Thursday, 8 December 2011

How did we get here?

Lord Justice Leveson has been looking at the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press for what seems like years now. The flood of news about who did what to whom has been washing over a (probably) desensitised public, and the newspapers involved have simply reported what has happened to their competitors and not to themselves. It's all a bit shabby to say the least.

So how did we get here?

I don't care about the corporate scandals and the hurt celebrities, I want to know what drives an otherwise free thinking and honest journalist to become a hack... someone who thinks that reporting on a stars visit to casualty is acceptable because they are a star.

We all have internal inhibitors and external inhibitors. The internal ones could be something as simple as a strong moral code, a way of being brought up, a good definition of right and wrong. The external inhibitors are the moral codes of the wider population, the laws of the land... oh, and physics.

So imagine that you're a fresh faced journalism graduate who really wants to get ahead and get noticed. You start work in a newsroom where there is a slightly flexible view of what is right and wrong... this may resonate with your internal inhibitors... so you start with a little bit of florid writing when actually the story isn't that great; your boss likes it and you feel rewarded at having a skill that they want and they ask you to keep it up.

You, however see that people who go a little bit further with the 'sexing up' get a better response, they seem to be doing better than you. Maybe you move the internal inhibitor that stops you making things up because you're in an environment where the external inhibitor is moving away from you at a pace.

Suddenly you're rooting through bins and hacking phones because what was once an invasion of privacy has become second nature, there is nothing inside or outside that is stopping you, you won't get caught because there's nothing to be caught for, the boss loves what you're doing and you're getting a shed load of stories and cash... brilliant!

Then you're in front of Leveson telling them that everyone does it and that it's quite normal.

It's easy to think that through a process of pushing moral boundaries, and removing your own inhibitors that any one of us could become a phone-hacker.

It's even easier however, to say that they're just a bunch of sh*ts... It's just not as compassionate.

You can decide for yourself.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Brownian Motion

You finally create PR gold. You know that everyone in the world will listen to your message and your client will want to give you a great big bonus payment and possibly bear your children. You know that this is a career changer.

And then this happens...

Neil Marshall was set to see his film "The Descent" open in cinemas on the 8th of July, it was his second feature as Director and it was going to be a far bigger opening than his first cult classic "Dog Soldiers". The film is the story of cavers who get trapped underground and then... well... things happen.

I interviewed Neil Marshall after the DVD release of 'The Descent' and he spoke eloquently about the difficulties of the publicity campaign, but it no doubt shook him, and certainly took its toll on the box-office.

Why am I telling you this?

It seems that PR professionals are often guilty of having 'project blinkers' on. They get to the end of a project with a release date and a final outcome and they don't look up to see what else is happening.

In the case of the publicity for 'The Descent' there was no way of knowing that a horror film would be a bad idea on July the 8th 2005 (let alone one that was about being trapped underground) and the publicity was rapidly changed. If there was more time between event and release then I suspect the release date would have been shifted.

This example is famous and extreme, there are hundreds of messages sent out every hour that will just not work, the story is old, the agenda has moved on, something more important has rendered the message meaningless, it has suddenly become distasteful due to a change in popular opinion. If you get caught on the cusp of these changes then your perfectly pitched story idea is just going to be ignored or in certain cases serve as a warning to others.

I can't tell you how many press releases have been sent to me over the years and I've just thought 'How did this happen?' it'll be from a smaller agency that's building it's client base, they'll be pushing to get the PR out, possibly a junior member of the team has pressed the send button after a cursory glance over from a team leader and it will be out there. The hope is that they stop at me, the journalist, but they often build thier own head of steam in public. Take Quantas for example...

Quantas the Australian Airline have managed to screw their own PR with their own Bad News doing the job of many journalists in one fell swoop. The story in a nut-shell is that they break off union talks about staff conditions and contracts and then proceed to ask about Luxury on the twitter feed for a competition #Quantasluxury.

Did anyone think that may be a bad idea?? Anyone?? Seriously?? No-one?? To appear to care little for their staff and then to ask about Luxury?? The project couldn't have been stopped?? This is a great example of project blinkers coming together with The Brownian Motion of News.

Watch how news works, and watch how stories bounce off each other, how the interplay of public opinion and attitudes towards life circle round each other. Consume the media that your target consumes, become them and anticipate what the reaction will be and when to just pull the plug and rest an idea... then you'll never have to resort to PR damage limitation.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Christmas is coming, the Journo is getting stressed

2 things would fill me with dread when working for the BBC. One of them was Children In Need... if the money used to make the programme was donated then they wouldn't need to make it... possibly.

The other was Christmas.

OK I now realise that I sound like an anti-fun stereotype. I do like Christmas, I've even warmed to tinsel and I want you to know that my home will become a grotto of delight for my 2 children. However, Christmas as a journalist is hell.


This is one of the reasons that the murder and subsequent discovery of Jo Yeates' body was such big news. It was the Christmas period and there was nothing else happening. It's how news works, if that story had come to light during the August Riots we wouldn't have been told of each twist and turn. It would have made the news but it wouldn't have been THE news.

So why am I telling you this?

There are journalists, managers and producers up and down the land who are starting preparation for the fallow period between Christmas and the New Year; and they are really hating that job.

As a canny PR organisation, or as a PR working within an organisation, this is the time to think of how you can help those poor journalists with content. Good content. If you're thinking of things to do try along these lines (they are always the ones that get a look in at Christmas); Volunteering, working across the festive period, food waste, alternative presents, children, the armed forces / emergency services, animals and the awful things that happen to them and money. All of these will be trotted out every year without fail.

If you can dip your toe into any of these, provide case studies, no too commercial mentions and access for a reporter to get it all pre recorded before Christmas week, start pitching it now. There will be a stressed journo somewhere who will be delighted to get something in place before the end of November.

Imagine their bright little face on that (nowhere near) Christmas morning when they open that big press release to find it's what every journalist asks Santa for... an easy life.

It's the gift that keeps giving.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Come on then, have a go...

There are certain things that any PR professional should never resort to and certain things that journalists should never report... but they do.

Whether it's dressed up to be 'encouraging discussion' of 'sparking a lively debate' we all know what you really want to do. You want to start a great big row and place your clients PR right in the middle of it.

DON'T I beg you, don't just stop it. It's shallow, it's easy and for any newsroom (that can call itself a newsroom) yet another survey goes in the bin marked Lands End To John O'Groats.

Most of the 'surveys' that are produced for PR purposes carry the weight of argument with them. They are the like crack to the sort of journalists who just can't be bothered to find some news. Try this one for example, The Sun has got together with Migration Watch an Anti-Immigration organisation and they have produced a survey that says 80% of people questioned think that England is too crowded.

Soooo, the anti-immigration group have found that England is too crowded. Funny that...

The YouGov survey questioned 1,561 adults who are part of a self selected group who are happy to do surveys The YouGov Panel.

