A robust BBC

Polar bear cubs in the wild or in captivity?

The briefest of posts, because I really want to go out to buy some Christmas stamps, to say how refreshing it was to hear BBC director general Mark Thompson being robust in his defence of the BBC at yesterday’s media select committee hearing.

It may just have been the way the Today programme’s Yesterday in Parliament slot was edited at about 06.45 this morning but Thompson came across as a staunch defender of both Jeremy Clarkson’s right to make a joke and of polar bears to be filmed in different places. If only Thompson had been this good at presenting the context for a situation when the Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs row exploded three years ago.

From what I heard on Radio 4 Thomson and BBC chairman Chris Patten expressly told MPs that Clarkson’s “joke” about shooting striking public sector workers in front of their families was a joke. A joke made, they said, as part of a comment on how far the BBC bends over backwards to get balance to any story. If the BBC sacked everyone who offended people with their jokes they wouldn’t have many people working for them. And, said Patten, MPs would have to explain to the many Clarkson and Top Gear fans (there are some) why their favourite presenter was no longer on TV. This, despite 32,000 complaints about Clarkson’s comment.

So different from October 2008 when Ross was suspended for six months after making a joke which only a very few people heard and complained about until the press whipped up a storm of protest. I felt there was no context from the DG back then.

Also amusing was Thompson’s single “no” to the question of whether narration from BBC 1’s Frozen Planet would be re-edited to more accurately suggest that footage of tiny polar bear cubs was filmed in captivity and not in the wild. I have watched all the Frozen Planet episodes and must admit I assumed the bear cubs were wild. At least I didn’t stop watching and wonder where and how the crew had got that remarkable up-close footage of two polar bear cubs feeding from their sleepy mother in a snow den. We had just seen a female polar bear begin to make a den, again I presume in the wild.

I was initially surprised to read this week that the cub footage had been filmed in a zoo but I totally buy the argument that those shots would have been impossible to capture in the wild and I wouldn’t have wanted my viewing pleasure interrupted by an explanatory caption about where the scenes were filmed.

So good on the BBC for being robust and defending its editorial practices. I suspect the fact the BBC got a difficult licence fee settlement from the government a year ago has sharpened its sense of independence and rightly so.


Life’s too short

Neeson and Davis in Life's Too Short

Life certainly is too short to be uncomfortable. And I am uncomfortable watching the new BBC 2 sitcom by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Life’s Too Short is a spoof documentary, in the style of Gervais’ first hit The Office, about a dwarf. Despite Gervais’ protestations to the contrary, it feels mean. Actor Warwick Davis plays a version of himself trying to get acting roles and running an agency for other people of short stature.

I liked the first episode of the series because it featured Liam Neeson imploring Gervais and Merchant in their spoof agency to get him into stand-up comedy. As with Extras, Gervais and Merchant are at their best when they get a major celebrity to send themselves up. Neeson kept drifting from the “comedy” into tales of death and despair. Very amusing.

But Warwick Davis sending himself up is another matter. Since the first two episodes, which also featured Johnny Depp, Davis’ futile self-aggrandising has been the basis of every scene. Gervais told the Guardian: “People confuse the subject of a joke with the target of a joke.” Yes they do. And it’s not a funny joke. Last night, I turned off.


Keeping calm and carrying on

Original poster

This morning again the first thing my older daughter said after waking and coming downstairs was: “I don’t want to go to school.” I nodded and tried to look sympathetic. Then carried on with what I was doing. We’ve had this before – last week after her first day at her new school when she sobbed and sobbed and pleaded to be taken back to her old school. Then on Sunday night she talked quite calmly about how the work is harder at her new school and how she doesn’t want to have to change for PE because she has to wear a tie at this new school and she doesn’t know how to tie a tie. Nor does she want to be shown how to loosen it, lift it over her head and then put it back on again after PE. Nor will she accept that she could just leave the tie off after PE until a teacher asks her why she isn’t wearing one. She doesn’t want to talk to the teacher about how to tie and tie. She doesn’t want me to talk to the teacher to say she’s finding the adjustment to a new school difficult.

