The context was the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent following the death of independent MP Peter Law from a brain tumour.
I was doing a week’s work experience at the BBC Wales Political Unit (a MUCH bigger operation in those days than it is today), and spent quite a bit of time shadowing Owain Clarke, who is now BBC Wales’s Health Correspondent.
At the previous year’s general election, Law, an established but outspoken Labour Welsh Assembly member, had fallen out with the party over its policy of all-women shortlists. He quit the party and stood as an independent candidate at the general election, despite having recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour. He won the seat, and remained both an MP and an AM for the remainder of his life.
Following his death, Law’s widow, Trish, and his election agent, Dai Davies, set up Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. In the subsequent by-elections, Trish contested the Assembly seat and Davies the Westminster seat. Both won their respective elections.
I found both Trish and Davies to be delightful people, really down-to-earth types. They later fell out, but Davies was a decent, hard-working MP between 2005 and 2010.
Owen Smith was the Labour candidate for the Westminster seat, in what was an increasingly dirty campaign. The then-Welsh Secretary, the odious Peter Hain, told people they ‘ought to think very carefully’ before voting for Law and Davies. The implication was that the area wouldn’t get public grant money spent on it if they didn’t elect official Labour representatives.
Smith looked, sounded and behaved in exactly the same way as he does now – slippery, opportunistic, on-message. There was one comical moment when we were trying to interview his agent on the street. I was wearing a shirt and tie (though I probably looked a bit scruffy) while Owain Clarke was even more casually dressed.
As Clarke was setting up the camera, she assumed I was the interviewer and Clarke was my cameraman – in fact, Clarke was both interviewer and cameraman, I was ‘observing’. She turned to me and asked, “What questions will you be asking me?” I gave her a sharp rebuke, “I am not the interviewer – Owain is, but if I was the interviewer, you can be sure I wouldn’t be telling you my questions in advance.”
A bit later on, we interviewed Owen Smith outside the house of an elderly Labour supporter. As we, and other assembled press gathered, the resident, an old woman, began shouting by her front door about how all working people had a duty to support Labour candidates no matter what, blah, blah blah.
Clarke interviewed Smith, and I stood by and watched. He was as ‘on message’ as ever. The interview ended, and Smith spent a few moments talking to other people stood around us. The old woman started shouting again, and then she fell over, and appeared injured. I’ll never forget what happened next:
Clarke and I had spent several minutes chatting to each other after the interview with Smith ended, and this delayed Clarke dismantling his camera equipment. When the woman fell, the first thing Smith did was turn around to see that our camera was still up. Then, and then only, did he go to assist the woman.
Smith’s instincts in that split second were to see that our camera was still rolling, then and then only did he go to assist her.
That tells you a LOT about the sort of man he is.
Anthony Davies, the former world number 26, now combines his role as Wales’s national snooker coach with a day job working at an autistic college for 16-24-year-olds in Sully near Cardiff.
Two of Davies’s snooker pupils, Jacob Boyle and Oscar Vaughan, have autism, and recently made their debuts for Wales in the under 14 team at the Celtic Challenge.
Davies, now aged 46, said: “I have to approach coaching them in a slightly different way. I explain to the other youngsters that Oscar and Jacob are a bit special and they sometimes lose their tempers when frustration kicks in.
“I’m lucky because they’re both passionate about it. They want to be here, they love being here, and I try to make it fun.”
Boyle, 12, from Cardiff, first became interested in snooker as a toddler while watching the World Championship on TV alongside his father, Joe, who said: “I don’t know whether it was the colours or the numbers that first sparked Jacob’s interest, but he quickly became very enthusiastic, and started commentating in front of the TV.
“We bought him a miniature table, and by the time he was six or seven he was playing on a 4ft table. About a year after that, he wanted to play on a full-sized table, so I took him to the [now closed] Riley’s club on City Rd near our home, and I saw a poster for a boys’ coaching club. We turned up one Sunday and it went from there, and now a few years later he’s about to represent his country.”
As well as commentating on the game in front of the TV, Boyle is avid recorder of results and statistics for both snooker and darts.
Vaughan, 14, attends Cantonian High School in Cardiff and began playing snooker around five years ago. He said: “My favourite players are Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump. I don’t have a career plan but I’m really looking forward to playing for Wales.”
What is the point of sport? What is the point of the Olympics? If you play sport for a living, the answer is obvious – you’re in it to win, to become the best you can possibly be, and, yes, to make money.
If you’re a spectator, there are four main reasons why you watch. In no particular order: You want to be entertained; you enjoy watching the pursuit of excellence; you find it a form of escapism from the humdrum of daily life; you identify with certain individuals or teams, and because of this, your mood correlates with their success or lack of it.
There is nothing wrong with any of these four reasons for watching sport. I tick all four boxes. But we should be very careful not to exaggerate the extent to which it impacts on our own lives. Collecting Olympic medals is becoming a very expensive hobby for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. More on that later.
In terms of medals, Britain has never had it so good. ‘Team GB’, as it’s now known, came home from Rio de Janeiro with 27 gold medals, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes.
Let us take nothing away from the competitors. Success does not come without enormous sacrifices on their part, regardless of how much money is thrown at their sports. This means early morning and late night training sessions, as well as missing out on parties and various other pleasures young people enjoy.
Credit must also be given to their families, who have to make sacrifices of their own, both in terms of finance and of time used ferrying their children around. There’s no denying the fact that the majority of Britain’s Olympians come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds, and have parents who have the time and the means to support them, but they still have to put the work in.
