Monday, May 30, 2011

JUST ANOTHER WORD for NOTHING LEFT to LOSE

Until about a decade ago, I was, for thirty years on and off, a working journalist and a fully paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists. I’d be a journalist again if anyone took my stuff, but I am too long out of the business; the people who decide things have never heard of me and don’t deign to respond to unsolicited pieces; and maybe what I think and/or how I write is no longer wanted (quiet at the back there).

I had a lot of regard for many of the people I met in my newspaper and magazine years – photographers, stringers, reporters, printers, sub-editors, reviewers, researchers, columnists, editors – but I learned to be very sceptical about the culture of the press. Almost everything that made me feel uncomfortable in those years has got more intense since.

Some scene setting before we get onto that. The press is in terminal decline – no one can doubt that. If there are any printed newspapers at all a decade hence, it will be astonishing. In Britain, many national and London newspapers have (come and) gone in my lifetime: Daily Sketch, News Chronicle, The Star, Daily Herald, The Graphic, Sunday Dispatch, The Evening News, Today, The European, The Post, The Illustrated London News, Sunday Correspondent, London Daily News, Sunday Sport. The Guardian came awfully close to closing its stable-mate, the oldest surviving British paper The Observer, last year and commentators ring the death-knell of The Independent and Independent on Sunday pretty much every month.

The late News Chronicle

It’s the very necessity to publish and print that hands the newspapers their fatal disadvantage. Direct on-line printing is certainly quicker than the linotype, cold press, peeling-a-spread-off-the-stone world that still obtained when I joined The Observer in 1977. It’s the distribution that kills it. I don’t know if the same routines obtain now but, in my day, if you walked along Fleet Street around 4:00 am and peered down the side streets, you’d see the Bedford vans, bearing the liveries of the national organs and the news-agency chains, parked on the pavements, while bundles of early editions tumbled down chutes to men waiting on the tailboards below: the press’s nocturnal emissions.

First cinema newsreels, then the wireless, then much more decisively television, now conclusively the internet, the print’s successors have demonstrated the crucial ingredient that printed newspapers can never have: immediacy. As a consequence, those fast media have marauded into newspapers’ primary source of revenue, advertising. Compare any printed paper’s current edition with one from just two or three years back and the drop in advertising is stark, classified even more than display.

And compare the coverage. Most papers have trimmed the number of their supplements and rationalised their staff. There are notably fewer special offers and give-aways. And the newsprint on which The Guardian is printed is clearly flimsier than a year or two ago.

At the same time, the press has been markedly slow to respond to challenges from elsewhere. Only three years ago, The Daily Telegraph still carried a large proportion of pages printed in monochrome. This is no competition for television that has been in full colour for nearly half a century.

The Times in the days when its front was given over to classifieds

The strategies that editors and proprietors have followed are rarely admirable and not always comprehensible. It’s not just the dreary, industry-wide reliance on pictures of “pretty girls”, notoriously naked ones in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, which has actually trademarked the phrase “Page Three”. It’s that Murdoch, more than any media proprietor, has sought to influence governments and in that quest he has been highly successful.

Of the British prime ministers over the last fifty years or so, those who assiduously courted Fleet Street in general and, more recently, Murdoch in particular, have benefited from a generally benign press – Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair – while those who scorned such low cunning have found themselves increasingly excoriated by columnists and editorial alike – Sir Alec Douglas Home, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown. Thus far, David Cameron has diligently shown himself to belong to the former camp, with what result only the 2015 election will show; although note that Ed Miliband has not seemed to attend much to press relations.

In a wider sense, the wider media has invented and developed that horrendous phenomenon of contemporary society, celebrity culture. The famous were ever a staple for the popular press – hitherto known as “the tabloids” until middle market papers like The Express and Daily Mail adopted the format, followed by supposedly “quality” organs like The Times and The Independent which call their tabloid manifestations “compact”. Cinema, wireless and then television, in their form such threats to the very existence of newspapers, yet furnished a lifeline by vouchsafing sprinklings of stardust that reporters and photographers might gratefully snort up. And now, newspapers from all parts of the market are celebrity obsessed. One reason why no-name journalists like me ceased to find work is because so many columns and reviews are written by – or at least by-lined by – actors and comedians.

The relations between reporters and photographers and their prey soon grew complicated. With the growth of so-called “yellow” journalism and the arrival of the paparazzo photographer (named after the aggressive lensman in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita), the famous found themselves more the victims than the beneficiaries of press interest.

Ryan & Stacey Giggs, tweeted into the limelight

So we come to the present sorry and entangled juncture, at which people in the public eye attempt to cover their personal affairs (in every sense) by securing so-called super-injunctions that can be ignored by thousands of civilians gossiping on social internet platforms like Twitter. The latter breach of law – if that is what it is – is clearly far too easy to commit. I did it myself, mentioning the footballer Ryan Giggs en passant as “a super-injunctor” because by the time I did so he had already been fingered numberless times.

The reality is that Twitter hands its users a power that they do not have the inclination to ponder. Those few of us who bother to read the drearily endless legalese of the terms and conditions, that every commercial site posts somewhere and diligently prompts joiners to read and agree to, can hardly be expected to carry in our memories the responsibilities to which we have signed up, even if we had ever thought about them. No doubt there will sooner or later be a test case – perhaps the action taken by South Tyneside Council to secure from Twitter the identity of a tweeter whom it wants to sue for libel – that will bring home starkly to the Twitterati the enormity of the responsibility they undertake in setting out to gossip to the world.

But there is an ocean of muddy water here and the press is itself as responsible as anyone for making it so muddy. Consider the related but conflicted notions that are in play in this whole area: discretion, confidentiality, privacy, security, secrecy, evasion, dissimulation, subterfuge, suppression, conspiracy, treason. And in confronting all of these related but importantly separate notions, the press invokes the holiest of modern holy cows: the freedom of the press.

Not in the most perfervid of imaginations can the press truly be said to be free in any meaningful sense. First of all, the newspapers are owned. Their owners are much like those billionaires who buy football clubs. They tend to be foreigners or at any rate domiciled abroad, technically if not actually. They have bottomless pockets and they need to have such because newspapers, like football clubs, swim in seas of debt. And of course those owners have views and they are inclined to want to see their mouthpieces reflecting those views in a general and sometimes in a particular sense.

Proprietorial requirements dictate a great deal of the stances taken by the press. For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s complex interests in broadcasting are reflected in the consistently hostile posture struck by his organs towards the BBC and, to a lesser extent, ITV. This is less true of coverage of individual programmes or stars, because the editors gain little from being out of step on what the public adores. The constant carping is upon corporate policy. The editors imagine that this undermines the public’s affection for the BBC so that readers may be drawn to BSkyB instead.

The Barclays, honoured by the Queen for services to tax avoidance

What brings viewers to Sky is its greedy accumulation of rights to sports and ever newer movies. Viewers grumble that they can no longer see major sporting events and films “free” on the traditional channels but then vote with their credit cards and sign up for Sky packages. The Murdoch papers play a significant cheerleading role in this process, just as Richard Desmond’s papers are obliged to enter into mutual promotion with Channel Five since the media empire builder added that faltering enterprise to his portfolio.

It can’t be news to many that the press is full of special pleading, self-interest and hypocrisy. The long and far-reaching campaign conducted by The Daily Telegraph concerning parliamentary expenses made my blood boil. The seemingly not very onerous task of owning The Telegraph (along with The Spectator) is conducted by the identical Barclay twins, Sir David and Sir Frederick, from their home on Monaco where they protect their billions from taxation. They must have enjoyed enormously their reporters’ stories of the trivial swindles of the pathetic politicos while they themselves wallow in untouched dosh. But none of their paper’s rivals pointed out this contrast: The Guardian declined to publish a letter I wrote, couched in diligently diplomatic terms, on the matter.

Not so far from us in Wiltshire lies the grand estate of Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. I have no intelligence as to how much of each week, month or year his lordship resides there but, for the purposes of taxation, he “lives in France”. I’d be interested to hear his explanation as to how that arrangement differs from those of the so-called “benefits cheats” against whom his columnists rail. As long as the coalition government shows no sign of attending to the legal loopholes that allow the mega-rich to avoid paying taxation on a massive scale, you can be sure that the Tory press will not be switching its allegiance to Labour. Little wonder that Cameron smarms up to the news proprietors.

Lord Rothermere plus disinterested friend

And what do the editors and reporters do with their endlessly trumpeted freedom? Well, they invoke it most often in conjunction with another illusory shibboleth: “the public’s right to know”. These two great causes may be thought well served when the press works long and hard, carefully and restrainedly, to uncover real wrongdoing. The exemplary research and diligence that powered the campaign in the 1960s by The Sunday Times to have victims of the drug thalidomide recompensed remains a template for investigative journalism.