When we get to school, she is mildly aggressive given we’re standing in a playground with 270 other kids and their parents and neither of us wants a scene. She shoves her book bag into me, then when it’s time for the kids to line up she says, “Go away.” She shoves me away. When I look back as I’m leaving I can’t catch her eye.

Over breakfast this morning she asked me in a high-pitched voice to help her, help her with a puzzle in her Puffin Post magazine. Could I just do all the puzzles on this page? Stupidly I didn’t say it’s breakfast time, I’ve only been awake half an hour and I’ve already made sandwiches and put out breakfast things, I don’t want to do puzzles at this time of day. I started doing the puzzle while eating cereal, writing the answers to missing Christmas song lyrics into a tiny space with a pencil. My older daughter complained that she couldn’t read my writing at which point I said I didn’t want to do the puzzle just then and it was hard to fit the answer into the space available. She said again that she doesn’t want to go to school.

My younger daughter meanwhile had been upstairs writing a story since she woke up. When I went upstairs to bring their uniforms and underwear down so they can dress in the sitting room in front of the telly as is their wont I told my younger daughter it was breakfast time and asked her to come downstairs. “No,” she replied. She says no to everything I ask at the moment. Sometimes, when I don’t have a blank piece of paper to give her or won’t give her a biscuit just before tea time, she just screams instead of saying no and jumps up and down on the spot. She is almost seven.

Today, when it was time to leave the house I suggested my younger daughter put on a winter coat rather than a mac as the weather is getting colder. She said she doesn’t like her winter coat so I said OK, wear the mac. Then she said she wanted to wear her Gap zip up cardigan instead. I said no, that is not for school, it’s for the weekends. She started screaming and threw her mac on the floor saying she wouldn’t wear it. I picked it up and asked her to put it on, trying to stay calm. She refused. I asked her twice more. She refused twice more. I snapped and cuffed her on the arm.

I’m not proud of it but I feel cross very quickly at the moment. Last night before tea my younger daughter was screaming about something and I slapped the table so hard the palm of my hand stung. I get so instantly frustrated with her defiance, against a backdrop of being generally wound up by either one of them whingeing and because I feel under pressure to “get things right”, to get to school on time rather than after the whistle has gone in the school playground, to get both girls to eat a decent supper, to get to sleep at a decent time so we’re all a bit less stressed out. Never mind getting a new house sorted out or doing some paid work.

“Don’t boss me about,” my younger daughter keeps saying to me. “I’m the grown up,” I say. And anyway, asking her to brush her teeth or get out of the way of an oncoming bicycle are not instances, in my mind, of bossing her about but of an adult supervising a child as they grow in the world. My younger daughter obviously sees it all as control. And when I think I’m giving them freedom to watch DVDs before breakfast and while they’re getting dressed, or to watch telly in the evening before and after tea or when I leave the computer out for them to use or offer to read them a story they either take it for granted that they should be allowed to do these things or they don’t want whatever is being offered.

One of my pressure points, or resentments if you like, is that I feel I’m doing everything I can to ease the transition to a new home and a new school. Plus I am doing all the things I usually do for them: taking them to school each day, picking them up from school so they can come home and relax, ensuring they’ve got the right, clean uniform, shining their shoes, helping them with homework without doing it for them then putting it in their bookbags on the right day, helping them with spellings and reading books, remembering an instrument, remembering the school forms that need returning, cooking what I consider to be a decent meal every night with vegetables that they don’t want, making a packed lunch that is filling but has a chocolate treat in it, and so on and so on. When they are either defiant in my younger daughter’s case or aggressive or moaning in my older daughter’s case I can feel a bit petty. I can think, “I’m not going to make you a packed lunch tomorrow.” Or, “I’m not going to cook a meal tomorrow, see how you like that.” Or even, “I might just get on a train somewhere and leave you to sort things out with daddy, who isn’t even in the house between 7.30am and 7.30pm three days a week. See how you all get on.”

