Sunday, April 29, 2012

If I Were Jeremy Hunt

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a conference in Salford where our esteemed Secretary of State for Culture and Media gave the opening keynote address. I was booked to reply the following day in a panel session called “If I Were Jeremy Hunt…”

You have to hand it to Hunt: he’s is a tough act to follow. The packed audience of hardened television and radio professionals rather warmed to his wit and assured confidence. Standing centre stage and tieless in a dark suit (it was a media conference, after all), he spoke without notes or autocue, demonstrating the superior, charming, permasmiled demeanour that can only have derived from a proper boarding school education.  Head boy at Charterhouse School (fees £30,534 per annum), first class degree in PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, president of the university’s Conservative Association, he's the perfect Tory politician. Before last week’s revelations many spoke of him as Cameron’s natural successor.

The audience in Salford were left in no doubt about Hunt’s unerring conviction that, like the rest of Cameron’s cabinet, he is absolutely right about everything he says. He and his colleagues clearly believe that government policy shouldn't be influenced by people who know what they are talking about: industry experts or doctors or the armed forces, or, God forbid, the lifetime's experience of a cabinet minister’s own civil servants.

Being something of an expert myself – if working within the television industry for 40 years counts as accreditation – I felt justified in disagreeing with some of Hunt's policies, particularly his crazy initiative for local television. This was a man whose first task in Government was to tear up Trinity Mirror's fairly won pilot contract to supply a groundbreaking multi-media news service here in the north east of England and replace it with his own barmy plan to hand out television channels to a load of community groups who are bound to go bust in the process.  Trinity Mirror is, of course, the newspaper group that is Murdoch's biggest competitor in the UK.  A coincidence, I'm sure.

Of course the views of people who could be expected to know what they are talking about have never really been taken into consideration when formulating any of this government's policies, which is why most of them are lying in tatters: instead, the cabinet have relied on “special advisers”, and the tittle-tattle of their exclusive clubs and cocktail parties. This is a government that listens to no one but themselves.

The head of a very large media organisation, who is not called Murdoch, recently told me that their senior editorial team was invited to tea at Downing Street for an informal “consultation”, but ended up listening, sandwich-less, to Dave hectoring them for an hour about his plans. Not one of them was asked a single question.

Back in Salford, I’d written myself quite a formal speech in response to Hunt's comments but, having seen the master in action, I stood in the centre of the stage, took it out of my jacket pocket and quietly ripped it to shreds.  This, I think, got me brownie points and quite a few laughs, after which I attempted to restore some balance to the debate about the future of media in our country. I knew exactly what I’d do if I were Jeremy Hunt, and I told them.  Wasting time on hyperlocal television stations wasn't part of my proposed agenda as the next Secretary of State;  listening to the industry and the viewers most definitely was.

But I confess I was utterly upstaged by the wonderful veteran journalist Gillian Reynolds, who rose to her feet and performed a glorious parody of Hunt himself: she portrayed a man who loves himself more than he’ll ever love the electorate, preening, smiling, perfect, who neither cares nor understands the common man, a professional politician who, like all his cronies in this Coalition, is utterly out of touch with reality. She brought the house down.

What a contrast to see him in the House of Commons last Wednesday: embarrassed, halting, his head buried nervously in a carefully constructed statement, Cameron and Osborne squirming uncomfortably behind him. Here was their own firewall self-combusting in front of them, caught out by his deviously fawning “special adviser” and his own closeness to the Murdoch dynasty, any pretence of “quasi-judicial” impartiality utterly busted.

I guess he’ll try to wriggle out of it to the very end, but I know what I would do right now if I were Jeremy Hunt: I'd resign.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joining The Mickey Mouse Club

Izzy stabbed another chip into the ketchup, held it high in the air, then paused and frowned. Suddenly she exclaimed, in a voice so shrill the whole restaurant turned to look: “Mummy when are you going to speak proper English like me and Daddy?”

A moment’s silence, then an eruption of laughter. Izzy was surrounded by her American uncles, cousins and friends. Despite 7 years in the UK, any slight British twang in Mummy’s voice had been erased the moment we stepped off the plane in Los Angeles two weeks ago. 

Since then, Izzy, Jo and I have been filled with Californian hospitality. With a different set of friends and family to visit every day, and scores of much-missed restaurants to patronize, I managed to add 10 pounds to my already overpadded waistline in as many days. 

The problem with Southern California, our home from home, is that it’s all so perfect. People are complaining because petrol (“it’s not gas, silly Mummy”) has hit $4.50 a gallon (60 pence a litre); the supermarkets are packed with cheap, local produce; the temperature hovers between 75 and 85 degrees every sunny day; whales and dolphins swim past the beach restaurants; cheap and cheerful Mexicans are there for nasty jobs like cleaning homes and digging gardens.

The recession, for more people, hardly happened: the economy is growing again, the plants in the perfect gardens never stopped. Sure, the underbelly of America has problems as severe as the poorest parts of the UK, but you’d never notice it in California’s manicured, gated, comfortable life.