Many of the competitors are a true credit to our nation. Mo Farah is an extraordinary individual who overcame extreme hardship as a child in Somalia to become arguably the greatest British athlete of all time.
Kate Richardson-Walsh’s inspiring words about hard work and achievement during her interview following the gold medal hockey match should be played in every school in the country.
Lutalo Muhammad was utterly devastated after missing out on a gold medal in taekwondo by a single second, but still handled his media duties with tremendous dignity.
The Islamic community in Britain would do well to hail Farah and Muhammad both as role models to impressionable young Muslims, and as examples to wider society of the positive contribution members of their faith make to our nation.
Yet there is another, less appealing side to the Olympic fever that we are told has infected the entire country over the last few weeks. People older than me will remember how Brits used to ridicule the Soviet nations in the 1970s and 80s for ruthlessly targeting Olympic glory by whatever means necessary as a political propaganda tool, while their countries were grim, shabby, secretive, authoritarian dictatorships. We’re now doing something very similar ourselves, albeit using money, rather than performance-enhancing drugs.
Our national debt is increasing by £5,170 per second, and is currently somewhere in the region of £1.7 trillion, more than double what it was in 2010, in spite of George Osborne’s ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ agenda. UK productivity is currently at the lowest level since records began, yet we work far longer hours than those who are doing better. Our armed forces are a fraction of the size they once were. Our public services are creaking and inefficient. Millions of people still have to travel on creaking Pacer trains that should have been retired for scrap decades ago. Libraries are closing, council provisions are being cut back, and the bins are being emptied much less frequently. The success of strangers who happen to come from the same country at us in a sporting festival on the other side of the world will not change any of this one iota.
There is no relationship between the number of Olympic medals a nation wins and its overall wellbeing. If British people were given a choice, would the majority have swapped the London 2012 medal tally for the economic growth Australia experienced around that time? They probably would.
Or what about Singapore, who went from Third World to First World during the second half of the 20th century, and is now one of the most developed countries on earth, but didn’t have a single Olympic gold medal to its name until Joseph Schooling won the 100 meter butterfly this year?
The turnaround in Team GB’s fortunes began with the creation of the National Lottery in 1994, which created a steady flow of millions of pounds that was invested in ‘elite’ athletes.
The money was channelled in very specific ways. It was targeted at hiring coaches, buying equipment and subsidising athletes in events where competition is weak. They went for the keirin cycling rather than the men’s 100 meter sprint, and the kayaking rather than the 110 meter hurdles.
And it paid off. The process began to bear fruit as the children of the mid-1990s became the medal winners of the 2008 Olympics, and the medal haul has grown with every four year cycle since.
Again, well done to the competitors involved. I’m happy for them. But their success in half-empty arenas in Brazil in no way reflects the overall state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The BBC appeared to lose all sense of proportion during the Olympics. Far too much of the Olympic coverage itself consisted of BBC staff interviewing each other, killing time with endless waffle and platitudes about how amazing Team GB were, swapping journalistic impartiality for sycophantic cheerleading.
For instance, quite a few BBC presenters and commentators need reminding that there are no teams called ‘We’ and ‘They’. The BBC’s sport department has developed an irritating habit of treating sport as a branch of light entertainment in recent years, and this was evident in the overall tone of the coverage, from Helen Skelton, who seems lovely but still has the persona of a Blue Peter presenter, to the talented but over-exposed Clare Balding appearing excessively impressed by each and every achievement of a Team GB member.
Far worse was the way Team GB’s success was treated by BBC News, who day after day relegated important stories down the running order to make way for Soviet-style propaganda about how well our competitors were doing. Sport has its place in TV news bulletins, but only in highly exceptional circumstances should it be placed at the top of the bulletin.
People who relied on BBC News for information could be forgiven for thinking that for the two-and-a-half weeks of the Olympics, the conflict in Syria had stopped, the situation in Turkey had stabilised, and nothing unpleasant or tragic happened in Britain.
Perhaps the worst example of this came on the Tuesday night of the second week, when the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News was delayed for an hour and a half while we waited for a three minute race, which Jason Kenny was expected to win. Apparently it was too much to ask of viewers to switch to BBC Two at 10pm as scheduled to witness the race.
When the news eventually started at 11:30pm, the lead story was, you’ve guessed it, a report on Jason Kenny winning the race I’d watched just minutes earlier, followed by one about his partner, Laura Trott winning her race earlier in the evening, followed by a further report summarising Team GB’s achievements that day.
In the minds of the BBC News editors, this was worthy of top billing, ahead of Anjem Choudary’s conviction, huge tax fines and the possibility of ‘special status’ for Britain in the upcoming Brexit talks. All three stories will affect the people of Britain to a far greater extent than two heavily-subsidised cyclists winning their respective races.
I am a sports fan and always enjoy the Olympics, but I keep its importance in the grand scheme of things firmly in perspective. I am also very aware that a significant number of people have no interest whatsoever in the Olympics, and were extremely irritated by the BBC’s propaganda machine at work in what were supposed to be ‘news’ bulletins.
It is also worth asking whether money targeted at a tiny number of elite athletes is the most appropriate use of National Lottery funds. Each medal won by Team GB equated to £4.1 million of lottery money.
There is a strong argument that in these austere times, the money could be better invested in keeping community facilities open and well-equipped including swimming pools, leisure centres and recreation grounds, as well as ensuring schools do not have to sell off their playing fields, which places severe limitations on the access children have to sports that require a large playing area.