I know it’s pathetic and unrealistic. I am the adult. I should be able to hold things together and not lose my temper. I should see that we are all over-wrought and we don’t need to be. We don’t have to “get things right”. We just have to be good enough at what we’re doing, to get by and be happy and healthy.

Every day I think today I won’t shout, I won’t rise to the bait if either of the children is challenging. I will lead by example, speaking calmly and quietly. And every day I fail. Today I made one of those posters that says: “Keep calm and carry on.” I’ve put one up in the kitchen. Let’s see if it helps when they’re home later this afternoon.

What’s more, I am lowering my standards so we can all feel under a bit less pressure.


Like Minds in 2011

Like Minds 2011

“All companies are becoming media companies.” Discuss.

That was the theme of a short debate yesterday at Like Minds 2011, a conference of media and tech types held in Exeter for the third year running.

The debate’s starting point – which one audience member attributed to internet guru and author of Here Comes Everybody Clay Shirky – was that all companies are now creating and supplying content in a bid for greater engagement with consumers. The audience member said Shirky’s point was that in the modern media age all companies have to manage information.

Glenn Le Santo, a journalist on the panel debating the idea, insisted it was rubbish to think all companies are becoming media companies. He said that by definition a media company makes its money out of creating or distributing information or entertainment. Other companies make their money out of selling other goods and services, although of course they use the media to sell.

Stephen Bateman, formerly of Pearson and Hachette and now a publishing adviser, pointed out that some brands have created content for years as well as sold their core products. He cited the Michelin travel and hotel guides and the Guinness World Records as examples.

The word disintermediation was used. As I understand it this means the breaking down of barriers between companies selling things and consumers buying things. Instead of needing the press or television or radio to talk to consumers, companies can now talk to them direct on Facebook, on Twitter and in a host of other ways I haven’t thought of.

I’m inclined to agree with Le Santo. All companies are not becoming media companies. They are merely using the media in new, sometimes more direct ways to talk to customers. All companies need people who think about and use the media, whether that’s in-house or via an agency. Nothing new there.

More revolutionary for me was Molly Flett of word of mouth marketing agency 1000Heads asking if we’re prepared to kill our babies. She’d listened to David Attenborough’s 2011 RSA President’s lecture about the problem of global over-population. Attenborough said all the problems facing our planet would be easier to solve if there were fewer people on it and yet the subject of over-population is almost totally taboo. Flett likened over-population to the growth of social and online media. The web may be almost infinite but the human attention span is not, she argued. What are we prepared to sacrifice to gain more peace and time to reflect, she asked?

It was a perfectly valid question. Until Like Minds organiser Scott Gould appeared on stage with his cute new baby daughter. Kill our babies? Flett ended up carrying the baby off into the wings while Gould continued chairing events.


Downton Abbey

Behind the scenes at Downton

Lady Edith and the Dowager Countess

Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.

But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.

I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’

You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.

But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.

Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my  laptop.



Kate Figes

Author Kate Figes

September is a funny time for me.

It’s the month my mother died.

It’s the month my older daughter gets another year older.

It’s the month both girls go back to school.

It’s the month I always think I’ll turn over new leaves.

It’s the time of the year when we move.

We’re moving again at the end of October; the last time we moved, six years ago, it was mid-November; we bought our first flat in mid-October 1995.

This month I’m applying for a couple of jobs.

I’ve also had several days where I’ve been really short-tempered with the children.

The children, the older one especially, have often been very short-tempered with me.

We have had some lovely times when no one was in a bad mood. When I thought I’d found us somewhere to live from the end of October. When I realised how lucky we are to have a buyer for our house. When we all just enjoyed our lives and got along just fine.

Then there are other times when I wonder if we’re doing the right thing, moving away from the friends we’ve made in Somerset. We’re moving to Salisbury in Wiltshire to be nearer to my partner’s job and for a bit more life and culture for me and the girls.

