Archive for the ‘media’ Category

One of the mainstays of US comedy for the past couple of decades has been The Daily Show. Originally helmed by Craig Kilborn, it only really took off under his successor Jon Stewart. When Stewart retired from the show after 16 years, his successor Trevor Noah- after a fairly ropey start – managed to make the show his own.

It took me a good two years to ‘get’ Noah’s version of the show, though it wasn’t like I watched every episode. I wasn’t waiting for the show to work for me or anything. But I watched every so often, and after about two years, it hit me that the show was clever enough, professional enough, and funny enough for me to think ‘ok, now I want to see what the show does about this and what it says about that.’

Every so often, there’s an attempt to answer the calls and try to make a UK equivalent of The Daily Show.

And it has even been tried a couple of times; arguably. the most successfully (or least unsuccessfully with Trevor McDonald and Marcus Brigstocke. Others might point at 10 O’Clock Live with Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr.

Or, being cruel, maybe that should have been “Others might point at 10 O’Clock Live with Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne… but Jimmy Carr.”

UK versions fail for a variety of reasons, but they always fail.

There are lots of reasons why, each specific to the individual show, but there’s one ever-present reason why all of them fail: UK comedy shows aren’t allowed to use clips from parliament for the purposes of satire, comedy or mockery.

Yeah, I know. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver even makes a thing of it; whenever they show something from Parliament, the UK broadcast has to replace the clips of parliament with something else; Oliver chooses to make it something entirely irrelevant and silly, like Gilbert Gotfried reading TripAdvisor reviews.

But comedy shows aren’t the only time permission or rights refusals have stopped an adaptation of a foreign show working in the UK.

A few years ago, there was a tv panel show called The Bubble; it was a success overseas but never really rose above mediocre when tried in the UK.

And mainly, thought not solely, that was because the main news media refused permission for the programme to mock up news items purporting to be real.

Why would that be needed? Well, the simple but superbly clever concept was this:

The Bubble asks three celebrity contestants to separate true news stories from fakes after spending four days locked away in a country house with no phone, TV or internet access.

The host will present them with a mix of news reports, headlines and images from TV, newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines.

And “all” the contestants have to do is say which stories are true and which have been made up.

The obvious thought is: “ok, some stories are obviously going to be true and some are obviously going to be false, it’s going to be the one that could be true that will be the tough ones…”

But I always think in response “No, it won’t. It’ll be the utterly ludicrous ones…”

Suppose instead of four days, the contestants had been locked away since 31st December 2020.. I’ll exclude celebrity deaths because every year has people die unexpectedly. And I’ll similarly exclude anything to do with the existence of Covid, since we’d had almost a year of it already by the end of last year.

But suppose when exiting, after six months, the contestants are given the following: 

  • An insurrection at the US Capitol with a genuine, armed, attempt to prevent Joe Biden becoming President
  • Elected representatives actively helping said insurrection, and letting rioters in to state legislatures
  • Elected representatives who downplayed the seriousness of the insurrection being proposed to sit on the committee investigating it
  • England reaching the final of Euros 2020… in 2021
  • A Canadian MP was first caught naked in a zoom call with colleagues, then was caught urinating on camera — and he’s NOT related to Doug Ford.
  • The Olympics, a year delayed, going ahead in a country with increasing covid infections, with only 1 in 5 fully vaccinated
  • All Nippon Airways, selling tickets for airline dinners on the runway, never leaving the ground
  • Matt Hancock has to resign after being caught on his own department’s CCTV in an amorous hug with an aide
  • John Bishop crashed his car to avoid “a big chicken”
  • Bibi Netanyahu no longer Israeli PM
  • Someone pays $2.9m so they could say they own a 15 year old tweet
  • Tussaud’s has to put Trump’s waxwork into storage because people kept punching it
  • Scientists officially investigate whether sightings of the Loch Ness Monster could be whale penises.
  • 1500 bottles of vodka made from radioactive apples grown near Chernobyl is prevented at the last minute from being exported to the UK
  • Australian researchers claim short sighted people have worse sleep than those with normal vision
  • In New York, a Catholic priest claims demons have been contacting people by text.

I think more than a few contestants would be repeat-pushing the “Made Up Story” button, don’t you?

See you tomorrow, with… something else.



Fifty-seven days. Fifty-seven posts. One fifty-seventh birthday.

I’m trying something new with this run. I’ve signed up to, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of dollars every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-seventh birthday on 17th August 2021. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

We’re going to start today with a meme, talk about the young, then the dead.

So that’ll be fun.

Every so often, something will do the rounds of Twitter and other social media, ostensibly just a ‘huh, kids, eh?’ But something that strikes me – on the umpteenth repetition, anyways – as something a bit… snotty. A bit condescending and inherently unpleasant.

It’ll be something like: Our children will never know the connection between these two things!

The answer, of course is usually in the replies, sometimes blatant, sometimes allowing onlookers [‘the kids’] to have an ‘ohhhhhh’ moment as the penny drops.

I’m not entirely sure when these kind of digs – for that’s how I take them – at those younger started to really bug me; I only know that they did.

The at times seemingly ever-present ‘our experiences meant more’ digs, the ‘kids have it easier these days’ nonsense, the ‘we had [xxxx], kids have [yyyy] and [xxxx] is inherently better/more valid because we had it’ rubbish. But it’s replicated in everything from politicians with their ‘we survived the war, we can survive Brexit’ bullshit, to sidebars and cheap gags at their expense online.

As for when it did start to bug me, I suspect it was after listening to a topical comedy show wherein a couple of comedians were discussing a newspaper piece about how ‘kids today’ don’t understand pre-decimalisation currency, or something similar.

The comedians made the valid point ‘why the hell should they?’

I mean, ok, if the younger read novels set in, or non-fiction about, time periods before 1971, then it might help to appreciate the terms used for the British currency of the time.

But any author now writing about that period knows most people won’t have strong memories, beyond the very personal, of pounds, shillings and pence, and will account for that. And any books of the time are… of the time. They were written during that time. And there are more than a few things that’ve changed since the 19th century; currency is one of the lesser ones.

And of course, occasionally, authors will sometimes acknowledge that readers might not be familiar with pre-decimalisation and provide… help.

(The above from Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

In one of the later Letters from America, Alistair Cooke mentioned that it came as quite a surprise – a much needed corrective, he acknowledged – when some friends of his grandchildren didn’t know the details of Watergate. He then realised that it fell, for them, into that period of time between

  • what you live(d) through, and
  • what’s in the history books.

I was born in 1964. My first memories start in the very late 1960s, early 1970s. The history books I read at school pretty much stopped at the end of the Second World War, perhaps a couple of years later.

Anything that occurred from, say 1950 through 1968… well, that falls into that gap identified by Cooke. Much as the Boer war fell into that gap for him. He was born in 1908. The Boer War ended in 1902. It was current memory for adults when he was born, but not yet into the history books for the children as he grew older.

For me? Well… even if American history was in my school history books (I honestly don’t know) I certainly don’t recall reading anything in detail about McCarthyism until I’d left school and was actually studying US politics.

I remember reading about President Roosevelt and his successor, President Truman… but not about Eisenhower. And all I knew about JFK was that he’d been shot by someone who shared my first name, spelled the same way as well! (When I was growing up, my first name was as often spelled – for boys and girls – ‘Leigh’ as it was ‘Lee’.)

Sorry, this has drifted a bit.

But why should kids know that a pencil and a cassette tape should provoke memories of inserting the pencil, rotating it, correcting the twisted magnetic tape…? It’s not in their personal experience.

Any more than it’s in mine how to powder a wig. Or to make a crystal radio set (my dad did it when he was a kid) Or how to jive? (My mum used to dance when she was younger… a lot.) Or how to balance a budget with a ration card – my grandparents, during and after WWII. None in my personal experience. And something that was in previous generations’.

But if there’s anything that truly – to me – does raise the ‘they do it different these days’ in a way that doesn’t piss me off, but does make me wonder what the future brings… it’s people, contact with them, how they’re regarded by others, and how they’re appreciated… while they’re alive, and after they’ve died.

Or not, as the case may be.

I’m unconvinced that any generation views other people, and especially the departed, in the same way as either the previous generation or the next generation does.

A couple of generations before mine… adults were fighting in wars, different cultures, different backgrounds, different experiences, thrown together in military service. I’m certainly not suggesting it as a objectively ‘good’ thing – as a general rule of thumb, I’m against war – but it unquestionably changed how those in the forces regarded those they’d never have come into contact with otherwise. And how they regarded death at a young age.

Let’s leave death for a paragraph or two, and just stick to people.

I grew up in the 1970s; playing in the street with other kids, cycling off to the woods and hills near Luton, playing with kids you’d just met… and if you were an hour or two late back, and they couldn’t contact you – no mobile phones – the main consequence was that your mum gave you a telling off and punished you. It wasn’t called ‘grounding’ in the UK, but that was the usual punishment.

The idea that you might have gone missing if you were an hour or more late back was just never A Thing. That I’d not called them was just… naughty. But wasn’t expected, not really. And, I mean, still before the days of mobile phones, but when I went to uni, I called my parents once or twice a week.

My lad speaks to his mum almost every day; most people, most adults, I know speak to their parents very often. They speak to friends less often, but are in contact much more often, online. By text. On messaging apps.

Despite the stories of ‘everyone knew each other, everyone knew how everyone was’ back in the day, these days, people are in contact in one form or another far more often… with people they care about, and people they want to stay in contact with.

And then there’s what happens when people die.

I remember back when my brother died. After the burial, the shiva… my sister-in-law certainly had people contacting her all the time.

But my late brother himself… I have no idea how often people thought of him. Nor, on the whole, what people thought of him while he was alive. Not truly. I know what people said afterwards but it’s easy to say nice things afterwards.

At least with Mike, there was a book after his death containing tributes, what friends and family thought of him. I’ve genuinely no idea at all whether he knew it, appreciated it, before he died, though. [I’ve no doubt, by the way, that he knew how much I loved him as a brother; I’m fortunate in that at least.]

But a book about a departed one is, was, unusual. Mike’s widow wanted to do it for a specific reason.

These days? There’d be – if the family wanted – a preserved Facebook page, a tribute for people to leave online messages. People would write on their own facebooks, and tumblrs and twitter feeds that they missed him.

(And, yes, idiots would chime in with their own unwanted, unwarranted, idiocy about how they never liked him anyway.)

But that’s something that’s changed, and will change more in the future. Whenever someone dies, people say “I hope they knew how much they were loved” or “I wish I could have told them how much they mattered to me”.

(Caveat for famous people, big stars; I don’t believe for a moment that they are – completely at least – unaware of how much their work has mattered to people, nor that they haven’t been told so by many, many people.)

Flip side of all of this – and a nicer consequence of the changing ‘openness’ in society; it’s far easier, far more acceptable, to tell someone how much they – or their achievements – have mattered to you.

Sure, that’s as much for you as it is for them, but I like that people tell them, anyway.

“No one ever dies regretting they didn’t spend more time at work” is a trite remark, and in part – but only in part – true. I’m sure there are people who die regretting that.

But no one should ever die thinking that they didn’t matter. They should know – before they die – that they, that their work, mattered; to family, to friends, to people who liked them, to people who loved them. To admirers and critics alike.

So tell them.

Something else a bit more together, and a whole lot more serious, tomorrow…

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

I’m a sucker for political dramas, and even more so for political dramas based on real events. I’ve mentioned serial drama before, and I’m covering some shows elsewhere, but I’m concentrating today on one-offs today, movies and televised single dramas. 

I’m not sure which were the first I remember watching, but by the time I was a teenager, I was hooked on them. Reconstructions, or biopics*, or just plain drama. I sucked them up, absorbed them and loved them. I prefered the ‘based on a true story’ types to the obviously fictional, but yeah, any political drama, particularly about American politics, I’d watch. I loved Seven Days In May, I adored All The President’s Men. I must have watched Fail Safe a dozen times by my mid-20s. 

(*biopics is one of those words I came across in print long before I heard the word. For years I pronounced it “bye-opics” rather than as bio-pics. I’m still not convinced I was entirely wrong to do do.)

But never have I mistaken fiction for reality. I’ve always understood that even the best, most faithful recreation of events are nudged to be more dramatic. As many have mentioned in biographies and memoirs, most governing is hard, boring work; the genuine drama is the exception not the rule. And as for portrayals of that, no matter how good the portrayal, I know the actor is the actor and not the politician, not the reporter, not the political operative.

I’ve seen Recount, the movie about the 2000 US Presidential election, more than a few times and the performances of the actors never fail to amaze me. The cast is stellar, the writing spectacular and the performances from Kevin Spacey, from Laura Dern, Bruce McGill, from Denis Leary… stunning. 

I’ve no idea how true to life the portrayals are, of course, although various sources online suggest that not everyone was delighted with how they appeared on screen. In particular, both James Brady and Warren Christopher have suggested that the latter is portrayed as too conciliatory, that Christopher knew it would be a down and dirty fight from the off. AndMichael  Whouley is insistent that he didn’t swear quite as much as Denis Leary’s performance as him suggests. By the way, I do hope that in 2020, some producer has the nous to get as many of the people concerned in a room and discuss the battle, two decades on.

Part of the reason I like Recount so much is because it shows just enough of the ‘person’ to make the ‘operative’ seem… real. But Recount has another reason for mention today, now that the 2016 Presidential election is over, and it’s nothing to do with the result, nor the surprise of it. It’s about one of the characters portrayed in the movie, an important one, but not one of the leads.

