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September 10, 2009

The Summer Silence

"If you think you can get fucking angry, I can get fucking angry."

And with that, Robert Peston mounted the table and flung his fists skyward. Buttons hung on perilously to buttonholes as his dress shirt became taut, pectorals bulging. With one flex, Peston's shirt ripped wide open, exposing the BBC Business Editor’s muscular, green-tinged flesh. Crumbling James Murdoch’s magnum of Veuve Clicquot between thumb and forefinger, the now-unrecognisable Peston leapt from table to table at the Edinburgh International Television Festival dinner, swinging from chandeliers and bellowing wildly, "Peston SMASH!"

These opening words were a genuine threat uttered by Robert Peston in a furious altercation with Rupert Murdoch’s hyperspoilt son James, after Murdoch Jr’s psychotically paranoid anti-BBC lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in which he denounced the Corporation’s ambitions as "chilling".

Much has been made of the BBC’s muted response in the following fortnight (Peston excluded) and the lack of spine or the wealth of arrogance that it implies. It took until yesterday for Director General Mark Thompson to respond to Murdoch, Thompson accusing him of being ‘desperately out of touch,’ but even then Thompson’s response was confined to an internal e-mail and, well, there are much worse things one could say about Rupert Murdoch’ offspring if you felt like it.

To top it off, Murdoch is desperately out of touch. After all, in an age where bemoaning the bureaucracy and professional compromise of the establishment is a universal hobby the BBC, the archetype of bureaucracy and compromise, frequently emerges critically unscathed. The BBC is terribly flawed and maybe the sense of greatness is gone, but there’s still that incongruity between it and the rest of television, that it really is separate, a cut above. And the best part is that while it remains a cut above, it is also universal and inclusive (to a fault).

That’s why the BBC is right to be silent, because people love the BBC and we can be quite positive about things when everyone shuts up and lets us think about them. The only thing that a Murdoch attacking a British institution is going to prompt is a tidal wave of support for the BBC from press and public.


As Big Brother dies, leaving only empty bottles of Malibu and Ambre-Solaire strewn about the garden, let’s not forget that it never really represented us. Everybody already disowns it like New Labour and Noel’s House Party; ‘I only really watched the first series, when it was a proper sociological experiment,’ the defense goes, and I’m inclined to believe them since the ratings certainly support that trend.

Big Brother was never us. It regularly gets thrashed in the ratings by the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, its complete reality antithesis. Antiques Roadshow is a programme which, in its latest series, chose not to air the moment when a member of the public was informed that the glass bottle he had recently paid over £1000 for at an antique sale was in fact a Tesco olive oil bottle, circa 2008. This moment was filmed and yet remained on the cutting room floor, the producers deciding that to show it would be "too cruel".

Too Cruel. What an extraordinarily odd thing to hear from a TV producer. It’s also the kind of succinct phrase that one might decide upon, if one found oneself in a position to etch a phrase on an Endemol producer’s forehead with a rusty compass.


The attack on the BBC and the surge of support in response has strong echoes of the American Right’s extraordinary attacks on the NHS (when it was dragged into the debate over Obama’s dastardly plan to implement free healthcare for everyone). The criticisms were ferocious and mostly erroneous, but it wasn’t right for Gordon Brown to leap into the debate. Just shut up, we know what institutions we like (which, even better, were being insulted by stuck-up ex-colonials) and we can defend them best on our own.

All in all, it would seem like we were being quite positive about British institutions at the moment. But really, it’s just the summer. Nothing’s happening, Westminster’s on holiday, nobody’s snidely talking to us and trashing every initiative in order to score political points.

And in that brief little silence, we were thoughtful and optimistic. "We need silence to touch souls," Mother Teresa once said (clearly preconceiving this article).

Yesterday David Cameron came back from his holiday and squeezed the word “cuts” into every sentence in his speech, preparing the landscape for relentlessly casting himself as the politician with cajones for the next nine months. I think the silence is over.