Pursuing salacious stories about people who’ve been on the telly is not of the same order. To combat this blood sport, it is hardly surprising that the hunted have sought legal protection and so we have the super-injunctions that have attracted such scorn and been preposterously dismissed as an attack on “the freedom of the press”.

What should we make of the Ryan Giggs debacle? So many views are canvassed: that it serves him right, that it overshadows his career as a footballer, that he’s in an impossible position, that he’s perfectly entitled to cover his tracks. The Lib Dem backbencher John Hemming named Giggs in the House, using parliamentary privilege for a purpose that many MPs felt was illegitimate. Under such privilege, an MP may not be brought before the law by anyone for what he says, however libellous it might be, although he may certainly be disciplined by the Speaker for breaching parliamentary regulation and custom.

It’s fair to ask whether, if MPs are to use their privilege in this way, the protection it offers ought to be withdrawn. I have long believed it utterly iniquitous that, if the employee of a foreign embassy kills your child through dangerous or drunken driving, he is not liable and you may have no redress because he enjoys diplomatic immunity. And it hardly distinguishes Hemming’s stance that he himself is a ludicrous figure with a personal life as messy and amoral as any soap opera character, lived with careless unconcern.

John Hemming MP, not especially choosy about his causes

The notion that Giggs “deserves everything he gets for cheating on his wife” errs on the side of puritan severity and determinism. Giggs is one of the oldest professional footballers still active at the highest level of the game and the corollary of that is that the world has changed profoundly since he entered the game. It’s easy to be morally superior about relatively uneducated working class boys who become very rich and famous without much psychological tuition in how to handle it. Henry Kissinger, a very clever and well educated man, once observed with delighted surprise that “power is a great aphrodisiac”. Giggs and Wayne Rooney and John Terry may not know what that means but they experience its operation. So did I in a small way. In the years that I was a television producer, I was offered sexual favours on a far more regular – even routine – basis than I ever was at any other period of my life. It’s an extremely disciplined individual who remembers always to just say no.

On the other hand, Giggs is a grown-up and he must know that involving himself in an adulterous relationship is a risky business, especially with a woman whose own “fame” derives from a so-called reality show and who could very readily be mistaken for a gold-digger. It’s in the nature of “cheating” in any way – adultery, drug-enhancement, expenses-fiddling, plotting terrorism – that a degree of furtive behaviour is required in its execution. Behaving furtively in itself implies a danger of being found out. Everybody being furtive must understand that the behaviour is AYOR.

But of course it’s nobody’s business what Giggs gets up to in his sexual life and nobody has any basis on which to pontificate, for instance, that his behaviour has “destroyed his family”. It might be that the public fuss has done far more damage to his domestic situation than would have been caused had he informed his wife of the adultery in his own time and without the hovering media. None of us can know what the ramifications might be but Mrs Stacey Giggs may well reflect that there have been four people in her marriage: her and her husband, his mistress and the watching world.

Into the middle of this melange has erupted another matter on which the press has not distinguished itself. I am not of the view that the highest achievement of press freedom is its willingness to pour abuse upon a public servant. The press, loudly led by the tabloids, decided very quickly after the so-called “Baby P” case broke that the witch to be hunted should be Head of Haringey Social Services, Sharon Shoesmith.

Sharon Shoesmith, a rare image not chosen to suggest that she is smug

Now that she has appealed her dismissal and won her case, the knives have been unsheathed again. I accept that Shoesmith has not helped her own image with some of the comments she made to the media. Many a tweeter thrust into the spotlight might make comments that were not thought-through too. The Twitter bandwagon blackguarding Shoesmith is gleefully leapt on by thousands of know-nothings who wouldn’t themselves dream of taking a social worker job for ten times the miserable salary and wouldn’t begin to have the sense or sensibility to consider the conundrums daily presented by social work.

In a posting when the story first broke, before Shoesmith’s unfair dismissal, I wrote the following and I stand by it:

“Armchair pundits, among whom I readily number myself, have turned their special venom on the hapless social workers of Haringey. Because Baby P died on their watch, they have, in an inimitable headline from The Sun, ‘BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS’. Being wise after an event that they didn’t even know had happened until they read about it in the news columns is the special talent of armchair pundits. Columnists who couldn’t find Haringey in the London A-Z (let alone their arses with both hands) profess to know better than seasoned social workers what constitutes a palpable risk. Columnists whose entertainment expense accounts are higher in a week than a social worker earns in a month demand that heads roll.

“Social work is a vocational career. You need infinite patience and human sympathy. You have to be ready to work anti-social hours and be poorly paid. And you are immediately made aware that it is an art rather than a science. The decisions you make are based wholly on impressions and assessments that are subjective. There will be people whose casework you take on who will tell you what they think you’ll want to hear; others who will have few means of articulating what their situation is; and most of them will be in some degree desperate and not all of them can be saved from self-harm or harming others. Nobody pays you any heed until something “goes wrong” and then a bunch of scandalised know-alls in London, whose knowledge of social deprivation derives almost entirely from an occasional look at EastEnders, start writing about you as if you yourself are a serial killer.

“I honestly don’t understand why cases like this are taken up by the media at all. They have no news value. Editors prate about ‘human interest’ but if viewers, listeners and readers are ‘interested’ it is because the media does its best to make them so. It’s mere prurience. The day after the Baby P case went large, there was a brief story, played almost as big for a day or two, of a mother who had been sectioned after killing her two small children. Tragically for the pundits, there was no evidence of social workers stoking the fire of this particular case so it fell off the news agenda. That didn’t prevent the BBC Television News bulletins from carrying a vox pop with a neighbour who was too emotional to be able to contribute anything useful. What is the value of this kind of coverage? Do the editors believe that we need to be shown someone upset before we can understand that the case is upsetting? And what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? Wring our hands? Take to the streets? Perhaps write to our MPs – not least the prime minister and the leader of the opposition – and ask them to stop uttering the word “families” as though it has a religious connotation when all the media evidence suggests that families can actually be fatal for children?” [P BABY: NO MORE DRAMAS November 19th 2008]

Traditionally, the point at which one fully realises how grossly inaccurate is the daily reporting carried by the papers is the occasion when one is unfortunate enough to become the object of press interest. Again in a modest way, I have had my own small experience of this. The arrogant assumption, empty speculation and reckless kite-flying that routinely informs press coverage has been further overlaid of late by the greatly increased encouragement of rebarbative levels of abuse from readers. On-line comment threads attached to the threadbare and frequently synthetic sneerings of columnists and the gathering momentum of sanctimonious abuse on Twitter have demonstrated just how widespread among the public is the taste for impotent rage. The press gleefully throws petrol on these wildfires in the form of hapless individuals: Ken Clarke one week, Ryan Giggs the next, Sharon Shoesmith the next.

The media wields enormous power and prompts millions to assume they have knowledge that in fact they do not have. I would have a great deal more faith and confidence in the press if it considered and discussed its own responsibilities half as readily as it shouts its claims to rights to which it is not entitled.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

RAPE: FOUR HYPOTHETICALS

You are a middle-aged woman. You are alone in the house when your estranged husband calls round. You and he are still on reasonably good terms; it’s just that you can't live together. On this occasion, he's clearly very down. You give him a cup of tea and you both talk for a long time standing up in the kitchen, inconclusively. Suddenly, he starts to cry. You are touched. You put your arms around him and comfort him. After a while, he starts to kiss your neck. You say 'no'. He's still tearful, but persistent. You realise that at some level you still love him but you don't want this. But he does. He starts to kiss you again gently, then passionately. You say no again, firmly. He pushes you down onto the kitchen table. You struggle a bit, then you accept that he isn't going to stop. He was always stronger than you. He penetrates you. Then he weeps copiously. He begs your forgiveness. You tell him to go, coldly. After a while he does so. You feel angry and humiliated.

Meanwhile, your 15 year-old daughter has been beyond your control since puberty. She sleeps around without a thought. The boys she sleeps with think she's 18 because that's what she tells them and it's convincing, especially when the boys have had a few drinks and she's coming on to them so heavily.

Your brilliant 19 year-old son is at university, a gleaming career ahead of him. You've met his girlfriend of a few weeks. You instinctively didn't like her, felt she was manipulative and untrustworthy. You hoped your boy would find someone you felt more positive about. But you know they've slept together and you fear he may be smitten. Then all hell breaks loose. The police arrest him and accuse him of date rape. He denies it. He at once agrees that they've had intercourse in the past but he's sure they didn't on this occasion. He says that they'd both drunk quite a lot and that she had indicated that she might want a change from him. He had indeed begged her not to move on but she wasn't to be persuaded. She alleges that he raped her because she had refused his advances and that she wasn't drunk.