So what do we actually have? A right wing newspaper gets together with an Anti-Immigration (though self proclaimed 'non political') organisation. They get a little over 1,500 people (who are self selecting and the sort of people who want to fill in surveys) to see if they think that England is over crowded. Plus, It looks like 144 of those questioned were in Scotland (some others were in Wales).

Right, this will have been done to spark a great big argument.

Not a debate.

Not a conversation.

A great big stinking, running for ever and ever, argument that puts The Sun right in the middle of it... this is how it will play out...

"The survey produced by The Sun and Migration Watch found that.... to discuss the findings here's Lefty McLeaner Leader of the Open Door Party and Shouty Redface-Toff representing the Send 'Em All Back Coalition..."

And BANG all hell breaks loose.

In the mean time the PR people have dropped that campaign because it's now got it's own legs and they're looking for the next way to start a big argument; The Lazy Journalists will love it because the message boards and twitter and facebook will be full of people arguing about it and they'll feel listened to.

I'm not angry, I'm disappointed.

Disappointed in the PR industry, disappointed in Journalists, disappointed in the world for not asking 'Who are the people who get surveyed, because I'm not one of them'.

What's the answer? I don't know. As long as we have lazy PR spinning a survey for their clients needs, Clients who are happy to put their names to it, and credulous and complicit journalists happy to report any old survey because it makes good copy then we'll never get to the point that we can believe any of them.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Perfect Spokesperson

A heavy handed visual metaphor.
A few years ago I attended a short course in the basics of Executive Coaching. Executive Coaching the wonderful skill of allowing someone to think their own way out of a problem by gently nudging their thought process. A skilled executive coach is a wonder to behold, it's like a benign Derron Brown only without the scary eyes.

One of the classic coaching questions that's broken out from the coaching world is "so, what would that look like?" You say that you need a project to be a success and the response is "so, what would success look like?". In  content production you want to work with perfect PR's... So, what would the perfect PR look like?

There are a lot of people who think that they're available simply because they've given their mobile number to a couple of journalists; you need to do more than that. Think about calling your contacts when you hear a news story that your clients or organisation can "piggy-back", or in other words be available before they know that they need you.

Not a simple case of keeping to appointments... You need to be able to offer the same quality and depth of knowledge from case to case. The journalist needs to think, "I know we'll get **** to comment, they're always good".

It's important that you're honest with yourself that if you're NOT the right person to comment that you tell them. They'll appreciate the honesty and you won't embarrass either of you by trying to do something that's beyond you.

Do you have an 'on-air' persona that works in all situations? If you're multi-faceted rather than "serious problem / jolly human interest" spokes person you'll fit in to most scenarios. Start by offering a range of stories that show you in all lights. Journalists like having a 'Go to' person, it just makes life easier for them, and if you are good content then they'll call and call again.

If you have the instant facility to turn a phrase, then you're in the lucky minority. Most of us have to work on those quote moments.

You want to be in the news clip, you want to be the headline, you want to be in the trailer.

The classic advice of going in to an interview with 3 things to say holds with this, but your ultimate goal isn't just to get the information out it's to get your information used for the rest of the day. In a radio breakfast show you have hundreds of people joining and leaving all the time (and it's a radio truism that most people miss most of what is said most of the time). Aim to get your clip used in the news bulletin, you'll massively extend your listener-ship. How do you do it? Try being controversial, moving the issue on, taking the story to the next step, or simply by saying to the producer as you leave / thanked after a phone interview "anything worth clipping for the news?".

It would be remiss of me to suggest that there's a sure fire way of getting on the news. It depends on so many factors, but as long as you can be bright enough and shiny enough you'll stand a good chance.

So to be the person that they call when they need a spokesperson...


Monday, 31 October 2011

The best way to be ignored by the media.

Every news room has a heart sink story, the one that keeps coming and coming like a great tsunami of rubbish news. These aren't just bad stories but they are uninspiring, dull and so hackneyed that no newsroom worth thier salt would even bother reading to the end of the press release. The difficulty is the stories are generally the ones that raise charities a lot of money.

Someone is going from somewhere to somewhere to raise money.

I could (and possibly should) set up a whole radio station that only covers people walking, hopping, skiing, flouncing, trotting, galloping, driving, riding from somewhere to somewhere to raise money for charity.

Every day it seems that hundreds of thousands of people go from Lands End to John O Groats, with their buckets and their sponsorship forms. I honestly think that there must be a slow moving queue running the length of the country.

No one cares any more.

It's very important to the people taking part but the average media consumer couldn't give a flying monkeys and the average journalist has covered the story so often that there is a possibility of developing stress related Tourettes and screaming obscenities at all concerned.

The newer version is driving an hilariously bad car to the armpit of the world and then giving it to the locals. There's an underdeveloped country somewhere filled with Austin Allegros and a very angry population "this car has a square steering wheel... lets start an insurgency!"

It's no longer new, interesting or funny.

Since news reporting began there has been the "journey for charity". In those days it may have been visiting the next door village to help them with their gene pool, these days it's riding a yak to Barcelona to help with IBS. It has all been done. However it's something that helps raise money, it's easy to organise and there is a slight possibility that a local free paper may pop a photo on page 18, so if you want to do it go for it, just don't expect the media to care.

So how do you pitch it to get featured? Well, this is where a little bit of story telling comes in. You don't explicitly pitch the event, you pitch what people actually care about and that's a story with emotional weight.

Let's try this on you...

A few years back I met Pete.

Pete and I were talking about mental health issues (it was world mental health day) and he told me about the day that he started hearing voices.

He was standing in his back yard; he'd been building a rabbit hutch for his kids pet and as he got up he felt a bit wrong, just unwell, he thought that he'd got up too fast but a voice in his head, a clear, distinct, voice in his head told him to go to the Dr.

He'd heard voices before but never this clearly and never this urgently.

He went to his Dr. and found that he had a kidney infection that was quite serious but could be cleared up, and from then on the voice in Pete's head stayed with him. It encouraged him to go to bed if he was a bit tired, reminded him of important appointments, it became his friend and he called it Ralph.

He never told anyone about it, and everything was fine.

He heard a voice called Ralph and everything was fine.

Then, one day another voice joined Ralph, only this voice wasn't kind. This voice was a little mean. It was the voice that told him that he wasn't any good, it was the voice that told him he'd never amount to much. Luckily though this voice only ever spoke to him when he was tired, or stressed, or off kilter.

Pete's life changed when he was driving home late.

He'd worked a long shift, and he was tired. Ralph had tried to get him through the day but this other unnamed voice kept pushing Ralph away. As Pete drove home the unnamed voice shouted in his head that he should go home, get a knife and kill his family.

He stopped the car.

Got out.

Threw up.

Drove home.

And told his wife of 10 years that he'd been hearing voices and they had told him to kill them all.