August 17, 2009

The Kellogg’s Optivia Question and Guilty Clicking

There’s currently an TV advert for Kellogg’s Optivia, where renowned chef Aldo Villi (I don’t know the world of celebrity chefs well enough to know whether to put sarcastic quotation marks around either or both of renowned and chef) strides purposefully into an outdoor market, where he is met with calls of “Morning, Villi!” from a ethnically diverse group of marketholders – their diversity presumably necessary so that you know that Optivia isn't one of those racist cereals you've heard about – and as he marches through the market, Villi embarks on a list of stupid diets and boring, boring dietary warnings. Finally he stops and poses an exasperated question: “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what you should eat, instead of what you shouldn’t?”

I’m sure you can guess where the advert goes from there – and that alone is a clear reflection upon how inspired Villi’s question is, simply in terms of the pure rhetorical legwork. In one fell swoop, one glorious phrase, Aldo Villi effortlessly presupposes and draws us into an ethereal, impossible world. Is this instantaneous re-ordering of our world not artistically up there with Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning... and with When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug...?

Though, of course, while Kafka presupposed worlds of perpetual and insurmountable injustice or worlds in which clerks suddenly transform into emotional, misunderstood insects, Villi instead constructs a world where we care who he is and really do want him to tell us which cereal to eat. Yet taking Villi as the philosopher which we know he must be, perhaps there is something that does speak to the zeitgeist in his question... The Optivia Question.

In the European elections last June, remember how the main political parties really shot themselves in the foot, droning on and on about how people shouldn’t vote for the BNP, without ever getting into the minutiae of why the BNP are wrong and, more to the point, why their own political party is right? Really it just added to the apathy because after all, we don’t vote against people, we vote for them.

In those weeks it certainly would have been nice to hear what we should vote for, instead of what we shouldn’t. We want strong opinion from our leaders, even if we don’t agree with the opinion. We want things to differentiate them from each other, we want something to get our teeth around and really we want to be led, but that’s something that only a strong leadership would ever find out because if asked, that’s not what we would say that we want.

People always say that the public should have more say in policy, but do we actually think that? Wouldn’t we rather have brilliant politicians with brilliant minds introducing brilliant ideas? It seems like when we say that it would be better if politicians looked to us for direction, we haven’t really thought carefully about it; but that’s not our fault either, it’s their fault for asking us, because of course we haven’t thought carefully about it – that’s not our job.


In the Totnes by-election a couple of weeks ago, the Conservatives held the first ever open ballot in UK politics. They gave the electorate a list of candidates and let everyone choose who the Conservative candidate would be. The reasons why it worked are obvious, but what’s extraordinary is David Miliband talking about this political homogenisation being the future.

Since the party still select the shortlist, the open ballot doesn’t really offer more choice or any more connection with the voters. All it does is generate some publicity and an entirely false connection with the public. It’s essentially just a little reality show. (Actually that’s not a bad idea – a 2012 by-election, ten prospective Labour candidates face off on ITV1 running through a series of increasingly tenuous tasks whilst living in a house together and trying to avoid elimination – it's Politics Idol!)

It’s not for the public to decide on who the Tory candidate is, that’s not when we come in. It’s each party’s own job to vet the right people and then pick them, either in private or at party meetings. Then we know that each candidate was picked because they represent the party. Under the open system, who knows what you represent?

The winner in Totnes, incidentally, was the only candidate with no political experience. Now, of course there was more to her winning than her not being a politician, but I wonder whether a single circulated flyer on the candidates could really have conveyed any sophisticated differences between the candidates; it just peddles easy answers. And would enough people be interested in a sophisticated argument anyway? It doesn’t take many minutes of trawling through YouTube comments and the Have Your Say forum on the BBC website to hammer home quite how many inexplicably angry, borderline deranged shouty people there are in the country who feel that their opinion is absolutely worth sharing.