Your septuagenarian mother is wonderfully independent, travels widely, drives herself everywhere, is full of life and vigour. One day, when she stops at traffic lights, her car is surrounded by a gang of motorcyclists. They drag her from the car, gang-rape her on a building site and leave her there. She is found in the morning. Her life is saved but she never recovers. She refuses to go out. She sits at home and weeps for the rest of her curtailed life.

Rape is rape, you say. The boys who sleep with your daughter (though they don't know it and you perhaps don't either) are guilty of statutory rape because she is under age. So, the estranged husband, the his-word-against-hers son, the boys who slept with your out-of-control 15-going-on-18 daughter and the bikers who gang-raped your mother must all have the same sentence, right? Discuss.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A RAVISHING ROW

At my school in the 1960s, there were termly outings to the theatre. I expect there still are. Nothing unusual about that, you will say. Theatre-goers have long known that a Stratford matinee is only to be undertaken if one can tolerate an auditorium full of adolescents whispering, giggling, rustling sweet papers and, nowadays doubtless, texting each other when bored.

Our English master had a pretty adventurous eye for what to take us to. On one occasion, we even came down to London by coach to see a musical. The one in question had a proper literary pedigree, being based on a comedy of 1730 by Henry Fielding. It had been adapted by Bernard Miles for the opening production at the splendid little theatre that Miles founded at Blackfriars, the much missed Mermaid. The lyrics were by Lionel Bart and the music by Laurie Johnson. The show was a huge hit, the biggest the Mermaid ever had, running on and off for five years including a West End transfer.

Now, if you are surprised at our being taken to a musical, prepare to be astounded at the nature of that musical. It was called Lock Up Your Daughters and its main subject is made explicit in the title of the original Fielding: Rape Upon Rape. Can you imagine a group of teenaged boys today being taken by their school to a raucous celebration of rape?

The original vinyl album of a tuneful show

The show was tremendously lascivious in a very good-natured way – and remember that censorship was still ruthlessly imposed on theatres in those days. Nonetheless, the sight of the splendiferous Hy Hazell, legs as long as the Eiffel Tower, huskily lip-smacking her way through a naughty little number called ‘When Does the Ravishing Begin?’ was a formative experience for most of the boys on the outing.

The verb “to ravish” is not much used now. Its fifth definition in the OED, the one that concerns us here, is “to drag off or carry away (a woman) by force or with violence (occas. also implying subsequent rape”. Yet until pretty recently, this was considered to be a lark, even by women. Certainly, in my youth, rape was a good joke or, perhaps I should say, an occasion for bad jokes: “Grape! Grape!” “Don’t you mean ‘Rape! Rape!’” “No, there was a bunch of them”.

The original programme

Times have changed. In the 1990s, Chichester Festival Theatre boldly mounted a revival of Lock Up Your Daughters. The cast was led by George Cole, with whom I had worked, and Sheila Hancock, whom I had admired for more than thirty years. I persuaded The Guardian to let me interview them. No piece I contributed to the paper was ever more altered in the subbing. A persistent subtext of disdain and disapproval was injected into the published version of what I had written. I bitterly resented it but of course it was too late to disavow. One casualty was that I decided not to try to pursue a plan I had been nursing to attempt a biography of Cole.

But I went to the press night of the revival and was struck by how cruelly time had treated it. It did now seem, at best, in dubious taste. The reviews were universally damning, no one making any reference to the huge hit the show had been a generation earlier.

Ken puts his hush-puppies in it again

Since this morning, there has been a tremendous hoo-ha about an appearance by the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, on Radio 5 Live. I listened carefully to the programme and, for a limited period, you can too at:

http://bbc.in/8ZHTEH

If you do, you may deplore, as I do, the contumely being poured on Clarke’s head. The central problem with the programme, or so it seems to me, is that the interviewer, Victoria Derbyshire, never pays Clarke the elementary compliment of listening to what he is saying. This is a grave professional lapse and if anyone deserves to be pilloried for their performance on the programme it is her.

What Derbyshire does repeatedly is to assume that Clarke is trying to excuse or disregard certain categories of rape. In his report on the BBC’s television news at 6:00, Nick Robinson suggested that Clarke’s error was to refer to “serious rape”, with the implication that not all rape is serious. What Clarke is actually trying to do is to explain that the law as it stands discriminates between different sexual encounters. But Derbyshire cannot hear this; she is too busy being offended by the notion of a man suggesting that some rapes are more serious than others.

Victoria Derbyshire – and you are not to take the piss by gazing at her bosom

It would be interesting to hear Derbyshire’s response to Germaine Greer on rape, written five years ago. I don’t think I need to state Dr Greer’s credentials as a feminist or as a serious thinker on all aspects of sexual politics. Her view can be read here:

http://ind.pn/18LZlg

and I particularly draw the attention of readers (and of Derbyshire) to Dr Greer’s use of the term “petty rape”.

So, can there be a distinction between one rape and another? Take the case of a girl of 15 who looks and dresses like a 20 year-old and who is enthusiastically sleeping around. In law, any male above the age of 15 who sleeps with her is committing rape. That is how the courts characterise sex with a girl (or indeed a boy) who is not classed as a child but is still below the age of consent which, in Britain, is 16. This kind of rape is known to lawyers – though the phrase is not in fact enshrined in statute – as statutory rape.

Dr Greer in the days of her pomp

Now consider the phenomenon of “date-rape”. This is a fraught area because it swings so much on one person’s word against that of another and on what one person understood at the time the act took place, given that the circumstances of the act might be overlaid with the consumption of intoxicants of various kinds. This is not to say that it is a less-than-serious crime. But it often enough takes place in a situation confused by many other factors.

I don’t know what proportion of my readers would suggest that either of these examples of rape equates with the gang-rape of a pensioner or the systematic sexual assault on civilians by military personnel in a war situation. Ken Clarke, it seems to me, was trying to suggest that there are degrees of seriousness in rape cases. Who would dispute that? Would you?

For any woman who has suffered rape, such debate must be irrelevant and insensitive. The water of the 5 Live interview was much muddied by a caller being injected into the proceedings. She had been through the extended trauma of being raped by a man – I think I understand her account correctly – who was out on parole after previous convictions and who was then given a reduced sentence. She became understandably emotional in the telling.

Clarke snoozing through this spring's budget

It was unfair and exploitative of the producer to ambush Clarke with this. Very properly, he didn’t attempt to engage with the woman’s case – how could he? – but he wasn’t able to shake off the disadvantage that personal emotion of this kind lays on rational debate. Derbyshire, on the other hand, seemed to believe that the woman’s experience “proved” that Clarke was wrong.

The internet has been aflame ever since. Twitter’s 140-character limit on individual comment is apt to encourage the disobliging and the ad hominem. I have no doubt that the great majority of tweets and thread comments on the matter were not informed by actually listening to the programme, if indeed, the tweeters were any more capable of listening to Clarke than was Derbyshire.

Opportunistically, Ed Miliband called for Clarke to go at Prime Minister’s Questions. David Cameron, who evidently hadn’t heard the programme nor been briefed on it, remained studiously non-committal on his Justice Secretary’s fate and attempted, none too successfully, to steer the subject back to government policy on sentencing which, of course, is just what the discussion ought to be about. However, Cameron has quite a bit of form now in letting his ministers swing in the breeze. And subsequently all remarks released from Downing Street have been lukewarm at best. So Clarke may still perish and that would be a loss. Despite the instant judgments of internet traffic, he is one of the more enlightened of this government’s representatives.

Monday, May 16, 2011

MAY the FORCE BE WITH YOU

I had thought that, depending on the hurdles thrown into the path of independents, I might put myself forward as a candidate for the elected office of county police commissioner next May. These functionaries have been dreamed up to replace local police authorities and supposedly to make the police more accountable.

I am not the only observer to suspect that what will happen in practice is that these roles will largely fall to party apparatchiks, thereby bringing police more directly under the control of government policy. This eventuality needs to be countered. However, the House of Lords last week put a spoke in the government’s plans by throwing out the clause of the justice bill that establishes the principle of elected commissioners. There will ensue a power struggle between the Lords and the Commons (which the latter will certainly win) but, if the government’s timetable is to be preserved, it shortens the time for preparation.

Below is a first draft of a stump speech I have been considering in case the elections do indeed go ahead and my circumstances do not prevent me from standing. I would welcome feedback.

A custodian helmet of the Metropolitan police force

Ladies and gentlemen,

When did you last set eyes on a police officer? I don’t mean on television. Of course there are myriad cops on the box every night, some of them even British. The fictional ones, unbeatable detectives all, are apt to be so-called mavericks who bend the regulations but not in a way that practical people would disapprove because they get results. The real officers on the streets, most often seen on the news, usually look like paramilitaries and appear to be carrying out some brutal regime crackdown in some god-forsaken country, until you realise that they’re actually in London.

