Sunday, July 27, 2008

Caught In The Act

[Max Mosley, President of the FIA, has won his privacy case against the News of the World]

There’s a big difference between “public interest” and “what the public are interested in”. That was the crux of the legal argument in the Mosley case. The tabloids fear the end of press freedom. But how many stories, justified by public interest, are really only there to sell newspapers?

No wonder Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had their twins in France. Since 1970 there’s been a law that gives everyone, however famous, the right to a private life; it’s also illegal to publish a photograph without the subject’s permission. Of course, there’ve been ludicrous consequences: the French electorate knew nothing of President Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter; a magazine was fined for revealing that Prince Albert of Monaco has a son by a former air stewardess.

It’s hard to imagine a British court banning similar bombshells from our public domain. If Prince Charles had an illegitimate son, disclosure would undoubtedly be in the national interest. But where do you draw the line? A premiership footballer in a gay relationship; the head of a sports organisation with a fondness for perverted sex; the postman seducing your next-door neighbour? The line between what the public wants to read and what it has the right to read has never been drawn in Britain; largely because the press cries foul at any restriction over what they can or can’t print.

Unlike most newspaper columnists, who have jumped straight onto the “free speech and public morality” bandwagon, I’m finding it hard to get off the fence on this issue. That’s because I know how devastating it can be to have one’s life pulled apart by the tabloids.

I’m not looking for sympathy, far from it. It was many years ago during my wild days and I was guilty, caught in the act. I am deeply ashamed of a sequence of events that led to a 3am phone to my Los Angeles hotel suite where I was ensconced with a married television presenter. “Mr Gutteridge? Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail. We know whom you’re with, and, thanks to our front page this morning, so does all of Britain. Just look out of your hotel window.” I peeped through the curtains: paparazzi lenses lined the street, shutters primed.

I first rang my wife to confess, and then tried to figure out how to leave the hotel without being photographed. The Sunset Marquis is used to celebrity scandal. They booked us on a Virgin flight and a black limousine arrived outside the entrance, instantly devoured by the snappers. Meanwhile in the staff car park, we climbed into a cheap hire car and drove to British Airways where the head of customer services organized an incognito flight home: I suspect he’s done it many times before. We avoided the paparazzi, but for days dozens camped outside my home taking pictures of my sad family.

Some celebrities believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But for an ordinary person caught in the crossfire, being on the front pages for what seemed like weeks (actually, it was just a few days), was shattering. Embarrassed and depressed, for seven weeks I cowardly hid out in a hotel under a false name; in public places I searched over my shoulder for long lenses in the bushes; I put my life on hold; it destroyed what was left of my marriage. What I should have done was go home, face the music, and try to rebuild. But the feeling that somehow my life was being studied through a public lens made private reflection impossible. It was nonsense, of course: people were no more interested in me or my affair than any other piece of newspaper tittle-tattle, consumed in seconds and dumped in the recycling bin.

Hopefully this week’s furore will lead to a proper public debate on privacy. Somehow I doubt our fearless press will allow it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Praise of Village Shops

[The Post Office has announced the closure of thousands of rural post offices. Northumberland has been hit particularly hard]

It’s frustrating trying to get the ear of a deaf government. When I chaired the producers’ trade body in the 90's, we tried to persuade Whitehall to give tax breaks to help the film industry. It was like teaching a goldfish to speak French.

So I feel for the rural post office campaigners. We know the government won’t back down: the horse has bolted and the stable door has already been thrown into a skip. Sure, the odd vocal campaign might deliver a short stay of execution, but the government has decided that the social arguments for post offices don’t outweigh the economic. So shut them down.

The response from individual communities has been special pleading. Take Belsay, for example. Last Thursday The Journal gave their campaign a whole page. Now I agree Belsay is a special case that deserves support. But I’m not sure it’s going to cut much ice, because the Post Office isn’t the real target.

They’re not going to be interested in the claim that “rural businesses depend on the post office for mail and banking”. Besides, as an argument it doesn't really stand scrutiny. Unless a business uses cash (in other words, is retail), it probably won’t need retail “banking services”. Apart from a cafe, and the village post office itself, there's not much need for retain. Most postal services can be delivered online, so the main commercial complaint is probably the ten minutes it takes to drive to the sorting office in Ponteland to drop off parcels. Not much of a financial case, really.