One of the tools on the BBC website is a real-time Top 10 Most Viewed Stories Right Now list. This is a fine, useful, interesting tool. What worries me is a recent article in the BBC Magazine, where one of the editors explained how the BBC have a practice of analysing this list and the number of “clicks” articles receive in order to see which stories most interest people so that the BBC can thus decide which stories they cover in the future. Again, the danger here is of us ourselves defining our own landscape.

The fundamental misunderstanding as far as this one is concerned is that too much faith is being put in our click. Clicking on an article doesn’t necessarily mean you’re interested. You might click on an Amy Winehouse story – that doesn’t mean you care about Amy Winehouse or think that Amy Winehouse stories are in any way a thing to be encouraged; it just means that you’re bored and you’ve read everything that interests you today (and that if she’s going to die soon, I suppose that might be glanceworthy). Yet as far as this click system is concerned, you’re absolutely interested in Amy Winehouse. As interested as you could possibly be. Online newspapers do not offer us the opportunity of the guilty glance across the page at the lightweight stories before we return to sober things; your guilty glance has become a guilty click, has been duly logged and will now go towards making all news media more lowbrow.

The same problems face the open candidate selection. Whatever state you think politics and the BBC are in at the moment, over-reliance on the consumer is only going to make them worse, but I can’t help but feel that the superficial bounce of loud people of thwarted ambition being pleased that they are being listened to might blind the producers to the fact that in reality, picking a box doesn’t mean we like the box.

July 18, 2009

When You Get Caught Between the Moon, Vienna and a UK City

In celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Moon landings the BBC have recently put online all their news reports from around the time. Included is a Panorama episode from 20 July 1969, taking place while the triumphant astronauts were still circling the moon trying to re-dock with their shuttle and return to earth. If you’ve never seen it, the BBC Online Archive is full of great vintage reports from major moments in modern history but I’d advise against spending too long there. I did once and a dark depression is the inevitable outcome, along with grumblings about there being no more heroes.

If you get a chance, watch that Panorama episode (address below). It’s a mesmerising six-man discussion hours after Armstrong’s first steps, and all the subtexts swirling around this moment clash together in every which way – the Cold War, Art & Science, Nuclear War, Postmodernism, Religion & Science, Civil Rights and the End of Empire. That final one, the decline of the British Empire is an interesting and unexpected one. All the panel agree that this is the first advance in human endeavour since the 17th century that the British have had no part (quite incorrectly, but it's 1969) and the revelation prompts a substantial period of mourning.

A miasmic tone hangs over the entire debate, largely down to the immediate threat of nuclear war. Asked their main feelings on the Moon landings, most panellists indicate ‘relief’ that perhaps this means that the war is over, and that it was done without a bomb. One, pressed on whether they felt any euphoria watching the landing, simply says, ‘No, hope. The two are very different.’ The future is utterly uncertain. The question that hangs over the debate is, after this giant re-ordering of the state of man, what now?

Economist Barbara Ward puts the moment in perspective: ‘It’s the first time that the human race has been able to see in its imagination where it actually lives, and how small, and how shining, and how real it is, and how vulnerable. And if it’s true that we change nothing until we change our imagination, I think it’s possible that this is the first step towards changing how we think about ourselves.’ So will this be the point when the world realises it is just one unified race and comes together, or is this really the moment when everybody gives up on each other?

In the tradition of Marco Polo and Columbus, Apollo 11 offers the West a profound new understanding of the world and sets the stage for a reorganisation of man’s place in it. Barbara Ward later suggests that when world leaders begin to look at the world as the little orb that it is, it may prompt a re-examination of values. Perhaps it’s the end of them fighting unjust wars, hoping to ‘get away with it’. In response, James Mossman, the chair of the discussion, responds that a baby is a little orb and we see them all the time, but we still kill each other.

