Monday, December 19, 2011

Hunt's Folly

The entire audience was hushed: the play had reached its climax. Suddenly the silence was pierced by a lone shrill voice: “Daddy, I want a wee-wee”. Izzy was enjoying her first live theatre show.

Northern Stage’s slick, fun production of “Shhh…A Christmas Story” managed to hold an audience of toddlers spellbound for well over an hour. Izzy’s eyes lit up from the moment she saw the lights, moving scenery and jolly actors.

She sat transfixed, apart from one unscripted moment when, fascinated by some prop snowballs that had been flying around the stage, she ignored our pleas to sit down and strode onstage to retrieve one for herself. The actors merely paused, watched her walk round them, and then carried on. I’d love to have a video of that precious moment.

I guess that’s the sort of home video that will be the mainstay of Jeremy Hunt’s new local television plans. I can’t imagine what else we’ll be watching. Last week the Secretary of State announced that Newcastle had been chosen as one of the first “pioneer” cities to be awarded licences for local stations. Quite why he thinks there’s any demand for this in Newcastle is beyond me. None of the people who are capable of making local television work have agreed to get involved. Perhaps some wannabes have been seduced by the lure of showbusiness. They are about to get a rude awakening.

Jeremy Hunt’s plans are based on his mistaken belief that if cities like Birmingham, Alabama have their own thriving local television stations, then so should Birmingham, West Midlands. And Newcastle, Tyne and Wear. Evidently our Secretary of State doesn’t know how American television actually works. Over there all the successful local stations, which do have strong local news outputs, are owned by or affiliated to the main networks, which supply them with expensive and highly profitable primetime programming. Every big city has at least 5 local stations, carrying shows like Dancing With the Stars and the X-Factor. They transmit network daytime shows and high budget “syndicated” talk shows. They also carry local news in the morning, early evening and late night.

Sounds familiar? We’ve actually had that system in the UK since the 1950s. It’s called ITV. Until it was systematically ruined by Thatcher’s disastrous reforms, we had good local programmes through our own Tyne Tees Television, which also carried all the hits of the ITV network. Sure, it was regional, not local, but at least it gave our area a sense of identity, was independently owned, and supplied us with quality regional news.

In 2010 the Labour government tried to turn regional into local, by creating a local news pilot scheme. The concept was simple, and probably economically sound: give the ITV regional news to new local providers to create an integrated operation working on a regional, local and hyper-local level. In the North East, the licence was won by a consortium that included the daily newspaper I write a column for: The Journal. The newspaper’s newsroom would have become multi-media, enabling users to enjoy not only better regional news on ITV, but also enjoyed layers of information in print, on the web and on your mobile phone – you could even type your postcode into a computer and find information about your own community.

It was a 21st century solution that would also have been sustainable. As in America, network shows would have driven audiences to the regional output; just two commercial breaks around the regional news would have funded most of the cost and the service would have been built around a proven and profitable newsgathering operation. Good journalism requires investment, training, rigour and professionalism. You are reading the proof of this right now. Sadly, Jeremy Hunt stubbornly axed this bold experiment and replaced it with his own harebrained, old-fashioned plan for local stations.

I can’t imagine a single advertiser supporting an amateur station with cheap low-quality videos. Shots of Izzy running onstage to collect snowballs may be fun viewing for me, but it’s hardly going to compete with Strictly Come Dancing, is it? Without expertise, viewers or advertisers, Hunt’s Folly is bound to fail.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Visiting Santa

Just as we were passing through Doncaster, Jo’s phone began to vibrate. “Oh no, it’s the child minder. Something terrible has happened” she winced. As she read the text on her mobile, the panic in her eyes dissolved. “She’s on the Metro and she loves it”.

The Metro? We both felt more than a tinge of jealousy. We’d never taken Izzy on a train, and here we were, speeding at 108 miles an hour (the East Coast internet tells you precisely how fast you’re travelling) to spend our first weekend without her in London. In truth, we’d rather have been with her on the Metro. Apparently she was loving the experience so much she steadfastly refused to get off at Haymarket and would have happily spent the whole afternoon going round the big circle to Tynemouth and back, loudly singing The Wheels on the Train Go Round and Round to all the passengers.

The purpose of our trip was a carol service at my youngest son’s school, but, thanks to East Coast’s amazing new frequent traveller scheme, our first class train tickets were absolutely free, so we decided to celebrate by making a weekend of it. However, as anyone with a wife (or, in my case, several ex-wives) will know, this is a false economy.

There is no such thing as a free weekend in London, particularly a fortnight before Christmas, with the stores offering 50% discounts in a desperate attempt to drum up custom. Shops were offering customers free mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows and the streets were full of brass bands and Frank Sinatra lookalikes crooning White Christmas. I’d have quite happily spent a day wandering around looking at the Christmas lights and eating free mince pies – not so a credit-card bearing wife. That’s why I had rather sneakily booked an afternoon train: it severely restricts the spending hours. I’d forgotten about late night closing.