Questions are also being asked as to whether lottery money is always being used for its intended purpose. While British cycling’s headquarters are a hub of activity focussed on Olympic excellence, there are increasing suspicions that the training base of the boxing squad in Sheffield is being treated as a finishing school, as a number of current professionals take advantage of facilities and coaching available.
With this in mind, would it not be better to divert a generous portion of this money towards amateur boxing clubs the length and breadth of Great Britain that have bills to pay and facilities to maintain?
It is these clubs that get youngsters off the streets and instil the discipline and skills required to start their journey in boxing. Without these clubs and the volunteers who give up their time to maintain them, there would be no Team GB.
Yes, it’s wonderful to see Team GB winning all these medals. Well done to them all. No doubt they’ll be richly rewarded in the honours system, and in some cases, with sponsorship opportunities. In six months’ time, quite a few of them will have faded into relative obscurity, known to few outside discerning followers of their particular sports.
But as a nation, we need to rediscover a sense of perspective. A heavily-subsidised athlete winning a medal is not more worthy of leading a news bulletin ahead of a city being bombed in Syria, or a major political development in Britain.
A child might be inspired by Adam Peaty winning a gold medal, but he may not have the opportunity to try to emulate his hero because the council has closed his local swimming pool.
As a nation, we need to regain a sense of perspective about the level of importance we place on the Olympics and the heavily-subsidised elite athletes. The Olympics are interesting to many, but not to all. They bring temporary enjoyment to many, but not to all. But they make a lasting difference to the lives of very, very few.
This reality should not be lost on the editors of newspapers or broadcast news bulletins, nor on the ‘powers that be’ who decide how National Lottery funding is spent.
This play isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in constitutional matters, or are not a serious thinker, it’s probably best that you stay away.
I have long believed that the death of our current Queen will have a far deeper and more profound effect on this country than most people realise. When that sad day comes, as it inevitably will at some point within the next 15 years or so, a lot we currently take for granted will suddenly and abruptly become far less certain.
Nobody under the age of 70 has any meaningful recollection of a time when Elizabeth II wasn’t our Head of State. Our current Queen is kind and dignified, but it is a myth that she has remained carefully neutral on political matters.
For example, she did not speak out when she might have done about the surrender of our independence to the European Union, which badly damaged her own position, turning her from a Sovereign into just another EU citizen.
In 1998, Her Majesty went out of her way to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement, and helped Mr Blair bamboozle Ulster’s Protestants into voting ‘Yes’ to a gradual and on-going surrender to the IRA godfathers.
In her 2004 Christmas Day broadcast, she proclaimed that ‘diversity is indeed a strength’ effectively endorsing the multiculturalism many oppose and dislike.
In other words, the Queen has always sided with, and aided, the government of the day, even if it damages herself and the Crown. Her reign has been steady but highly predictable.
By contrast, Prince Charles is a man of unfashionable opinions and strong conservative instincts (not Tory, by the way, a party which often does some very un-conservative things). I am sorry that the climate change lobby has got to him, but he has a great deal of value to say when he expresses opinions that embarrass the government on matters such as selection in education, rural affairs, medicine, social cohesion, opportunities for young people and modern architecture.
And it’s this entirely plausible conflict between Charles and the government of the day that provides the pretext of this play. The plot is relatively simple to understand: The Queen has died, and Charles, as King, holds his first weekly audience with a slippery Labour Prime Minister, Tristram Evans, who explains that he will shortly be asking Charles for royal assent for a parliamentary Bill that will severely restrict the freedom of the press.
The King’s respect for our country’s ancient liberties kick in, overriding any personal bitterness he may feel for the treatment he has received in the press over many decades. He refuses to support or sign the Bill, thereby invalidating the unwritten rule that the Monarch will give royal assent to all Bills passed by Parliament. The battle between government (supported by a two-faced Tory Opposition leader) and Monarch develops, yet Charles stands firm. He appears to share my sentiment that Parliament, on all sides, is dominated by career politicians who think and behave like teenage social liberals who know little and care nothing of our national heritage and ancient liberties.
Charles attempts to exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which triggers protests, especially in London. The Duchess of Cambridge plots a solution, which involves William publicly offering to be a mediator between the government and his father. He announces this at a press conference without his father’s knowledge, and, seeing this as betrayal, Charles reacts angrily but ultimately finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William (and Kate), who signs the Bill and restores the status quo between king and parliament.
The playwright Mike Bartlett, still only 35, clearly has a deep appreciation of Shakespeare and has borrowed ideas from Macbeth, with the ghost of Diana meddling as she plays Charles and William against each other, while the Duchess of Cambridge is revealed to have a ruthless, cruel and ambitious streak.
Robert Powell, one of Britain’s most versatile and diligent actors, is excellent as Charles, while his appearance has barely changed at all since I watched him alongside Jasper Carrott in The Detectives during my childhood in the 1990s.
Jennifer Bryden is spookily convincing as the Duchess of Cambridge. She looks, sounds and dresses exactly like her, while adding a much darker side to her character.
Another stand-out performance comes from Tim Treloar as the shifty, devious Prime Minister with a comically exaggerated Welsh accent thrown in for some light relief, while Lucy Phelps as Prince Harry’s rebellious, socialist, republican girlfriend Jess Edwards provides an important subplot.
A favourite scene of mine is when Prince Harry gets talking to a kebab vendor, who ponders: “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?” He goes on to list the shrinking of the armed forces, and the demise of the NHS and Post Office as signs that Britain is a shadow of the country it once was.