The next few weeks were a blur. He was placed into the mental health system and in the way of these things, he became a set of symptoms waiting to be sorted. He saw psychiatrists and councillors and doctors all trying to work out the best way to treat him... and all the time Ralph and the unnamed voice were fighting in his head for control  almost fighting for his soul.

Slowly the correct drug regime was found and the psychiatry started working and Pete began to get well again.

This is when he looked at me full in the face, he had tears in his eyes and his voice was cracking and he said to me "you know the worst thing? The drugs made me better... but they took away my best friend... they took away Ralph."

If I now tell you that I'm doing a sponsored walk. What are you going to do?

You could go here and show your support.

Friday, 28 October 2011

3 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Journalists.

I was a Senior Journalist, a programme producer, a presenter, and a manager during my 16 year career in the Broadcasting industry. Through that time I identified the 3 things that PR Professionals either don't know or were told years ago and have forgotten.

They are simple, and here they are...


There, I've said it. Every single press release that appears in the inbox tarnishes the soul of the person receiving it and there's nothing that you can do to change it.

It's all to do with the volume going into any reasonably sized news room. The quality threshold for you sending it will be high, their quality threshold for actually doing anything will be far higher; it's a question of scale.

So how do you attempt to get round this, either raise your standards (well that's quantifiable and easily achievable) or you don't send press releases... erm, what?

How about, and this is a break from the norm, that you call your contacts and ask them when the best time to call is, engage them in a conversation that benefits both of you. You may have been sending things to the wrong person for years; I wouldn't deal with companies that called whilst I was on air, if they couldn't work out that I was unavailable between 9 and 12 due to being on the radio then they couldn't have anything that would interest me.

The other reason why Journalists don't like PR Professionals is the memory of the day when they encountered a bad one...

A demanding one...

A 'we're doing you a favour, sunshine' one...

Here's a couple of my favourites...

1) During an interview with Raymond Blanc (he was in a studio elsewhere) he broke off half way through an answer he was giving and said, "oh, I'm sorry I've just been told to let you talk more". I had made no effort to interrupt him, I was delighted how the interview was going and transfixed by his passion, but the PR with him in the studio had decided that he needed to talk less. I replied that the listeners could hear me any day and that I was facinated by what he was saying. The PR in the studio had made me cross and added to my work; I'd have to edit the middle of the interview out.

2) We had been trying to secure an interview with Richard Hammond for months. His PR department were saying 'yes', then 'no' then 'we'll get back to you' I was on-air when the call came through that Richard could do a 5 minute phone interview in the next 10 minutes if we still wanted it and that was the final offer. We said yes, and I started plugging it like mad, telling everyone that we'd have him in 10 minutes. They had insisted that they would call us. Half an hour later we got the call. 'You only have 5 minutes, Richard will bring the interview to an end, don't ask about the crash, he doesn't talk about that any more'. 20 Minutes later we were still going, he'd spoken about everything he wanted to, everything that we wanted to and lots of stuff in-between. The PR had, again, got us all a bit cross.

OK, so these aren't huge problems and I'm being a moaning Presenter, but they make you wary of dealing with the PR industry. Instead of helping the journalist and alowing the media to have an adult conversation about what we want compared to what is offered journalists are treated like irrational hyperactive children who can't be trusted. The vast majority of journalists aren't there to cause problems or try to uncover scandal they just want to do their job and go home.


Journalism is a job, it's not a calling or passion, it's a job. In the early days it may start out as something that really drives a young reporter but by the time you've interviewed the 'Local Woman 100 Years Young Today' and found out from the couple 'Married For 60 Years' that the to a happy marriage secret is not stabbing each other in the throat, it all becomes a bit samey.

A news/broadcasting organisation is like a factory. They produce a product made by people with impossible deadlines and angry bosses. They have to hit their targets otherwise the paper is thin or the TV has to go to the test card. They don't want to catch you out, they don't want to make a big song and dance about it, they just want to get the content and go home before it all starts again in the morning.

However... (and there is always an 'However') That doesn't mean that if you try to fob them off they wont bite. Journalists don't like to be given half a story, they can smell a 'real' story like a big lad can smell a Greggs, and there is no stopping them if they catch a whiff. They all like to get the stories that seem hidden, so be honest with them and they will leave satisfied, all full of tasty tasty news.... Sorry I'm still thinking about Greggs.


For about 8 years I put together a market leading Mid Morning Programme. We were 60/40 speech/music so there had to be around 3 stories an hour along side the things that I had to do like News, Travel, Weather etc. For 6 of those years it was me and an assistant that did the whole thing. 2 people making 15 hours of radio a week and within that finding 45 stories a week. Some of those we could get from other members of the news room, but the vast majority were self produced, recorded and edited. So when we were presented with a story that was an 'easy hit' we'd jump on it. It simply meant that we could then use our remaining time to concentrate on the more difficult content.

When I say 'easy hit' I'm not talking about Christine Hamilton talking about British Sausage Week, because no one in their right mind would ever use that (lots of people did I'm sad to say).

Today 28/10/11 an Easy hit could be hung off the Apple Vs. Samsung figures it would be a technology expert, a local user, and a guide to upgrading... Or it would be a charity, a charity service user, and the money raised from recycling technology. It would be something that has a couple of elements, something that can be localised and something that I could trust to sound good. That's from a radio point of view but the same would be true about print feature or TV slot. Something topical but light that makes the audience either question or reaffirm behaviour.

The 'easy hit' needs to be pitched correctly. You can't just hand it on a plate as most journalists will just see it as a 'puff piece'. If I were pitching I'd get into a conversation about how I could help it to happen. The Journalist would give the parameters and I'd offer the plan and meet somewhere in the middle. It's content that's interesting enough and it's content that requires little leg work for the journalist.

I did a course a little while ago and one of the delegates said that they do all that, just run around making journalists lives as easy as possible but they weren't taking the stories. Nothing will help if the story is wrong... not wrong for you, but wrong for them.

How do you make it right?

That's for another blog...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


A Bee.
Human kind is amazing. We have the unique ability to transmit complex information in the form of language; we can tell another of our species what is happening behind our eyes. Communication is not just a human trait, bee's are able to dance to show other bees where the top notch flowers are but only a humans can say how the flowers made then feel, chimpanzee's are able to convey anger and excitement and happiness but only humans are able to become wistful sharing stories of when they last felt like that.

Language is beautiful but it also has power... it's the way that we convey ideas like 'let's go over there and hit him'.

So how do we feel about 'mong'? Ricky Gervaise and Richard Herring have been having a conversation about the formers use of the word. Mr Herring, a well known contributor to SCOPE has taken issue with any use of 'the m word' and Mr Gervaise has responded with the thought that words change their meaning for example gay no longer means happy.

I have to admit on this subject I have to side with Mr Herring.