No, I mean a police officer in the flesh, traversing your community with a watchful, friendly eye, either on foot or in a squad car temporarily perched at some prominent vantage point. I mean a visible local law enforcement presence.

When I was a child in the 1950s, the “bobby on the beat” was a familiar neighbourhood figure, like the postman and the milkman, the newspaper boy and the rag-and-bone man. He –- there were some women but the vast majority were men – was reassuring but at the same time slightly menacing, gruff but indulgent, all-seeing and all-knowing. There was a saying back then: “if you want to know the time, ask a policeman”. It perfectly caught all the qualities that the public imagination invested in the police: approachability, reliability, flexibility, trustworthiness, public service.

The foot patrol policeman was an unmistakeable figure. He was so conspicuous in his elongated, dark blue pith helmet that was properly called a custodian helmet. Do they still wear those? Are you absolutely sure that you know the answer to that question?

Dixon, an idealised uniformed copper

Of course, nobody advocates a return to the “Evenin’ all” world of long ago. Although, don’t forget that Dixon of Dick Green’s first manifestation was in a feature film of 1950 called The Blue Lamp in which he was shot at point-blank range by a rather unconvincing desperado played by Dirk Bogarde. PC George Dixon was brought back from the dead for the reassuring and cosy television series.

Community policing is not a service that most communities are presently aware of. The only time I have seen any officers in the small town near which we live was occasioned by a local councillor, puzzlingly elected under the banner of the BNP, coming to claim his seat at the town hall. There was a demonstration that drew the local television news cameras and a small but suitably angry crowd.

Another day, I went to the local police station to report a dangerously parked vehicle. The station was locked and I spoke inconclusively to someone through an intercom at the door. I have never passed by and seen any evidence that the building is occupied.

Morse, an idealised television detective

Many factors have changed the culture of Britain’s streets but the absence of police officers is certainly one of those factors. I don’t think we ever used the word “mugging” in the 1950s. Crimes committed in broad daylight were outrageous enough to provoke comment. But the whole of society has altered profoundly since then. We routinely have about us items that are pretty expensive and desirable: gadgets and gizmos and jewellery worn routinely, not just on high days and holidays. Even sneakers get stolen while being worn on the pavement, a crime that peaked in the 1990s. You just couldn’t have credited footwear theft in the 1950s.

Back then, people thought nothing of walking to their destination. Shopping was done at a series of high street retailers, not at one huge hypermarket that can only be reached by car. But, apart from shopping, women were much less likely to be seen alone on the street, especially at night. In the 1950s, a woman entering a pub or a restaurant alone was liable to raise eyebrows. Now, women expect to be able to walk at any hour and in sometimes surprisingly provocative clothes without putting themselves at risk, yet the risk has greatly increased along with the provocation.

Contemporary community policing

And the greatest difference, as everyone knows, is that children no longer go out to play. The possibility of a copper heaving into sight served a double psychological purpose – it kept the kids feeling safe and it made them think twice about getting into trouble.

It’s impossible to draw these kinds of comparison and not mention government cuts. This is not the place to argue a general case for cutting more slowly or for making cuts in different areas from the ones the government has chosen. Even so, I cannot resist remarking that if as much were spent on domestic policing as on attempting to police internal strife in other countries around the world, the crime and detection figures here would be greatly improved.

But any police commissioner worth his salt is bound to make funding a major concern and to use his position to put pressure on the Home Office and the Treasury to do everything possible to sustain front line policing. And not only front line either. It’s too tempting for politicians to make cheap points about back office waste but the police have many functions, duties and services that the public do not readily see but which make a difference in subtle, subtextual and far-reaching ways. Moreover, it behoves a useful commissioner to campaign for a reduction in red tape and bureaucratic regulation. Successive governments’ preoccupation with statistics and targets has done the police no favours.

Younger every day

Most important of all, it seems to me, is that a police commissioner be free of party interest. Policing should not be a political football. No party has a monopoly on constructive policies concerning law enforcement. Indeed, I rather suggest that many thoughtful police officers believe that no party has any very practical and progressive policies on policing. That at any rate is my own view and I am proud to offer myself as someone who has never been compromised by membership of a political party. In this election, there are candidates who will be taking for granted the votes of those who support the party that has put them up for election. I suggest that their bias is of little benefit either to the force itself or to the public. An independent representative, able to draw his own independent conclusions from the evidence before him, is best able to wield the daunting but undoubted power that comes with this post.

But if the election of a candidate such as me might in some ways represent the worst nightmare of party politicians, it might also fill the chief constable with trepidation. It happens too often that reported and video-recorded behaviour by police officers falls well short of the standards the force publicly sets for itself, let alone the standards that the public have a right to expect. Let’s consider the case of the Melksham station sergeant who dragged a woman to a cell and then threw her to the ground, opening a wound on her face. It ought not to have taken a court case before that sergeant was dismissed the service. Indeed, it ought not to have taken the leaking of CCTV footage of the assault to the media for any enquiry to be conducted into the sergeant’s behaviour. The police have a duty of care for anyone in their custody, however abusive, awkward, uncooperative or unpredictable such people might be. “We will always treat you fairly with dignity and respect” says the national policing pledge and that must include everyone, even the guilty.

Contemporary riot gear

On this as on many other disciplinary matters, the fact that the force – like the military and parliament – act as judge and jury only reinforces the public perception that they do everything possible to look after their own and to neutralise embarrassment. This is plainly unacceptable and a police commissioner ought to involve himself with all such cases, taking as a given that each will be considered on its merits and that no attempt will be made to protect the good name of the police at the expense of the truth.

Some of the instinct to close ranks when civilians allege ill treatment or other sorts of wrongdoing clearly derives from a culture that has difficulty adapting to social change. Few can doubt that the police – like the military, the judiciary, the financial sector, professional sport and, certainly, parliament itself – have been slow to re-educate themselves out of an instinctive misogyny, racism, homophobia, ageism and cultural exclusivity that keep the predominant blokes feeling strong and safe. Sensitivity to difference has to be inculcated into recruits from the outset; eradicating age-old habits of attitude and behaviour in more senior officers may be even more challenging. But chief constables need to require such sensitivity and to crack down hard on all evidence of its lack.

Kettling

It seems to me that one of the most fraught areas of policing is the relationship between uniformed officers and young members of the public. Adolescents and those in their early twenties require particular patience because they are not yet skilled in calibrating the impact of their behaviour. I do not suppose it is a pressing issue for this county, unless reinforcements are ever required in Bristol, but the conduct of police at demonstrations and in handling outbursts of rowdy and destructive behaviour is especially ticklish. Chief constables feel that they have found a useful tool in the new techniques of containment – what the media have dubbed kettling – but the indiscriminate nature of this method of control is deeply resented by those caught up by it. Operations that alienate the public may be useful in the short term but can have consequences for the way that the authorities are perceived by a whole generation. I acknowledge that, in crowd control situations, the police are usually on a hiding to nothing. But more strategic planning is required, along with a greater readiness to be self-critical.

Something that does drive a wedge between the police and young people in this county is the long-standing policy of picking up and charging people in possession of small quantities of recreational drugs, plainly acquired for personal use. I don’t know if this is a policy dictated by a desire to swell the numbers of convictions. I do know that it sows discontent that in small ways and – who knows? – perhaps in large ways may come to be a matter of regret.

The responses to drunkenness in town centres is also a matter that requires thoughtful anticipation. For my part, I would argue that the police (and paramedics too) should be permitted to charge fixed fees when they are obliged to tend to people rendered incapable by their own stupidity, especially if such people are accommodated in cells overnight. Charging a fee would help to ensure that the duty of care be carried out properly – after all, someone who has paid a fee is entitled to complain if he has not received the due service.

There are, as you can see, many aspects of policing that deserve renewed consideration and in which a police commissioner ought to be intimately involved. I undertake to you that, if elected, I shall make my presence felt without fear or favour towards anyone save you, the electorate, in face of whom all public servants, elected, uniformed or appointed, should quake.

And, by the by, the question of custodian helmets is not simple. Some forces do seem to be phasing them out. The requirement that they be worn has generally declined. I call that a pity. There’s much to be said for distinctiveness.

Monday, May 09, 2011

SPLITS and SPATS

Thursday’s multifarious elections changed the UK’s political map in various ways, some of them unexpected. One hesitates to use a phrase like “seismic shift” but the reverberations will go on for months and may yet have further, unimagined consequences. Already three party leaders in Scotland have said they will step down. The balance of the coalition in Westminster and Whitehall has been significantly altered. Something may have been set in train that leads to departures from the government, perhaps the collapse of the coalition, maybe even an early general election, certainly now (anyway, sooner or later but within five years) a referendum on the dissolution of the Union.