Not that I want to give the impression that I’ve been on holiday for the past couple of weeks. It was actually quite tough work. Twice I had to drag myself up at 3am to watch Newcastle United cruise towards Champions League glory in high definition; every night I had to endure a marathon wine-tasting from my very generous brother-in-law, determined to convince me that great California wine is as good as its French counterpart; and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to remember to bring enough change for the valet parking.

One morning I felt so bloated and indolent that I donned a pair of swimming shorts (“Daddy’s wearing trainers, not sneakers, Mummy”) and set off to run my own London marathon round the block of neatly grassed front lawns.

I swear I got a cheer from the neighbours – or maybe it was a suppressed scream of horror.

My nephews cruelly photographed me and posted the result on Facebook: apparently I reminded them of Borat.

Izzy, meanwhile, found Paradise: she met Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.  Not the EuroDisney or Florida fakes, but the original rodent in his actual home.

She even saw his gloves going round in his washing machine. 

Jo met him too: I was stabbed with jealousy as Jo threw herself into the arms of someone even older than me. Izzy just melted with excitement.

Sadly all that’s behind me now. This morning, I braved the icy rain to put my Californian beet seeds into the sodden ground of my Northumbrian vegetable garden; back at my mother-in-law’s house, the roses are in glorious full bloom. I turned up the central heating to full, just as I had the air-conditioner two days ago. I filled our cars with fuel in case the tanker drivers go on strike: for the same price I could have driven halfway across America.

Jo, who’s decided to stay over there with Izzy till the weather gets better, has just rung to say they are eating burgers and fries by the sea. I can’t blame them staying on: it is another world. But I’m making the best of it. Yesterday at St James Park I helped cheer Newcastle to victory – so much more exciting than watching them on television; I’ve filled the house with daffodils and tulips from the garden – there’s nothing like an English Spring, even a wet one; now I’m off to the pub with friends for lunch – roast beef and a pint of bitter is nicer than any burger.

Meanwhile, Izzy, please remember you are eating chips, not fries.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

It Could Be You

By late Friday afternoon, there was only one question on everyone’s lips: “How will you spend it?”

You’d have to take a lot of holidays, buy quite a few houses and a stack of diamond rings to make a dent in your Mega Millions Lottery fortune. Here in America, 640 million dollars worth of anticipation had erupted into full-scale lottery fever.

My twin nephews were arguing about which type of Porsche to buy. When I pointed out that the winner could buy 5,000 of them, or maybe just 50 plus a mansion in Beverly Hills with a 50-car garage to house them, they began to get as excited as the rest of America.

The TV news was full of interviews with people looking forward to their new-found wealth. A taxi driver was going to drive his cab to the busiest intersection in town and leave it in the middle of the road to be impounded; downtrodden manual workers were going buy their businesses and sack their managers; Mexican maids were buying Caribbean islands and never coming back.

I’m writing this in a leafy, comfortably well-off town a few miles to the north of Los Angeles. Even here there were queues for tickets outside convenience stores on Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, 2,700 miles and a whole world away to the East, someone walked into a 7-Eleven store in a tired street of rundown shops in the small Maryland community of Milford Mill (average per capita income $20,195, 8% of the largely black population below the poverty line) and bought a single $1 “quick pick” ticket chosen randomly by the computer. Just 46 minutes later, in an embarrassingly brief televised draw in Atlanta (with a frantic presenter rushing through his few seconds of fame), that mystery person became $233 million richer, one of three winners in the United States.

As I write, no one knows the identity of the ticket holders, but all the newspapers and talkshows are full of advice for how they should spend their money. Meanwhile the owners of the 7-Eleven store that sold the winning ticket, an immigrant couple from Ethiopia called Abera and Mimi, were shocked to find they were $100,000 better off themselves – a thank-you from the lottery company.

Of course, behind the winners’ stories are the losers: 100 million of them. And you, and me, and everyone who’s ever bought a lottery ticket. For there’s only one real winner in a lottery, and that’s the taxman.

The real “mega millions” are those earned by the state, even if the distribution of some of the revenue is to what they primly call “good causes”. If government and state-sponsored lotteries were made to issue health warnings like they have on cigarette packets, I doubt they’d sell a single ticket: “This is a voluntary tax – half your money is snatched away for causes you’re most unlikely to benefit from, like opera and the Olympics; and you’re 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than get your hands on the top prize. Enjoy.”

In the UK, someone buying five tickets a week - £260 a year – may as well simply write the government a personal cheque for £130. You won’t get a thank you note.

Of course, that’s not what I said back in the early 90s, when I was part of the original winning Camelot lottery team – my job was to write the part of the bid document that dealt with television. I remember sitting in Saatchi’s London office in in London as they unveiled the “It Could Be You” logo for the first time. “It could, but it almost certainly won’t be”, I muttered under my breath.

But at least when you watch the Olympics on television this Summer, and read about the theatre companies that have gone bust because their lottery-funded grants have been cut to pay for it, you can feel real pride for all that cash you’ve invested to make it happen. And maybe one of you will be watching the action from your Caribbean island with your 50 Porsches lined up on the verandah. Good luck to you.