How weary with the state of the world must a journalist be to make that remark on BBC primetime just hours after man walks on the Moon? Brian Aldiss, then science-fiction writer, now vice-president of the HG Wells Society cheekily sums the pessimistic tone with his summation that this achievement is simply a victory for two simian traits, curiosity and tribalism; probably not a slogan upon which to build our Benetton-ad World. When the panel sum up the impact of this re-ordering of man, it is overwhelmingly pessimistic. You can almost hear Herod in Wilde/Strauss’s Salome: 'Hide the moon, hide the stars! Something terrible is going to happen!'


Speaking of Strauss, this idea of a widespread re-examination of the place of man reminded me of a story about the European music scene in fin-de-siecle Vienna. In the late nineteenth century the idea of a musical canon was only just beginning to emerge, and as a result of this process many composers’ places in history were at that moment being written (or re-written). The public sentiment, especially in Vienna, the centre of European music and the driving force for this concretisation of the canon, deemed that the modern composers would not come out of this reorganisation looking too good. Praise was lavished on the – dead – old guard, and in just a few decades the proportion of living composers in the Liepzig Orchestra’s repertoire fell from 84% to 24%.

This did not go unnoticed by the leading composers, and Schoenberg in particular became sick to death of the public. People wanted either sainted dead men or the cakewalk and popular music, and Schoenberg’s solution was to ignore the common man completely. The voice of the people, he said, was the voice of the devil. He made a stand and became perhaps the first artist to refuse to court public attention. The public’s examination of the place of the artist eventually means that fin-de-siecle Vienna is when the people and the artist finally wash their hands of each other.

The fragmentation didn’t stop there. At the same time, all the European composers (except the Austrians and Germans) were straining to cast off the Austrian and German influence, and really do anything so long as it wasn’t Prussian. They resented the hulking yokes of Wagner and Beethoven hanging around their necks, they were intimidated by their bombast and the idea that this was the pinnacle of music. Furthermore, there was a feeling post Franco-Prussian war the Germans had an eye on European dominance in all departments.

The war and the establishment of this canon forced re-examination, and this dug up a great deal of resentment among the Europeans. They also turned away from the music of the city, and Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, de Falla each in turn began to write music lifted from folk tunes and traditional, pre-urban motifs, and the rejectionism in modernist art begins. Some simmering resentments have come to a head but this crisis is mainly about that singular re-examination of place, and the only solution is splits and fragmentation. The centre cannot hold, Yeats wrote a couple of decades later. All these groups just forget their commonalities and break up, and up, and up.


Antony Gormley's 'One & Other' is the public art project currently resident in Trafalgar Square, in which 2,400 people take turns doing anything they want on the fourth plinth for an hour, over the course of 100 days. Of course, it’s all wrong – for starters, they’re twenty feet off the ground and no-one can hear them. It’s also a small platform and very windy – there’s a reason pulpits have sides. There are big nets to catch them if they fall, but these just make the plinth look like something which has fallen off those giant walking machines that patrol Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

Alternatively, as someone pointed out in the Times, it now looks rather like an armed guardpost at an internment camp, hammering home how divisive the project actually seems. But there’s something rather pointless about ridiculing the Fourth Plinth, every newspaper did straight away with an unsurprising knee-jerk cynicism, and anyway what we should deride is that the frivolous exhibit gets mountains of column-inches because it is in the capital, whilst, for instance, the news last month that Bradford had beaten Los Angeles, Cannes and Venice to the title of UNESCO’s first City of Film was only ever reported on the TV news channels at 28 or 58 minutes past the hour, and with a smirk.

Consequently, I’m delighted that Liverpool have done so well with their year as European Capital of Culture and that, inspired by their success, the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw this week began the UK Capital of Culture competition, starting 2013. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t hear the announcement, it was so quietly hidden away, but it will be an honour hard to avoid when it is bestowed since it will include the host duties for a range of events including the Turner Prize, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, The Brits, The Stirling Prize and the Electric Proms. It will be a genuine decentralisation of cultural events (every four years) and should be applauded.

