Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Scandals At The BBC And ITV Are Evidence Of Greed, Corruption And Corporate Idiocy. So Why Is There Nothing Good On The Telly?

On doctor's orders, I am forbidden from referring in detail to the several life sentences I spent as an employee of Scotland's Notional Newspaper, The Scotsman. However, the recent crises in television brought to mind an episode which now seems oddly prescient.
It was several years ago, and took place in the editor's walnut-panelled den, a setting which might have graced a production of The Mousetrap, were it not for the horse-racing on the television. I had been invited to a meeting on how to raise the newspaper's circulation, and proposed - as I often did - the addition of news to the paper's contents, and more puzzles, preferably on a different page. My advice was absorbed and ignored, and the editor decided instead to introduce features which would appeal to the illiterate and the disinterested. (This was, at least, slightly more progressive than the former executive of Scotsman Publications who was in the habit of greeting the sales successes of Scotland on Sunday with the true, but unsettling observation: "I'll tell you one group of people who aren't reading the paper - the blind!")
At this point, the meeting was joined by one of the most senior of senior executives, who - for reasons of public decency - must remain anonymous, even though he bore no resemblance to any person, living or dead. The senior senior executive was in an exuberant mood, possibly because he was drunk on his own cologne. But this disability did not hinder his creativity. "Look at this!" he exclaimed, waving a copy of that morning's paper. "It makes no sense." An awkward silence followed, in which we waited for details, as it was hard to guess which aspect of that morning's nonsense had excited him so. His face flushed puce, as he tore the television listings page from the paper. "Why are we printing this for free?" he demanded. "It's advertising. We should charge these people for advertising their programmes."
It was, in its way, a logical suggestion, albeit an impractical one. But you could see the idea's appeal. If the television companies could be persuaded to pay for the listings, then so could the cinemas. Perhaps the Scottish Football Association would care to make a contribution to the sports pages. After all, the tourism industry goes out of its way to subsidise the travel pages, and the business coverage is afloat on free wine and corporate hospitality.
Naturally, nothing happened, and the senior senior executive decided to concentrate on more practical matters, ordering himself a fitted carpet and a new conservatory.
Which brings me to today's stories about the BBC and ITV. The BBC is making 1800 redundancies, in an effort to save the £2bn it didn't receive in its recent government hand-out. The Corporation will also allow advertising on its websites, though not in Britain (yet). Fewer new programmes will be made, and more repeats will be shown. In Scotland, 210 jobs will go, though some may be created if the campaign against the unisex toilets at the new Pacific Quay HQ is successful. The rumour in the Ubiquitous Chip is that an advertisement has already been drafted for a wee wifey to sit at the door of the ladies with a saucer full of 10p pieces (though whether this will be reinvested in programme-making remains unclear).
Meanwhile, on what my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) used to refer to as "the other side", ITV has announced that it stole £7.8m from viewers in fraudulent phone-ins. Oddly, the "zero tolerance" approach of the ITV chairman Sir Michael Grade means that none of the thieves will lose their jobs, but some monies will be refunded to the poor oafs who spent their benefits voting on premium-rate phone lines for the location of a pig full of money on the Ant and Dec programme Saturday Night Takeaway. The symbolism of this deceit is exquisite, as Mr Ant and Mr Dec are said to be in receipt of a joint salary of £40m, though there is as yet no confirmation that the cash is delivered in a porcine wrapper.
So, a suggestion. The BBC, which currently pays Mr Jonathan Ross a rumoured £2m a year, and Mr Jeremy Paxman £1.04m, is said to be fearful that its top stars will defect to ITV. They should oil the revolving door and push them through it, though ITV may be in a less generous mood now that the flow of free money from idiot-phone lines has been dammed.
Actually, the BBC should go further. Let them charge the likes of Mr Ross for the privilege of working for the BBC. This need not be a selfless act by the presenters: they could be paid by direct donations from the viewers, by phone, text message or collecting can. That way, these jumped-up bingo callers might develop an understanding of the true meaning of public subsidy. Alternatively, since the market must decide, perhaps a high-minded philanthropist could pay the jabbering wretches to go away.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Post Office, One Of The Great Institutions Of State, Is Being Ruined By The Spivs And Weasels Of Commercial Greed

There was no post today, which was a blessed relief. There will be no post tomorrow, or for several days after that.
This, I understand, will be a hardship to some, but not to me. It merely means that my doormat will not be smothered in invitations to plunge myself into debt, recycle my clothes, or join the Conservative and Unionist Party: these being three versions of the same thing.
At some unnoticed point - my guess is that it was around the time of the Beatles' first LP - the nature of the mail changed. In 1936, Mr WH Auden was able to write in his poem Night Mail of how the whole of Scotland waited, "in the dark glens, beside the pale green sea lochs" for:
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers' declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong."