We were on holiday in France until one day before the new term started. I was happy and sad to get back into the school/work routine. Happy because I like it when the girls are at school for some of the time and I don’t endlessly have to think of “things to do today”. Sad, because it was the end of a holiday in the warm, French air.

I have just read a blog post by Kate Figes. Her children are obviously older than mine (teenagers) and her post has a greater sense of imminent loss and departure, with just a few years to go until the children leave home to start their own adult lives.

September certainly feels like a time full of nostalgia and wistfulness. This is no way to start a new life in a new city.


How To Be A Woman

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

I’ve just finished reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman which is much better than my book, not least because she has actually written a book and not merely cobbled one together from her Twitterstream and various blog posts.

Moran’s book is also full of the sort of wisdom I was saving for my next book, the one where I tackle the day-to-day preoccupations of the average female and attempt to debunk a few myths in the process such as whether women always make nurturing, caring mothers. But Moran is a whole lot more frank about wanking than I would ever be so perhaps my work is done before it’s begun.

She also wrote things in How To Be A Woman that I’ve been thinking for years: men and women are human first and gendered objects second. We should see body image issues a whole load of bullshit. Don’t buy magazines if they make you feel inferior. Ditto, don’t watch “lifestyle” TV if it makes you feel crap.

I like Moran’s tests for sexism: “Are the men doing it?” whether it’s worrying about employing a cleaner or worrying about your waistline; and “Is it polite?” where it is treatment of a woman by anyone else.

So I recommend Moran’s book to women and men alike. But only if you buy my e-book first.


News for news junkies

James and Rupert Murdoch appear before MPs

What an incredible day yesterday was. Yes, a famine was being declared in parts of Somalia but here in the UK news junkies are perhaps not ashamed to admit being obsessed with live coverage of Rupert and James Murdoch appearing before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee. Murdoch senior is chairman and ceo of News Corp and his son is his deputy and they are arguably the biggest media moguls on the planet. We have never heard them speak, side by side, for so long in public. It was truly fascinating.

Which meant the telly or some form of live streaming was on somewhere in the house from 2.30pm until after 7pm when Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and The Sun and former chief executive of News Corp’s UK newspaper division News International, finished giving evidence to the same select committee.

There were the headlines: James Murdoch admitting News Corp had paid legal fees for the investigator Glen Mulcaire who hacked into phones for The News of the World; Murdoch grandstanding with a line about this being “the most humble day” of his life, before being rudely hit in the face with a plate of shaving foam from a protestor. There were also countless, repeated denials from Rupert, James and, later, Rebekah that they knew anything about the illegal interception of mobile voicemail messages including those of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. They all found out about Dowler’s phone interception two weeks ago, they said, when The Guardian broke the story.

Brooks said yes, she was on holiday at one point when Milly Dowler’s disappearance was in the news but that was “irrelevant” as she was editor of The News of the World at the time. Perhaps that is why MPs didn’t pursue a question suggested by Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to cover the phone hacking story. Davies suggested MPs say this: “When you were editor of the NoW, you published a story which referred to a message left by a recruitment agency on the voicemail of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old schoolgirl, who was then missing without explanation. Did you read that story? Did it occur to you to question how your reporter could have known about this message?”

Many of the questions the MPs did put were batted away as being more appropriate to the ongoing police investigation into wrongdoing at the NoW; or the Murdochs, James in particular, said things had been done on the basis of legal advice News Corp was being given at the time; or James said he wasn’t at the company in 2007 when NoW reporter Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months for intercepting voice messages.

Then there were the finer points of the drama. James Murdoch saying at the outset that he would like to submit a written statement to the committee “if it pleases you” as he worked out the protocol of the occasion. Rupert Murdoch saying his son had just asked him to stop gesticulating as he temporarily stopped patting the desk as he spoke. He may be old but Murdoch Sr seems used to thumping a desk as he speaks. All TV viewers were impressed by Wendi Deng’s dual role as wife and bodyguard, landing an open slap on the perpetrator of the foam pie. She had carefully ushered Rupert into the chair directly in front of her at the beginning of the session. It’s amazing to see Murdoch family dynamics on show like this.