Thing is, I’ve watched lots of these things, ‘based on true events’ reconstructions. The Deal by Peter Morgan, starring Michael Sheen (for the first time) as Tony Blair and David Morrison as Gordon Brown, is excellent, and to an outsider perfectly captures Labour politics in the aftermath of John Smith’s death. But at no point do I now see Blair and think “huh, he doesn’t look enough like Michael Sheen”. While Helen Mirren is superb as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, also written by Morgan, I don’t see QEII and think “she’s not enough like Mirren.”  Nor did I see Maggie Thatcher at any point and think “She’s not actually like Patricia Hodge’s performance in the Falklands Play”. 

I never do that. Now, fair enough, almost certainly that’s because I’ve seen the ‘real’ people so often I ‘know’ it’s just a portrayal.

But no. I saw plenty of other, minor characters, played by actors in all of the above, and when I saw the real person, I was never thinking “they don’t look like… and they should do.” So why with Recount, with that one character? I don’t know.

It’s not with every portrayal. In fact with every performance bar the exception, I don’t do it. I see James Baker on something and don’t think “huh, he looks wrong; he should look like Tom Wilkinson did in Recount“. 

There’s one character I definitely do that with though. And I’ve no idea why.

The political operative and lawyer Ben Ginsburg has been a fixture of Republican politics for more than a few years. He served as counsel to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. And in 2000 and 2004, he was national counsel to the Bush/Cheney presidential campaigns. And in 2008 and 2012, he served in the same role for Mitt Romney’s campaigns.

On the left is what he looks like, and on the right, his portrayal by Bob Balaban.

For the past few years, he’s been an MSNBC political pundit and during the election, he appeared on a few shows, well more than a few shows. At one point, it seemed he was on every other day. Ginsberg that is, not Balaban. And every time – every time – he appears on screen, I am disappointed. “But he should look like Bob Balaban. He doesn’t look like Bob Balaban.” Every bloody time. 

I wish I knew why.

Ginsberg’s take on the movie is here, by the way. It’s an entertaining read. I just wish I didn’t imagine Bob Balaban wrote it.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

2017 minus 51: The Bubble

Posted: 11 November 2016 in 2017 minus, media, politics, world
Tags: ,

A few years ago, there was a tv ‘panel show’ called The Bubble; it was a success overseas but never really rose above mediocre when put on in the uk. Partly it was because the main news media refused permission for the programme to mock up news items purporting to be real. Why would that be needed? Well, the simple but very good concept was this:

The Bubble asks three celebrity contestants to separate true news stories from fakes after spending four days locked away in a country house with no phone, TV or internet access.

The host will present them with a mix of news reports, headlines and images from TV, newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines.

And “all” the contestants have to do is say which stories are true and which have been made up.

The obvious thought is: “ok, some stories are obviously going to be true and some are obviously going to be false, it’s going to be the one that could be true that will be the tough ones…”

But I always think in response “No, it won’t. It’ll be the utterly ludicrous ones…”

Suppose instead of four days, the contestants had been locked away for the best part of a year. I’ll exclude deaths because every year has people die unexpectedly. And I’ll similarly exclude health scares like Zika and terrorist attacks – sadly, they happen every year. But suppose when exiting, the contestants are given the following: 

  • Leaks of tax avoidance and evasion name top politicans around the world
  • Russia boasts about interfering in the US Presidential election
  • In a movie about Captain America fighting Iron Man, the universally acknowledged star was Spider-Man
  • Britain votes for Brexit
  • The FBI interferes in, but most definitely doesn’t boast about doing so, the US Presidential election
  • Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary
  • The final videocassette recorder is manufactured
  • David Cameron leaves The House of Commons
  • The KKK formally endorse a major party nominee in the US Presidential election
  • Liam Fox is back in the Cabinet
  • Michael Gove isn’t
  • Shami Chakribarti is in the Shadow Cabinet, as was – briefly – Paul Flynn
  • London elects its first Muslim mayor
  • China ratifies a global climate agreement
  • A British MP is murdered
  • Americans know who Nigel Farage is
  • British people know who Tim Farron is
  • Great Britian does better in the 2016 Summer Olympics than they did in 2012
  • Sepp Blatter quits as FIFA President under a cloud of corruption allegations
  • David Davis is back in the Cabinet
  • The British Leader of the Opposition loses a confidence vote of his MPs 4:1, then stays on, faces a leadership challenge, wins and is stronger than ever, even though most of his MPs still think he’s crap
  • Samsung phones blow up, as do their washing machines
  • Donald Trump wins the US Presidential Election.

I think a few people would be repeat-pushing the “Made Up Story” button, don’t you?

2016 minus 19: being… better

Posted: 13 December 2015 in 2016minus, media

Years back, when I first started writing comedy as a non-commissioned writer for BBC’s Weekending radio show, I asked a producer how I could get commissioned. “Write consistently funnier, consistently better material than the people who are commissioned.” It was a smart answer to a not particularly smart question. 

And I suppose there’s been an element of that attitude in everything I’ve written – or at least submitted – since then. There are consistently clever, smart people out there who write consistently smart, clever pieces, stories, novels, comic books and the like. Unless I think that what I’m writing is at least as smart and clever as what they’re writing if not better, what business have I in submitting my own work? 

That question though, ostensibly sensible though it is, admittedly and mistakenly conflates quality and popularity. Despite the cynics around, the two often do go together; I may be biased but I enjoy the writing of Neil Gaiman enormously. I’ll go further: it’s rare that I read something of Neil’s and don’t enjoy it. And, I think it’s not exactly news, he’s a successful author in terms of sales. 

There are other authors whose work I enjoy who – for various reasons – are not as successful (in terms of sales) as Neil. I’m sure he’d forgive me when I say my favourite novel predates his own writing; as I’ve said before, it’s THE MAN by Irving Wallace, a novelist I bet hardly anyone reading this blog has read. I enjoy almost every one of Wallace’s books, but THE MAN is by far my favourite, combining several of my interests. 

One could argue – indeed, I’ve seen it argued many times – that while quality is subjective (being personal), popularity is objective, quantitative, in the meaning that it can be measured. Though the numbers are smaller than they once were, The Sun is still the most popular newspaper in the UK in terms of sales, because it does what it does, and what it does is still popular among those who read it. 

Is it the best newspaper around though? Well, that depends how you’re measuring ‘best’. Is the quality of its journalism abysmal? Yes, of course it is; even then though, however you measure quality, The Sun‘s is no worse than the Sunday Sport, say. But arguably, the quality of its journalism is not why people buy the newspaper. 

(For the remainder of this post, I’m specifically talking about news reporting, or reporting in general, including feature work; I’m excluding columnists. My experience of columnists is that it’s rare for folks to judge the quality of a column without conflating whether or not they agree with the point the columnist is making or the columnist’s political views. That’s an area that I may write about… But not here.)

Of course The Sun would argue otherwise, saying that their readers do prize the quality of  their journalism. To be fair to them, it does take skill and effort to write things down to the lowest common denominator, to simplify things down to the simplistic, and to prioritise celebrity peccadilloes over parliamentary politics.

But it’s that very priority of trivia and [I’d suggest] unimportant nonsense that’s the reason it gets bought. Those who buy The Sun – or at least those that only buy The Sun – aren’t interested in the fundamentals of the economy, and the detailed analysis of the Autumn Statement that came with The Guardian, The Times or The Telegraph. They have, I would suggest, little interest in the minutiae of party political manoeuvrings. Their grasp of foreign politics is, one might suggest, limited to “who are the goodies and who are the baddies?” And in many cases, they’re satisfied when the ‘baddies’ are identified as having darker skin.

What British newspaper currently has the best journalism? I don’t know, to be honest. The Telegraph has had very good sports reporting for as long as I can recall, and also very good ‘city’ (i.e. financial) reporting. Or at least the latter was true up until about three or four years ago; as Private Eye has pointed out repeatedly, the quality of that particular segment of the reporting has fallen through the floor in recent years.

The Daily Mail (a newspaper many people wouldn’t even use as toilet paper because you’d end up wiping more shit on than off) has suffered from a split personality for some years now. It’s print version is The Sun with more syllables in its words, while it’s online version couldn’t give a shit about what’s happening in. the world as long as they can identify which personality has put on weight, dresses in similar clothes to their children, shagged someone they shouldn’t have… or ideally all three.

Returning to what I started with, I genuinely don’t know what somoene who wants to be a serious journalist would do today, at what publication they’d aim. I do know that if they want to write material that is as good as or better than what’s out there, it’s a lower bar than it’s been in a long time.

I’m not entirely sure when the phrase “I’m Proud Of The BBC” first became a ‘thing’ but certainly it became one after Mitch Benn wrote I’M PROUD OF THE BBC in 2010 and it became a fan favourite. I’ve a personal connection to the song, not only because I’m in the video (for about one and a half seconds) but because it was during the recording that I met Mitch, Clara and their children, after which my life literally changed for reasons that I may go into on another occasion. Suffice to say that without their love, support and friendship, my life would have been very, very different the past five years.

So, yes, I’m proud of the BBC. I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of public service broadcasting and how the BBC is so highly regarded around the world. I’m proud of how the BBC’s news service manages – more often than not – to ‘get it right’, not just in terms of accuracy, but tone as well.

Now before anyone jumps in to suggest that means something other than what it does, it’s worth reiterating that being ‘proud’ of something or someone doesn’t mean that you’re proud of everything it does or they do. 

I’m proud of my lad for many, many things. I’m proud of the young man he’s become, of so very much he’s done and accomplished in life. That doesn’t mean that I was particularly proud of him the day he tried to feed a jam sandwich to our video player when he was very young “because it looked hungry”. (Sorry, Phil!) Similarly, I wasn’t proud of him when he, as toddlers do from time to time, threw a tantrum in public.

In the same way, just because I’m proud to say that I’m proud of the BBC, it doesn’t mean that I agree with every decision they make, every programme they broadcast, the way they cover every news story. There are examples of each of the foregoing where I’ve problems with the BBC, and decisions they’ve made either in terms management judgement calls or about specific programmes. And yes, of course, the BBC puts out thousands of hours or original radio and tv programming; it would be astonishing if anyone were to have no issues with any of the programming. Harking back to the earlier mentioned philiosopher Benn, I agree with him that people want the BBC to be like a taxi, to take the individual member of the audience directly to where they want to go; in fact, it’s more like a bus service, taking everyone pretty near where they want to go, and occasionally right to their door.

All of that said, there are times the BBC as an organisation – and remember the BBC has a lot of organisations within it –  does things that are… well… ‘dodgy’ would be a kind way of putting it, and ‘indefensible’ a more accurate way of putting it.

And we don’t have to reach very far back to identify them. Leaving to one side, simply because there’s nothing to add, the culture that existed inside the BBC that allowed Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris and others to operate their vile practices, it’s not that long ago that two directors general of the BBC were forced out of their jobs, Greg Dyke because of the fallout from The Hutton Enquiry, George Entwhistle after Newsnight incorrectly implicated Lord McAlpine in the North Wales child abuse scandal.

And then, there’s BBC Three Counties Radio and Iain Lee. I don’t know Iain Lee at all; to use an old line, he wouldn’t know me from Adam, though at least he’d acknowledge I was better dressed. But Iain Lee… (You know what? I’m going to use his first name just because it’d just be weird to refer to him as ‘Lee’, for obvious reasons.)

Iain has, or rather had a show on TCR during which he did much, but in which he definitely expressed his views as to the idiocy of others. Libby Powell of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre appeared on the show defending a prison gardener and Pentacostal Minister who said he was being persecuted for telling prisoners to ‘repent’ for their homosexuality and for reading out passages from the Bible condemning homosexuality during a recent service at the prison. Iain asked her if she supported bigotry. “Homophobia is bigotry. Do you support bigotry?”

Apparently, this didn’t go down to well with Ms Powell because she defended her anti-homosexual views with church teachings, which led Iain to retort “You’ve chosen not to question it, because you’re a bigot” describing Reverend Barry Trayhorn’s views as ‘obnoxious’ and ‘poisonous’.

OK, so far, so contentious. It was combative but that’s part of why Iain was hired. It was direct and to the point and… and… and the BBC relieved him of his position. The official position is “Iain Lee will no longer be presenting his shows on the station.” To all intents and purposes they fired him. I specify “to all intents and purposes” because of course like many, odds are that Iain was not legally “employed”, but was hired as a freelancer. If he had been employed, I’d have expected the BBC, had they wished to dispose of his services, to have undertaken disciplinary procedures in line with the terms and conditions of his employment. That they could announce so quickly that he would not be returning… that says ‘freelancer’ to me.&

However, that’s a separate point. The main point I wish to make is… well, the main question I wish to ask is… WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PLAYING AT, BBC THREE COUNTIES RADIO?

If someone makes a bigoted point, then the presenter has every right – one might even argue obligation – to say so. Their religion should not, does not and must not protect them from that, especially when they’re commenting upon a matter of public interest in the public arena. If a priest or rabbi or immam wants to mouth off about homosexuality in the privacy of their church, synagogue or mosque, without being called on it, that’s an arguable case. And inside a prison, the Authority isn’t God, but the Prison Governer. But the moment you enter the public arena, there’s no argument: you don’t get to muzzle others when they call you bigoted.

As many have said over many years, freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of that speech.

The BBC are wrong on this, flat wrong. And I’m not very proud of them at all for their decision. Their sacking of Iain Lee is a disgrace; it’s indefensible and contrary to what BBC should stand for: to educate, inform and entertain.

I hope that Iain Lee goes on to better and brighter things.

I doubt anyone reading this is unaware of the horrific events that took place in the last 24 hours in Paris. I wrote on Twitter a couple of hours ago that I didn’t have a fucking clue what I could possibly write today in the shadow of those events that wasn’t trite nor unnecessary, and as I write these words, I’m still not sure.

