like BBC iPlayer), a series of news reports, pre-recorded two-ways and interviews selected according to your tastes. You choose the type of story you’re interested in (UK, Politics, Health, Sport) and rank them according to importance. Then a broadcaster (let’s call it the BBC) makes stories for each of those categories, and ranks them according to their editorial importance. Some sort of algorithm works out how to order your news bulletin, and with the help of some recorded studio links for each piece, a 5, 15 or 30 minute news bulletin is delivered to your computer screen or TV. The unfussy could just choose a generic ‘top stories’ bulletin.

The best bit of all of this is the cheap method of distribution means there’s more money to go out and do journalism. Lengthy news packages might come back into fashion, and consumers would have far greater choice. Imagine a world where every Premiership football game has its own TV preview, every major speech in Parliament gets the analysis it deserves and every important judicial decision is explained in full.

My idea would have seemed a bit implausible a couple of years ago. But things have changed. IPTV (internet protocol television) is a reality, and works. It’s like YouTube on your telly, and it’s not sci-fi. I’ve got it at home and it’s great. It’ll be popular within a year, and widespread within five.

So after 75 years, linear TV channels could become a thing of the past. But surely the news channel, with its enormous costs, small audiences and one-size-fits-all model to news, should be the first to go.


December 11, 2008

How many TV execs does it take to waste £945m?

Reading Andy Duncan’s (the boss of Channel 4) reaction to the BBC’s post-Media Apocalypse plans, you kind of have to respect the guy’s nerve.

[Their proposals are] overdue recognition from the BBC that it should be using its privileged position to help support the broader public service ecology.

Andy Duncan, you see, seems to view Channel 4 not as a commercial broadcaster, owned by the nation, but as a charity.

How the company makes £945m in revenue each year and only manages to generate a profit of £1.6m* is beyond me. Is it being run like a 1960s cannabis-filled temple of peace and love, or a business?

Its public service obligations aren’t an enormous burden – a few hours on just one of its four channels. So how are they managing to drag the whole company down to the point where it’s only just breaking even?

One possible solution being bandied around is to give them BBC Worldwide. It, in stark contrast to C4, makes £916m in revenue each year, of which £112m is profit.

Based on Channel 4’s financial performance to date, it would be a bit like letting Zippy, George and Bungle take over Google.

*Yes, I know they’re a publicly-owned company and so don’t make profit in the traditional sense, but the figure suggests they’re only just about scraping by.


December 09, 2008

Up the Thames without a paddle

The organisers of the Boat Race look a bit silly now that ITV has, not altogether surprisingly, lost interest in broadcasting it.

They sneakily fled the BBC back in 2004, in order to try and cash in on greater sponsorship opportunities (oh, and more money).

Now, ITV’s said it’s bored of the race, which doesn’t fit with its football, football and boxing approach to sport.

It’ll almost certainly go back to the Beeb.

Barney Ronay at the Guardian reckons it shouldn’t though. He says:

Taken purely as a sporting event it’s not immediately clear why the BBC would have any interest in broadcasting the race. The perception that the crews themselves are a bunch of itinerant third-raters may be out of date; but this is still not a spectacle that demands, on its merits, to be broadcast live on terrestrial TV.

Maybe this is true.

But then it’s also true of ‘International Bowls’, the Great North Run, cross country horse prancing (I’m going to get a kick from the missus for that one), and if we’re honest, any kind of rowing full-stop.

And yet, how many millions stayed up until 2am to watch Pinsent and Redgrave?

How many millions watch the London Marathon as if it’s not just pictures of sweaty people jogging?

TV sport has never been about showing events that are entertaining or exciting. Just look at bowls.

At least in its brevity, the Boat Race offers a Red Bull shot of sporting aggression and 100% effort.

Which is more than can be said for darts.


December 03, 2008

Strangling the Kangaroo

First the BBC’s local video service. Now Project Kangaroo has been throttled by the powers-that-be.

You might not have heard of Kangaroo (its working title), but it’s basically a British iTunes for video, that was put together by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. It would work online (like the iPlayer) and eventually through TV set-top-boxes.

Some of the programmes would be paid for by ad breaks, others would be pay-per-episode (like iTunes).

But the Competition Competition, in its infinite wisdom, has said it would restrict competition in the VoD (video-on-demand) market.

As the five-year-old child in BBC sitcom Outnumbered said last week: “Beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping, bollocks.”

Is there something with this country about throttling innovation?

I’ve got the Microsoft-powered BT Vision which is pretty good, but has some flaws that Kangaroo would rectify. For instance, there isn’t the option to watch something free, but with adverts. I’d rather do that than pay my £14 a month subscription.

And surely the presence of services like BT Vision, Tiscali TV and the Sky Player all suggest competition is already healthy? What’s more, in the case of BT Vision, the Beeb, ITV and Channel 4 are all putting their shows on there, with no indication they’ll disappear when/if Kangaroo launches.

I guess Kangaroo’s problem is that it’s too close to the BBC, ITV and C4. If an independent had made it, and licenced programmes from the broadcasters, there wouldn’t be a problem. But we’re only a small country. There aren’t the billions of dollars available to make your own iTunes unless you’re established, and in all likelihood, a broadcaster.

BBC iPlayer took aeons to happen because of competition worries and the anti-innovation mindset at the BBC Trust. It’s still not as brilliant as it could be because of arbitrary limits placed on what it’s allowed to offer.

The likely delay, or perhaps cancellation of Kangaroo, is a massive shame and says something about this country today. Skippy probably wouldn’t mind pushing the Competition Commission down a mine-shaft. And I wouldn’t blame him.

P.S. As if proof were needed that Britain’s losing its innovators, the Project Kangaroo boss, Ashley Highfield, recently left… for Microsoft.