No, this debate isn’t commercial but societal. Belsay is one of the very best examples around. If Michelin published a village shop guide, Belsay would have three stars. I frequently divert there to pick up some fish (they’re supplied by Ridleys of Corbridge) or quality organic meat, or something interesting from their well-stocked deli. It’s obvious that the thriving Belsay shop is the epicentre of village life and its loss would destroy the heart of a community that the Belsay Trust has spent years trying to preserve. The post office occupies a small section of the shop and presumably contributes to its income. If its demise leads to the death of the shop, it would be a tragic loss.

So how should rural communities fight this deaf administration? I hope that Belsay wins its special case status. But what of the others? Perhaps when this war is lost, as it surely will be, they should regroup on a new battleground. The Post Office used purely commercial reasoning when it persuaded the government to lift its obligations towards rural post offices. However this battle is not about whether or not old people can get their pensions, but about the soul of village life itself. Imagine the national reaction if BT went to the government with a commercial argument for reducing the number of people they had to supply with telephones, or councils decided some people lived too far away from the council tip to have their dustbins collected, or the BBC decided it was too expensive to broadcast to people who live outside the major cities? It’s inconceivable because we all agree (for now) these are fundamental services that should be readily accessible to all. Now the government has decided the post offices are no longer essential. But what about a village shop? Can we argue that this is a human right? And if so, can we also create a financial argument for it?

That’s what we did with the film industry. We had a strong cultural argument: our children were being brought up on a diet of American movies, although much of the world’s filmmaking talent was British. It got a lot of backbench support, but the argument was too sentimental to get government backing. To make the Treasury listen, we created a robust financial model to prove that a thriving film industry would be a good thing for Britain. We eventually got our tax breaks, and the British film industry is now soaring. Today it was announced that home-grown movies earned £1.6billion around the world and the top 20 UK films grossed £244million at the British box office. Best of all, UK movies accounted for almost a third of all cinema tickets sold in Britain, up from one in twenty at the start of our campaign.

Surely a flourishing rural economy has got to be good for Britain too. So much of what is wrong in Britain is city-based. More people than ever want to go rural, but they want to live in communities not ghost villages. So maybe it’s the shop in Belsay, not the post office, which needs the help. Perhaps there should be special incentives to encourage investment in all kinds of village services, from pubs to hairdressers. The social argument is blindingly obvious. But to get government to listen, you need to demonstrate the economic benefits. To achieve this, we’d need to develop a financial model which proves how these services directly encourage inward investment and wealth, thereby safeguarding the future of rural England.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Death In The Family

I’ve seen how I want to die. Swiftly, calmly, whilst eating some favourite tidbit. If only humans could ring up the vet when their time comes.

A few months ago I wrote that Muka, our faithful companion, had gone blind. Sadly, on Friday we said our final goodbyes.

With her big bat-like ears, she had the sweetest nature, especially with children. But as a rescue dog, brought up on the dog-gang warfare of Los Angeles, she just had to sense another dog in the area and she’d start snarling. She could only be walked on a lead.

Mind you, even if she’d been the most sociable animal, she’d still have had to be leashed. You can go hundreds of miles in California without finding a decent open space to exercise your dog. America, land of the free and supposedly a nation of animal-lovers, is in fact a Guantanamo of anti-dog restriction. They’re banned from beaches and parks, condemned to exercise on streets or tiny areas of bare earth called “dog parks”. It’s tragic to see beautiful specimens, bred for the fields, forced to trot on hot pavements chained to their jogging owners.

Muka seemed happy enough with her lot. For a time she and Joanna lived in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood. Olivia de Havilland lived in the same building and liked to stroke Muka’s ears when they met in the lift. Later, when Poncho the cat joined the family, the two animals became inseparable. Poncho used to bat Muka’s ears with her paws, and they slept in the same bed.

When Jo and I moved to London, the pets came with us. My house overlooks dog heaven, Hampstead Heath. I feared the worst: Muka’s aggression would have us drummed out of town. Worse, I already had a spaniel, a breed Muka vehemently detested. So on arrival at Heathrow we drove straight to Dr Roger Mugford, the animal behaviourist.

Roger has a magic device that harmlessly blows air in a dog’s face every time it misbehaves. Ten minutes, two puffs, and Muka had accepted the spaniel. But the massed wagging tails of Hampstead were another matter. A week later we stood on top of the Heath, with Muka, magic device on collar, looking down at the lush acres below. Slowly we unbuckled the lead. Her big brown eyes stared at us with disbelief. “Go on, then”, I said. And off she went, running in huge joyous circles, a big doggy grin on her face. At the age of 15, her first proper run. And from that day, on or off the lead, she never growled at another dog.