It is hard to say what became of that cultural, political and sociological crossroads that seemed so imminent as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins circled the Moon. It might be worth noting, however, that Neil Armstrong performed six months of publicity out of a sense of duty to the American taxpayer, and since then has become a complete recluse. He has given almost no interviews in forty years – do you know what he looks like? – and his signature alone is worth thousands.

But his seeming rejection of mankind was clearly to the personal benefit of the man. We break down and break up and are better for it; the more fragmented we are, the more freely individual. The Viennese schism had an interesting after-effect – it heralded an ascendency for composers from small towns. Janacek, Bartok and Ravel were all from minor towns and never forgot that feeling of otherness. They brought to the fore the notions of the outsider and of the schizophrenia of dual origins, themes which persist in all modes of art to this day, and the UK can only benefit from promoting a little fragmentation and schizophrenia of its own.


June 12, 2009

Can Nick Griffin Save TV Journalism?

It was like the awful double-act that a TV executive thinktank might put together to host a quiz show that covered all bases. John Humphries, the Radio Four rottweiler and undisputed monarch of politics over cornflakes, took on the newly elected MEP for the North-West and leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, the Monday morning after the fascist party won their first two elected representatives. The listening population edged forward on their seats in anticipation.

Cue disappointment immeasurable as, somehow or other, the rottweiler forgets how to ask a single challenging question. In the course of that morning show, Sarah Montague took UKIP leader Nigel Farage to task for campaigning on allowances whilst himself taking an annual allowance upwards of £2 million, then Humphries appeared to actually put shadow chancellor George Osbourne up against the studio wall (listen for the thud) for the Conservatives’ planned MEP union with Czech Global Warming deniers, and finally Harriet Harman was dragged into the studio and firmly rebuked by Humphries for, strangest of all, letting the BNP in; but the interview with Nick Griffin was so placid (on the rottweiler’s end, anyway) that it was really only livened up by the fact that Nick Griffin had seemingly been up all night punching railings and was rather grouchy.

The discussion reached something approaching complete farce when the angriest man on radio delivered the damning verdict to Mr Griffin that he felt that there was perhaps ‘something not quite right’ about the BNP policy of denying membership to non-white citizens. How could he let Griffin get away with quoting percentage values as proof that the regional BNP vote had increased, when their raw vote in their two successful constituencies had clearly decreased? How could he allow Griffin to dismiss the past of fellow BNP victor Andrew Brons as youthful folly, when he has been a bona fide fascist for fifty years and has left a trail of rather unsavoury evidence behind him, endorsing the bombing of synagogues and leading marches shouting, ‘We’ve got to get rid of the blacks’?

To further the insult, about six hours earlier an equally docile interview with Nick Griffin had been conducted by election fixture David Dimbleby. What’s perhaps even more surprising in this interview is Dimbleby’s attitude. His face really is a picture throughout. He’s smirking. His face is transparent: he’s out-of-sorts, he’s unnerved, he’s disgusted but above all, he really doesn’t take Griffin seriously. He looks like he doesn’t know where to start, or how to start, or indeed whether to start an interrogation. He doesn’t know what to take issue with, and what to let go. In the end he doesn’t answer back, doesn’t take issue and lets Griffin air his views while he sits in mild acquiescence.

These two encounters, in the course of one night, show how perplexing the bind in which the BBC are finding themselves is turning out to be. For years they have taken the policy that the BNP are not to be offered the publicity of direct debate. This was always a problematic policy: the BBC can’t help but talk about the BNP at each election because the faint chance that they might get in is the only vaguely dramatic electoral story. Consequently, for the last decade the BBC have usually treated the BNP like a kind of excommunicated dirty uncle, never seen but – always at the same times of the year – talked about amongst circles of adults in hushed, disapproving and apprehensive tones.