Oh, I could state my loathing both for those who committed the atrocieties we’re still learning about, and those who defend, justify or excuse those who carried them out. Or those who protest that they’re merely ‘explaining’ the motivations, when what they’re actually doing is defending, justifying or excusing. There is a time for serious people to seriously consider what happened, and such horrors can attempt to be prevented from reoccurring. But that time is in the future, not while bodies are still being identified and removed. Yes, I could state my abhorrence of such horrors, but anyone reading this would already know I abhor them.

There’s something to be said I suppose for my entire lack of surprise at how these events have shown once again that people are amazing; not those who carried out the attacks, but the people who opened their homes to those who needed shelter, the people who understood that to blame a religion (rather than its perversion) for the attacks is as ludicrous as blaming the concept of writing for an obscene piece of graffitti, the people – in short – who as Alistair Cooke once said were a credit to their race… the human race.

So let me instead comment on just three facets of the evening that entirely surprised me at the time and continue to do so; two are to do with social media, one on the news reporting; one surprised me in its cleverness and rightness, one depressed me, and one utterly disgusted me.

Facebook did something that only tech could do, that was in hindsight obvious, but at the time genuinely pleasing. If the functionality was available previously, it’s something of which I was entirely unaware, but it’s something that I sadly suspect will become more and more important as time goes on. I’m not on Facebook; lots of reasons for it, but I’ve not regretted not being on it. I may change my mind after this. A couple of hours after the attacks commenced, I first became aware that Facebook had activated a function that informed people that their ‘friends’ (i.e. contacts on Facebook) were ok, that they were safe, that they had checked in. Of course, one might think that someone on Facebook saying “I’m ok, everyone” would be enough, but I’m presuming (I don’t know, as I say, I’m not on Facebook) that this algorithm scanned your friends’ list, checked who lived in or was in Paris that night, and then if Facebook detected that their phone was moving, being used to make calls, tweet, post, etc. it automatically marked them as ‘safe’ in the function. Astonishingly clever automagical use of a social media network and one that could have been useful on too many similar occasions in the past.

Twitter meanwhile lived up/down to the comment made some years back that Twitter is at its best in the twelve minutes after any major event and at its worse in the following twelve hours. Genuinely well-motivated tweets were tweeted as accurate then deleted – or worse not deleted – as new information superceded the previous inaccurate data. Idiots made mischief, and good ideas, such as a hashtag for people to use to find somewhere safe, were drowned out as amended tweets drowned out the possibility of anyone being able to find a genuinely useful example of the hashtag. As for the developing situation on the ground, incorrect information was tweeted by too many (some well meaning, some not) without any consideration as to its accuracy. It was the most recent ‘news’ so get it out there for your followers to see… And a perfect example of this was the alleged fire at a Calais refugee camp. Too many examples last night of tweets from people stating outright that the camp was on fire, and that it was probably a ‘revenge’ attack. It took a couple of hours to sort out what had happened. Some racists online – entirely missing the point that the refugees weren’t responsible for the atacks, but were refugees precisely vecause they had fled such attacks – had tweeted that they hoped the refugee camp would be set aflame. One of them grabbed an old photo of a camp on fire (a gas cannister had exploded, accident). That pic then did the rounds, and people started tweeting that the camp was on fire. The possibility/probability/certainty/doubt/debunking process took far longer than it should have. (Edit to add: almost 24 hours later, it appears there was a fire last night, but the pictures tweeted were from an old incident, and there have been no official reasons given for the fire, nor details of the size or seriousness of it.)

And that brings me to the news reporting. Much of it was excellent; I was channel flipping between BBC News, Sky News and France 24. All had their advantages and all their disadvantages. But around midnight, BBC News was the one that shocked me, and not for a good reason. That Calais refugee camp? Look, BBC News, I can understand your irritation at being accused of always being behind everyone else and the desire to be first with ‘new’ news, but for the love of Reith, is it asking too much to withhold even a suggestion as potentially dangerous as a refugee camp being on fire until you check the bloody story out? I appreciate that being on air during a developing story is when a news presenter is tested. Well, sorry, by reporting that even as a possibility and then saying “but treat that with caution; we’re not sure it’s accurate”, you failed.

One final thing. It’s petty and trivial and shouldn’t upset me as much as it did. When you tweet something, you shouldn’t have to check the last hour of your feed to confirm ‘nothing’s happened in the world’. But more and more, it appears as if some think you should. 

The events last night started mid evening. Many were entirely unaware of the events for some time as they’d been travelling or at a party, or in the cinema or… just not on Twitter. Their tweets – about such trivialities as what they’d had for dinner, or what they’d just seen in the movie theatre, or anything at all that didn’t relate to the horrible events in Twitter – were not only perfectly understandable but on any other occasion wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, let alone the ire of others. And yet, time after time last night, I saw someone tweet a completely harmless tweet of the sort we’ve all done, only for people to fall upon them because they’d dared tweet something that wasn’t about Paris. This isn’t not bothering to cancel scheduled tweets promoting something or other – I had three ready to go and very fortunately remembered to cancel them –   but having a pop at people because they weren’t aware what had happened in Paris. As I say, seeing the tweets discomforted me; I can’t lie, but it was that discomfort that occurs when someone you haven’t seen in years ethusiastically asks after your parents and you have to explain they died. What upset me was the knowledge that by having a go at someone, the accuser was assuming that the person tweeting knew about Paris and chose not to care. And some of these people being berated were my friends. 

Be safe today, people. Please.

It’s not often I write a letter for publication. It happens, but not that regularly. Occasionally it’s to Private Eye but as often as not, it’s to the Jewish Chronicle in response to a columnists’ outpouring, to reply to a letter or to comment upon a news piece. There’s a columnist there named Geoffrey Alderman who distinguishes himself to me on a regular basis by being like Melanie Phillips, someone with whom I disagree to such an extent that if I do agree with him, I immediately and urgently review my own thoughts to see where I’m wrong.

He wrote a column in this week’s edition on the “Christian bakers” law case. Now, there are those who think – with good motives and understandable arguments – that the wrong decision was reached in that case. Andrew O’Neill, a very clever, very funny man, is one of those, believing that the state, via the means of the law, should mind its own business; after all, the people wanting a cake could go elsewhere with no inconvenience to anyone.

Alderman on the other hand reaches that conclusion via very different reasoning and imputes nefarious motives to the customers, and their supporters.  So I wrote a letter to the JC. Now, I should say that when I told my lad that I’d written a letter, he – with no knowledge of the contents – softly swore half in admiration, half in dread as to what I wrote. Well, this is what I wrote:


I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to read Mr Alderman’s weekly musings, since knowing his column awaits me as I progress towards the middle pages of the JC allows me to play Shrödinger’s Alderman every week.

Will the column’s contents be contemptible or merely offensive? Of course, they are both… until I read the column and the possibilities collapse into one or the other.

Long may Mr Alderman’s writings appear. Should I wish to show someone who does not read the newspaper an example of how one can be both wrong in content and tone I only have to present them with his latest column regarding the “gay lobby” which is insulting to the intelligence and morally indefensible. A commercial organisation can either be open to serving the public or it can discriminate. It cannot do both, not without accusations of hypocrisy and justified criticism. To suggest that only “the gay lobby” believe in non-discrimination insults the intelligence and his readership. As for Christianity being “persecuted” in the UK, maybe I’ve missed that in a country with the monarch being its defender of the faith, where its legislature opens every day with Christian prayers and 26 bishops have seats in the House of Lords by right. Yours, etc.

Someone once told me that they enjoy reading me when I write from either frustration or anger. I think I got both there.

So, last night we had the first leaders’ debates, interviews, question and answer sessions, event. I’m not sure if I can quite communicate my contempt for what actually ensued with the paltry vocabulary I own. Indeed, to fully express the disappointment, I’m pretty sure I’d have to make up new words: “fuckleness”, maybe, or “prickdoodle”, or even “stucuntedly” might work as a suitable adjective, I guess.


OK, OK … let’s see what went right about last night’s fiasco.


No, that’s not fair. In brief, the Paxman bits , interviewing David Cameron and Ed Miliband separately (very important that) were excellent viewing, but taught the audiences nothing other than supplying an unnecessary reminder that politicians really don’t like answering questions.

As always happens with political broadcasts by party leaders shortly before an election, the format was a compromise, which was only appropriate since the contents of the television programme turned out to be full of compromises as well.

What was supposed to happen, and what the politicians expected to happen, was that first off David Cameron would be interviewed by that master of political interviews, Jeremy Paxman, leading to the viewers learning something they didn’t know before. The Prime Minister was no doubt sure of his facts and certain of his ability to answer any question Paxman asked that he liked… and easily bat away those he didn’t like. Then he’d face a studio audience and he’d ‘connect’ with them, charming the pants off them. And of course, he’d charm the host of this bit, Kay Burley. (Even those politically opposed to Cameron have stated – often through gritted teeth – how damn charming the man is in person.) He was certain that he’d not only hold the studio audience’s attention, but more importantly, those of the watching millions. He’d convince them that not only does he personify Prime Ministerial authority, but that it’d be patently obvious that he should be allowed to continue in the role. And of course, according to the Conservatives’ plan, Ed Miliband would be out of his depth in both venues when it was his turn.

I’ve no doubt whatsoever that Ed Miliband, on the other hand, thought David Cameron would do well during his bits, but he’d come over as too authoritarian, too posh and completely out of touch with ‘normal’ people. Whereas of course he (Miliband) would have that ‘common touch’, that the passion for his views would first impress Burley and the studio audience, and then without doubt, he’d be able to handle whatever Paxman had in store for him.

Well, they were both wrong. Spectacularly, horrendously, astonishingly wrong. But wrong in a way that neither of them could have anticipated.

Whatever else one can say about David Cameron, he’s rarely short of an answer. Were ‘stalling so he can gather his thoughts’ to be an Olympic event, he’d stand a good chance at bringing home the gold for Great Britain in Rio. But the moment Paxman started asking questions of David Cameron, it become stunningly obvious that the Prime Minister just hadn’t prepared properly – or at all. It was almost painful, watching Paxman eviscerate Cameron, layer by layer. Cameron was so bludgeoned by the questions, let alone the style in which they were asked, that he never recovered. I’ve never seen the Prime Minister so out of his depth. It was like watching a World Cup level penalty taker shooting at a primary school goalkeeper. It wasn’t that the shots went in; it was that Cameron never had a clue how to stop them. It was a painful twenty minutes to watch, but at least it was gripping television, in the same way you can’t take your eyes off a motorway accident as you drive past it.

Would that the same could have been said about the Q&A with the studio audience.

Public Service Announcement: If you’ve been suffering from insomnia, cue up the Prime Minister’s Q&A, and you’ll soon get the benefits of its soporific effects. It was even more astonishing than the interview in that we learned that David Cameron can be boring, hugely boring, foolishly, absurdly boring. But he shouldn’t shoulder the blame himself. Not when the audience asked such trivial and meaningless questions. Kay Burley helped and did her part by ensuring that if the boredom level was in danger of lessening, stamping on such a dangerous likelihood at once!

There was a moment of genuine pleasure during this latter bit. It happened at exactly the point when they broke for an ad break and millions were shaken out of a coma-like state.

After the break, came the leader of the official opposition, and David Cameron’s only challenger for Prime Minister after the election, Ed Miliband. Yeah, I know that kind of implies a presidential system rather than a parliamentary, but you know what I mean.

Unlike Cameron, Miliband chose to have the Q&A part first, and face Paxman later. Turned out to be a smart move, because even had he been as boring as Cameron, he must have known that the interview with Paxman would be remembered… for good or ill.

Again, the questions were trivial and meaningless; an obvious question as to the ‘rift’ with his brother, though I’m at a loss to understand what that has to do with Labour’s policies or Ed Miliband’s suitability to be Prime Minister. However, with a couple of rare exceptions, at least this part wasn’t as boring as Cameron’s stint. To be fair, that was a low bar, but then turned out to be the unspoken theme of Miliband’s appearances. The bar was set low and as long as he didn’t throw up on stage, he was likely to exceed expectations. He even showed passion at a few points; the problem was that I didn’t believe that the passion had anything to do with what he was talking about. It just seemed that an alarm clock went off inside his head, so he was passionate at that moment.

One thing that was very noticeable was Kay Burley’s stronger interventions; she definitely gave Miliband a harder time than she gave Cameron. There could be many reasons for this, but I don’t accept the suggestions that it was politically biased. I think David Aaronovitch had it about right:


After that, Miliband sat and was quizzed by Paxman. Well, I say quizzed; I think Miliband would have done better had it just been a quick question and answer pub quiz. He was – to me at least – entirely unconvincing, did as much question-dodging as Cameron, and his attempt to convince Paxman that he could be tough in negotiations came off as over-rehearsed, at least to me. It’s perhaps worth noting that Miliband didn’t cock up on anything else really, which put him head and shoulders in front of Cameron.

I’d score it:

Cameron: 1 out of 5
Miliband: 3 out of 5

Cameron: 0 out of 5 (soporific)
Miliband: 3 out of 5

So, all told, Miliband ‘won’, but in what I suspect will be the  theme of this election, he didn’t win… he just lost less well.

I did say at the beginning of this run of blog entries counting down to the general election on 7th May that although most of the entries would be about the runup to the election, that there’d be some less politically based posts. This is the first.

Ten years ago. What were you doing ten years ago today? If you’d asked me a week ago the same question, I could probably only have answered by looking up my blog entries at the time. Sure, I was employed by a company as their director of finance, and enjoyed the job. Laura and I were still together – for a few months anyway – and our son Philip was not quite ten years’ old yet.

A week from now, the same applied. Not sure exactly what I’d have been doing at this precise moment on 2nd April 2005. But right now? At this time on 26th March, I was absorbing the pleasure of having just watched, with my lad, the first episode of Christopher Eccleston’s run as The Doctor.