Last year the Northumbrian winter brought on arthritis, so the runs grew slower. But her ears still pricked up every time she saw us, especially when we offered her favourite “treatie”, a thin tube of rawhide that her jaws could demolish in seconds.

After she went blind she bumped into doors and fell down stairs, but gradually her sense of smell restored a decent enough life. That was her downfall. One day she sniffed out a sealed tub of liver training treats. The maximum daily dose was 4 grams. By the time we found her she’d munched through half a kilo. Muka’s liver never recovered. The smell in the house was appalling, but we kept her going for a month on a diet of rice. She was wasting away.

When I took her to the vet I think she knew it was time. In the waiting room I produced one last rawhide treatie. She held it in her mouth like a lollipop, too tired to chew. As the vet shaved the hair on her leg for the injection, she gently sucked on the rawhide. As the blue poison went into her bloodstream she looked at me, then slowly sank to the table, lollipop still in her mouth. I could swear she was smiling.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sweet Dreams in Disneyland

I’m writing this in a medieval castle. Sitting in my turret room, I look out over lush gardens resplendent with topiary and a lake. There are servants dressed in flowing uniforms. The idyllic style winding its way through the entire castle conjures memories of times long past. The walls are adorned with beautiful frescoes and the building itself is an expression of the most important elements of French history.

Those last two sentences are not mine, of course, but quoted straight from the brochure of the Dream Castle Hotel in Disneyland Paris. A dream castle that’s probably my worst nightmare. I have a fleur de lys wallhanging in my room next to a picture of a princess kissing a frog. Built in 2004, it’s one of several “theme” hotels that have sprung up around Disneyland. This one is a cross between King Arthur and The Three Musketeers. Joanna and I have brought Sam and a 10-year-old classmate to celebrate the start of the summer holidays. Last night we endured “culinary delights in a historical environment, an authentic buffet selection of French and European regional cuisine”. I think you get the picture: all you can eat for 25 Euros. Last night was “Italian night” and Mussolini must have been turning in his grave.

Why is it that hoteliers assume that if you cater for children you have to throw style, quality and good cooking out of the window? The Italians have it sorted: from the cradle children accompany their parents to proper restaurants in the evening. They eat adult food or they starve. We British only feel comfortable with our children in “family” restaurants, where we are forced to eat bland overcooked food which we accept because the kids are having such a ball. The consequence is, our children end up with picky tastes, don’t eat their vegetables, and this morning Joanna and I have indigestion. I guess the Dream Castle Hotel can be forgiven, though. It is owned by Austrians, so it’s unlikely that they’ll ever allow haute cuisine to permeate its castle walls. Austria: home of schnitzel and strudel. Enough said.

Sam’s friend is vegetarian, which is a bit tricky in a chicken nugget laden place like Disneyland. I felt rather sorry for him as he pushed his “authentic” cheesy pasta (more flour than cheese) and soggy broccoli round his plate. I just hope there’s a decent vegetarian alternative to “Cattleman’s Chili” at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show tonight.

I wouldn’t know what to do if my child turned vegetarian. Boarding school, probably. My eldest daughter has contracted the disease, but thankfully she waited until she left home. Like all flesh-eating parents, I still hope it’s just a fad, and whenever she stays I provocatively cook bacon in the morning to try to awaken her comatose taste-buds.

Scotland cured my first wife. Jilly had been a veggie for six years before we met and all my attempts at healing had been in vain until one summer we went to the Edinburgh Festival with our first born. Ben was just six weeks old, and we were staying on the top floor of a rather smart hotel overlooking the Castle. On Sunday lunchtime we carried the baby in his Moses basket down to the Carvery. While Jilly inspected the cauliflower cheese, I sliced off a solitary doorstep of Aberdeen Angus. That did it. She took one look at the beef, and dived in. After six huge portions she hauled me back to our hotel room to sleep it off. It was two hours later that we realized we’d completely forgotten the baby. We dashed downstairs to find him still happily sleeping in his basket under the restaurant table.

With another baby on the way – my fifth and Joanna’s first – I regret this won’t be my last trip to Disneyland. I’m not sure I’ll be doing Space Mountain at 65, but I guess there’ll be at least one more of these theme hotels to suffer. Unless someone has the bright idea of creating an adult-friendly hotel at Disneyland, complete with Gordon Ramsay restaurant and a swimming pool they don’t allow children to urinate in. Now that really would be a dream castle.