That is no longer possible. The BNP are now a legitimate political party and deserve airtime. Denying them this airtime just gives fuel to their – now reasonable – complaint that the mainstream media are unfairly marginalising them and that they are the true anti-establishment party.


What these recent sorry attempts at BBC journalism have illustrated is a problem that is so well-known and so accepted that it’s rather boring to even comment upon - the overwhelming reluctance in mainstream media to offer intelligent factual debate. To illustrate how bad things have become, a few weeks ago I saw the key prosecution witness in the abuse cases against the Catholic Church in Ireland appearing on brittle argumentathon HardTalk on News 24. He wasn’t there to be grilled in the slightest, but they must have reasoned that putting him on this show was the only practical way to have a 25-minute conversation on TV.

You simply can’t conduct lifeless interviews with the BNP, since so much of what they argue is predicated on straightforward lies and misinformation. If, as a news agency, you do not challenge clear misinformation then by association you are promoting it. And whilst producers may be rather apathetic about whether they offer sustained challenge to centrist spin or not, the espousal of unambiguously fascist views does not a Bafta-winning network make. Furthermore, the BBC has all that public responsibility malarkey. If ITN conduct a half-arsed interview with the BNP, that’s a shame; but if the BBC do it, they’re failing the nation.

So the BBC are messily scrambling about, trying to find the right journalistic stance. Take the recent egging of Griffin: How much coverage? What tone? Should the report condemn the protestors? Should it cover the content of the BNP press conference which was taking place when the protestors arrived? In the end, they fudged the issue somewhat, reports showing the press conference but with the reporter talking over Griffin’s speech, and the newsreader conducting a phone interview with Griffin entirely based around asking him how much publicity he thinks this will create.

Simply asking Griffin if his party is racist, as they normally do, is no longer sufficient. They need to find a new tone, and when they do, it will have to be one far more incisive than in recent years. The skills have not died in the BBC journalists, you only have to look at the occasions when the varnished News 24 automatons get a little bit riled by an interviewee and you see the sparkle return to their cold, lifeless eyes as they hesitantly recall why they got into journalism in the first place.

The BBC have certainly not forgotten the content and word-order of their original ‘inform, educate, entertain’ manifesto. Take their wonderful Poetry Season - the antithesis of The Millies, The Sun’s annual military awards on Sky, inasmuch as the Poetry Season is watched by no-one but is so indefinably and fundamentally necessary. For me, the highlight of the Poetry Season so far has been Simon Armitage’s geographical retracing and lyrical retelling of the 14th century Arthurian spin-off Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Incidentally, no-one knows who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but given the author’s disposition for lists, I suspect the recently departed Just A Minute polymath Clement Freud).

It occurs to me that Nick Griffin is, in his own neo-Nazi way, much like the Green Knight, gambolling into the comfortable, dependable old Arthurian court which has, in reality, been living on past glories and tired morals for far too long. Only by an ugly intruder throwing down the gauntlet, disrupting the decorum and challenging the way we define ourselves might we recapture the passion for those morals and remember why we fell for them in the first place. The Knight himself is not the challenge, the challenge is from ourselves, and these difficult times are the ideal environment for rebirth. Necessity, mother, invention.

Relegated to the lower order of the headlines for most of the week has been the news that from 2011 there will be a massive shortfall in the NHS budget. ‘The health service in England won’t survive unchanged,’ said the head of the NHS Policy unit. Some free services will undoubtedly have to go. But which should it be? IVF? Abortion? Prescriptions? Smoking-related diseases? Unfortunate as it will be that services are reduced, maybe we will be forced to re-evaluate what is really important to us, if we ever evaluated such things in the first place, and hopefully we’ll end up more empathetic because of it. Perhaps when circumstance reduces our city to rubble, we can see furthest of all. Perhaps we come out of all of these things stronger.

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