As Mitch Benn (about more of whom in a moment) has pointed out, it’s weird to think that at ten years, Doctor Who – in its new, er-hem, incarnation – has outlasted many other television serials, let alone other science fiction television serials. Battlestar Galactica? Four seasons and 75 episodes. Longest of the Stargate franchise (save the first)? Five seasons, 100 episodes. Doctor Who, from 2005 to date: 116 episodes. And if you include the original run, we’re at over 800 episodes, with 253 separate stories.

It’d be easy to say I’ve had a complicated relationship with Doctor Who. Easy, but untrue; I’ve always had a very good relationship with Doctor Who; I’ve watched it when I wanted to, and stopped watching when I wanted that as well. I don’t really remember Patrick Troughton in the role; I was only seven when he handed over the reigns to Jon Pertwee, and I’ve faint memories of Pertwee’s first episodes. The autons – or rather the plastic dummies that walked and shot people at that – scared the hell out of me. But I was lucky on three fronts. 

First off, and most importantly, as a young child, I watched it with my big brother. Mike was a huge fan of the show, though not as big a fan as I turned out to be, and I have dim memories of watching the show cuddled up to my five-years-older-than-me brother. So, although they were scary, they weren’t too scary. I think the only disagreement we had about the show was that he regarded Jon Pertwee as an interloper, as he’d grown up watching Patrick Troughton play The Doctor. (Not for the first time, I’m terribly sorry that I never got to introduce Mike to Neil Gaiman. I think they’d have liked each other a lot.)

Secondly, just as I was beginning to think that this Doctor Who thing was something special, they introduced The Master. Roger Delgado was a stranger to me, but instantly he grabbed the screen and made it his own. Of course, Delgado had been around for ages, appearing on television shows that I was too young to watch, although I later remember him in a rather good guest appearance in The Zoo Gang, another favourite of mine. But having an arch-enemy was great for me. There was a baddie, and out and out baddie. Yay.

The third stroke of luck I had was to fall ill. No, nothing overly serious: a bad dose of mumps. But it confined me to bed for a while and a neighbour, knowing I liked Doctor Who, bought me some novels that had just been published. These three:


And I devoured them. I’ve still very fond memories of them them and still remember individual bits of each. My favourite, however, was the first. The other two may have been novels about The Doctor, but as far as I was concerned, the first – written in the first person, from Ian Chesterton’s point of view – was THE Doctor Who novel. The definite article, as the Fourth Doctor might – and did – say. 

I read. And I read. And I read some more. I watched companions come and go, monsters come and go… and come back again. And I saw Jon Pertwee’s Doctor regenerate into Tom Baker’s Doctor, and then I saw him regenerate into Peter Davison’s Doctor, and then I saw… well, I didn’t really. I kind of lost interest towards the end of Peter Davison’s run, and when I dropped back in a little while later, when Colin Baker helmed the TARDIS… well, I wasn’t impressed. Now, decades later, I’m quite prepared to agree with Mitch Benn that Colin Baker wasn’t the worst Doctor; he was just the unluckiest. I kind of missed out on Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor first time around, and I regret it enormously as the character probably went on a longer journey within that regeneration than within any up until that point.

The Doctor Who telemovie in 1996? Again, an unlucky outing for Paul McGann. Superb actor, with a bad script that made little sense. I was so pleased that circumstances in 2013 allowed him to appear onscreen for only the second time, and in that 6 minutes he made up for everything. just flat out superb, and it didn’t surprise me at all that many called for some episodes featuring The Eight Doctor. 

And so… 26th March 2005… 7pm. And showrunner Russell Davies delivered in spades. This was a Doctor that I recognised, fun, dangerous, wild and silly. And utterly, utterly different. And utterly, utterly the same.

And despite some dodgy episodes since then, every regeneration has ‘worked’; every actor inhabiting the role has unquestionably made it their own.

Of course, the show is about time. Well, no it isn’t; it uses time to tell stories. And that’s good enough for me. It usually has been, and long may it continue. Happy 10th Birthday, nuWho.

Meanwhile, I’ve waffled on for too long. In the days leading up to the first episode of the relaunch, Mitch Benn had a very special message for friends and family…

It’s not often I sympathise with British politicians. Their behaviour doesn’t easily lend itself to sympathy, and while I have little time for the argument that they’re paid too much, it’s undeniable that their attitude to, and claiming of, expenses over the past few years has been contemptible at best and downright criminal at worst. I don’t for a heartbeat think that all MPs who misclaimed expenses did so with malice aforethought, but neither do I accept for a moment that all of those who could have been prosecuted for fraud felt the copper’s hand on their shoulders, along with an accompanying “you’re nicked, my son…”

We ask Members of Parliament to do a job and to take on responsibilities that we don’t expect of anyone else. I’m not for one second suggesting that nurses, teachers, care workers, civil servants don’t work hard or don’t deserve higher pay themselves, but making laws, passing legislation that affects every person in the country, is not something we should delegate lightly or without care. I guess I’d turn that around; what makes you think that MPs don’t work just as hard as nurses, teachers and other people who are generally and genuinely seen as important to making society better? A gut instinct? A ‘feeling’? That’s not enough to condemn an entire class of people, most of whom I have no doubt enter politics with a genuine desire for public service.

Every time we vote for someone to become a member of Parliament, we entrust them with that responsibility, to represent us in a Parliament that has passed legislation for centuries; both good and bad legislation, carefully thought out and rushed legislation, important and trivial legislation. And while examples can be found going back fifty years or more of MPs complaining that they’re not paid enough, similar examples can be found of equal vintage of complaints that they’re paid far too much. I’ve never found any arguments supporting the latter case satisfactory.

It may be moral cowardice on my part that I’m pleased, no make that desperately pleased, that I’ve not been someone who’s been called upon to make the decisions that MPs make in the house of Commons every week. Leaving aside the ‘loyalty’ vote, where you have to compromise your own earnestly held – and previously passionately expressed – views in order to progress up the greasy pole, when money is tight in the national purse, do you cut money from this department or that? Do you raise taxes on this proportion of the population or that? Do you close this hospital or that school? Do you raise subsidies for rail transport or road? And yet, I’ve rarely been pleased with how my own Member of Parliament has acted in the role of legislator. There are many reasons for this, but put plainly, I can’t think of a single election in the past thirty years where I’ve agreed with even the vast majority of any party’s manifesto. I can’t really speak on how they’ve acted as a constituency MP, on the other hand, with one exception. My Member of Parliament for some years was Sir Sidney Chapman, a man with whose politics I disagreed. Yet, I never heard a single complaint from across the local political spectrum about his activities as a constituency MP. He seemed to be that apparently most rare of species: someone who believed, once elected, he owed a duty to everyone in his constituency, whether or not they’d voted for him.

The change in how MPs are ‘seen’ by the public, both literally and figuratively, is neither something to be pleased by or disgusted with. It’s just… happened. But it’s impossible to deny that televised parliament, the twenty-four hour news cycle and – most importantly – social media’s ability to circulate an image with astonishing rapidity has increased the cynicism of the public towards politicians. And for once, it’s not the politicians’ fault in any way. Instead, split second images are taken, used, abused and promoted with political intention without indication nor disclosure of that intention.

Years ago, when taking a tour of the Houses of Parliament as part of my Government and Comparative Politics A-Level, I was shown and told about the grilles in the benches of both Houses, those of the Commons and Lords. These grills, a couple of inches across, are at neck height when sitting, and contain speakers, to carry the voices of those speaking in the relevant House. In order to hear the sounds coming from them, if the member of parliament actually speaking is way across the chamber of the House, it’s not uncommon for MPs to ‘slump’ slightly, and even sometimes close their eyes to concentrate on the words rather than the low level of surrounding noise. And any MP doing this, in an image snapped from the televised stream will appear asleep.

Do MPs sleep in the chamber? I’m sure some do, but it’s prejudicial to state that someone’s sleeping in the chamber when you’ve no actual evidence to back you up. And yet such images are often shot around Twitter, Facebook and the like as proof itself that our elected representatives are sleeping on the job and couldn’t care less about the issue being discussed.

Another favourite image that regularly does the rounds is one purporting to show the House with only a couple of dozen MPs in the chamber, and to state that this in and of itself proves that something important to the person who first took the screenshot – and of course the assumption is that many share his or her view of the matter – is of no interest to the political parties. There’s no context to the picture, of course; no indication as to whether ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, the chamber was full to overflowing or even had another couple of hundred or so MPs in attendance. To believe that MPs should always be in the chamber is to wilfully (or maybe not wilfully, maybe it’s just ignorance) misunderstand the job of a member of Parliament. As is reasonably well known, there’s no actual job description for MPs. And even if there was such a thing agreed by most people not even the most jaundiced onlooker of that species known as MP would suggest that they should spend all their time in the chamber. There are meetings to hold, correspondence to deal with, select committees to serve on, constituency matters which require attention. All of the foregoing take place out of the chamber itself. How many people know, for example, that debates are often held at Westminster Hall, sometimes at the same time as those in the Commons? Those ‘missing’ MPs? They may well be doing important work outside the Commons at that moment.

And, further, not every clause of every Bill is important, even if the Bill itself is important. A bill about increasing the amount of information disclosed by companies about taxation in their financial statements may be very important; a clause within that proposed set of laws discussing whether the information should be in a separate note to the accounts or whether it should be included within the taxation notw isn’t likely to be a must-attend debate.

And that’s not even taking account of the parliamentary convention of ‘pairing’. (Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, divisions in the House of Commons don’t actually need that many MPs in attendance. As long as there’s 40 in attendance, the House can vote on something.)

And then there’s smiling or laughing. I may be a heretic here but I don’t want my representatives in parliament to be humourless robots; I want them to be human, and that means that, occasionally, they’ll laugh at a witticism or funny comment. And not only at their opponent’s discomfort. Sometimes a genuinely funny comment is made in the chamber; it happens more often than you’d think, but far less often than the MPs thing, to be fair.

OK – here’s a picture of George Osborne and David Cameron laughing on the government front benches. Yeah, I know, I’m sorry. You might have to drink to forget that image, but I’ve put it there for a reason. No, not for you to have an excuse to drink to forget that image. Well, not wholly.

Anyway, there’s Prime Minister and The Chancellor of the Exchequer laughing during a debate about… Well, you don’t know, do you? It could be about something deadly serious or it could be questions to the Leader of the House about suggested debates. The comment could have been a political point scored against Ed Balls or it could merely be that someone farted in the chamber. But if someone tweeted that picture and said “Look, this is from today’s debate about food banks! See how the Tories laugh at poverty”, it’d go round Twitter tweeted and retweeted as gospel.

Finally, my sympathy even stretches to Michael Gove. Only for one thing, mind you, since I think he was a disastrous Secretary of State for Education and is not exactly shaping up to be even a half decent Whip. But let’s attack him for what he’s done recently, not for stuff he did before he was even an MP. It’s similar to my views on the Daily Mail: daft to constantly bring up the Mail’s support for fascism 80 years ago (!) when there’s so much to attack the paper for now.

So, Michael Gove. There’s a pic that’s been doing the rounds for the past year or so. Here it is:

If true, it would be a horrible thing for a politician to say, let alone a Secretary of State for Education. But he didn’t say it as Secretary of State for Education; he wrote it in a piece for the Times when he was a working journalist, before he even became an MP. And yet the pic states – or at least heavily implies – that he said it as a politician. That’s just flat wrong, and indefensible. It’s certainly fine to ask Gove whether he still thinks that, and then to attack his view if he confirms that. But there’s no way it’s fair to suggest he said it as a representative of government.

A picture tells a thousand words; nowhere, however, does it say the words are accurate.

Hold the Front Page!

Posted: 28 September 2014 in media
Tags: , ,

Came across an old blog entry from my previous blog by a series of coincidences that are far too long and complicated to go into here. But it was interesting enough for me to repost below. Enjoy.

Well, that was interesting…

Spent yesterday evening at the British Library at an event put on by the Library, the media society and Newsnight, looking at the Front Page, an exhibitopn covering the best front pages from British Newspapers since 1906 (the earliest example on show was from The Daily Mirror from 1909.)

A fascinating debate with newspaper editors discussing what makes a ‘good’ front page, and the mistakes that can be made, as well as stories behind some of the great headlines of our time.

(And yes, although the debate and exhibition were solely about national British newspapers, they couldn’t let the classic New York Daily Post headline of “Headless Man Found in Topless Bar” go by unremarked.)

Eleven front pages were chosen (in my opinion, only a couple of them should have qualified for the ‘best ever front page’, and they missed out some absolute scorchers), and the winner was:

The others that were in contention:

The militant campaign by the suffragettes to get women the vote represents a major 20th century movement as women progressively sought equal rights. (22nd May 1914)

The seemingly miraculous escape of 300,000 British troops from Hitler’s advancing armies in an armada of “little ships” was greeted at home as proof that Britain could survive to fight the Nazis. (3rd June 1940)

Sport moves from the back page to the front (october 1968)

US astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as the Apollo XI commander became the first man on the moon, was a defining moment. Note though how the picture is admitted to be a reconstruction… (21st July 1969)

News of the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, by a British nuclear submarine during the Falklands war, was greeted enthusiastically by The Sun. (4th May 1982). Interestingly, during the debate, Roy Greenslade revealed that – contrary to the legend that has grown up about this headline – Kelvin Mackenzie was never happy with it and as soon as reports came through that 1200 Argentinians had died, pulled the headline, replacing it with “Did 1200 have to die?” “Gotcha” was only ever seen on the Northern editions.