Language that is pejorative and potentially harmful can be used for comic effect. The well timed 'F-bomb' can be a delight, and I certainly don't subscribe to the idea that swearing is not big or clever; it can be very very funny in the hands of a skilled comedian. This language, however, has to be used in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

It was not the intention of Mr Gervaise to cause harm or pain. That I am certain of. That is unfortunately beside the point, whether the intention was valid the effects may not be. To really ramp it up and get the angry juices flowing how's this for an analogy; it's like the difference between murder and manslaughter. Was there an intention to do harm? Yes or no, the results are just the same.
Derrida being very French

If the other party is offended then it has been offensive and simply saying that the intention was noble doesn't take away the offence. As Jaques Derrida postulates in his work on 'deconstruction' when I describe a door to you the image in my head is different to the one in yours, so language fails. When I use potentially offensive language the meaning transmitted from my head may be very different to the received meaning in yours.

So what do you do?

Apologise, as Mr Herring says in his blog...

"I got some light complaints today about a potentially homophobic remark I had made during my improvised set in Soho on Saturday. It had not been my intention, but I agreed I hadn't expressed myself well in the heat of the moment and apologised"

We have all had those foot in mouth moments, and anyone who knows me will confirm that most of mine have been broadcast to thousands of people, but you ave to suck it up and apologise quickly and apologise hard because if you don't you may find your tarnished reputation will come back and haunt you...


On one of the message boards that I posted my blog I got an interesting response that I had to reply to. I thought That I'd share it with you.

PC gone mad if you ask me.
Each and every area of the Country has its own meaning for everything - at some point you will actually say something that will offend someone else.
My nan used to say she was patty slapping when she was making home made burgers - if she said that around Chesterfield she would be laughed at
Eventually we will all have to use the Queens English

 My response was.......
For me, the idea of PC is simply respecting the other person, and being mindful of their sensitivities. 
When it 'goes mad' it's restrictive, when it works it's compassionate.
The example of using language that's offensive to people living with disability isn't going mad with PC it's not being offensive.
The worst thing that I hear is "oh, you'll just have to take me as I am, I say what I mean me..." no, you're rude and too self-absorbed to think what affect what you're saying has on others.
Saying that we will all offend at some point is largely true, but ignoring that offence and thinking that they are just being PC breaks down a relationship, whether it’s personal or business faster than apologising, understanding the other persons concerns and learning from it

Friday, 14 October 2011

Does Regional Exist?

Alan Towers; Broadcasting Icon
I was born and brought up in Nottinghamshire. Not an exciting way to start a post, but it's true. When I was growing up we watched 'Midlands Today' with the great Alan Towers and Kay Alexander. We watched it because it was the 'local' news and it was the only place to get TV mentions of Nottingham. However it mainly talked about Birmingham, and Warwickshire, and Staffordshire and eventually Nottingham.

Then the great day came and in 1991... East Midlands Today was born and I realised that I lived in The East Midlands. That knowledge in the head of a 17 year old meant nothing. I lived in Nottinghamshire and that was an end to it.

I tell you this because after the DQF (Delivering Quality First) dust has settled and the BBC have their proposals on the table a friend and highly respected former colleague voiced his concern about 'regional' he said to me that regional doesn't exist and we are either Local or National.

He has a point.
A version of The East Midlands

In Nottinghamshire we were grouped into 'The East Midlands' which is very different from 'The West Midlands'. In The West Midlands there is Birmingham the countries second city that sprawls across county lines and into other cities, Coventry, Wolverhampton, towns of Dudley, Solihul etc. To an outsider it's very difficult to work out where Birmingham begins and the others end (OK Coventry is a bit split off but you know what I mean). 'The West Midlands' like it or not filters into Birmingham.

So let's look at 'The East Midlands' shall we?

Where is it?

It's Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire... plus Rutland, Northamptonshire (not in the broadcasting area 'East Midlands'), Lincolnshire (not in the broadcasting area 'East Midlands') maybe some of Staffordshire around Burton On Trent and for some reason according to the map the south banks of The Humber. Emotionally you can exclude Northamptonshire as they are in a floating alliance with Bedfordshire. You exclude lots of North Derbyshire and a bit of North Nottinghamshire as it's more aligned to 'the North' than 'The East Midlands'. There's the problem that some people even add Peterborough into the mix and North East Lincolnshire is more or less Hull and Humberside... Can you see the problem with regionality? It's ill defined and woolly. If you get to the edges it means nothing. If you're in the centre it means little.

For all the years that I lived in Nottinghamshire I never shopped in Derby, Leicester or Lincoln; why should I, we had all the same stuff in Nottingham and Nottingham was bigger and better than those other places. If I felt giddy I may motor to Birmingham for a shop or go up to Sheffield's Meadow Hall, but never to the closest cities.

No one did.

Very few people do.

If I were going all the way to Leicester from Nottingham (25ish miles) I may as well go to Birmingham (50ish miles) and make a day of it.

If it's not Local it may as well be national.

So where does that leave the BBC? Their plans for Local Radio rest on regional shared programmes all afternoon. Why would anyone living in Chesterfield care about Market Harborough? It's 70 miles away, if you went in the opposite direction you'd get beyond Harrogate in North Yorkshire; they may as well listen to a national programme.

Regional is a handy thing for local government but slightly irrelevant for anything else.

The West...
I now live in The West; Gloucestershire to be precise... no actually it's The Forest Of Dean to be precise. I shop in Gloucester, Cheltenham, Monmouth, Bristol, Birmingham, Worcester, Ledbury and Cinderford. I live my life in an hour radius that takes in Cardiff, Newport, Abergavenny, The Cotswolds, Warwick... etc. etc. How do you define my regional loyalties... I'd probably say, average.

It's not just broadcasting that has a view of 'Regional' that doesn't tally with how people live their lives. Business clings to regionality like a standard in the march against the recession; groups of like minded individuals work to secure the health of regional business and it's a wonderful thing! However, does the customer / service user care? or has no one asked that question before?

'Local' has become more important as 'Local' services are cut and 'Local' shops and businesses go under it matters to us, but if we can't get a service or a product locally do we then try to go regionally? No we go on the internet and we don't care where it comes from just as long as we get it.

'Regional', with old inter city rivalries, communities being governed from a city to which no one goes, with a poorly defined identity or boundary doesn't work. 'Regional' as a group of distinct and proud local communities pulling together for the greater good just might... now lets see someone produce a radio station that covers that concept. Oh yes, it's the local radio network.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Local Radio.

Me & Katherine Jenkins On Local Radio
Sometimes memory creeps up on you. There's a feeling more than an image, it lurks in the back of your mind waiting to mug you on Memory Lane and leave you there unable to get on with your day. It keeps happening to me and I think it's because of the BBC cuts announced yesterday and the associated blogging*

I have a complicated emotional relationship with Local Radio. I've worked in Local Radio as a traffic reporter, radio car reporter, programme assistant, broadcast assistant, marketer, presenter, producer, broadcast journalist and manager. For 16 years it was the reason I got up in the morning and the thing that kept me from my bed. When it was good it made me cry or laugh or shout or just think about the world around me... when it was bad... no one felt the fall out. 