Director Rupert Goold’s careful casting and attention to detail gave the play authenticity. It gets the balance right between entertainment, fun and wit, while still providing a powerful commentary on the monarch’s role in society and an entirely possible conflict in the not too distant future.
The play left me even more concerned about the future of this country than I was before. Britain is an increasingly divided and mistrusting country, and there are simmering tensions behind the orderly façade of law-abiding civility. The political classes consist of youthful, careerist politicians, PR men, retread Marxists and Europhiles who think the country should be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels.
The political establishment is loathed by millions, with both major political parties kept afloat by State funding and dodgy millionaires, rather than the membership fees and donations of ordinary people. If Charles did get involved in such a conflict for real, he could, with some legitimacy, claim to speak for many of the majority of people who did not vote for the government of the day.
Reform of the political establishment is a much more pressing concern than reform of the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the judiciary.
One of the biggest contrasts in the play is between the reassuringly wise yet outspoken Charles and William and Kate, who are youthful and popular.
William and Kate’s popularity, both in the play and in real life, is worthy of further analysis. Unlike Charles, they have never expressed a controversial view on anything. Like the current Queen, they play it safe and are never likely to criticise, let alone attempt to block, the government of the day.
Their popularity is superficial. Young British people, especially women in their teens and 20s, very often treat celebrity gossip with a religious reverence, and feel they must take a deep interest to fit in with their friends. They are interested in William and Kate in much the same way they are interested in the Beckhams and the Kardashians. It’s the celebrity they want, not their role as a constitutional monarch and defender of ancient liberties, which few know nor care very much about thanks to nearly half a century of inadequate comprehensive education.
If you managed to make it this far into my review, you’re the type of person who absolutely must go and see the play if it tours within reasonable commuting distance. I travelled from my Cardiff home to Cheltenham, and it was worth every penny and every bit of inevitable inconvenience on the creaking rail network.
This play deserves much greater attention, and should be made into a film or a TV serial. It provides a thought-provoking yet entertaining peek into a scenario that may well unfold for real one day quite soon. 10/10
Here is a short analysis of the situation the BBC currently finds itself in. In it, I look at how the BBC can prepare for the next decade and continue to do what it does best under the backdrop of tighter funding and a government that is ideologically opposed to its existence in its current form.
The BBC prepared for the digital revolution remarkably well during the 1990s. For all his faults (and they are many), the then-Director General, John Birt invested both money and resources in creating, building and maintaining the BBC’s online presence as the internet became an integral part of people’s lives in what was, looking back, an astonishingly short period of time.
Praise too for Birt’s successor, Greg Dyke, who pulled a masterstroke with his pivotal role in creating Freeview. As he admitted much later, Freeview flooded the market with ‘dumb’ boxes, with no card slots or encryption technology, meaning they were incapable of turning the BBC’s channels into ‘pay as you go ‘ services at a later date. This effectively secured the long-term future of the licence fee.
However, as the multi-channel era took off, the corporation lost focus, and began to battle on too many fronts. The licence fee ‘pot’ was spread too thinly, there were too many new services, and too many attempts to mimic the commercial sector.
A combination of the new licence fee settlement, recently-announced initiatives plus political pressures ahead of next year’s charter renewal means the BBC needs to save a total of £650 million over several years.
This chart is several years out of date but it provides a rough idea of how much the various BBC services cost, but there are a few glaring omissions, such as the £75 million it now provides to fund Welsh language channel S4C.
Yet it provides an adequate guide to how money could be saved without compromising what the BBC does best.
Here are my suggestions:
Axe BBC Three (saving £112.9 million per year). Yes, we know this is becoming an online-only service from January, but there is a strong case for closing it completely. It was created with the aim of attracting the ‘yoof’ audience and being a sort of young, ‘innovative’ creative hub, but there has been a huge amount of trash on the channel like Freaky Eaters and My Manboobs and Me, which have no place on a public service broadcaster and are clearly attempts to compete with the ITV2 and MTV demographic. Most of BBC Three’s successes have been imports, repeats from other BBC channels and films. If, as its supporters claim, it really has been a successful creative hub for comedy and other ‘talent’ (I see little evidence of it personally), the controllers of BBC One and BBC Two need to become more creative themselves when commissioning new output, especially comedy.
Axe BBC 6 Music (saving £11.7 million per year). This is, to a large extent, providing a copycat service to those available on commercial digital radio, however, what’s innovative about it could be continued by moving it to off-peak slots on Radio 1 and Radio 2.
Axe BBC Asian Network (saving £13.0 million per year). We are a multiracial society, and that is welcome, but an increasingly large number of people, including our own Prime Minister, have gone on record as saying they do not believe in multiculturalism, which means something quite different. In a stable society at peace with itself, you can have many races, and many faiths, but you can only have one culture, in other words, one set of laws and values upon which we all live. It therefore follows that it is unwise to spend licence fee money on a service that encourages Asian people who have made Britain their home to look backwards towards the place from which they came, rather than towards their future here with us. It’s the role of a public service broadcaster to help them to integrate and adapt, rather than to segregate. Besides, from what I’ve heard of the Asian Network, it appears to be a largely Pakistani and Bangladeshi service, rather than a truly Asian one. Plus it’s only available on FM in a small part of Britain.