November 26, 2008

What the f**k?

Check out tonight’s Inside Out England on BBC iPlayer later.

How many people must have watched the programme through before broadcast without noticing the ‘f’ word, clear as day, five minutes in?

Lesson One: If sampling Fatboy Slim songs, don’t use this one. (They used the first five seconds of it.)


November 06, 2008

A List

I’m going to start a list. In fact, it’s more of a league table of moronism. Added to it will be MPs who jump on a ludicrous bandwagon.

1. Chris Mole

Chris Mole is the Labour MP for Ipswich.

He’s called on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson for comments he made on this weekend’s Top Gear.

Clarkson was driving a lorry, and in a moment of humour suggested that lorry drivers might occasionally kill a prostitute.

Ipswich, of course, is particularly sensitive to the killing of prostitutes.

There’s only one problem – the Ipswich murders were carried out by a forklift truck driver. Which last time I checked, was quite different.

Anyone with a modicum of a smidgen of a sense of humour would realise Clarkson was taking the piss – even lorry drivers found it funny.

This is obviously all to do with the Brand/Ross, and if Adrian Chris Mole thinks this will get him taken seriously, he’s quite a bit wrong.


October 29, 2008

Swearing on TV

What exactly is the problem with Sachsgate – the abusive message left on Andrew Sachs’ answerphone, or the use of the ‘F’ word on a public service radio station?

If it’s the latter, then there’s a big debate to be had.

Swearing on TV (and actually not radio, so much) has exploded over the past few years.

The Brand/Ross affair went out at night on a radio station listened to almost exclusively by adults.

On the other hand, Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food programme was jam-packed with f-words, c-words and other verbal vomit.

For a programme that’s trying to appeal to as many people as possible – families especially – how is that a good idea?

I think the 9pm watershed should be scrapped – swearing, offensive behaviour, sex, drugs and alcohol should be shown or not shown depending on who the audience really is, not just when the programme’s shown.

Ministry of Food was the sort of programme that should have been played in schools – with the kind of language that Channel 4 left in, it never will be.

==

Listening to BBC Radio 5 Live, it’s interesting how people who support Brand and Ross are flooding out of the woodwork now they’ve been suspended. I’m on their side, I have to say.


Race for 2008: Is the media rooting for Obama?

The Republicans have been facing an uphill battle ever since George W. Bush won the 2004 election.

The media hunt as a pack, and the collective pendulum has been swinging towards the Democrats for the last two years.

I might have called it just a little bit wrong when I said of Joe Biden: “[calling Obama ‘clean’ will] probably be his only notable contribution to the campaign”, but I wasn’t alone when I predicted whoever won the Democrat primary would take the White House.

But the ease with which Obama has got this far is starting to worry people.

Michael Malone writes that as a journalist, he’s ashamed of the bias shown towards Obama.

While the media has gone through Sarah Palin’s bins, trashed John McCain’s wife Cindy and given anything John’s said little serious attention, Obama and Biden have had it easy.

Malone says it’s not because of journalists, but because their editors have only been selecting – and commissioning – stories which help smooth the wheels of the Obama campaign, and perpetuate the narrative that appeals most.Obama worship

Why?

The media pack loves a good story. America’s first mixed-race President is an incredible one, which everyone (including the British media) have got caught up in. This is only the biggest, most expensive, most anticipated election in decades because of Barack Obama’s colour.

There’s also a slightly more sinister side to this. McCain dying in office would be an enormous story. Obama dying in office would make the death of Princess Diana look like a footnote in history.

No matter what happens, an Obama presidency will bring with it more drama than President Bartlet managed in seven seasons of The West Wing.

A changed dynamic in Congress also appeals to their instincts. It’ll give them a common enemy in just a few months, and a filibuster-proof 60 seats for the Democrats in the Senate means the effective opposition isn’t the Republicans, but the media.

Put simply, if Obama wins next week, it’s the end of business as usual.

And that’s why virtually every newshound is rooting for him.

News coverage of George Bush – in fact his lame duck status – has come about because the media got bored with him. The war in Iraq isn’t working. The war in Iraq isn’t working. The war in Iraq isn’t working. Say it several times, and people get bored of that story. You can change Iraq for ‘financial stimulus package’, ‘healthcare’ or really any other Bush policy, and it becomes tiresome pretty quickly. News coverage of the White House has been minimal since early 2007, when the race for 2008 really began.

The narrative of the past six years has been full of failure. Obama might not have intended to woo the media with it when he came up with his slogan, but change is exactly what they want, never mind the electorate.

The bias in the coverage of this election looks more than likely to help bring that change about.

> Politico in the States defends itself against pro-Obama bias


October 28, 2008

Should Brand and Ross be sacked?

No.

Well, sort of no.

Brand and RossThe ill-advised broadcast of rude messages left on Andrew Sachs’ answer machine was the fault of the programme’s producers, not its presenters.

The faceless people will probably get the boot.

But Sachs-gate is about more than all of that really.

The whole story has become a media circus (the lead story on yesterday’s PM for goodness sake) because no-one’s sure why these two presenters are on Radio 2 in the first place.

If Chris Moyles had done this on Radio 1, it would have been shrugged off and forgotten about within a day or two, with no real suggestion of sackings.

But Radio 2 is supposed to be the more mature sibling. This incident just proved that the pair are in the wrong place – any non-Daily Mail reader who heard the show would have found it to be pretty entertaining, despite the occasionally offensive content (which was actually no worse than a typical episode of Have I Got News For You).

They shouldn’t be sacked – they should be given a pay cut and put somewhere else.

They’re too old for Radio 1 (which already has an ‘age’ problem – it attracts too many parents), so maybe they should become the main attractions on the already edgy 6Music?


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