Our train had reached Peterborough by the time another text told us Izzy had been persuaded to leave the Metro for Fenwicks’ Toy Department. I groaned: we’d already bought her Christmas presents – what if she latches onto some new doll? We needn’t have worried: Michelle is the best surrogate mum any child could have: our daughter was firmly under control. By the time we reached King’s Cross, they had watched Fenwicks animated window display 14 times. Now they were off to see Father Christmas.

We did the same. Actually, you couldn’t avoid him. As we arrived at Oxford Circus, we walked straight into an army of Santas. More than a thousand of them had assembled in the centre of town, all determined to get blind drunk.

Santacon is an annual flash mob in Central London. They assemble at a secret destination that’s only advertised on the internet the afternoon before (in this case a pub at Victoria Station: sleigh parking free), and head to the centre of town singing carols and smiling at everyone. It’s really an extended pub crawl and the only rules are that you have to dress as Santa (apart from those who come as reindeer) and you mustn’t scare the tourists. A group of girls had come as lingerie Santas, shivering rather miserably in their bodices.

By mid-afternoon the sea of red, bearded drunks had vacated Trafalgar Square, where they’d been handing out Brussels sprouts to the Japanese, and congregated around Jo and me.

We were glad Izzy wasn’t with us: it had been hard enough trying to explain how Santa was going to get his fat tummy (“Just like Daddy’s,” Izzy had said disloyally) down the blocked off chimney in her bedroom, let alone justify a thousand of them, clutching pints of beer and singing strange new words to her beloved Jingle Bells.

Later on our taxi passed another assembly: scores of riot and mounted police were lined up, waiting to clear the streets of Christmas spirit. A final text arrived: Izzy was fast asleep, dreaming of Santa Claus. If only she could see him now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Off With Their Heads

[Jeremy Clarkson put his foot in it on BBC1's The One Show by calling for striking public sector workers to be taken outside and shot in front of their families]

 If Jeremy Clarkson had called for strikers to be beheaded, rather than shot in front of their families, he would have provided a perfect link to my story of how I nearly decapitated him. During the first series of Robot Wars, an errant blade flew off a robot at hundreds of miles an hour and embedded itself in a concrete wall directly behind Clarkson’s enormous head. The slow motion replay showed it missed his scalp by inches.

Had my robot been a little more accurate, there would have been nothing for 21,000 people to complain about to the BBC last week. Nor would the massed ranks of ramblers, health and safety executives, lorry drivers, Mexicans, families of train suicides and other Clarkson targets have had to suffer his ill-considered outbursts over the years. So to them I sincerely apologise. Given another chance, I will try harder next time. And I’ll make sure his family is watching.

The argument over public service pensions has produced lots of misinformed rants. If I hear one more outraged private sector employee complaining that they resent paying for the gold-plated rewards of our nurses and teachers I shall scream. Most people in the private sector, which, statistically, is most people, don’t understand the issues, because the majority of them have never made a pension contribution in their life. They’ve paid their national insurance contributions, of course, but that isn’t the point. This is about saving for your retirement, which most people have never bothered to do. Now it’s catching up with them and they’re looking for a scapegoat.

Here are a few statistics to get your Weetabix spluttering. 29 million people make up Britain’s workforce. Of these, only 6 million work in the “public sector”. 87% of these have been doggedly paying some of their salary into a pension scheme. Their employer has been contributing too: it’s in their contract of employment. Now they’re being asked to pay more and get less. Their employer is reneging on the deal. So they’re cross. I would be too.

Why there’s such a fuss is because that employer is me and most of you, and all the public sector workers themselves: all of us are taxpayers.

Of the 23 million workers not in the public sector, just 3 million or so pay some of their wages into a pension scheme to which the employer also contributes. These are good employers that care about their staff, like the employers in the public sector. Most companies don’t bother anymore. They treat their workers as temporary residents in the business, generating wealth for the owners in good times, before being thrown onto the scrapheap of redundancy when times are tough or when they are too old to continue. It’s the way the world was in Victorian times and it’s become the norm in our 21st century.

6 million other people, including self-employed workers like Jeremy Clarkson, are building a safety net with a personal pension scheme. Anyone over the age of 21 would be mad not to contribute something to one, however little they earn, but very few do. My children refuse to, much to my frustration. In this consumerist world, saving for retirement is considered a pointless dilution of scarce funds. Most people would rather have an iPhone 4S now than worry about the electricity bill in their old age.

Well under half the people in the private sector have no pension at all, preferring to spend all their income now with no thought to the future. It is many of these who are now complaining about the nurses and teachers.

They’ll be the ones badgering for an increase in the old age pension when they’re 70. And, without consideration for those who’ll be paying tax on income from their private and public sector pensions till they die, some of these people will selfishly carry on living till they’re 110. Just imagine what Jeremy Clarkson will be saying about them then.