Don’t ask. I mean, really, don’t ask. (13th March 1986)

Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe has often been a fractious one, with tensions within and towards the European Union diving the main political parties. This Sun headline marked a new turn in an old argument. (1st November 1990)

The murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black student, in south London, was elevated to symbolic status when the Daily Mail accused a group of men of a racially-inspired killing. No convictions resulted, but the case was one of several that highlighted the stresses of race relations in a changing Britain. (14th February 1997)

The disgrace of former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, who would be jailed for perjury, arguably represents the power of the press at its best, challenging those in authority. (21st June 1997)

Britain’s troubled relations with Ireland in the 20th century saw the Easter Rising, the birth of the Irish Free State – today the Irish Republic – and the Troubles. The Independent’s story reflects a potential turning point. (29th July 2005)

Since I’ve just got back to Edinburgh after a lovely few days in (or is it ‘on’?) Skye, I’ve been thinking of satire. It’s difficult not to think of it in general, to be honest, having several stand up comedians as friends; not all of them would describe themselves as satirists by any means, but enough do.

Long time readers of this blog, and its predecessor, will know that in the dim and distant past, I used to write for – at that time – BBC Radio 4’s main weekly satirical show, WEEKENDING. Did I consider myself a satirist at the time? I’m not entirely sure I did; I just thought of it as a writing job, where part of the commission was to make a satirical point, and another perhaps larger part of the job was to make people laugh. Because that’s the difference between satire and comedy.

My favourite observation on the subject of satire remains that of the late Peter Cook, who said that:

“the purpose of satire isn’t to make the audience laugh; it’s to make them uncomfortable.”

which is very similar to what’s been said by others, about both satire and journalism: that its purpose is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

(On a tangent, it’s always struck me as similar to what Warren Ellis said about horror: not a direct quote, but something along the lines of great horror doesn’t scare you, but it makes you feel as uncomfortable as hell… Anyway, tangent over. Back to satire.)

During the London run of Beyond The Fringe, it was reported at the time that portions of the audiences walked out at two points; the first won’t surprise you, the second may well do.

One sketch dealt with the futility of war and the necessity, it was felt at one point, for a meaningless sacrifice. Given the relative nearness of the Second World War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some felt angry and upset. However, another sketch poked fun at then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. In a memorable line, Cook-as-Macmillan, said “I have been around the world on your behalf… and at your expense.” And some of the audience got up in disgust at the very idea that it was acceptable to have a pop at the Prime Minister.

However, despite the success of satire, Cook was sanguine about its long term consequences, and satire’s ability to influence politics. When he opened The Establishment in London, he was asked whether he thought it would have an effect on the politics of the day. His reply?

Oh, I think it will have as great an effect as the Kit Kat Club did in preventing the rise to power of The Nazi party.

I think that everyone agrees that good satire, like good comedy, punches up. Punching down, taking a pop at those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious, is seen – quite correctly – as lazy.

When I write “lazy”, I’m not necessarily talking about “playing to the crowd” nor being a “crowd pleaser”. It always puzzles me when comedians are thought of as less valid because their style is popular and when “crowd pleaser” becomes a perjorative criticism. As I wrote above, I’m fortunate enough to know a number of professional stand up comedians. Pleasing a crowd is hard work and if anyone thinks otherwise, they’re welcome to prove to me how easy it is.

But if you agree that satire should always punch up, then how do you decide what constitutes “up”? And who should be entrusted with that decision? There’s the one-size-fits-all description I used a moment ago:

those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious

However, what about someone in a position of privilege who is unable to punch back? One can argue, for example, that politicians are always fair game; indeed, if you take a look at James Gillray’s cartoons and caricatures from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they’re at least as vicious and just plain nasty as anything Spitting Image ever produced. And his weren’t the only ones…

Take a look at this cartoon. The subject? Our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

And this, from the time of William Pitt the Younger, about the Bank of England policy to do with the bank only circulating paper notes from then on, instead of honouring amounts in gold coinage. Rumors circulated that the Bank’s coin was merely being held in reserve to send to the Continent in support of and to finance the war.

The bank, portrayed as an elderly virgin, says:

‘Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you villain! What, have I kept my honour so long to have it broke up by you at last? O murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!’

Where did you think the nickname of the Bank of England of The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ came from?

So, politicians are fair game, and banks and bankers always have been. Each of those, and individual examples of those, can hit back, of course. It wasn’t unusual, in the times of Spitting Image, for the politicians to comment that the puppets of course, of course, were wonderful, but the scripts were peurile and just flatly inaccurate. Such responses were always common when Yes, Minister and its sequel were broadcast. Politicians always said that the series got the civil service spot on but were unfair to politicians. And those civil servants who would comment, usually off the record, of course said the reverse, that Yes, Minister got the politicians exactly right, but were woefully inaccurate about the civil service. The same comments once again came to the fore when The Thick Of It was on television.

So, what about the Royal Family? They are surely fair game; exemplars of privilege, the epitome of inherited privilege in fact. And from the eighteenth century onwards (maybe before) satirists have been taking a pop at them. But is it punching up to do so… when they can’t hit back? Constitutionally, I suppose, there’s nothing actually stopping them doing so, but they don’t. They can’t. They just… can’t. And on the rare occasions when it’s let slip that a cartoon or a piece has been received with great hurt, there’s something faintly icky about both the piece and the reaction.

Once again, who decides what punching up actually constitutes? Would satire written by someone with fewer advantages in life be inherently more satirical than something written by someone from a solidly-middle class background? Are there targets that would be considered ‘punching up’ by some but not ‘punching up’ if someone from another background wrote exactly the same piece?

Because that would imply, horribly, that there’s a class structure to satire beyond the targets themselves; that the quality of satire depends upon the origins and lack of privilege of the satirist. And that’s something I suspect Peter Cook would have had problems with… and not for the first time, I’d be in complete agreement with him.

It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.

The quote above is one that pops up in PLANETARY by Warren Ellis, John Cassady and Laura Martin. If you haven’t read it, I envy you only because that means that at some point you’re going to experience enormous joy from discovering it. And if you have read it, well, you know how superb it was.

But the comment itself has been on my mind a lot the past couple of weeks when online life in particular has been unlike any previous time in my experience. I’ve alluded to it more than once, and I think it’s likely that tomorrow I’m going to write about anti-semitism in the UK. I doubt I’ll be able to do it as well as others have done, but in preparation for it, I’ll merely point you to the following at this point:

The Guardian’s editorial: On Gaza and the rise of anti-semitism

Owen Jones’ superb piece: Anti-Jewish hatred is rising; we must see it for what it is

And – behind the Times Paywall – Hugo Rifkind’s masterly piece: Suddenly, it feels uncomfortable to be a Jew

Read all of them if you can.

But more about that tomorrow.

The world at the moment isn’t just strange; it’s interesting, but interesting in the words and terms of the old Chinese curse.

It’s not an easy time to be a politician; indeed, with what’s going on around the world, one might wonder what the point of politicians is. After all, the Middle East is in turmoil; Eastern Europe may have a lower body count, but the danger of escalation far beyond the current chaos is ever-present; and even in western democracies, everything feels like, and is presented as, hanging on a knife edge. And, as I mentioned the other day, everyone in office is someone who managed to convince the voters that they knew how to solve this proble, that problem and the other problem. And then something comes along that proves they don’t.

I’m glad that I’m not in control of the government. I’m glad that my friends aren’t; I don’t think I know a single person who I’d utterly trust to have control over the military, say, or to make choices between which government services are cut, and which maintained. The reason are simple: they’ve either not been trained in that, or would destroy themselves making those calls. I once knew a local councillor, a nice fella; we used to have coffee together on a semi-regular basis. I stopped asking him about the council role when he said that he had to vote that night on whether to cut funding to an old age home or a school. I don’t think anyone would like to have to make those choices in a time of austerity. And no matter what people would wish to be the case, that’s the time we’re in now.

In one way, I feel sorry for politicians, politicians of all stripes; the honest ones, I mean, the men and women who enter politics out of a genuine wish to serve and to do good by their constituents, their country and their honour. Because every one of them is in office because people believed in them, in their abilities, in their basic humanity, in their integrity. And now many of those same politicians discover how powerless they actually are, and what devils’ choices they have to make.

And that makes me think of all the people who have run for office and never made it… what goes through their minds when they think of what is, and what could have been? And how the hell do they not resent the hell out of the electorate?

I recall a comment from an American politician; bloke by the name of Dick Tuck who ran for the Senate in 1966, in California. When the results came in, and it was obvious he’d lost, he said what later became a famous quote:

The people have spoken, the bastards.

I’m sure that many unsuccessful political candidates feel the same way, and probably express it similarly.

Looking at the newspapers and the online news sites only proves to me once more (as if proof were needed) that Warren had it right from day one: the world is a strange place. I just wish that politicians didn’t take that as a manifesto commitment; I’m just not entirely convinced that the world needs any assistance keeping it that way.

It won’t have escaped most people reading this that in about nine months’ time, there’ll be a general election in the UK. I say ‘most’, making the assumption that the vast majority of people reading this are in the UK. For folks who’re not in the UK, this may well be the first time you’ve been told about it. Let’s face it, for almost all Americans, they’ve as much interest in when the UK has a general election as most Brits would have in knowing when California elects its governor.

But on 7th May 2015, the UK will go to the polls to elect a government for the ensuing five years. Long before then, in under six weeks in fact, there’ll be a referendum in Scotland about whether or not that country will gain independence. And the results of that decision may have huge repercussions for the 2015 general election, depending upon the result. If the Scots vote for independence, then it will; if they don’t, it will have, I believe, almost no effect.

This is the first time the public has known when a general election was positively going to happen, as it’s the first general election since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 received its Royal Assent. And that means the election campaigns are going to be very different, particularly in length.

In the old days… heh, the old days, right back in 2010… the Prime Minister chose when to “go to the country”, as the phrase had it. Usually, from then until the election was no more than a few weeks. Now, like America and everywhere else with fixed term legislatures, the election campaigning will commence months in advance. The manifestos will certainly be released to the public much further from the elections than previously.

I’ve written about my views on the next set of manifestos before; I remain convinced that with the advent of – and in my view, continuing likelihood of – coalitions, the very nature of manifestos have to change; they need to. And they will. If not next time then certainly for the election after that.

And as a part of that, as an inevitable consequence of the last election’s result – coalition negotiations – the questioning of those standing for parliament and those forming the election teams need to be more demanding.

Four simple questions spring to mind; I’m sure there are more. I’m not suggesting that the list is exhaustive by any means. My point is that no matter what the state of the country, no matter how bad the Middle East is, whether we’re likely to go to war, whether in fact people are better or worse off, these questions should always be asked of those seeking to represent us in Parliament.

And, just before I start writing about them, again let’s deal with whether or not MPs represent us, and if so, how?

It troubles me that the membership of the House of Commons is not more representative of the country as it is now. Of course it does; I wouldn’t believe anyone who said it didn’t bother them. That doesn’t mean that any individual MP should be representative of the seat to which they aspire. Merely because there’s a large ethnic minority in a particular constituency doesn’t mean that the MP should be from that ethnic minority. Nor should the candidates for a particular constituency be a woman just because there happen to be more women than men in that specific constituency.

But as a whole, the chamber is wholly unrepresentative of Britain today. And that should be dealt with by the main parties; it’s shameful that they haven’t done it by now.

imageBut when it comes to representing the views of an individual constituency, I side with old Edmund Burke when he said, way back in 1774,

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Well said, that man.

Anyway, to the questions:

Let’s get the first one out of the way; it links back to the manifesto argument.

(1) What are the items in your manifesto that are deal-breakers in any coalition negotiations?
I think that this isn’t only a necessary question, it should be, perhaps suitably, a deal-breaker for seeking votes. If a party is standing for office, upon a manifesto, the voting public has not only a right but an obligation to know what things from the manifesto will be junked, and which will be put forward in legislation.

One of the oft-stated but most irritating comments post-2010 was that ‘no-one voted for this government’; no-one ever votes for a government. Ever. But what it is fair to say is that people voted for a manifesto. And the one thing that is absolutely true is that no-one voted for the coalition agreement, with the exception of the people who were already elected, i.e. the Lib Dem MPs. David Cameron, maybe sensibly, didn’t ask his MPs to sanction the agreement.

Next, let’s look at the ‘we know best’ attitude; the entirely unwarranted confidence with which candidates present themselves. So…

(2) If you lose the election, what do you think will be the reason?
I got told this question a long time ago, when interviewing for staff. But I think it more relevant for people seeking election. Standing for election (or running for office, as the Americans have it; have always found the two phrases amusing in their different implications but anyway…) Anyway… Standing for election, every candidate seems to know the answers to every question, or at least to be eager to convince the electorate of that. What’s wrong with admitting that there are hits against you and your party? What’s wrong with admitting ‘yeah, we got it wrong’? Why doesn’t it happen more? Well, that’s obvious: if anyone does it, they get hammered by both the press and their opponents who, in their turn, never admit to making errors of judgement of their own.

We should do something about that.

Something else that politicians are never asked, and it puzzles me. It always has, but now it’s beginning to bug the hell out of me.

I was reminded of it when in correspondence with a friend. Indeed, mention of it sparked today’s post in its entirety.

(3) What’s the end game?
As part of the last election campaign, the Conservative party pledged that there would be no ‘top down’ reform of the NHS. Well, yes, we know precisely how long that pledge lasted. Thing is, the next government – whoever it is, whatever its make up – will tamper with (or reform, take your pick) the NHS. Of course they will; it’s what governments do.

Same as they’ll reform the education system. And the tax system. And defence procurement. It’s what governments do. But they never admit what the end game is. I want a potential government to tell me what the end game is; what, ‘events, dear boy, events’ not withstanding, their ideal health service, or educational system or tax system will look like. So, candidate/potential government, all things being equal:

(a) what are your preferred tax rates, if everything went your way?
(b) what will the health service look like, when you get to the point where no further reform is necessary. (Note: not ‘what will it do’, what will it be?)
(c) what will the media ownership and diversification be when you’ve finished all necessary reform?