I’m left with a sense of how far the Murdoch myth has got away from the reality. Rupert Murdoch is a very successful media businessman. He genuinely loves newspapers. He rings the editor of the Sunday Times almost every Saturday night, he said. He rang the editor of the NoW less often, about once a month. He doesn’t have a grasp of the day to day detail of how his newspapers get put together and nor should he. He is a chairman and ceo; he employs 52,000 people around the world. James Murdoch is a smooth-talking, slightly wall-eyed individual who is good corporately.

But it is precisely because we have heard so little from the Murdochs directly over the years, save for carefully crafted speeches, that politicians and the public have imagined what they like about the Murdochs. That they are ogres. That they have no morals. On the basis of yesterday’s appearance I would say they are simply very, very successful businessmen. They and Rebekah Brooks must be incredibly certain that there is no evidence linking any of them to illegally intercepted voicemails and, without evidence, there need be no admission of guilt.


Not the News of the World

News of the WorldI am stunned that News International, the newspaper group owned by Rupert Murdoch, has decided to close its Sunday title and the biggest selling British paper the News of the World. I am not alone. Even when The Guardian revealed on Monday that News of the World journalists had hacked into the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, no one was predicting the imminent closure of the paper.

Acres of words have already been written about the phone hacking scandal and I’m not in a position to add much to them. But I am deeply sceptical about the idea that neither Andy Coulson nor Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of the News of the World, knew their reporters were illegally hacking into people’s mobile phones.

By comparison to the NOTW I used to edit a lowly business publication. But the industry we published for took the paper seriously and so did we, the editorial staff. At Broadcast magazine I would never have run a major story without knowing exactly who or what the source of the story was. We might have dissembled to some readers about sources to protect them but we knew where each and every story had come from and we were confident that, if we were ever forced to stand by a story under oath, we could do so.

It is therefore “inconceivable” to me that Rebekah Brooks and/or her deputy and successor Andy Coulson didn’t know where stories came from on their paper. Coulson told a Parliamentary select committee he had no “recollection of any incidences where phone hacking took place”. Yesterday News International chairman and Rupert’s son James Murdoch said the NOTW had “made statements to Parliament without being in the possession of the full facts. This was wrong.” Coulson has today been arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.

Prime Minister David Cameron has today announced two inquiries, one into the culture, ethics and practices of the British press and the other into the specific phone hacking charges to establish “what exactly was going on at the News of the World” and other papers. Like the rest of the country, I cannot wait to read the results. Perhaps they’ll be covered by a new Sunday paper, The Sun on Sunday?


Cath Kidston rules

Designer-branded taste

I like designer Cath Kidston‘s stuff as much as the next slightly shrill, middle class homeowner with 2.something kids. But I do occasionally bristle at the way so much of our personal taste has to be branded with the stamp of approval from a designer who we can all recognise and respect. It’s the ubiquity of the stuff that troubles me, however lovely it is to look at and use. I feel the same about Emma Bridgwater.

So I was intrigued to find out just how fussy Cath Kidston are as a firm about which third party shops are allowed to stock their stuff. According to a local gift shop which has just been granted permission to sell Cath Kidston products, you first have to provide details of the shop floor space, a picture of the shop inside and outside, pictures of the shops either side of the one that will be selling Cath Kidston things and say where in the shop the CK products will be displayed. You also can’t stock certain items which are reserved exclusively for Cath Kidston shops or their website.

All of which  shows just how manufactured and carefully constructed the Cath Kidston image is. If our local gift shop were next to the local tattoo parlour I doubt they would have become an outlet for the designer. Still, I have just bought some CK stripey napkins and polka dot cushions in the sale. There really is no accounting for taste.