In 2000 I was working in a BBC station that I'm not going to name. My career in commercial radio had come to a shuddering anti-climax and I'd retreated back to the bosom of Auntie Beeb. The Editor of the station (station manager) and I would often drink tea in his office and try and be creative. One day he asked me what would happen to a commercial breakfast presenter if they didn't mention the stations name on air all week and were constantly reminded. I said that they'd be replaced. He sighed and told me that in the BBC there was little chance of that as they had too many hoops to jump through even to get an official warning. The station would have to put up with a presenter who couldn't remember to say it's name.

See what I mean about memory mugging you? That was a decade ago and the BBC is so much better now; the importance of branding, of giving a message, and of identifying yourself so the transient listener knows what they're listening to has been beaten into most of its staff. 

BBC Local Radio is slick, professional and ambitious and it's still as remarkable as ever.

Then came the belt tightening. I saw it as a programme maker and a manager and now I'm seeing it as an outsider. The last time the focus moved from programme making to News (with a capital N) and at the time I thought that was a dead end of an idea... I always thought it should be stories not news... People listen to radio because of the emotional connection that you build with broadcasters who are able to tell stories. It's not functional, it's emotional. If you ask why people choose a station it's because they like it. They like the personalities, they like the connection, they like the localness.

Local Radio at it's heart is Local... stupid to say really eh? But as I blog the plans are to take away the thing that attracts an audience. I presented a shared breakfast show across 3 BBC Local Radio Stations and found it a constricting and bland experience. Part of the joy of Local Radio is that you share the lives of your listeners, you shop in the same shops, you drive the same roads, you have the same colour wheely-bins (a minor point) but for that programme I didn't. I was in a box with Schroedinger's cat and as soon as I shared something local I identified where I was broadcasting from and the localness waveform would collapse. It didn't serve anyone properly, and that is going to be the shape of afternoons on BBC Local Radio.

It's because it's the programme that gets fewest listeners through the day. So now it will be less relevant to the audiences lives and the listening figures will fall again. I know from my own experience that if you mention the idea of shopping outside your own county the calls come in thick and fast that you should be supporting local business, how dare you! Is this listenership really interested in what's happening 75 miles away in Taunton? 

Making BBC Local Radio less local hurts; not just the people who work on the programmes, or the audience figures but the wider reputation of the BBC. 

There's going to be an unforseen economic effect too. Local radio supports the economy locally just think of the Charities with an urgent need of support, the local businesses who want to challenge opinion, show that the economy is working or just become the stories themselves... They will certainly find it far more difficult to get air time... (media training would help of course. Sorry, I still have to make a living)

The wider cuts will be difficult, but I think that Local Radio Cuts will be the most difficult. 

The figures suggest that the Local Radio listenership is older... 

... that older people are the only ones who vote... 

... that the voter to the Conservative Party is older... 

Nice one Mr Cameron looks like that licence fee freeze wasn't such a good idea after all.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Hitting The Rocks.

Minister for Bitches and Dealers
This isn't the first time that an artist will complain about the use of their art in a political setting and it won't be the last. Primal Scream, who I last danced to in a dark club in Portrush* in about 1994, have got a little pissy with the Conservative Party for using their song 'Rocks' as a buffer to Teresa May's speech.

There are two problems with this. Firstly 'Primal Scream' have produced a public work of art and how people use it after it's out there is just tough; as long as the right money was being paid then all well and good. If I as a radio presenter used 'Rocks' as a trail bed for, say, a story on kidney stones as long as I paid the correct royalties I could. 'Primal Scream' just grow a pair and deal with it.

Secondly, have you read the lyrics to 'Rocks'?

'Dealers keep dealin'
Thieves keep thievin'
Whores keep whorin'
Junkies keep scorin'
Trade is in the meet rack
Strip joints full of hunchbacks
Bitches keep bitchin'
Clap just keeps itchin'

That's the first verse... Theresa May is the Home Secretary and if you're not familiar with the remits of cabinet jobs here is one of her main areas of work POLICING well as long as the thieves keep thievin' we'll be all right will we?

She also has control of illegal drug classification and policy but still as long as the Junkies keep scorin'...

Did I mention that she's also Minister For Women and Equality? Well that covers the whores who apparently 'keep whorin' and I assume the bitches that 'keep bitchin'.

Leaving aside the anger from a left wing band who were never going to be happy about use of their song for anything other than a socialist rally, what were the Conservative party thinking? It's a big counter culture anthem that, when I was still young enough to dance to it, spoke of a grim underbelly that we could all somehow want to be part of but enjoyed being protected from. Like any good rock song it's about the things that we fantasize about and expect our rock stars to be indulging in (rock stars and Charlie Sheen).

Please, if anyone is reading this that has any ability to influence the Conservative party advisor, can you just stick to things like 'Jerusalem' and the theme from 'Van Der Valk' when you're choosing music for your conference, it's innofensive, rousing and won't land you in the sticky stuff.

Sooooooooooo, here's the thing. It appears that it wasn't 'Primal Scream' at all, it was in fact 'Bohemian Like You' by the Dandy Warhols. It's all about the riff, it was mistaken by the band and even those who heard it, thought it was something else once Primal Scream complained. What a tricksy old world. 

Thank goodness for that eh? 

It's only about sleeping on peoples floors, and having lots of casual sex.


* I went to university in Northern Ireland

Friday, 30 September 2011

Numbers Are Fun

I live in The Forest Of Dean in Gloucestershire, and you couldn't find a finer place to live. 

You could however find a finer place to drive. The roads are notoriously bad for a number of reasons; lots of blind brows to sharply rising hills, hair pin bends with cliffs, no lighting, hidden dips, boar, deer, and sheep lots and lots of sheep. So when the Gloucestershire Road Safety Partnership erected signs on the main A48 through the area warning how dangerous it is then you'd think that I'd be happy. 

Weeeeelllll.... No.

It's not the signs, or really even the sentiment, it's the woolly reporting of numbers that annoys. The signs tell us about the number of Casualties on the road in the last 3 years. It's reasonably high at 39, it averages out at 13 a year. However when you do a little bit of research it turns out that these signs have replaced temporary ones that warned of 39 collisions on the road in the last 3 years.

Collisions or Casualties? 

Casualties in this sense is hugely emotive. If you take it at its most extreme definition then it could mean that there have been 39 deaths... I've had a look back over the last 3 years for reports of deaths on the A48. The Gloucester Citizen has been invaluable for this research (and they really know how to string out a good road death, coverage can last for months!) and I've managed to come up with.... 9 deaths since June 2008. 

9 is still a bad number, but then you look at the inquests; 1 black ice, 2 Drugs, 1 drink driving and a trip to prison, oh and 1 motor bike. So 5 out of the 9 have reasons beyond being careful and 1 of the remaining 4 deaths had excessive speed mentioned as a cause of the accident. 