Axe the BBC News Channel (saving £57.5 million per year). This was a well-intentioned idea of John Birt’s when it was launched in 1997, but technology has moved on rapidly in the years since, as is the way we consume news. In 1997, the internet was still in its infancy and smartphones were some years away. Today,the vast majority of people have the internet in their homes and an ever-increasing majority have smartphones. The concept of 24 hour news channels is far from obsolete, but with the BBC providing news across a plethora of platforms, the BBC News Channel is an unnecessary luxury in this day and age.
In addition, I propose major reforms to the BBC’s local radio network (current budget approximately £146.5 million per year).
At its best, BBC local radio provides an excellent public service for the areas it serves, while news and sports coverage has largely disappeared from many commercial stations during the last 15 years.
At its worst, BBC local radio provides endless hours of stale, formulaic programming, typically phone-ins about dog poo before Granny Adams pops in to the studio to tell us about her prize-winning parsnips.
Another interesting issue is guests. If, for example, an author has a new book they want to promote, they will often be booked to do a number of interviews on BBC local stations across the country. They will be asked to attend the nearest BBC studio to where they live, and will, over the course of a few hours, do a series of near-identical interviews to different BBC local stations. This strikes me as expensive and unnecessary.
I would change this, so that there are eight hours of truly local public service broadcasting throughout the day, but during other periods (lighter, entertainment-based programmes), one programme would be networked on all 39 BBC local stations in England, as well as BBC Radio Wales, Scotland and Ulster, with short news and travel bulletins still remaining local throughout the day.
A typical weekday schedule on BBC local stations would look something like this.
6:00am Breakfast (local) – News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A lighter, localised version of the Today programme.
9:00am Simon Bates with the Golden Hour (networked from Plymouth) – Bates already presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Devon, which can continue, and he follows this with the Golden Hour, which could be networked to the whole country.
10:00am Jason Mohammad (networked from Cardiff) – Music, chat, competitions and special guests.
12:00pm The Lunchtime Phone-In (local) – Political figures from your area answer your questions. In the second hour, experts from law, medicine, cookery, gardening etc take your calls.
2:00pm Martin Kelner (networked from Leeds) – Two hours of entertainment, chat and music.
4:00pm Drivetime (local) – News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A localised version of the 5 Live Drive programme.
6:00pm Sport (local) – Sports news and discussion for your area.
7:00pm Mark Forrest (networked) – An improved, livelier version of what’s already in the slot. There will remain local opt-outs for live sports commentaries.
10:00pm Allan Beswick (networked from Manchester) – The king of late-night phone-in radio in the North West during the 1980s returned to his old timeslot earlier this year, and this would be networked to the entire country.
1:00am As Radio 5 Live
This, I believe, strikes a solid balance between protecting, even improving what BBC local radio does best, while removing the bland, the formulaic, and the duplication of services. Across 42 stations, the savings would be considerable.
Back to television: There are rumours that the BBC Four TV channel is under threat. With a budget of £67.8 million per year, it’s a bargain, and is a superb example of what the BBC does best. It is, without doubt, genuine public service broadcasting. It MUST be protected at all costs. It is distinctive, and is not a gap that could be easily filled by the commercial sector if it closed.
One final note: The BBC needs to stop competing with the commercial sector when it comes to populist, formulaic programming. By all means innovate and create its own popular formats (Strictly Come Dancing is an example of something the BBC created that became mainstream and popular) but there is no case for the BBC spending £22 million to buy the rights to the format of The Voice. That is a clear abuse and waste of licence fee payers’ money. This sort of thing belongs on the commercial sector.
These proposals would save the BBC £280 million per year, at a conservative estimate, and I haven’t even touched on the way the BBC could save money internally, with a simplified, smaller management structure and more frugal use of resources.
These are tough, radical proposals, but if carried through, would reinforce the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, while also continuing to inform, educate and entertain.
IT’S an unfortunate fact of modern life that everybody in the public eye will, at some point, be subject to abuse on social media.
And I do mean everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an A list movie star, a member of parliament, a parish councillor or a journalist on a local newspaper, if you are in any way known to the wider public, sooner or later abuse will come your way.
Twitter is by far the worst platform for abuse. It differs from Facebook in that you are not communicating with friends and acquaintances, but with the wider world, complete strangers who know little or nothing about you, your life, your work and your beliefs. What’s more, you have a 140 character limit in which to make your point.
On Twitter, even those who are in no way in the public eye are subject to abuse. Having a few strong opinions is enough for absolutely anyone to be abused, or ‘trolled’ as it’s now known.
I have long since become accustomed to banal attacks on Twitter. Sometimes people have read my work and dislike it. Sometimes petty jealousies from former colleagues resurface. On other occasions, my simply criticising the content of a television programme can lead from a barrage of abuse.
It is usually at its worst when Question Time is broadcast on Thursday evenings. If, as David Dimbleby suggests we do each week, and tweet with ‘#bbcqt’ at the end, you can be sure that no matter what you tweet, you will be subjected to some deeply unpleasant attacks. A few typical examples of how a comment translates in the minds of your attackers:
Uncontrolled mass immigration is bad for this country = You are a racist who hates immigrants.
Britain would be better off outside the European Union = You are a racist and a xenophobe.
Marriage should be between a man and a woman = You are a homophobe, a Nazi and hate all gays.
The Tories are right to make cuts to public spending to bring the deficit under control and to encourage the unemployed to find work = You hate unemployed and disabled people. You’re ‘Tory scum’.