Let’s begin with Scotland. Not in its wildest dreams did the SNP – or at least anyone except its permanently chipper leader Alex Salmond – expect to emerge with an overall majority of nine in the Holyrood parliament. Proverbially, the complex voting system set up by Labour for Scottish elections was designed to obviate just such an eventuality. But opinion polls just before the ballot suggested that the SNP had overhauled Labour’s earlier projected lead so, given that polls are always a few days behind the momentum, we all ought to have read the signs better.

Alex Salmond, the cat who got the cream

The data is interesting, however, and as always tells a more complex story than do media headlines. What it shows is that the two parties opposed to the government in London both did well. It was the coalition partners, the Conservatives and – disastrously – the Liberal Democrats, who saw their support haemorrhage.

Members of the Scottish parliament come in two kinds. More than half emerge as winners of a First-Past-the-Post system as used at Westminster (and confirmed last Thursday in the nationwide referendum). The rest prevail through a Proportional Representation scheme operated on a regional basis. These are informally referred to as List MSPs. Retiring Tory leader in Scotland Annabel Goldie stands as one of these List MSPs, perhaps because it gives her a better chance of retaining her seat.

The Conservatives lost a quarter of their Holyrood seats and, in the constituencies, are almost entirely confined to the Borders. They shed one-and-a-half percent of their regional support but getting on for three percent among the more critical FPTP constituency MPs. The Lib Dem vote fell by six percent among List MSPs and more than eight percent in the constituencies. They lost more than two-thirds of their MSPs and were pushed back to the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland.

Labour lost much the same among List MSPs as the Tories in the constituencies, but only 0.45 percent in the FPTP vote. Indeed, Labour took more Scottish seats from the Tories than did the SNP and as many from the SNP as from the Tories. But the way the maths panned out, the SNP had a net gain from Labour of 21 seats, even though the most significant transfer of votes was from the other parties to the Nationalists. In that sense the result flattered to deceive.

Goldie woman with golden boy

Nonetheless, Salmond’s Cheshire Cat grin will remain long after the astonishment of the election has faded. Most of the cards appear to be in his hands. As I argued in a letter to The Guardian today, the Nationalists have a distinct natural advantage. All their leading lights want to sit at Holyrood. The most accomplished Scots in all the other parties seek to make their careers at Westminster. Consequently, since the estimable Donald Dewar, the Scottish Labour Party has been led by nonentities and time-servers who attract few votes. Indeed, two of Dewar’s successors were obliged to stand down because of dubious practice.

If Gordon Brown had led Scottish Labour instead, he might now be on his fourth term as first minister in Edinburgh and David Miliband might be on his second as prime minister in London. But unless Ed Miliband can persuade the brightest and best of Labour politicians – Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, Anne Begg, Tom Harris, Alistair Darling – to go home and stand for Holyrood, the SNP will surely continue to win overall majorities.

As to the referendum on Scottish independence, Salmond is playing it long and cautiously. Conventional wisdom says that support for the SNP does not transfer wholesale into support for UDI. In any case, referendums are what is called indicative only; that is to say that they put no obligation under law on the governments that call them. They are weaker than a plebiscite, weaker still than a direct election, the results of which are binding. Salmond could summon the Scots to a referendum and still follow a course opposite to that preferred by his people. But for someone who evidently hugely relishes being much the largest fish in a relatively small pond, he is not likely to want to risk his Holyrood majority by alienating his electorate.

The late and much loved Donald Dewar

For the Tories in London, the calculations are very different. David Cameron’s immediate reaction to the SNP’s success and the prospect of a Scottish referendum was to say that Holyrood could of course have its vote but that he would fight for the Union “with every fibre of my being”. Well, he’s got to say that. Many Tory MPs, on the contrary, would be perfectly happy to kiss goodbye to Scotland. After all, the country delivered just one Tory MP to Westminster last year, as against 41 for Labour. They picture a House of Commons without members from the independent nation of Scotland – or indeed from Wales where Labour also dominates – but with a big advantage for the Tories in the remaining English seats, especially after the shake-up of boundaries being proposed by the government that – would you credit it? – favours Conservatives still further.

Such a development at Westminster would finally lay to rest Tam Dalyell’s legendary West Lothian Question, wherein the then Labour backbencher asked how it could be proper for the MP for West Lothian (himself) to be permitted to vote on an issue peculiar to the citizens of Blackburn, Lancashire but not on an issue peculiar to the burghers of Blackburn, West Lothian; under the terms of the devolution bill then going through the house, Westminster MPs would lose executive jurisdiction over domestic Scottish affairs. Meanwhile, the formal agreement that launched the Westminster coalition includes an undertaking to have a commission examine the West Lothian Question.

Tam Dalyell, the West Lothian questioner

Another school of Tory thought argues that a referendum on Scottish independence ought to be put before the whole of the UK because unionists in each constituent country have a view on the matter, whether they be Scottish or no. This notion might appeal to Cameron but of course would be rejected outright by Salmond.

Cheerleader for the Thatcherite wing of the Tories, Siphon Effluent of The Daily Telegraph, repeats a familiar cry: “why [should] the English taxpayer … send £23billion a year to Scotland to pay for it to have free prescriptions, free tuition and frozen council tax?” The answer of course is that Holyrood has not been granted tax-raising powers and if it were obliged to disburse the funds it receives from Westminster as the coalition dictates, its very existence would be negated. The same applies to local councils across Britain. It suits the government to have devolved authorities being blamed for the cuts they perforce have to impose. That the SNP is smart enough to disburse its funds in a way that attracts voters sticks in the craw of Tories.

Effluent is also one of the loudest voices telling the PM to call a snap election: “there simply won’t be a better chance of a Conservative victory than now”. It’s easy to see why Tory backbenchers and commentators fume at the notion that the Lib Dems should be somehow “rewarded” for their catastrophic showing in the election and the comprehensive rejection of the voting method referendum that seemed to many to be their raison d’être, rewarded by having their role in government bolstered and, as Tories would see it, being offered concessions over such matters as the selling off of the NHS. Doesn’t electoral rejection weaken rather than strengthen the grip that politicians exert on power and policy?

Again, Cameron says publicly what he has to, that the coalition is the thing and must go on and that the Lib Dems still have a central role. “No crowing” he has told those party workers who enjoyed watching Lib Dem councillors tumble, quite a few of them to Tories. But equally he may not feel as triumphal as do those who long for a Tory administration governing alone.

There was a single parliamentary by-election last Thursday, at Leicester South. You can argue that, given the nature of the poll, this was perhaps the purest and most accurate gauge of opinion about the national government taken on the day. It has been little reported but the result was striking. After all, it was an “unnecessary” election in that the sitting MP decided instead to run as local mayor. Historically, the electorate has generally punished parties that call elections purely for the benefit of the sitting party. But here the Labour majority rose by over 3,000 votes and by 12 percent of the total. The Tory candidate’s vote was halved and fell by more than that of the Lib Dem (who came second).

Analysis of the voting figures in the council elections reveals little to support the theory that the Tory vote “held up” and that, because many more Lib Dem seats are vulnerable to a Tory swing than to a Labour one, Cameron’s crew would do well at a general election.

I am not privy to how the voting is projected but those who reckon to know how to do it say that a UK-wide general election that replicated the voting patterns in the local elections would give Labour 318 seats (up 60), Tories 270 (down 37). Lib Dems 26 (down 31) and others 36 (up eight). So Labour would be the largest party and could govern by concluding what Ed Miliband put forward some weeks ago, a deal with the Lib Dems. And this is before the full impact of the cuts is felt. Effluent is right, from the Tories’ point of view, to urge Cameron not to wait. For Labour, things can only get better.

Monday, May 02, 2011

BRITISH TELEVISION: A DIM VIEW

This article marks the culmination of several years of off-and-on work. I originally marshalled the material into a proposal for a one-off television programme. For many months, I tried to fire up first one, then another old chum in the programme-making business to run with the proposal and take it to a commissioning editor, preferably the appropriate one at Channel 4. There were long discussions about the likelihood of any television channel being ready to screen a programme that tore into the modes and manners of broadcasting, including its own. I maintained that, if a channel perceived any likelihood of getting a decent audience for such a subject, any scruple about sensitivities would melt away.

However, more (in the end) for personal than any other reason, these programme-makers bailed out. I then sent the proposal to most of the best-established companies making factual programming for UK channels. Just one of them responded, declining but in a friendly manner. I wrote to the others again, reiterating that I am an old pro in the same business as they are. After all, these independents are the first to grumble when commissioning editors leave them swinging in the breeze. A small handful responded, gratifyingly shamefaced but not otherwise up for business.

Another programme-maker whom I contacted later (whom I also required to prompt for a reply) suggested that I instead knock out the material as a newspaper feature which, if it caused the sort of stir I hoped, might lead on naturally to the possibility of a programme.