So what am I saying here?

To use '39 casualties' isn't wrong it's just a little miss-leading (depending on the interpretation of casualty). If someone had a low speed shunt and was taken to hospital they then ended up on the casualty list. So it could be that there have been 9 deaths and 30 very minor accidents that meant a trip to hospital just to be on the safe side. 

It's very difficult to stop numbers having some sort of emotional baggage. It's not the numbers fault, they are entirely blameless, we're the ones that make them dance for us. Numbers when used to support a particular point of view (in this case that the A48 is dangerous even though it's categorised as Low/Medium by EuroRAP need to have context. I'm not even going to start talking about regression toward the mean that's for another day

So next time you hear someone boast that their sales have risen by 100% year on year, just remember that if you add context it could mean that they only made 1 sale last year and 2 this.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

X-Factor Winner 2012

As I walked across the restaurant I was first impressed by his stature, and impressed by his eyes.

My editor had called the previous day and told me that they had finally got through all the 'PR Shit' his phrase not mine, and they'd secured the biggest interview if the week. They had managed to get time with Andy Clart, this years winner of The X-Factor; The biggest best and boldest version of the show since it started as a singing contest in 2004.

Andy was no Steve Brookstien, he wasn't a Leon Jackson, he was something set apart.

If you go back to the 2011 series you'll understand why the format had to change, the moribund idea of a singing contest leaked viewers after the 'bootcamp' stage; It coincided with the announcement that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had found that neutrinos can travel faster than light... We all know what happened next. It was a moment that can be likened to the realisation that Phlogiston doesn't exist. Suddenly the old certainties of the laws of physics had been broken and we started the age that some have called the 'Second Enlightenment'.

So why have a singing contest? Surely there were better things to do?

Simon Cowell the Svengali figure behind The X-Factor and (it's recently become clear) the building of CERN knows where the money is and this time it was in the mind... Out went the terrible versions of 'Hero' and in came the terrible versions of 'Boyl's Third Law'.

The first auditions were a revelation. Chemists, Physicists, Engineers, Philosophers, Librettists, Mathematicians, and assorted intellectuals queued for hours out side the O2 waiting to see the Judges; Richard Dawkins, Elinor Ostrom (hot from her Nobel triumph), Jocylen Bell Burnell, Andre Geim and for some reason Gary Barlow.

Most of the auditions were riffs on some classic work, one young hopeful even tried to give an account of Graphene whilst Andre Geim held his head in his hands and openly wept. The video of that has since become a youtube sensation!

Back to the restaurant and the tall thin man sitting in front of me, Andy Clart. Andy was one of the stars from the start, his unconventional thoughts on the work of Derrida was an elegant audition, but through the later stages he started to wow with his mixing of disciplines. His visual representation of Heisenberg is now in The Tate Modern, and his oratorio covering the events of the Franco-Prussian war is due to open the Proms this year.

"The remarkable thing is" he says, his bright blue eyes twinkling as he speaks "I hadn't really left my house for a number of years, I thought that whilst the world venerated people with a genetic predisposition for kicking balls or having slender thighs, there was really no point socialising. Yes I had the net and web cam friends and colleagues across the world, but we always seemed to be such a fringe community... we were the people hated by the anti intellectual masses." he pauses and takes a drink "You know" he continues looking more world weary "we could have stopped the credit crunch, but too many people were asking what Joan Collins thought, so we didn't bother."

So what does the future hold? Andy is the poster boy for modern intellectualism, some are saying he's like a sexy Prof. Brian Cox. He doesn't want to get involved in all that though, "I want to do good, and I'm not designing clothes, or endorsing products. I really wouldn't want to become a Nietzschien cliche."

(Taken from The Star newspaper January 2013)

Friday, 23 September 2011

People are people.

I listen to lots of interviews. It's what I do. I listen to interviews with civic dignitaries, local councils, regional government  parliamentarians and everything else. They all make the same mistake to varying degrees; they talk about information and not people.

I said in my last post that there was no room for 'stakeholders' in interviews and that is completely true. There has to be room for people. Yes I know that they are the same thing (more or less) but a stakeholder doesn't get dyspeptic after eating too much cheese a person does, a stakeholder isn't worried about their monthly budget but a person is, a stakeholder won't invite you to their house warming party... you get the idea? It's far from being a question of semantics it's a question of attitude.

Until the politician talks in terms of people they won't be able to bridge the gap between information and emotion. We may understand that the macro economic outlook is gloomy and that understanding will engender an emotion but what we need is a transmition of emotion that is one step sooner.

Valerie Geller Author & Guru
A number of years ago I was trained by Valerie Geller.

Ms Geller was one of a number of American consultants brought over to try and sort out what was wrong with BBC Radio. I personally didn't think there was too much wrong with BBC Radio... other than journalists being forced to be presenters with no training (after all it's only talking between the news bulletins, which are the important bit, it's not as if it matters)... I digress.

Ms Geller was flavour of the month and now, in the BBC, she's treated like Trotsky in the Stalin regime. Which is very wrong. Part of what she taught me was the power of 'you'. Her doctrine was that radio is personal and the listener is engaged in a powerful mutually beneficial relationship with the broadcaster; to engage them you need to start with 'you'. It's something that I took on whole heartedly and have used ever since to great effect. It's about 'you' not 'us'. It's about the personal experience not the group experience and this is how politicians at all levels need to think to be affective.

Going back to the economic outlook. There has been a lot of statements made talking about 'we'; 'We're all in it together' being one of the more striking ones*. The Government are trying to engender some sort of faux blitz spirit so that we'll all pull together for the greater good. Those days are long gone, we now live in a tribal environment that means that we have more in common with our Facebook friends than our neighbours. This throws up the difficulty of mobilising the hearts and minds; all you need to do is follow the simple rule of 'It's not about us, it's about YOU' then it gets personal and important.

*have they seen 'Brazil'? Terry Gilliam's classic has the line from the government of the day "Happiness; we're all in it together!" and that's set in a utopia isn't it?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Council Vs. Journalist

There are few things that get journalists angrier than Local Councils / Councillors (possibly the thought of having their pension changed just edges it) there is that 'heart sink' moment when you find out that you have to interview a local councillor because there is the immediate thought that they will be either slippery or dull.

Journalists don't like slippery or dull.

So what do I mean by 'slippery'?

It's more than avoiding the question, it's more than just putting the party line on an issue, it's even more than a terrible habit of using stupid phrases like 'increasing public involvement' or 'stakeholder awareness' it also covers a need to answer questions that they don't know the answer to... it's a need to be right, no matter what the cost.

Some of these difficulties can be ironed out quite easily with a greater sense of self awareness the last couple however have the potential to break any relationship that a councillor wants to build with a journalist or media outlet. No one wants to see or hear someone make stuff up on the spot but it happens with representatives of councils more than others. I'm talking with 16 years experience of interviewing councillors; there are some that have an inability to say "I don't know".