Oddly, he made no mention of Nectar card statements or charity pleas, or pizza shop menus with free Coke and cheese, for those ordering 14 inchers on Tuesdays or paying by cheque. But then, nobody writes letters anymore. A hand-written note is a matter of alarm in a time of emails and mobile telephones, when everybody is available 24-7 or eight days a week, whichever is the longer, but it remains impossible to speak to a human to discuss why the Dormobile has received a parking ticket despite being dry-docked in a residents' zone, with permit displayed, as advised, in the left hand corner of the windscreen.
This does not make the decline of the Post Office any more palatable. One does not need to be a glue-tongued philatelist to understand that the postal service is one of the great symbolic institutions of the state, as important as a flag, and better yet than marching bands or crown jewels in a bulletproof vault. The post is, or should be, democratic: it delivers without fear or favour to one and all, to crofter or king. Why, then, is the Post Office in such a state? Even when the workers are not on strike, the junk mail no longer arrives before breakfast, and sometimes comes after tea, if the post is not lost, or misdelivered, or kept in a nest by a rogue postman collecting postal orders and CDs and urine samples out of some weird magpie urge because he wasn't loved enough when young, or suffered abuse, or dyslexia or peanut intolerance, or some other fictional modern ailment which made it acceptable for him to behave like a fiend and be excused and released back into the community on a technicality.
Remember Consignia? For a few months in 2001, at great expense, the Post Office "rebranded" itself, because the words "post" and "office" did not adequately explain its function in a competitive world. No matter that Consignia sounded like an upmarket launderette specialising in the dry cleaning of ermine robes and rabbit fur coats, with three shirts for a fiver on early-bird Tuesdays; the modern curse of rebranding had struck, meaning - as it always does - that a few spivs and designers were suddenly much richer while the rest of us were ill-served and bemused.
Shall I spell it out in green ink? The Post Office does not need competition. It needs postmen, or ladies, in smart uniforms, with hats, not jumpers, and pillar boxes painted pillar box red, and sub-post offices in villages staffed by matrons and spidery wee wifies who know everybody's business and everybody's name, and are nosy enough to notice when Wee Davy doesn't pop in for his pension and his bag of aniseed twists. That is what a Post Office is. It is not about business mail or verbal gymnastics or even logistics. Leave that to Mr Eddie Stobart, and his urgent fleet of lorries.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mr David Cameron Wore Vitalis And Talked For Over An Hour, And The Conservative Party Rejoiced. But What Did He Say?

It was, I believe, the great comedian, Mr George Burns, who noted that "if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made". Mr David Cameron, in what could be his last speech to the Conservative Party conference, did not attempt to fake sincerity. He left that to his audience, a quite terrifying assembly of matrons and car salespersons, who showed every sign of being bored out of their bath chairs, while greeting his every utterance with feverish applause.
It's true, Mr Cameron's biggest ovation came before he had said anything. Certainly, in the moments before he spoke, he looked very presentable and full of confidence. He had the natural radiance of a photocopier salesman on the verge of winning a year's supply of Vitalis. It has been said, too, that Mr Cameron showed great skill by being able to talk without an autocue. In this, he will have gained the sympathy and admiration of Best Men everywhere, although he forgot, in his desire to dazzle, to make his speech entertaining.
As theatre, it was an empty gesture, rather like an audition in which the actor is not sure whether the casting director is working on a tragedy or a comedy. Mr Cameron compromised between the two, which meant that he displayed almost no emotion, whilst bordering on farce. There was one rhetorical flourish, and no poetry. At times, he resembled the host of a television game show - Mr Ted Rogers, perhaps, on 3-2-1 (he lacked the warmth of Mr Bob Monkhouse) - falling back on favourite "riffs" while trying to work out how to proceed. Praising the Conservative party, he said repeatedly: "I didn't do that. You did that, and you should be proud of yourself." The audience greeted this praise the way a rat might observe a mousetrap, with suspicion, and a hint of suicidal hunger. At times, Mr Cameron abandoned grammar altogether: "New world, old politics failing, change required." After praising the internet with the extraordinary observation that "if MySpace was a country, it would be the 10th biggest country in the world" - akin to saying that if the moon was made of cheese, it would need a very large refrigerator - the suspicion grew that the next Conservative manifesto might be written in the form of a text message. In which case, it would read (with due deference to the Home Counties accents of prospective Tory voters)"UR GR8. V8 4US"
But let us not be fatuous. Mr Cameron, who last year came out in favour of sunshine, is now on the side of optimism. He wants to tear up the rulebooks, and promote common sense. He is not in favour of drunk schoolchildren, but he likes soldiers. He is not a fan of scrap-heaps; he favours choice, diversity and innovation. The new politics, he said, do not involve lurching. He wants more police, and a kind of national service for teenagers, in which they can learn to be world championship boxers rather than claiming benefits fraudulently or arriving late for their exams with the smell of Buckfast on their breath.
I am, I release, paraphrasing slightly, as the language of Modern Conservative Change is quite hard to memorise.
At the end, in a popular passage, he refused to apologise for being posh. Indeed, he said, it was only by being posh that a fellow could help others aspire to that admirable position. "We will fight," he said. "Britain will win."
But who are we? And what will Britain win? Over to you, Mr Rogers.