So I wrote the piece you find below. I submitted it to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times, all newspapers for which I have written in the past. Trying to make it in some spurious manner “topical”, I framed it as a letter to Chris, Lord Patton, upon his taking up office (tomorrow) as chairman of the BBC Trust. Not a word of acknowledgment came back from any of the newspapers. When prompted, The Guardian did send an apologetic but otherwise impersonal rejection. The other two remained silent under further enquiry.

Lord Patton o'the BBC

I cannot be very disheartened at these companies and journals not wanting my stuff. But their lack of the most elementary courtesy is utterly dismaying. It is a discourtesy shared with cinema, theatre, book publishing and doubtless every other enterprise. How shaming.

An INTRODUCTION for the NEW BBC CHAIRMAN

Dear Lord Patten,

Upon your appointment as chairman of the BBC Trust, you were widely quoted to the effect that “I hardly ever watch television”, something you say was a misquotation. However, I hope you will permit me to assume that the evenings that you pass slumped in front of the box are relatively few and far between. People in public life never did do much viewing. The earliest purchasers of television sets typically bought them “for the servants”. The box replaced religion as the opium of the masses, not of the movers and shakers.

BBC Directors-General hardly get to watch any programmes, which was probably why PD James was able to make mincemeat of Mark Thompson in a memorable radio encounter a couple of years ago. DGs may hear a few broadcasts on radio while being whisked by car from one important meeting to another. But when Lord Birt was DG, I doubt that he ever saw a programme unless a government minister complained about it. He was too busy tearing out the septic tank, the central heating and the roof insulation actually to notice what the house looked like or how its inhabitants felt. On his watch, morale at the Corporation fell to an unprecedented low.

That television managers do not watch stuff – anyway, certainly not on transmission – is confirmed by what has happened to the way that programmes are presented. Each channel treats its output merely as a means of winning, holding and keeping viewers: “stay with us”, as newsreaders and linkpersons plaintively beg. Marshall McLuhan saw what was happening as long ago as 1967: “the medium is the message”. We can now say that, within the general dictum, each channel is its own message.

Television programmes still have the power to inspire adherence. Think of the devotees drawn by Mad Men, Glee, True Blood, Breaking Bad and Desperate Housewives. These dramas are of course American imports (this year’s panic, The Killing, is Danish) and you may well feel that, in citing them, I am loading my argument. I will concede odd shafts of local light, all as it happens from Channel 4 – Misfits (or at any rate its first astonishing series); The Promise (old-fashioned and over-extended but a proper, sustained story); the remarkable durability of Shameless – but those other dramas that have brought a measure of éclat to current British television are, almost without exception, genre pieces of various kinds, not least the relatively new (or anyway newly dominant) format of dramatised versions of the lives of celebrities, usually dead ones with whom liberties may be taken. Christopher and His Kind was flagged on BBC4 as ”original drama” but of course Kevin Elyot had dramatised Isherwood’s memoir. Those American shows that I listed above were all born of an individual writer’s scratch notion, something that is far too nerve-wracking for most British commissioning editors most of the time.

C4's startling contemporary drama serial, Misfits

How did British television get so compromised, so nerveless, so apt to keep glancing over its own shoulder, while paradoxically being so self-important and so ruthlessly competitive? From the end of the 1960s to the early 1990s, I alternated between working in and writing about television. It seemed to me then that this was the most exciting and important field in which to toil and to be interested, and British programming was at its cutting edge. My father was one of the million householders who bought a set in the twelve months after the Queen’s Coronation, which we had – as it was termed in those days – “viewed” enrapt at a neighbour’s house. I discovered the medium’s rich range on its two, then three channels through the 1960s and into the ’70s, a period now enshrined in cliché – but clichés are founded in truth – as The Golden Age.

Here was quality in variety: Doctor Who; World in Action; Steptoe and Son; The Prisoner; Armchair Theatre; The Stanley Baxter Show; Ready, Steady, Go!; All Our Yesterdays; The Rag Trade; Diary of a Young Man; Survival; Morning in the Streets; Tonight; The Avengers; Culloden; On Safari; Coronation Street; Your Life in Their Hands; The Plane Makers; Ways of Seeing; Face to Face; I, Claudius; Not Only – But Also; Isadora; Hancock’s Half Hour; Man Alive; Talking to a Stranger; The Army Game; University Challenge; Late Night Line-Up; The Roads to Freedom; The Sky at Night; Compact; Till Death Us Do Part; Disappearing World; The Search for the Nile; That Was the Week That Was; Monitor; The Strange World of Gurney Slade; The Likely Lads; The Magic Roundabout; The Forsyte Saga; Horizon; Spycatcher; It’s a Square World; Quatermass and the Pit; Dad’s Army; The Great War; Z Cars; The Old Grey Whistle Test; Tomorrow’s World; On the Margin; Aquarius; The Wednesday Play.

Judi Dench in John Hopkins' four-part, multi-viewpoint drama of 1967, Talking to a Stranger

Look across the schedules of the myriad channels now available and ponder whether there might be some degree of falling off: All New TV’s Naughtiest Blunders; 100 Men Own My Breasts; Outrageous Vacation Videos; Hotter Than My Daughter; Aircrash Confidential; Uncut! Sex on the Job; Most Haunted Unseen; F*** Off, I’m Ginger; Even My Pet’s a Porker; World’s Wildest Police Videos; The Spa of Embarrassing Illnesses; Most Shocking Criminal Behaviour; 50 Greatest Plastic Surgery Shockers; The Most Annoying TV Moments We Hate to Love; A Hundred Orgasms a Day; Celebrity Fear Factor UK; Celebrity Rehab; Web Lives Exposed ... Even if some of these things are more innocuous than they appear – I do not propose to research the matter – the pitch that their titles make is clear. So many programmes now trumpet terms that used to be confined to sensationalist top-shelf magazines and commercial down-market videos: “extreme”, “addicted”, “bizarre”, “wild”, “crash”.

Each of my lists is highly selective, of course. But just as all of the contemporary productions would have been unthinkable thirty years ago, so it must be doubted if equivalents of the vintage ventures, all so innovative in their time, would leap the barriers to originality erected over recent years. There are many reasons why risk died in broadcasting. The evidence of this death is everywhere.

For some twenty years now, television has been widely described as “dumbing down” to meet a demotic audience perceived as requiring constant stimulus. The danger that this would happen to television was long foreseen. In a submission to the Pilkington Committee that reported on broadcasting for the government in 1960, the poet TS Eliot warned that “those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste and end by debauching it”. I suspect that Eliot would consider the full debauch to have arrived some years past. By 2004, 54 percent of those surveyed agreed that the BBC had “dumbed down” and/or ”lowered quality”.

Uplifting television: 100 Men Own My Breasts

There were angry refutations. In an article, one-time LWT executive David Doherty snarled that “dumbing down … was always an ugly phrase: elitist without being elegant, alliterative rather than analytical. It represented knee-jerk criticism of emerging freedoms, the last rallying cry of an elite who thought that culture … was too precious to leave to the masses, down to whose level the media were supposedly dumbing”. Docherty’s phrasemaking, it strikes me, was assonant but asinine. “Emerging freedoms” was an astonishing spin on the trend that led inexorably to I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here. And if ever there was a “knee-jerk criticism”, it was calling those who argue for thoughtful work “elitist”.

Part of the dumbing down is that, stealthily, television has abandoned all pretence to any concern for its own output. The programmes – the stuff that, for most people, are the medium’s raison d’être – barely make the top fifty in the list of executives’ own priorities. These mandarins are more interested in policy, structures, demographics, sales charts, models of future configurations of transmission ecosystems, that kind of big boys’ toy.

The BBC is enjoined by charter to carry no advertising yet it generates more ads than any of its rivals. The promotion of future programmes has several times passed what seemed at the time like saturation point. And, increasingly, BBC news bulletins are deemed proper vehicles for promoting up-coming current affairs and feature programmes that touch on public events, just as weather forecasts specify those few sports engagements still within the Corporation’s portfolio.

You can trace the BBC’s commitment to self-promotion back to 1967 when, though fiercely resisted at the time, the wireless stations were revamped and “wonderful Radio One” was born. Thereafter, outlandish claims for the BBC’s own entertainment value became the norm: “we’ve got an absolutely fantastic show for you today”, that level of reticence.

The unsinkable Katie Price in I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here

Back in television, even though the viewer’s whereabouts are readily verified by myriad means, most channels affix a logo permanently to the corner of the screen – that is, permanently during the programmes, not during the precious advertisements and promotions. Would that it stopped there. Further information is deemed essential, such as the declaration that the programme is “brand new” (which is to say not broadcast in Britain before but several months after it was brand new in the States) or part of some supposed “season” of related programmes or even that some different series will be starting in a day or two.