It's simple isn't it, just 3 words (including a contraction) that can be the difference between success and failure  Success in this case is trust. Why trust a representative and by extension an organisation that isn't telling the truth?

Trust is ephemeral and delicate and very easily killed.

When a councillor says 'I don't know' it needs to be followed with 'but I'll certainly find out.' and possibly even ' the end of the programme' it shows that you're treating the audience as adults, that you trust them, that you know what you're doing.

The journalist will accept that as an answer but if you don't supply the answer later all hell will break loose.

Don't expect this to work every time; there is a danger of appearing ill informed and certainly don't expect it to work if you are, for example, Cabinet member with responsibility for council housing and you don't know how many houses there are... that's just incompetence.

The other big problem is the need to be right. All politicians suffer from this. It's all down to the adversarial nature of politics in this country. Very little gets done in partnership, things have to be argued out and not everyone can be right. Right is even a subjective word. You need to embrace 'wrong'.

There is a great fear of wrong as wrong implies fault. If you admit that you were wrong then is there a possibility of legal action? Will people think that I am incompetent? Will my career ever survive?

Sensible thoughts if you've broken the law, you're incompetent, or your career isn't worth having.

Being wrong doesn't automatically mean that you are weak, in modern media relations it's something that gives a public figure strength. It builds trust; you can trust someone who is honest with you.

In conclusion 'I don't know' and 'I was wrong' can be 2 of the most powerful and trust worthy things a councillor can say to a journalist. Don't forget, through the journalist you're saying it to the audience and after a string of denials from banks, government, utilities, corporations, they are really in the mood for some honesty.

Monday, 12 September 2011


I don't usually blog twice in one day but this has just made me laugh so hard that milk has come down my nose... and I wasn't even drinking milk!

The latest Ofcom Bulletin details the case of Brick FM a Scottish community station which broadcast a song with the F-bomb in it and repeated use of the word 'punani'. This is very easy to do. It's one thing that terrifies any music presenter; are you going to play the wrong version of the track?

Cee Lo Green's recent 'Forget You' is one of those buttock clench tracks... have you got the right one loaded?

Back to Brick FM. They played the track 'More Punany' by Dr Evil at just after 3pm. It had 2 f-bombs. Bad enough you may say but noooooooo they then played the unedited version of 'Pass Out' by Tinie Tempah where a total of 5 f-bombs were dropped.

Once could be a mistake, twice just looks like idiocy. However, the people at Brick FM are genius, no they really are, in the response to Ofcoms investigations they first say that...

"a "punany" was a "sandwich sold locally and is made of Italian bread with cheese and tomato which is heated up" and therefore did not accept the song "More Punany" had sexual connotation"

The word that they are looking for is PANINI. That's PANINI guys!!

I really don't want to order a panini in the Brick FM area otherwise I'll have a lot to explain to my wife.

Thankfully the f-bomb isn't offensive either as they go on to say...

Brick FM also maintained that the word "f**k" is "a commonly used word in Scotland, as a description, when something goes wrong or if they get angry or upset" rather than a sexual act giving the phrases "f---cars or f---crazy" as examples. It argued that it had "the right to use the commonly spoken word which is not considered offensively locally" and claimed that Ofcom was "unfamiliar with our [its] local dialect". 

Well, that's all right then isn't it.

No, Brick FM has been found in breach of the code and may have the book thrown at them.

In conclusion, I really think that there is something in this defence. If your company is accused of something, if it is found to be in breach of a code, or it has offended public decency then just deny it. Just say that there is nothing wrong and that the rules are wrong and that the public bodies are wrong. I don't say it's a good idea, I just think it's an idea.

On one level it has worked, I'll be telling the story about Brick FM for years to come!

FYI here is the Ofcom adjudication in full

Real News

Last week the news broke that the BBC World Service Journalist killed in Afghanistan in July was shot by American forces. Ahmed Omed Khpulwak was killed in a case of mistaken identity.

Journalists around the world will have had a moment, however brief, of reflection. The news is real and too often that's forgotten.

I still remember the day that the news became real for me; I was working in Stoke-On-Trent presenting the early show and marketing the radio station. My friend Heather was reading the Breakfast news bulletin and was leading on the top local story of a young man who had been killed in a terrible car crash the previous night. It was just a news story and we thought nothing of it.

The morning continued as it always did, she read the news I made tea and tried to get more people listening; we had a laugh and then got on with stuff.

When the programme manager came in we knew that there was something a little wrong... She was an ebullient woman who would bound in, call me her 'prank monkey' and then we'd catch up and she'd start work. Today was different. It wasn't that she was glum, more preoccupied... She went into her office closed the door and made a phone call.

I'm nosey, you have to be if you're a journalist, so I tried to catch a sense of what was going on. I didn't listen at the door, but you can tell a lot from the tone of voice of someone in another room. She was sombre. All of a sudden she came out of her office and gathered the morning team around her.

"***** isn't coming in today" she said, "his nephew was killed in that car crash last night"

There was silence for half a beat and then Heather who had just been reading another story, who had just been presenting the news, who had been talking about a dead teenager as if he were a lost sock, burst into tears.

That day the news became real for me.

Last week the news became a little more real for any journalist with any sense of empathy. Ahmed Omed Khpulwak wasn't well known, but he was a journalist. Now he's news.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Speech isn't free.

A few weeks back I blogged on the vitriol that was being fired towards Historian David Starkey. I put forward the idea that a news interview wasn't the place to try and form elegant thoughts. There isn't enough time to place possibly controversial argument into context.

It was a sort of defence of David Starkey. This caused a little local difficulty. 

I post this blog on a number of sites to maximise its readership and to make sure that lots of people are able to benefit from my great wisdom... sorry got carried away there. On one of these sites I received the following response...

I might speculate that the lack of responses to John's post indicates the extent to which "free speech" has been subdued in the mother of democracies. No-one feels comfortable putting forward a view in case they are instantly branded as racist, sexist, etc.

In the emotionally charged atmosphere of a live TV debate I should imagine it is difficult to always select the most appropriate language. It's not like you have time to sit down and write an essay. People are too quick to comment on style instead of substance and take any debate down a rat-hole. If we go back to 1985 Sir Paul Condon (Met commissioner) said that 85% of all street crime was committed by one section of the community. Has anything changed?

Can someone explain to me why in this land of village greens, cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, that some people feel the need to conceal a 20" machete or hand-gun down their trouser legs to walk our streets?

The real difficulty our country faces is in expecting the same people who allowed/created the problem(s) to implement an effective solution.
The result of this?

A great big face palm.

It was as if my defence of David Starkey had rattled a disturbing cage that failed to see that free speech isn't free.

This is how I responded...

I'm not sure that the blog post goes to those lengths, I was hoping to explore the difficulty of an expert not being given the time to explain a train of thought and for the need to be careful what language is used. I hope that I did that.