In other words, what will society be when you’ve done your bloody jobs?

Finally, and it’s an important one…

(4) What do you intend to do to increase political engagement in this country, and what evidence do you have that your policy will succeed?

Now, people can argue that “party political engagement” does not equal “political engagement”, and such people have a point. However, as long as party politics is the overwhelmingly important fact of life in getting people into the House of Commons, any suggestion that it doesn’t matter falls flat.

So let’s just stick to party politics for the moment. It’s been said that the electorate don’t reward disunity; well, if that’s true, the voting public will have a hell of a choice in the 2015 election. I cannot remember a previous time when there have been such obvious and such panicked undeclared civil wars in each party.

Unless the party leaders manage to create an environment where the public understands a reason to vote for a slate of policies, party political engagement will further fall, cynicism and scepticism in party politicians will rise and that handbasket on its way to hell will get lots of company along the way.

I’ve been reading and listening to (digression: how come you listen to something, but you read [about] something, you don’t read to something?)…

Sorry, let me start again. So I’ve been reading and listening to various pieces about what Prime Ministers are like; how they act “behind closed doors”, how he (or she in one notable exampe) behaves as an employer and as Prime Minister towards other ministers and staff.

In this, I have the invaluable aid of Nick Robinson’s two radio 4 series entitled, sensibly enough, The Prime Ministers. Definitely worth listening to if you have some time. Leaving aside your personal preferences as to someone’s politics, does “it” matter? It, of course, being what someone’s like as opposed to what they achieve.

I’ve never signed up to, say, the belief that if a minister cheats on his missus, then he’s likely to cheat on his taxes, or if he does that, that indicates he’ll be a traitor to his country. But this has been something that’s, on and off, occurred to me to ponder for years ever since I heard the unproved allegation (let me stress that, unproved) that Errol Flynn was, well, let us say that the allegation was that he wouldn’t have exactly thrown Nick Griffin out of his house.

But even were that to be proved, would that change my enjoyment of The Adventures of Robin Hood? Should it? Should my appreciation of the mastery of that role change depending upon my view of the person performing it?

If a public figure (and I include writers and other creatives in this) has political, sexual or other behavioural attributes with which I disagree, should it affect how I view their work?

If someone acts in business in a way which I believe is reprehensible, should that affect my enjoyment or otherwise of his or her actual work?

Turning it around, merely because someone shares my own views, be they political, religious or whatever, should I view their works with more sympathy? If I admire someone as a person, should I similarly admire their work?

My gut reaction to the last question is “of course not!” Just because someone’s Jewish, for example, doesn’t mean that I should like their work or otherwise. Merely because I like a writer as a person, and am friends with them, it doesn’t follow that mean I automatically like what they write.

The corollary of that, surely, is that if someone doesn’t like Jews, that might prejudice me against them (although prejudice implies unthinking pre-judging, and I’m not pre-judging, I’m judging) but it shouldn’t mean that I’m prejudiced against their work

Well, yes, in one way. No in another.

Let’s say there’s a creator called “Ethelred Graystone” (I checked, there’s not.) But young Mr Graystone has political views which I find abhorrent. It could be that he’s extreme left wing, while I’m a right winger, or that he’s somewhere to the right of Rush Limbaugh and I’m somewhere to the left of Tony Benn. Doesn’t matter – we disagree, fully and vehemently.

So by buying his work, no matter whether it’s good or not, he benefits. My purchase of his product enriches him. He benefits from my purchase (whether directly or indirectly). In the case of someone with whose business practices I disagree, my buying his product allows him to continue his lousy business practices. (“Lousy” in my opinion, of course, not necessarily an objective view.)

Of course, this came to the fore a couple of years ago with the Enders Game movie and the author of the novels upon which the movie was based, one Orson Scott Card. Card’s views on homosexuality are repulsive and he actively funded organisations seeking to make it illegal. Now, neither the books nor the movie interested me; I don’t, as the phrase has it, have a dog in this fight. Me not buying the books or saying I’m going to boycott the movie has no force because I wasn’t going to anyway. But many of my friends chose not to go to the movie because of his views. That’s their choice; it’s a free market. I was less sure about the torrent of abuse that fell upon DC Comics when they announced that Card was to write a Superman adventure for their digital comics line. Isn’t the idea that he gets to say what he wants and we get to protest? I’m uncomfortable with economic boycotts simply because of the collateral damage. However, I’m not about to criticise those who through honest motives feel differently. It’s something I still need to think about, I suspect.

This obviously has less of an impact if the person is no longer with us; has died, popped his cloggs, or however else you want to phrase it. Wagner is the poster child for 'horrible views' vs 'glorious music', at least according to some. I've never been a huge fan of his work, but not because of Wagner, because I don't like the work. I think the quandary only really comes into play if you believe that by singing the praises of his work, some will come to admire his views. I would say that's a ridiculous thing, that only cretins could admire his views, but sadly, as Twitter has been proving to me a lot lately, there are a lot of cretins around.

Back to people who haven't joined the choir invisible.

If I disagree with a politician's policies, there's not many reasons to vote for them (other, of course, than being the lesser of two evils. I'd vote for anyone in the main parties, though I might dislike their parties' policies in a heartbeat if it stopped Nick Griffin or one of his cronies from the BNP from getting in…) But if I agree with the policies but dislike the person intensely, should I still vote for them?

Well, as a general rule (there are always exceptions, of course) yes, I think I should.

And once again, reiterating the point, because it’s often thrown up: if a candidate has screwed around on his (or her) partner, what relevance has that to whether or not they’d be a good MP? He’s not elected (as far as I’m concerned) to stay faithful to his partner, but to put (or attempt to put) the policies upon which his manifesto was based, into law.

Moreover, if a creator is unpleasant to me or my beliefs, what relevance has that to whether or not I enjoy their work? (If I regard the work as unpleasant, then it doesn’t matter who produced it, and whether or not I agree with them or disagree with them about anything, I won’t buy it.)

I know people who are so anti-smoking, it’s almost a religious belief of theirs. Does that mean they shouldn’t buy a work from a creator who smokes?

Where do you draw the line? Or should the line not even be drawn?

I’m still thinking about this – I suspect I will be for some time – but a masterpiece on ‘the person’ vs ‘their art’ was written by Andrew Wheeler about Roman Polanski. Read it, now.

I’ve been off wandering again the last few days, long walks that do a lot for clearing the brain and an equal amount for hurting my foot. (More details about the latter here…)

When I’m wandering I usually listen to podcasts or the radio, but sometimes I return to an old favourite. And recently, I’ve been listening again to the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures, by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. Now apart from challenging everyone to come up with a better name than that, he’s the Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego), and he’s a man with a voice like James Mason.

Every time I listen to the lectures, and I listen to them about once a year, I am staggered by what they know about the mind and the brain, and how much they admit they don’t know.

They’re superb, and I recommend the lectures without hesitation.

BBC Link: Reith Lectures 2003

Here’s the first lecture by Ramachandran; it’ll give you a flavour of them. In it he talks about among other things about Capgras Syndrome and Face Blindness, where someone can’t recognise a face of someone familiar (in fact thinks they must be an imposter)… and even weirder, recognises them as an someone he knows when they’re on the phone…

PS For those who read yesterday’s blog and are curious as to whether I’m going to write on Israel/Gaza… I’m still thinking about it. You’ll know when I know…

I don’t know when I first became aware of the coincidence of my existence and both the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the start of Doctor Who.

It was probably about the same time that I, like so many children born in the 20th Century, worked out what age I’d be at the turn of the next Century. I was wrong on that one, of course, because in that case, I’d calculated very carefully how old I’d be on 1st January 2000. Now that was very interesting but it told me no more than how old I’d be on any particular date. I should have picked 1st January 2001, which was, as everyone knows, the actual start of the twenty-first Century.

I mean, that didn’t stop me celebrating the end of 1999 and the start of 2000 with everyone else, fireworks and cheers and the rest. In my case, that was with Laura and Philip (the latter then four years old) crammed in with 50,000 others at DisneyWorld in California. Later, years later, I discovered that someone who’d become a friend in the years to come was also there, surrounded by people, shoving, pushing, trying to get a better viewpoint, and eventually hoping it would all be over and we could return to our hotels.

But yes, my later-friend was there. At the same point and time as me, the only time before we actually met as friends in London. What are the odds? Coincidences and the unexpected links between people never cease to fascinate me.

But yes, the twenty-first Century. Of course it started on 1st January 2001; how could anyone argue against that? Well, turns out a lot of people do. I mean, sure, you can make an arguable case for it, but it’s an argument you’d lose. Badly. A date is a date, a calculation is a calculation.

Take my date of birth. 17th August 1964. Walk back nine months and you get 17th November 1963. Close, eh? Not really, no. Not that close but when you learn that my actual expected date of delivery was the best part of a week later… on 22nd August 1964… then you can see that the date of conception was reckoned to be around 22nd or 23rd November 1963, just about fifty years ago today.

Now anyone reading this blog is likely to be aware of two events that happened exactly fifty years ago, the two events I mentioned in the opening sentence to this piece. At some time, in my early boyhood, I realised that my conception coincided with one event that even then people knew would be commemorated half a century hence. And one event that even those involved in its creation wouldn’t have believed for a single moment would be the subject of celebrations in 2013.

And yet Doctor Who survived, somehow. And Kennedy’s assassination still lays like a scar on the skin of American politics. I have the luxury of not having been subjected to the never-ending obligation to have an opinion on his murder. In fact, thinking about it, about the only thing that everyone agrees about in the matter is that he was murdered. Who did it? Who planned it? Who executed it, and him? Who knew?

Heh, well with apologies to David Bishop, and his very enjoyable Who Killed Kennedy (note the lack of question mark in the title), I don’t actually think anyone from Gallifrey was involved.

But Who knows?

So, the two events have always been linked in my mind, as presumably it was in David Bishop’s and Who knows how many others?

But yeah, fifty years, well over 18,000 days since both took place.

Just over seven thousand of those days ago, I was writing for a Radio 4 programme named Weekending. (I see that it now tends to be styled “Week Ending…” and it’s true, the show tended to be referred to as taking the piss out of the “Week Ending 22nd November 2013”, say, but I never knew anyone at the time who separated the words when typing them.)

So we get to the week ending 26th November 1993, and I (together with a co-writer named Kim Morrisey) wrote a sketch. Well, I guess I wrote several sketches for that week’s news. After all, there was a lot happening that week.

Among other things, there was… erm… and then there was… well, look it was twenty years ago, ok? Can you reember what you were doing twenty years ago this week? Exactly – whatever else was going on, whatever else I wrote sketches about, it wasn’t as memorable as writing this sketch.

Who Killed…?


Thirty years ago this week an event happened that changed the world. Tonight, we on WEEKENDING pay tribute to a man. A very special man. A man with millions of admirers around the world. A model for a whole generation. There are few who moved so many so strongly so long. We asked a few people how that event thirty years ago affected them:

3. MAN 1:
Well, I couldn’t watch. I mean, it was just too terrifying.

4. WOMAN 1:
I couldn’t watch. I hid behind the sofa.

5. MAN 2:
We all watched. It was unreal.

This man, whose career was so cruelly cut short by powers beyond his control. Some say assassination … some say conspiracy … All agree he was a man out of his time. Thirty years on, the question on everybody’s lips is still, and will always be: “Where were you?” “Where were you thirty years ago … in November 1963 … when you first … heard … this ….


As Mitch Benn pointed out to me, when I showed him this the other night, you couldn’t get away with the sketch now – too many people have associated the two dates in history. I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case, but I suspect he’s more right than I am.

Anyway, it’s less than twenty-four hours until the 50th Anniversary of my conception the start of Doctor Who, so I’ll leave you with one piece of advice, one more linking rule for life:

Ask not what your Doctor can do for you; ask what you can do for your Doctor.

2014 minus 41: Bits and bobs

Posted: 21 November 2013 in media, personal
Tags: ,

Well, so far in this experiment of trying to write a blog a day in the final fifty days of 2013, I’ve written some words on politics, syuck up some stories, and told some tales from my past.

I’ve managed to avoid subjecting you to any of the ‘question and answer’ memes which so populated my last blog, but fear away – there’ll be at least one coming in the future.

And there’ll be some other stuff as well.

But today, I was writing something that wouldn’t quite come together; I’m not sure if it will tomorrow or the next day either. When I publish it, I want it to be ‘right’.

And today, I had several things I could have written about, but nothing that would have been 800 to 1,000 words minimum, which is the target I’ve set for these blogs. certainly a couple of things… and it occurred to me that I should write on those two things and see what happens.

An Adventure In Space and Time
I’m writing this not long after having watched this draatised reconstruction of the creation of, and the making over the first three years of, Doctor Who.

It’s no secret to friends of mine, or even people who even slightly know me, that I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since…. well, since I was aware of the show. Like so many early influences, this one came from Michael, my older-by-some-five-years brother. But also from the first three ‘novelisations’ published, which were bought for me by a neighbour as a get well present when I was off school with some bug or another. I was immediately hooked, and although I barely remember Patrick Troughton, “my” Doctor was Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor. I don’t really remember ‘liking’ Liz Shaw as an assistant (as they were called in those days), but I certainly remember her. I think – looking back – I never took to her because she wasn’t ‘nice’, at least not to a young boy – I was far more interested in The Doctor, and The TARDIS and The Brigadier and… well, anything and anyone other than Liz Shaw. Maybe I was missing something – I don’t know.

I do know, however, that once Jo Grant and The Master both arrived, I started getting much more interested in the effects The Doctor had on those around him. Someone much smarter than me once commented that The Doctor was the perfect name for the lead character as he did tend to make people better around him, to bring out the best in them. I think, in most cases that’s true.