The most aggressive mob by far are what I call ‘liberal bigots’, a group of people who pride on calling themselves ‘tolerant’, but don’t really mean it. What they actually mean is that they are tolerant of you only if you share their views: Pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-multiculturalism, anti-austerity, anti-Tory, pro-gay marriage, pro-Islamic, pro-Palestinian, pro-Russell Brand.
They suffer from ‘liberal superiority complex’, namely that they think they’re better than you because they are liberals, not because there is any strength to their arguments. The fact they are liberals is enough. Anyone with views different from their own is fair game for abuse.
One of Twitter’s main weaknesses is the 140 character limit, which does not allow for thoughtful, well-developed arguments, and is instead a friend to the soundbite and the ‘Smart Alec’ comment.
It’s generally pointless trying to debate with such people under these conditions, but sometimes I give it a go.
Around a year ago, I appeared on a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Complainers’. On the day of broadcast, all contributors received an email from the production company advising us of how to deal with abuse on social media, which broadly, and rightly said, don’t engage in debate with abusive people and block them immediately.
For those of you who didn’t see it, the programme itself took quite a light-hearted tone. During the short few minutes in which I featured, I was seen walking around my estate reporting broken street lights, vandalism and dog fouling to my local council using the FixMyStreet app (I’d recommend it, by the way).
The Twitter response was mostly positive – most said things like ‘good on you’ and ‘that’s interesting – I’ll download the app’ and there were a number of humorous remarks that were in good taste. In the weeks that followed, I was approached a few times while out in public, and at the two weddings I attended in the months that followed I got talking to people who’d seen the programme. In real life, nobody was anything other than pleasant and good-humoured.
Inevitably, there were about six very aggressive people on Twitter. All, bar one, were people I’d never heard of, and were swiftly blocked.
The exception was Chris Jameson, a middle-aged ‘box office supervisor’ of a theatre in Harrogate, who had hurled a series of tedious insults at me in the previous 12 months, dating back to when I had commented, during an episode of Educating Yorkshire, that the headteacher, Mr Mitchell, had not behaved appropriately by putting his feet on his office desk and repeatedly addressing a pupil as ‘mate’ as he reprimanded him.
Jameson had drifted in and out of my Twitter feed in the period since, often responding to points that weren’t made. He also developed a habit of taking screenshots of my feed and making comments of his own. It became quite an obsession. All quite sad really….
I’d largely forgotten about/ignored Jameson until last weekend, when, late on Saturday evening, I experienced an instance of social media abuse far worse than anything I’d gone through before. I’ve come to expect a little abuse every time I give a radio interview (usually about sport) but I hadn’t done so on Saturday. This was on a totally different level.
I had never even heard of Victoria Chipp until late on Saturday night. She works for the recruitment consultants, Badenoch and Clark in London, but is originally from Harrogate, perhaps coincidentally the same town as Jameson, perhaps not. She is also a ‘rugby groupie’ and raises money for rugby union charities in her spare time.
I can only assume she had been drinking when she began ‘debating’ the EU referendum with me late on Saturday evening. The picture on the left is how the discussion began.
It declined in quality as the discussion went on, and the caption on the right shows how we parted. The rest of the discussion consists of her resorting to cheap, clichéd insults, often in semi-articulate English, often replying to points that weren’t made. She preferred to think of me as a caricatured ‘xenophobe’, immigrant-hating eurosceptic, when in reality I had not posted anything that could lead any logical person to reach that conclusion.
On Sunday morning, I received further correspondence from her friend, Katy Bowling, who had the nerve to accuse me of being ‘childish’ with my responses to the foul-mouthed Miss Chipp. Earlier on Sunday morning, Bowling had annoyed England rugby international James Haskell on Twitter (he went on to compare Bowling to ‘Ronnie Corbett in drag’ before blocking her).
I’ve since received self-pitying emails from Bowling, who insists she hadn’t been drinking, but was suffering from food poisoning at the time. She also describes Chipp as an ‘inspirational woman’. I kid you not!
Back to Sunday. This was getting tedious. Chipp had accused me of ‘asking for her phone number’ the previous evening. This was an outright lie. Here is the screenshot of what I actually said to her. As you can see, I offered to give her my phone number so we could continue this discussion in a (hopefully) more adult way outside the confines of Twitter. It takes a far braver person to debate an issue over the phone than to hurl drunken insults from behind their keyboard. As you can see from the screenshot, I did not ask for her phone number, which, in any case, is easily obtainable on at least one rugby fundraising website!
As the day wore on and their dreary, foul-mouthed ramblings continued, she was joined by her friend, the opera singer Ben Sweeney (no, I’ve never heard of him either). A little later on, Chris Jameson decided to join in, with his usual lack of wit:
If Jameson had a fraction of the intelligence he thinks he has, he could have looked up my CV online with relative ease and discovered that by the time I was Chipp’s age (25), I’d already had three books published, and that I’ve worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and online, and have work published across all platforms on a frequent basis. There again, maybe he wasn’t trying to be funny and he really is a ‘bodybuilder’, albeit one with a muscle wasting disease…..
He also decided to post this feature in my local paper about my appearance on The Complainers. He’s put the word ‘journalist’ in inverted commas, as though me being in this feature somehow disqualifies me from being a journalist.