I once settled down to watch a holiday season movie on the Disney Channel. It turned out that the silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s head permanently resident in the bottom corner of the screen on that channel had been redesigned for the occasion. Every three minutes, it juddered and dropped out of sight, then reappeared bearing the legend ‘Happy Easter’, then juddered again, popped out of sight and resumed its usual empty state. Disney lost at least one viewer before ten minutes of the movie had elapsed. And to what purpose?

People will get used to anything, of course. The competition to distract the viewer has to hot up. In addition to standing channel IDs, “urgent” information has to be intruded suddenly by a strap-line. Just as you are being gripped by a programme’s climax, a caption appears telling you about the next programme. No concession is made either to the viewer’s sensibility or to the attention that the programme-makers must have assumed that they would be granted by the broadcaster.

Channel 4 once had an afternoon screening of the movie Auntie Mame. In the last shot, Rosalind Russell as the eponym determinedly ascends a grand staircase, her latest protégé in tow, towards a golden future at the top of the stairs beyond the upper right-hand corner of the screen. In C4’s screening, her transported gaze was fixed on a sign that read “Next: Countdown”. Of such bathos is British television daily made.

Radio 1's first logo, 1967

Just in case these rude interjections fail to frighten you into dropping the remote, a linkperson will then speak over the end credits, repeating the intelligence about the next programme and perhaps something later in the week. And for those whose memory is terminally short-term, the end credits will also be collapsed into a vignette while other screen furniture confirms the linkperson’s message and the strapline of a few seconds earlier. The viewer who had hoped to glean some information from the credits has no choice in the matter and is not considered. Nor are those whose names appear in those credits. And it confounds me that any composer should still wish to supply theme music that will be comprehensively trampled on transmission.

Are higher management at all aware of transmission modes? Do they know how cavalierly both the audience and the programmes are treated? Have they registered how routinely the switching on of the mic in the presentation suite affects the soundtrack, music and all, of the end of the programme, so that, if the linkperson leaves the mic on, the programme ends in a cacophony of distortion? Reviewers, whose viewing is also largely conducted ahead of transmission, are spared these abuses too.

This hectoring of viewers and the hustling off of programmes that are reaching their end creates a sense of the channel as sausage-factory production line, all the products the same and a liability unless packed away immediately. Programme-makers are obliged to join the packaging/promoting culture that they cannot beat. Dramas routinely have to intrude “previously” summaries and “in the next episode” trails into the unity of story. (HBO in the States splendidly resists this). So moments are highlighted out of context and imminent revelations are imposed on you, often at the direct expense of the end-credits. Documentaries are now apt to trail clips of the upcoming segment before the ad break and then restate the programme’s premise after the break, as though we are all too stupid to hold anything in our heads.

This infantilizing and spoonfeeding of the audience inevitably infects programme policy too. News reports are constantly decorated with pointless, banal illustration (feet on city streets, children playing in soft focus, the bereaved leafing through photograph albums), overblown graphics and even moments of “reconstruction” (i.e. dramatisation). Passers-by are canvassed for random vox pops that only confirm that the public is ill-informed: last year, a bloke on his doorstep told the BBC that he disagreed with striking BA staff because “we could all do with a bit more money”, but the strike was over work conditions, travel concessions and safety regulations, not pay. Didn’t the news editor know that?

AJ 'Freddie' Ayer

A BBC news apparatchik once wrote to a newspaper, quoting (in order to refute) an earlier correspondent’s comment: “I make no apology for having been ‘obsessed with making the news interesting’ … what should we do – make [it] boring?” I don’t think news editors need to make the news anything. They ought to believe that it is intrinsically interesting, that it requires no hard sell. Otherwise they are in the wrong job.

As well as their reliance on genre, commissioning editors generally will not commit to a new drama unless at least one from a small repertory company of actors presumed to be audience-pleasers is willing to play the lead. These actors – you know who they are – may be identified by their safe dullness, a quality endlessly extended by the predictability of their casting. To compound the offence, recognisable actors are now required to front documentaries. Television executives evidently believe that, for instance, BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico cannot deliver an audience unless sold as Stephen Fry and the Great American Oil Spill. While Fry may be adept at giving what his beloved Wodehouse called “the old oil”, I entertain some doubt that he is among the world’s leading authorities on environmental disasters or multinational corporations.

So why was it him presenting? Fry is routinely accounted “the cleverest man on television”, which nicely encapsulates the degree to which the medium has declined. Such bygone regulars as AJ Ayer, Jacob Bronowski, Stuart Hall, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Marghanita Laski, Raymond Williams, George Steiner, Bryan Magee and even Malcolm Muggeridge would have eaten a Fry-up for breakfast. Why not go the whole hog with the Deepwater Horizon programme and have Paris Hilton shrieking because her heels got splattered or Charlie Sheen blaming a Jewish conspiracy? Or could we instead have a proper programme that doesn’t pander to celebrity culture?

Television has run hard with celebrity. Experts, seasoned journalists and professional interviewers are no longer in demand. No traditional, uncompromising reporter like James Cameron could now replicate his glorious broadcasting career. However ignorant or inane or irrelevant, the observations of someone who appears in the tabloids are far more welcome to programme-makers than anything smacking of knowledge, authority or experience. And because television influences so many other fields, this absurd distortion of public discourse infects marketing calculations everywhere. So the random taste in fiction of people off the telly dictates publishers’ lists, which are already dominated by ghosted celebrity memoirs and novels and children’s books by comedians and actors. Because television imagines it can only filter any information or education through the mouth of a graduate of soap opera or Big Brother, the rest of the culture follows suit. It can only be a matter of time before no job vacancy in the land is filled without an X Factor or Dragon’s Den-style audition of the applicants.

One of the authors of this televisual disaster is, I submit (and you may well be shocked to entertain the notion), Jeremy Isaacs. Sir Jeremy would seem to be the type of proper, honourable and creative television executive of the past. (At least he wasn’t dressed by Asda, like the unlamented Andy Duncan). But it was he more than anyone who dismantled the old studio system by setting up Channel 4 as a “publishing” rather than a producing house. In theory, letting a hundred independents bloom looked like an enlightened act. But what some of us warned at the time has come to pass.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs, father of Channel 4

The pattern of the industry has reproduced the collapse of the big studios in Hollywood in the 1950s. Because the independents were obliged to compete for the favours of commissioning editors, the pitch and the deal became their primary creative acts. That safety should become the prevailing tenor of the pitches was as predictable as the gradual hoovering up of small production houses by larger ones. The distinctive house-style of the broadcasting producers – Granada’s innovative thoughtfulness, ATV’s showbiz pizzazz, the BBC’s historic mission to “inform, educate and entertain” – metamorphosed into the buyer’s market exemplified by Sky, which has only recently begun to generate original British programming of its own.

In his time as BBC D-G, John Birt underscored the dismantling of the studio system by outsourcing craft services, thereby destroying long BBC traditions of training and methodology to the whole industry’s detriment. At a more subtle level, the collegiality of the big studios was snuffed out too. And middle management grew. When I was an in-house BBC producer in the 1970s, I was answerable to one immediate boss who supported my decisions as a matter of course. Now, nothing is given a green light until it has been neutered by an army of executive producers, marketing consultants and sales advisors.

Given this unpropitious climate, is it any wonder that the idiosyncrasy of talent has left the field to time-servers, profit-counters and systems nerds? Please be a restorative, creative and critical chair of the BBC Trust.

Yours sincerely,

W Stephen Gilbert

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The LOUD LAUGH that SPOKE the VACANT MIND

In today’s Daily Telegraph, the columnist I love to hate, Simon Heffer, has once again voyaged into a subject of which he knows nothing: humour. Here is the link:

http://bit.ly/k4klbX

I shall now make Mr Heffer chuckle uncontrollably (given his susceptible funny bone) by revealing that my own name for him is Siphon Effluent. Did you see what I did there, Simon? Good, isn’t it.

The occasion of Mr Effluent’s latest outpouring was the wonderfully witty and hilarious wisecrack delivered in the house at Prime Minister’s Questions when the PM advised shadow minister Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear”. He and his backbenchers thought this so much funnier than the complete works of Oscar Wilde, SJ Perelman, PG Wodehouse and Stephen Fry rolled into one that Mr Cameron felt called upon to repeat the joke a further six times. Laugh? I thought I’d have to bite the television remote.