I find it odd when people use the phrase 'free speech' because that means free speech for 'them' as much as free speech for 'us'. If you use the phrase you need to accept that those who complain of racism are themselves exercising their 'free speech'. It has to work both ways otherwise it isn't free.

To be honest I don't think that we have ever had free speech, and that's a very good thing.

If we did have this mythical thing called free speech then Oswald Mosley the British fascist leader wouldn't have been imprisoned during the last world war. He would simply have been exercising his free speech in supporting Hitler against his government... What we say publically shouldn't be something that affects another section of law abiding society adversely; which is what casual and even accidental racism does.

Village greens and cucumber sandwiches??? For some maybe, but you go back as far as you can and the court reports are filled with violence and death...

(BBC Radio 4 have a splendid programme looking at The Old Bailey records, the last one I caught was dealing with the 17th and 18th century male brothels or Molly Houses. Homosexuality is really not a recent phenomenon)

...cast your mind back to the 50's and you'll see that the riots and stabbings perpetrated by 'The Teds' make nothing this generation do look new. The only difference is that it's now reported nationally.

The world is a safer place, crime persists in going down, and crime that is perpetrated tends to be in specific areas amongst specific people, but because it's a story if there is a crime it gets reported and people perception of crime is skewed.

I have brought 2 children into this world and I have no intention of leaving this sceptre’ d Isle just as long as people coexist peacefully, think of the sensitivities of every community, deal fairly and honestly with each other and never think that speech is free... because completely free speech has a very high price to pay.
And there is where I left it and I went off on holiday. I am yet to receive a response.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

David, David, David...

What have David Starkey and Kenneth Clarke got in common? Is it that they both like the same sort of men? Is it that they were both in the reserve 11 for the 1996 European championship squad? Is it perhaps that for a time they were controlled by the same demon? No, the thing that they have in common is that they have both caused outrage on twitterbook.

If you haven't seen David Starkey and what Emily Maitliss described as "the moment" then here it is.

I don't think that my job is to wonder which is worse, racism or making light of rape, and I certainly don't think that the reaction will be the same when the dust has settled. Kenneth Clarke and David Starkey are different; one is a politician that has to be liked and the other makes a career of being stern and not caring what people think of him. Ken Clarke had to explain and chances are David Starkey won't.

I've interviewed David Starkey on a number of occasions and the first time I did I was terrified. I was familiar with his work on BBC Radio 4's 'The Moral Maze', a programme where he was positively encouraged to destroy people with his intellect. I had to talk to him on the occasion of The Queen distributing Maundy Money* at Gloucester Cathedral. I prepped like no one else could; hours were spent researching the political significance of the ceremony and how it is part of the pact between Ruler and Subjects. It was a live telephone interview and they are often the most difficult as there's no eye contact or body language to reinforce the verbal message. We started talking, he was assured and fluent, and I had a trill of nerves in my voice, however, I got through to him, he warmed me up and the moment that he laughed with me at a shared joke everything was fine.

I spoke to him on air a number of times after that and I always found him an intellectual challenge but very giving in the interview context.

What has surprised me about his faux pas (if such a delicate term can be used) is that it was an inelegant summing up of how he saw the situation. It seems that to full fill the needs of televisual brevity he missed out some very significant nuance; he gives us the answer without letting us see the working out. I bet he'd formed a pleasing sentence in the taxi to the studio and assumed that we'd certainly pick up the background.

In contrast Ken Clarkes 'Rape gaffe' was a product of him being hemmed into a corner by a sharp interviewer and a bad choice of words.

So what do you do if your organisation has said the wrong thing, either by design, omission, or idiocy? If it's by design and it all blows up in your face then you really need a strategic rethink, if it's by omission play the long game if your reputation is one of caring and sharing then explain immediately; if you're the industrial version of prickly David Starkey then sit back and curse the world for not understanding. The last one is easier to deal with, apologise hard and fast and then fire the idiot!


Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I need to give you a little bit of personal background before I start this blog because I'm going to sound like an intolerant psycho by the end of it.

I was born in 1974 and lived most of my young life in the mining village of Calverton in Nottinghamshire. My father was a policeman my mother is a chiropodist. We were not well off in the 70's.

When the 1980's came events took a strange turn. In early 1984 I was 9 and still at junior school. All of my contemporaries were the sons and daughters of miners and I was the son of a policeman. The miners' strike was not a happy time for anyone but as a 9 year old it was filtered through the childish lens of learnt partisanship. My friends felt hostility towards me because their families felt hostility towards the police and I was related to the police. It was all very simple.

From my upbringing in an environment where no one had much money I left and went to university, as my brother had done before me, and became a member of the middle classes. I am now a middle class white man (I was always white) concerned about mortgage rates and with a complete inability to complain in restaurants.

I needed to tell you this in the context of what I'm about to say. I have seen life from both sides and I think it's given me a rounded view of the concerns of a number of sectors of society; I like to think that I understand 'the man in the street' or more appropriately 'the riot in the street' and this is the point; phone in programmes talking about riots are pointless because The Public are idiots.

Seriously, The Public (note the capitalisation) are utter morons who jerk their knees and can't see further than their own noses. The Public are racist, partisan, and politically inept, they jump to conclusions and they either want hanging to be brought back or criminals given a lovely hug and sent on their way.

People however are wonderful intelligent beings with a wealth of experience and ideas, they love their families they strive to better themselves they paint pictures, write books and become aroma therapists.

People are brilliant stars.

The Public are idiots.

This is why phone-in programmes don't work.

They don't work because it's The Public that calls. Firstly no one normal has EVER phoned a radio station. No one. Normal people don't want to get involved. Every single caller to a radio station is a bit odd.

After a national crisis or during a time of difficulty broadcasters go running to the special phone-in as a reflection of what people are thinking and it's supposedly reflecting the thoughts of a nation. Shall we do some maths and work this out then? There may be 20 people on air on a national 1 hour phone in ('Call You And Yours' for example on BBC Radio 4) there are 65 million people in the country; you then have those callers (possibly 300 on a day like today) filtered by the person answering the phone. They will be thinking "will this person make good radio?" these callers are pitched to the producer who will make the final decision on getting them on air. The overriding thought through all of this is again "will this person make good radio?" The producer will give balance, they will give a representative selection of views but ultimately it's what makes good radio. Fine, the phone in is entertainment after all. As the youth would say, end of.

The producers of the next news strand will then be fed some of the views of these callers. Remember these callers are representing The Public and somehow these views will become 'overwhelming public opinion' or 'we've been hearing that...' These views will transubstantiate into news!

This tiny sample of people who are phoning a radio station become the only thing that the news and the politicians can focus on. Because they are now 'public opinion' but as we know The Public are numpties who are scared of everything and want to meet out summary violence.

It will always be the same until broadcasters decide that it's nice to let people phone in but ultimately the experts in the field are the people to listen to. They are people who aren't The Public.

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