This weirdo’s fascination with me continued. He went on:
Well, as anyone who saw The Complainers will know, I don’t ‘spend my evenings’ ‘pointing at bags of dog dirt and broken street lights’. As the programme made clear, I simply report such things to the council using an app when I’m out and about. All pretty mundane stuff compared to his peculiar Twitter stalking……
Chipp herself didn’t get any better as Sunday dragged on:
Chipp clearly isn’t all that bright. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong fact’. It’s an oxymoron. In the space of a day, she had called me a ‘chav’, a ‘wanker’ and a ‘prick’ on Twitter. I hadn’t resorted to any such language, yet she was claiming to be the victim of a campaign of abuse by me, without a shred of evidence to back it up. There’s more. A LOT more. But it’s too dreary to post on here.
I got bored with this tirade of verbal diarrhoea from Chipp and her keyboard warrior friends and blocked the lot of them. Life is too short to waste too much time on people like that.
One final twist to this episode. Some months ago, a person I’d never heard of called Matthew Bullman asked to become my friend on Facebook, saying he was a fan of my work. I don’t normally allow people unknown to me to become a Facebook ‘friend’, but he’d been complimentary so I made an exception.
Over the course of a few months, he had occasionally joined in Facebook discussions but had generally said very little. On Sunday, he followed me on Twitter, having previously been largely inactive. As you can see from this screenshot, on Sunday he was supportive of me and sent me a sympathetic message (see the bottom of the shot and work your way up)
By Monday evening, he had blocked me from both Facebook and Twitter, and had joined Jameson and Chipp:
There’s just one problem with what Bullman says about me – none of it is true! For a start, I’ve never, ever fixed a street light in my life, let alone done it for a living. At no point in either The Complainers or in the Wales Online feature was such a claim made.
Secondly, I don’t often use the terms ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ in my work, or indeed in conversation. There are two reasons for that:
1. I’ve never heard definitions of either term I’m happy with.
2. Generally speaking, both are used as terms of abuse, as Orwell pointed out more than 60 years ago.
All these people are now blocked and are out of my life. Any further abuse by them will be reported to Twitter directly, or, if necessary, the police.
I’ll probably never know for sure what motivates these people. At a guess, Chris Jameson is disappointed with the way his life has panned out and/or hates the fact I outwitted him in our original Twitter argument. For a man who claims not to like me, he spends a great deal of time discussing me on Twitter.
What motivates Victoria Chipp? Evidently, she is not as clever as she thinks she is. I suspect she is just an attention-seeker.
As James Haskell pointed out when he was irked by her friend Katy Bowling, maybe, deep down, they hate themselves and resort to attacking others to make themselves feel better. I never had Haskell down as a philosopher before Sunday but he may well be onto something with this. That might well explain Jameson’s lengthy periods of attack against me.
To end as we began, I am certainly not alone with this. More than once, a well-known sports star has handed me their phone to let me see the daily tirade of abuse they endure on Twitter. I’m amazed so many of them continue to use it!
One friend of mine, an inoffensive and affable radio broadcaster, told me he gets a barrage of abuse at least once a week, simply for expressing his opinion on a sporting fixture or TV programme during his show.
I don’t want to waste too much more of my time on these sort of saddos, so am going to take a new approach, and I’d advise all readers of this blog to do the same:
At its best, Twitter can be a fun, engaging place, to monitor opinion, share humorous remarks, and to help and inform people. At its worst, it can be a vehicle for anonymous, vile ‘trolling’. Not every tweet deserves a reply. If a person wants to make a stupid comment, be rude, and think they’ve won an argument against you, let them think it. It’s not your concern. Your time is too precious to waste trying to educate and persuade people who have no intention of engaging in civilised discussion.
Focus your time and energy on those who deserve it.
Others have written plenty about Richie Benaud the player, and Richie Benaud the commentator, but there’s a lot about Richie Benaud the person that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in the obituary pages during the past week.
Benaud the captain was arguably the greatest cricket has seen in the post-war era. His on-field achievements have been well-documented elsewhere, but his skills as an innovator went well beyond the boundary ropes.
From the time he became Australia captain at the start of the 1958/59 season, Benaud understood the increasing importance of good public relations. After each day’s play, he would hold a press conference for British and Australian reporters, something that had never been done before, and wasn’t done again until many decades later.
These press conferences weren’t the cliché-ridden, predictable affairs that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Benaud talked candidly and was never evasive in his answers. He would talk about the day’s play, clear up any misunderstandings about incident or doubtful decisions, and he was fair in his assessments of players from both sides. In effect, he more-or-less wrote their articles for them.
When touring England in 1956 and 1961, Benaud took a great interest in the BBC’s early television commentaries. After the 1956 tour, he stayed behind and took a job with the News of the World as a police roundsman. Unlike so many of today’s retired sports stars who think they’re God’s gift to television once they’ve been retired for five minutes, Benaud was serious about making it in all forms of journalism, and was prepared to start at the bottom, doing the less glamorous jobs. His relationship with the paper lasted more than half a century until its very last edition in 2011, in which he wrote an excellent column which emphasised the importance of subeditors, something too many newspaper owners nowadays see fit to cut back upon.
Around the same time, he managed to arrange a crash TV course with the BBC. He was a fast learner and soon absorbed a great deal of information about the use of cameras and tips for commentary.
One of his tasks was to spend a day shadowing one of his heroes, the horse racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan (who is still very sharp aged 97). Sir Peter instructed Benaud to remain silent, take notes, write down any questions he had, and at the end of the day they would go for a drink and he could ask his questions.
Benaud made his first BBC radio commentary in 1960 and soon moved into television, a relationship that would last until the corporation lost the rights to televise England cricket in 1999. Further work followed in Australia, initially with ABC and then as an integral part of Kerry Packer’s revolution with Channel 9, who he would continue working for until shortly before his death (a voiceover obituary of Philip Hughes was his last work for the broadcaster).
The newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn once asked Michael Parkinson what one characteristic all the successful people he’d interviewed had in common – the answer was they were all very hard workers. This could certainly be said of Benaud. From the time he married his second wife Daphne in 1967, she would carefully plan his whole year in his diary, and there would be few, if any, idle days.
If he was not working, he would probably be playing golf. During the British winter, he would be in Australia running his public relations and sports news agency, or commentating for Channel 9.
He would be up every day at dawn, writing, telexing, or even fitting in a round of golf before a day in the commentary box. It was quite common for colleagues to be arriving at the breakfast table at 8:00am to find Benaud returning from a round of golf.
After a busy day there would usually be dinner parties at night. The hospitality was superb – he certainly appreciated good food and fine wine, but in the background you could be sure to hear the ticking of telex and tape machines, later fax machines and the ping of emails arriving.
Benaud usually ended the Australian winter by reporting on a few golf tournaments around the world before arriving in England with Daphne in May, where they would set up their office at their flat. In September, he and Daphne would usually go on a gastronomic tour of France where he would fulfil various business commitments he had in the country.
He’d typically arrive in the commentary box fairly early, complete with two battered leather cases and in later years his laptop. During his off-duty moments, he could often be found studying the Sporting Life and Racing Post, where he had a decades-long friendly rivalry with Jack Bannister in picking winners which lasted until weeks before his death.
During the long BBC era, a full day’s commentary would end with Benaud appearing in front of camera, still immaculately dressed, often in his cream jacket, to record presenting links for the late night highlights, which included a slick and acute summary of the day’s play. He’d do this from the top of his head, without notes, and would cue in various film inserts.
When the rights transferred to Channel 4 in the summer of 1999, Benaud moved with them. The tone of the Channel 4 coverage was quite different to what preceded it. Far greater use was made of technology and it rapidly made the old BBC coverage appear somewhat staid.
Benaud adapted his style to the Channel 4 coverage – his commentary style became a little looser, and he appeared to be given more freedom to use his dry sense of humour. He probably sounded more like the Richie Benaud viewers in Australia had been hearing for many years. Channel 4 never used him as a presenter but he was still regularly seen in front of camera at lunch and teatime features.
Analysing the final decade of Benaud’s life and career is a little more tricky. He famously retired from British TV commentary after the 2005 Ashes, turning down an offer to be part of the Sky Sports team when they took over the rights the following summer, but that wasn’t quite the end of his relationship with British television. His voice was once again heard on the BBC, who took the Channel 9 commentary when they showed highlights of the 2006/07 Ashes series down under, and the same applied when ITV had highlights of the 2010/11 Ashes. At the 2009 Ashes series in England, he appeared as an on-screen analyst for Channel 5’s highlights programme during the Saturday of each Test, though he did not commentate at all.
Ever the professional, he instructed three or four very close friends, whose judgement he trusted, to be completely straight and tell him if they felt he was ‘losing it’ as a commentator. Commentators in other sports had gone on too long: Eddie Waring (rugby league) really was suffering from dementia in his final years. John Motson (football) began a decline in the late 1990s and became a parody of himself. Tony Green (darts) lost the plot years ago.
Thankfully, Benaud never did ‘decline’, but there was a significant change in the way Channel 9 covered cricket that did not suit his style. In his final years, Channel 9 moved from two to three man commentary teams.
One of Benaud’s strengths is that he knew when to say nothing and understood the power of the pause. He also would develop a talking point during his half-hour commentary stint. The three-man booths meant a more conversational style and near-constant ‘banter’ between the commentators which prevented him from working in the way he always had.
A planned retirement from commentary in 2010 to focus on studio work and features never materialised. He continued to be heard on commentary, though less frequently than before, and as a summariser, rather than describing the play-by-play action. He was effectively the ‘third man’ of the booth, and he would have to fight to get a word in edgeways. Indeed, there were at least two half-hour commentary stints in later years where he didn’t say a single word for the duration.
His commentary career ended when, in October 2013, he crashed his vintage 1965 Sunbeam Alpine into a wall, sustaining a cracked sternum and shoulder injuries. Friends said he seemed more upset at having written off his car than the fact he’d sustained injuries which would take many months to recover from.
A planned return to the Channel 9 commentary box in 2014/15 was prevented when he was diagnosed with skin cancer, a likely consequence of many years of playing in the blazing sun without sun cream or a hat in less enlightened times, which ultimately prevented him from coming anywhere close to the age of 104 his mother reached.
During his final summer with Channel 4 in 2005, Benaud regularly referred to the long-running ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ advertising campaign on Australian television that told viewers to slip on a shirt, slop on sun cream, and slap on a hat. Unfortunately, that advice came decades too late for him.
Benaud’s advice to commentators is timeless. It was relevant when he started in 1960, it’s relevant now, and it’ll still be relevant in another 50 years’ time.
When it comes to TV cricket commentary, Benaud set the standard for others to follow. The modern-day Sky Sports coverage is technically brilliant, but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Channel 4 team Benaud spearheaded. The Sky Sports commentary team often feels like a clique of middle-aged, grey former England captains. It’s one-dimensional, lacks any ‘light and shade’, and is punctuated by prattle about rounds of golf and wine cellars – both passions of Benaud’s, but the key difference was when he was in the commentary box, he made the players on the field, not himself, the focus of his attention.