Siphon Effluent with his beloved Thatch

Laughter in the house is not like laughter anywhere else (except probably the Bullingdon Club and the Oxford Union). It is a mirthless howl, the kind of har-har-har braying, accompanied by forced slapping of fat hams, that speaks not at all of appreciative and judicious admiration for a finely-turned phrase but entirely of bullies putting in the boot after their loudest mouth (whom they fear, or at least require to impress with “loyalty”) has played to the lowest common denominator by landing on an opponent a blow to the solar plexus. This kind of knee-jerk oinking is certainly not the prerogative of Flashmanesque Tories. All the other party cannon-fodder do it too, even (I shouldn’t wonder) the Greens. It was noticeable though that, while George Osborne hooted like a hairdresser at a Cher concert, Nick Clegg sat stony-faced throughout the entire episode.

Politicians as a breed are not all that amusing. Even some quite smooth orators, while skilled at rousing an audience, cannot deliver a funny line. Those politicos who are able to reveal a responsive sense of humour in a general way can indeed be funny themselves, regardless of political inclination: Heseltine, Kinnock, Kennedy, Hattersley, Portillo, Skinner, Widdecombe (the latter, perhaps, unintentionally). Ed Miliband shows encouraging signs of being able to mock thoughtfully, helped by some evidence that he doesn’t take himself too seriously all of the time. John Smith had a charmingly deprecating sense of humour.

Angela Eagle: shot down by Cameron's deadly wit

In earlier generations, Harold Macmillan had a dry clubman’s wit, often quite lethal. Harold Wilson could be witheringly funny. Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe were both quick-witted and smart Liberal Party leaders. I remember an edition of Any Questions? celebrating some early anniversary, during which Thorpe astonished all by his pitch-perfect and brilliantly “scripted” impersonations of some of the programme’s stalwarts not present in that edition: Ralph Whiteman, Ted Leather, Gerald Nabarro.

Winston Churchill’s many witticisms have gone down in legend, though some of them would fail modern tests of acceptability. No PM since has matched Churchill’s style, timing and sheer sense of mischief – “Bossom?” he sniffed at the surname of a new member. “Neither one thing nor the other”. But at least one contemporary statesman can deliver a witty speech with perfect timing and aplomb. Go to
http://bit.ly/jDop1g
to laugh out loud at Barack Obama's speech to yesterday's White House correspondents' dinner.

Typically, politicians have ‘jokes’ written for them, which they proceed to mangle in delivery, yet the faithful roar with simulated delight anyway. Tony Blair thought himself jolly good-humoured but the kind of thing that made him weep with laughter was that singing fish novelty that was all the rage among people with no taste for a day and half some time in the late ‘90s. Gordon Brown’s delivery of a joke was as leaden as John Major’s or Edward Heath’s. And Siphon Effluent’s great heroine, Margaret Thatcher, had no sense of humour whatsoever. The antediluvian playwright Sir Ronald Millar – don’t hold your breath for a revival of his plays – wrote the “you turn if you want to – the lady’s not for turning” shtik, a desperately laborious conceit even in skilled hands, but it brought a Tory conference to its knees weeping with uncontrollable mirth, despite that the dear leader had performed it with considerably less panache than Neville Chamberlain announcing “consequently this country is at war with Germany”.

Siphon Effluent: the HL Mencken de nos jours

Siphon Effluent himself does make me laugh, mostly because he contrives to present the appearance of a sugar pig with marmalade smeared on his head. But his writing is dominated by his desire to be disobliging and, if he ever threatens to try for humour, it never ventures further than peevish scorn. He always refers to Mr Cameron as “Dave” – this is known in the trade as a “running gag” – presumably because he disdains a Tory leader who is not Thatcher and because some of the PM’s intimates appear to refer to him by this builder’s-mate moniker. (Not least of these intimates is the first lady, Samantha Cameron. There again, her sense of humour was revealed yesterday when she appeared to think it a jolly jape to roll up at a formal state occasion dressed for a constituency coffee morning; gratifyingly, she was comprehensively outshone by the effortlessly chic Miriam Clegg).

Bernard Manning: evidently he and Effluent were separated at birth

In his piece on humour, Effluent makes a strenuous joke in calling Angela Eagle “a harridan”. He was so pleased with this that he repeated it. Now, Effluent is very keen on the correct use of English. Indeed, he is the in-house English monitor at The Telegraph, apt to send stinging emails to hapless journalists who have offended his sensibilities. So I find myself surprised that he should use the term “harridan”, which is defined by the OED as “a haggard old woman”, of a personable female of just 50.

Effluent writes further: “I suspect even Dave has the manners not to address a woman with whom he is not well acquainted as ‘dear’ except in jest” and later, on a different matter, “This column prides itself on its gallantry towards the ladies”. Yet he himself has the ungallant lack of breeding to write of a woman with whom he is not well acquainted in such an insulting manner. I think he should stand in the corner.

With brilliant skill and dazzling wit, Effluent turns what his admirers might have feared was a mortal thrust at “Dave” into an all-guns-blazing assault on Labour and “lefties” in general: “His [Cameron’s] mistake, however, was to think that these people are easy-going types who like a laugh. He has, at least, now admitted he realises that the Left doesn't have a sense of humour”.

Jim Davidson: also seems to come in a similar shade to Effluent

Ah yes, the age-old canard that “lefties” have “no sense of humour”. It is of course fair and just to observe that there are individuals who are earnest and single-minded about their politics, but I never found that this degree of dedication was confined to the left. Had it been, we might now live in a more enlightened world. But the myth persists: on Any Questions? this weekend, UKIP leader Nigel Farage spoke of “po-faced Republicans”.

It can be argued – I have argued it myself – that comedy is fundamentally reactionary because it requires a reliable and enduring establishment, status quo, conventional wisdom against which to bounce. So, while pretending to subvert and mock, comedy really reinforces and humanises. It’s Lear’s Fool syndrome – the absolute monarch permits an all-licensed jester precisely because he is absolute and therefore the jester cannot draw blood, only wry smiles.

But there are many conventional wisdoms. Changes of government do not signal the end of satire. Effluent seems to imagine that only reactionary people are capable of being funny. “Comedians who are not Leftists” essays Effluent “have more or less been driven out of business. Bernard Manning was martyred in this cause. Jim Davidson is in the process of following him, not because he isn't funny, but because he was a strong supporter of Mrs Thatcher. Long after she left office, the spiteful little creeps who form the ‘comedy’ establishment of this country would get laughs from their bovine audiences simply by mentioning her name”.

Tom Lehrer: 'We Will All Go Together When We Go'

If Effluent sees himself as a comedian, this is certainly his most laughable passage. The idea that Manning was “martyred” is preposterous. He may have fallen out of television fashion – many entertainers do and politics has nothing to do with it – but his club work (including at his own club) continued to bring him a handsome income. And I can’t help wondering how often Effluent was to be seen knocking back pints with hoi polloi at Manning’s place, roaring with delight and slapping his hams at “fookin’ Paki” so-called “gags”. If nothing else, the vulgarity of it all seems extremely unlikely to have appealed to Mr & Mrs Effluent as an alternative to their beloved Wagner, any more than one can picture them tripping to the end of a pier to rock with joy at Jim Davidson’s version of fun.

Perhaps Effluent is thinking of Ben Elton when he writes of “the spiteful little creeps” mentioning Thatcher’s name for a laugh. Elton certainly used to do stuff about the woman he called Thatch but that was back in the ‘80s in his spangly-suited phase. I would gently suggest that if Effluent were to take tea with Elton at the Ritz and probe him for his present political views, he might find that they have more in common than he imagines.

Roy Battersby: as you see, an archetypal po-faced leftie

There have been plenty of intelligent, thoughtful and far from spiteful comics who are not reactionaries. In Effluent’s youth, he might have been aware of the American Tom Lehrer, a finely witty, talented and scrupulous social satirist who announced his retirement when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on the grounds that the award rendered satire obsolete.

But even staunchly committed left-wingers have sprightly senses of humour. Tariq Ali, whom I knew a bit at one time, is a warmly funny and witty man. My old chum Roy Battersby would certainly fill the bill for Effluent when looking for a fully paid-up leftie. Roy was a key member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in the 1970s and ‘80s, took five years out of his directing career to work full-time for the party as its chief representative on the Palestinian question (he made a moving documentary called The Palestinian, fronted by Vanessa Redgrave), stood for parliament and was involved in the supposedly notorious Red House centre which was a constant target for MI6. Yet my abiding image of him is of a man wreathed in a beatific smile, relishing the pleasures of life and laughing uproariously at its manifold absurdities.

There is an unbridgeable gulf between, on the one hand, Roy, Tariq and Tom Lehrer and, on the other, a Simon Heffer whose idea of a comedian is Manning or Davidson and a David Cameron who thinks he’s being witty by quoting someone as repellent as Michael Winner in something as low class as a television advertisement and claims that anyone who cannot see such rubbish as meritorious lacks a sense of humour. I can’t imagine finding anything in common (humorous or otherwise) with anyone who would rather reside on the Heffer/Cameron/Manning side.