Anyway, back to the show tonight. It was superb. Simply that – superb. I’m not about to spoil some of the more surprising revelations or things that happened, except to say that if, like me, you’re not sure how a well-known story can have surprises in it, then you like me will be suitably astonished.

Every performance was spot on, the casting was excellent, the writing barelled along, and the direction and camera work (including the lighting) could not have been better. Yes, there were the occasional things that made me think “hold it, that’s not quite what happened”, but you know what? Nitpicking about Doctor Who is also part of the tradition for fans; until I’m told otherwise, I’m stating that’s the reason for the opportunities to nitpick, and no other.

Congratulations to Mark Gattis, and to David Bradley, Jessica Raines and the other actors for superlative acting.

Watch this show – it’s lovely. And clever. And fun. And heartbreaking. And fun again.

Budgie in 3D
Now, I think of myself as a fairly easy to understand bloke. There’s not that much too deep about me, and on at least a couple of occasions, I’ve been described as ‘flat’ or having views that are too simplistic and two-dimensional. And how’s THAT for a fake segue, since a couple of nights ago, I went along with Mitch Benn to see a recording of the BBC World Service version of Click!, for once in front of a live studio audience… and it turned out to be on 3D printing.

When we got there, Bill Thompson from the BBC (who’d kindly invited me and Mitch along) introduced us to some blokes from 3dify… who offered to scan us and produce little 3D models of us.

And they did…

My scan:

The “print”:

The print of mitch and me:

The low resolution renderings had, for each of us, roughly 500,000 individual vertices, with roughly a million individual ‘faces’; high resolution would double that. Two million individual surfaces. That’s two… million… surfaces. And how long did the scans and rendering take? Well, the scans took about 90 seconds each, the rendering the same time.


The printing currently takes about 90 minutes, and the materials? About 60p per model.

It’s a proof of concept, put together using a Konnect scanner.

I give it five years before it’s offered as an option to replace/supplement school photos.

And that’s your lot for today… more tomorrow.

y = x + 2

Posted: 19 July 2013 in life, don't talk to me about life, media
Tags: , ,

There are laws passed by your country’s legislatures that everyone knows; the ones against murder, theft and leaving the toilet seat up are the most common, I guess.

And then there are the folk wisdom laws, the most famous of which is, I suppose, Murphy’s Law:

Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

Of course this is merely one of Murphy’s Laws. My favourite of the others remain:

  • If you can conceive of eight ways something can go wrong, and cirumvent them, a ninth way – previously unsuspected – will promptly develop

  • Mother Nature always sides with the hidden flaw

and, of course

  • Mother Nature is a bitch.

Now there are literally hundreds of similar laws, named often for the person who first formalised them, and they’ve reached out to the Internet age as well, with Godwin’s Law, Poe’s Law and Cole’s Law.

Every so often, a friend will suggest a new one, but a small amount of research will usually prove that like The Natural History Museum’s attempts to catalogue new species… someone got there first and called it something else.

But earlier this year, I think I came up with one; haven’t been able to find it elsewhere, and so I offer it up for peer review, and for consideration.


y = x + 2


x = the number of episodes of a critically acclaimed and popular tv series you watch before deciding it isn’t for you; and

y = the number of episodes you’re then told you have to watch to ‘get’ the show.

It never fails; happens all the time. I’ve mentioned that there are several critically acclaimed and ratings-successful tv programmes that I’ve just never enjoyed when I’ve watched them. According to friends of mine, this simply, flatly, makes me WRONG.

Now, there have been successful tv dramas I’ve enjoyed: The West Wing is, I think, one of the finest tv programmes ever to come out of the colonies. I enjoyed House, MD far more than I think I probably should have done. I’m thoroughly enjoying what I’ve seen of House of Cards.

But then there are the others, the ones I haven’t actively disliked, but just have never actually positively enjoyed.. OK, you might want to sit down for this next bit if you’re of a nervous disposition.

What haven’t I enjoyed? Well, I’ll limit it to the past decade or so – no real point in saying I didn’t enjoy The Jewel In The Crown or This Life; many people reading this won’t even remember them. But the ‘current’ “Budgie is wrong” list would include:

The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Mad Men, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,, and – of course – the biggie – Game of Thrones.

(I also never ‘got’ The Simpsons or Seinfeld, but they’re not dramas, so I’ve excluded them from the above list and included them here merely for completeness.)

Now, please note – at no point have I said, nor would I say, that they’re bad television, or that I have no taste at all*, merely that they’re not to my taste.

*You may disagree with me here

But it never fails – I mention any of the shows and that I didn’t enjoy them and the first question is always “how many episodes did you watch?” And no matter what I say in response, the answer is inevitably, “it only really grabs you after you’ve watched [x + 2] episodes” or “Oh, but you have to watch [x + 2] episodes”.

No, I really don’t. The three shows I mentioned way up there, a minute ago – all three had pilots that grabbed me and made me want to know what happened next. With none of the others did that happen.

Of course I’m aware that the pilot is rarely an indication of how the show will progress; I can’t think of any shows (sitcoms included, maybe especially) where the pilot is any kind of reliable indication, but with the shows I didn’t enjoy, by the time I quit them, I genuinely didn’t care what happened to the characters next.

So, once again, here you are: Budgie’s Law of Popular Television, y = x + 2

This offer has now expired

Thanks to all who took part

To mark that it’s 30th April 2012, I’ve decided to give you all a present.

For 24 hours, from noon today British Summer Time, I’m going to give away ebooks of The Fast Fiction Challenge to selected, ah, the hell with it anyone who emails me.

Of course, there are rules, terms and conditions. Here they are:

1. You email me by clicking on this link and tell me which book you’d like me to send you, and in which format (ePub, kindle, etc.)
2. You smile when sending the email. That’s ok, I don’t need to see you smiling – I trust you.

That’s it.

Seriously, that’s it.

What am I giving away? Well, here’s what Wil Wheaton said in the introduction to volume two:

“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.”

This was the challenge I issued on my blog:

Reply with a title (maximum of four words)
about which you’d like me to write a fast
fiction of exactly 200 words, together with a
single word you want me to include in the text
of the tale.

Five hundred stories later, there are two volumes of 180 (vol 1) and another 200 (vol 2) of the best tales.

Stories with titles like Why I Chose Insanity, Three Shades Of Yesterday, and Why Is It Orange? and words such as saturnine, cylindrical and azimuth.

The books can be purchased in either print or ebook versions:

Click on this link to be taken to Volume 1 (180 stories) is £6.50, or equivalent in local currency; volume 2 (200 stories) is £7.99

Email me on and I’ll supply the ebook in either .epub or .mobi version on request… Volume 1 (180 stories) is £4.00, or equivalent in local currency; volume 2 (200 stories) is £5.00 Nope, ignore that – for 24 hours, they’re free. Just email me as above.

Why am I doing this? Well, it’s 30th April, why not?

Any other questions?

I’ve mentioned before my huge enjoyment of the BBC Radio 4 programme Round Britain Quiz, particularly because of the questions that can at times be horribly obscure, but at other times wonderfully transparent… if you have the slightest inkling of the link.

So, I’m driving today and listening to an old RBQ from 2010 when I hear the following question… and, within about thirty seconds, know I know every part of the answer: six points, thank you very much.

And what’s more, so should most of you.

If you do get the answer, post something cryptic so I know you know, but others still have to guess it, ok?

OK, here’s the question

Who are these fellow travellers, and their friend? One of the most recent might provide a habitat for lilies; another, a few years ago, might come and do your bathroom for you; going back nearly four decades, another could make sure you had sufficient funds; and the very first of all would take charge of the gang.

The team, by the way, got four points out of six, and took several minutes to get there. I’m sure you can do better.

OK, go…

No-one in the UK could have been unaware yesterday that there was a public sector strike. Or to be precise, there was a day of action called by several trade unions, and about two million people (give or take, according to which source you favour) took action, refused to work, marched, protested and otherwise signified their displeasure with the policies of the current coalition government, specifically about pensions.

Most of my friends supported the strikes, a couple of them didn’t. I have been far more fascinated with the actions and reactions of those striking, and those who haven’t, than I have in the arguments themselves.

For a start, while it is undoubtedly the duty and responsibility of the official opposition to, well, to oppose the policies of the government, and to hold them to account, I’m not entirely sure they’re actually doing it, or achieving much when they do.

Prime Minister”s Questions yesterday was the usual mixture of fun and fiasco, of timidity and stupidity. But for the first time, I saw David Cameron completely on the back foot when answering questions from Ed Miliband, the Leader of The Opposition. I’m not sure why – Miliband was no more aggressive than usual – people who voted for him must be terribly disappointed in his attacks which usually amount to no more annoying than an eager puppy yelping around your feet.

However, it seemed to me that Cameron was simply unsure of his brief, unconvinced of his arguments, a feeling which intensified once he moved on to dealing with other matters, when he was sure of his footing, confident and assured.

What was very noticeable about yesterday’s main bout was the personal aspect that’s been lacking for some years – you started to get the feeling that these two men do not like each other.

And while it certainly added to the entertainment value, it was indicative of how so often in political debate/discussion/argument, one or more parties will conflate the person with the policy.

One can make a racist statement without being racist. One can say something staggeringly stupid without being inherently stupid. And one can suggest policies without having the motive of deliberately wishing ill on those harmed as a consequence of that policy.

Attacking the argument not the person is a good thing, I think.

My experience with trade unions is, for the most part, an indirect one. Only on rare occasions have I dealt with a trade union directly, and the most memorable (from 25+ years ago) still rankles. That said, I would be foolish to deny the benefits that unions have brought to their members and every person working today, whether it’s health and safety, the rules against unfair dismissal, or any one of a hundred other things that have improved the working person’s life.

So when they do something stupid, I don’t call them stupid. I call their actions stupid.

One stupid thing they’ve done – in my opinion, at least – is to mistake noise for support, to mistake protest for policy.

I understand that there are multiple pension deals around the public sector and that the policies suggested by the government will harm all of them. However, I’ve searched in vain for where the unions set out what they want. Plenty of complaints about what the government is doing and why it’s unfair, but no suggestions as to what would be fair.

Well, no suggestions other than that made on last night’s Moral Maze, by Sarah Veale of the TUC who said the should be no change at all, that if the country couldn’t afford public sector pensions, tax everyone until it could…

So, the strike – supported by some, attacked by others. Both sides putting forward arguments that the other side simply doesn’t get it.

One other argument put forward by some on the right is that since the union strike votes received low turnouts in some cases, they were somehow less valid. Utter nonsense.

Utter, total, complete, nonsense.

But not for the reasons many suppose.

The main case against the “low vote” argument seems to be “well, how many people voted for the coalition?”

This, in my view, fundamentally misunderstands two, completely different, votes. An election and a resolution couldn’t be more different, either in process, organisation, or result.

How someone is elected and how resolutions are voted for are never the same.

You don’t tend to get alternative voting in resolutions, simply because it’s usually a choice between yes and no, between aye and nay.

So if Tory MPs want to say that unions should have a minimum turnout for votes for resolutions, then they would presumably accept the same in Parliament.

And, to my astonishment, they do.

There is a quorum for votes in the chamber of the House of Commons. There is – I checked.

You want to know what this quorum is, how many MPs are required in the Chamber for national legislation to be passed? Given the Tory MPs anger and passion about this, you’d expect it to be a sizeable number or percentage, yes?

It’s 40.

40 MPs in the chamber, and a vote can take place.


Out of 650.

I’ll save you the maths. It’s a little over 6%.

So, with 6% of MPs in favour of a motion, it can pass, yes?

Well, no, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? That would mean that all 40 voted in favour.

No, the number in favour only needs to be 50% plus 1 of those attending, I.e. 21

Or a little over 3%. To pass national legislation.

Tory MPs? Shut the fuck up about trade unions requiring minimum votes for strike votes, eh?

And, while we’re on the subject of shutting the fuck up… Jeremy Clarkson.

No, not that he should shut up (although, I think we could all do with a period of silence from that quarter) but even ignoring the person who accurately tweeted “Complaining that Clarkson has made an outrageous comment is like complaining the wheel has fallen off your clown’s car”, the rank hypocrisy of those criticising Clarkson has astonished me.

Ok, for those who don’t know, Clarkson – in a tv interview promoting his latest DVD – said, in mock frustration, that striking workers should be shot.

Cue an apology from the BBC (though I’m not sure why) and Twitter and Facebook erupt, and a trade union threatens legal action.

This is the same trade union whose sponsored MP joked about the assassination of Maggie Thatcher, and didn’t have a problem with the joke. It would be interesting to have the time and resources to see how many others are only prepared to support freedom of speech only when it suits them.

And it’s not just the ‘left’ I criticise here. Louise Mensch MP called for the BBC to not recommission a Scottish comedian after he said he’d be celebrating when Thatcher dies. Let her similarly excoriate Clarkson, or admit that she’s a hypocrite.

And, finally, on the subject of hypocrisy, let me have a pop at my generation, the forty-somethings who are mostly settled down, with families and who are more concerned with mortgages than marches, payslips than protest.

The early and mid-1980s were a time of protest for students – biggest marches and protests in a generation, attacks by the then Tory government on education and student housing, attacks on the then-existing student grant.

Those students, including me, are now in their late-40s, and I’ve seen so many of them criticising the students. Not for how they protest (fair enough, I’ve been uncomfortable at some of the violence), not for what they’re protesting about (again, different generations always think they invented protest), but merely for protesting.

How dare they? How dare we?

This post was going to say something profound at some point. But now, having written it, I think it comes down to something very simple. Not profound, but simple.

Don’t indulge yourself in lazy thinking, hypocrisy or intolerance.

We need sensible debate in this country, where ad hominem isn’t the first resort, nor the last, but is replaced by structured, evidence based, argument.

Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

With all the fuss about Doctor Who’s first episode airing forty-eight years ago, it’s fair – I think – to remember that at least one other major world event occurred on 22nd November 1963 that had lasting effects on millions and created arguably one of the longest lasting conspiracy theories in the past hundred years.

(Yes, by the way, I’ve already mentioned to me that it was almost exactly nine months before I was born. I was due on 22nd August 1964. I was born five days early. The arithmetic isn’t that difficult to calculate.)

Almost twenty years ago, I was writing for BBC Radio’s Weekending show with a lady called Kim Morrissey. This week, eighteen years ago, the following was broadcast: our tribute to thirty years earlier, and a world-changing event:

    WHO SHOT...?



    Thirty years ago this week an event happened that changed the world. Tonight, we on WEEKENDING pay tribute to a man. A very special man. A man with millions of admirers around the world. A model for a whole generation. There are few who moved so many so strongly so long. We asked a few people how that event thirty years ago affected them:

    MAN 1

    Well, I couldn't watch. I mean, it was just too terrible.

    WOMAN 1

    I couldn't watch. I had to cover my eyes.

    MAN 2

    We all watched - it was unreal...


    This man, whose career was so cruelly cut short by powers beyond his control. Some say assassination... some say conspiracy... All agree he was a man out of his time. Thirty years on, the question on everybody's lips is still, and will always be: "Where were you?" "Where were you thirty years ago... in November 1963... when you first... heard... this...


One of my favourite guilty pleasures recently has come on a Monday evening on BBC FOUR, a quiz hosted by Victoria Coren, entitled Only Connect, in which, as the Wikipedia page has it,

In the series, teams compete in a tournament of finding connections between seemingly unrelated clues.

Here’s a small taster of it:

Now that only covers the first half of the show, and neither the “connecting wall” nor the “missing vowels” round (although the biggest puzzle about that final round is why it’s in the show; entertaining it is, but not really linked to “connections”).

I was delighted to discover the Only Connect app (click link to be taken to iTunes app store), but Only Connect is far from the first quiz on radio or Television to deal with connections.

For a start, there’s the wonderful television entitled Connections, more about soon, I promise. There’s a reason I’ll be talking about James Burke, but I’ll write more about that in a few days…

And then there’s Round Britain Quiz, where horribly convoluted questions are linked by something that might seem obscure but is, of course, immediately obvious once explained/realised.

On the BBC, in the UK, (and, I guess, probably on World Service and iPlayer as well) Round Britain Quiz has been running for several decades. As I say, it takes minor celebrities who represent various areas around the UK and gives them the most convoluted and contrived questions in order to get several answers, all linked by a theme.

Two examples follow here.

OK here’s one of them, one of the easier variety:

Three have vanished, one remains and three are gone, but still with us in a manner of speaking.

OK, I’ll pause while you think about that…


OK, got it?

The three that have “vanished” are The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Temple of Artemis and The Statue of Zeus.

The one that remains is The Great Pyramid at Giza.

The three that are gone but remain with us “in a manner of speaking” are…

  • The Tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, which gave us the word MAUSOLEUM
  • The Colossus of Rhodes, which gave us the word COLOSSUS, and
  • The Lighthouse of Alexandria which gave us the word PHAROS, used to describe a lighthouse.

They are, of course, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Clever, huh?

Here’s another one that you probably won’t know, since it deals with UK politics, but it’s a better example of how tricky the questions can be and how every word in the question is important.

The first was a Scot who founded the party. The second was a Scot who split the party 31 years later. The third is a Scot noted for his prudence. Who are they and what’s the nominal connection that isn’t obvious, but is there all the same?

The three men are obvious, to anyone who knows their UK political history. It’s the “nominal connection that’s not obvious, but is there all the same” that’s the kicker.

The connection the question is looking for is that the men all have the same first name (nominal, remember), but didn’t use it in public life.

The party is the Labour Party.

(James) Keir Hardy (1856-1915) was one of those who formed the Labour Party.

31 years later, in August 1931, (James) Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) split the party, when he formed a coalition government that was chiefly supported by Conservatives and Liberals.

And (James) Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, was, of course, noted for his obsession with “prudence”.

All of them had the first name James, and none of them used it in public life…

As with many such things, the listener sometimes thinks, “well, I could do that…”

So I did – I sent in a question ad it was used in the following series.

Here’s the question:

Why would the reduction of what we can see of the moon and what Eskimos wear be signalled large in Canterbury, and be reported in a humorous volume?

OK, so what’s the answer?

No idea? Oh, good. That’s the plan.

You want to know the answer?

Naah – think a bit… now think a bit more…

Ok then, since you insist:


  • the reduction of what we can see of the moon is wane, yes?
  • and that coat the Eskimos wear, that’s called a parka
  • now “signalled large”… well, a large sign could be a banner, couldn’t it?
  • and, of course, Canterbury, is in Kent.

Hmm: Wane, Parka, Banner, Kent.

Hmm even more: (Bruce) WAYNE, (Peter) PARKER, (Bruce) BANNER, and (Clark) KENT.

And by now, you’ll have realised the reason they’d have been in a humorous volume, or a COMIC BOOK.

I thangew.

More tomorrow.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of Laurie Penny as a writer – certainly it was some time before I met her in person and discovered that she’s as bright, intelligent, funny and passionate about her beliefs in person as in her writing for the New Statesman and The Guardian among others.

In all honesty, I should say that when we did meet, at a drink up with several other people, organised by mutual friends, it wasn’t an entirely delightful experience: after telling me that accountants in companies only cared about exploiting the staff, she was less than amused when I told her my job. An awkward few minutes followed, after which we chatted about something less… volatile.

I don’t always agree with her writings – let’s be fair, we were unlikely to agree if only because we hold vastly different political views – and there are times I think she’s naïve, to be blunt, and over romanticises “the struggle”. But as a general rule, I like how she writes, and she makes me think, something I can’t say about that many columnists. Her columns almost always make me revisit my own views and sometimes, rarely, she changes my mind on an issue.

I mentioned a week or so ago

Now I know that there are numbered rules of the Internet, but I’ve come to think there are only two that really matter: (1) Wil Wheaton’s “Don’t be a dick.” and (2) “Never read the comments.”

A look at the comments (or indeed twitter responses) after many of Laurie’s pieces will demonstrate the wisdom of rule (2) above. Rather than attacking her arguments (a valid form of discourse, I think you’d agree), so many of the comments tend to attack her personally, revelling in the insults, to the point where I begin to wonder whether ad hominem comments have become these writers’ first option rather than a last resort.

A piece she wrote in 2010, and reposted online this week, serves to illustrate the point. Laurie wrote about why she doesn’t wear a poppy. She didn’t say in the piece, but did say online later, that she donates to The British Legion, but I think that’s irrelevant.

Going back to my own writings for a moment, I also wrote that I loathe online emotional guilt-tripping, and the belief held by many that if you don’t positively protest against something, that inherently means you actively support it. I don’t think it’s too far a step to extend that to say that you can support something without explicitly saying so. Of course, if you don’t explicitly state that, you can’t expect people to guess that you support it. However, neither should anyone – as some with no justification often do – assume that you are opposed to “it”, whatever “it” happens to be.

In the case of Laurie’s article, I don’t for one moment believe that she has no respect for those who fought on behalf of this country; she just doesn’t believe that wearing a poppy is necessary, and indeed she believes (or so I infer) that it’s become a political necessity to wear one, and the hypocrisy of government ministers wearing poppies whilst continuing to treat the armed forces and those who serve with little or no respect demeans the respect held by others, and is sickening. And she does not wish to add to that.

Fair enough, that’s her view. As I said, I don’t always agree with her.

As it happens, I don’t wear a poppy either; however, unlike her, I’m not about to state whether or not I donate to The British Legion. That’s my choice, and I choose to keep my charitable donations to myself. I’m sorry, but you have no automatic right to know. However, I don’t feel it necessary to wear a poppy to respect those who served. Again, that’s my choice, and while I wouldn’t be trite and say “they fought so I could have the choice”, I still believe that I have every right to hold that opinion, and you have every right to criticise that opinion; however, you do not get to criticise me personally. Not and still maintain any self-respect. You don’t get to state that you wish nazis had bayoneted me, and you’d want to watch it. You don’t any justifiable defence when you write that I’m a hitlerite, or suggest that my face and my arse are interchangeable, or to describe me personally using short hand descriptions of the female genitalia.

But you know what? All of those were said about, and to, Laurie.

I wish I could believe that had the column been written by a male columnist, those who attacked her personally would have written the same responses, but you know what? I don’t believe it. Not for a moment. Oh, sure, the article would have been attacked, and possibly some people would have attacked the writer, but I don’t believe that the same level of vileness, of sheer unfettered nastiness would have been the result.

I don’t always agree with Laurie, but far more often then not, she makes me seriously think. And no one who steps forward with their opinions should be attacked personally. Attack the opinions, certainly, but not the person.

And even if there were no other reasons, for those reasons alone, Laurie Penny is worth supporting.

Hold the inside page!

Posted: 31 October 2011 in internet, media, world
Tags: , ,

Muammar Gaddafi is dead. So is Phillip Tataglia. Moe Green. Stracci. Cuneo. All the heads of the five families.

Ok, forgive me the misquote from The Godfather, but the fuss/outrage over the choice of newspapers to put pictures of the beaten and bloodied corpse of the first of those listed above on their front pages continues to roll on, and everyone seems to have their opinions.

So I might as well give mine, in a slightly longer format than that allowed by the 140 characters of Twitter.

Everyone has their opinions, and like backsides, although everyone has them, not all are of equal weight, and airing them in public doesn’t necessarily benefit hugely these who own them.

I was about to suggest that it’s become one of those matters where people reach an instant opinion, and then it becomes almost embarrassing to say “you know what? Time and the strength of argument has changed my mind”, but today, I saw the Guardian’s readers editor has indeed changed his opinion. In Roy Greenslade’s column, he reports Chris Elliot as saying:

“On reflection – and having read the complaints – I feel less convinced about the way we used these photographs, although I still feel strongly that they are an important part of this story and should have been used.

The scale of the photo on the newspaper front page of 21 October and prominent picture use on the website took us too close to appearing to revel in the killing rather than reporting it.

And that is something that should feature in our deliberations the next time – and there will be a next time – such a situation arises.”

Greenslade, I have to say, hasn’t changed his mind at all. He says

“I didn’t see it that way then, and I don’t now. I remain convinced that it was a valid journalistic response to this most extraordinary of news stories to publish the picture and to publish it big on the front page.

I take on board the worries about revelling in the death (as in The Sun). But it would have been astonishing for newspapers to have failed to carry such a crucial news image.”

And then today, Matt Lucas waded into the argument, posting a blog entry – his first, and I give him full credit for choosing such a topic for his first entry – in which he argues that, simply, news media should not, as a matter of principle, revel in death. If death has occurred, then report it certainly, but not with horrific images repeated again and again on television, not with gruesome images on the front page where people have no choice but to see they as they pass newsagents, or in a supermarket.

Now, while I have some sympathy with the opinion aired, I’m afraid that Lucas, like many of those commentators who have shown disdain to newspapers recently, has entirely missed the central point.

He’s posted a whinge, a oh why isn’t the world like I want it to be? I’ll forgive him his resort to Godwin’s Law in his response to being queried, simply because I can’t believe he could possibly have known about it. However, that central point?

Newspapers are not in the business of not offending. They’re not in the business of being nice. They’re not in the business of caring whether nor caring if someone thinks their front page distasteful.

Newspapers are in the business of making money.

Simple as that. The only reason they stuck that photo on the front page was because they thought they’d make money doing so. Or, given that everyone else was doing it, they thought that their own circulation would go down if they didn’t do it.

I’m not aware of any advertisers pulling their adverts because of that front page. I’d be very surprised if any had. I’m not aware of any successful boycott campaign because of those pictures.

(On that specific area, a friend made the very sensible point that it’s unlikely that where some tabloids were concerned, it’s unlikely either of us would know that many people who bought the paper anyway. To which the only response can’t be, well then, the newspapers concerned wouldn’t give a shit about us anyway, would they?)

To the other argument, that’s it’s amusing that one half of Little Britain and Come Fly With Me is complaining about being offended by something a media organisation has done, I would argue that he would suggest that at least people have the choice whether or not to watch his television programmes; by putting those photos on the front page, the newspapers effectively removed the choice from the public as to whether or not they saw them.

Ok, defence over – I’m sure Lucas wouldn’t give a damn what I thought (it was to me that he said, after all, that my argument was comparable to saying that the Nazis were right because people voted for them.)

However, nowhere have I said that the newspapers were right. As a matter of fact, I think they were morally bankrupt, using those photos on the front page, or at all. Apart from anything else, they’ve left themselves wide open to a charge of hypocrisy the next time they say that seeing violent images causes the young to become more violent. They should be ashamed of themselves. And I’m sure they would be, had they a shred of understanding.

However, they don’t.

Newspapers are, as I said above, solely in the business of selling newspapers, of making revenue.

I would be astonished if for that week, or indeed the weeks following, there was a drop in newspaper revenues (materially beyond that decline affecting all newspapers as the Internet continues to bite into their market).

It’s been said before that a society gets the media that it deserves, and to a point, that’s true.

What’s certainly true is that as long as enough people choose to continue to buy a newspaper, and as long as enough advertisers choose to continue to advertise in that newspaper, the newspaper will receive no message other than “we like what you’re doing – more please!”

The demise of the News Of The World proved that as soon as enough people stop buying the newspaper, as soon as enough advertisers pull their advertising, the newspaper receives another message.

But for as long as the newspapers receive that first message, we’ll continue to see more images like that of Gaddafi on the front page, and that of a dead Michael Jackson on the front page, and horrifically detailed pictures of celebrities in the midst of tragedy on the front page, simply because there’s no financial reason for the newspapers not to put them there.