marcussteaduk

Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Preparing the BBC for the Next Decade

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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 daBBC spending graphicte 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 Mewhich 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.

Thoughts welcome……………

Written by Marcus Stead

September 8, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

Twitter Trolls, and How to Deal With Them

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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 VChippblogpic1and Clark in London, but is originally from Harrogate, perhaps coincidentallyVChipp blog pic 2 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!

VChipp blog pic 4

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!

VChipp blog pic 5

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:

VChipp blog pic 6

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.

VChipp blog pic 8

This weirdo’s fascination with me continued. He went on:

VChipp blog pic 10

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:

VChipp blog pic 11

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:

VChipp blog pic 13

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.

Written by Marcus Stead

June 9, 2015 at 6:13 am

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review

Richie Benaud: More Than Just Player, More Than Just a Commentator

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Richie BenaudOthers 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.

Richie Benaud's advice to commentators

Richie Benaud’s advice to commentators

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.

Written by Marcus Stead

April 18, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Jeremy Clarkson: Some Perspective, and What Happens Next!

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ClarksonLet’s be clear about one thing: Jeremy Clarkson was got rid of because he subjected a colleague to an attack that left him requiring hospital treatment, which was preceded by a prolonged period verbal abuse that amounted to bullying.

Initial reports of a handbags ‘fracas’ between Clarkson and producer Oisin Tymon following a long day’s filming were underplayed. The truth was far more serious.

That’s why the BBC made the decision, not because he’s a very different beast to most of the corporation’s staff.

They’d have taken exactly the same course of action had it been those who fit the BBC mould better, such as their favourites Stephen Fry or David Tennant, and the same would apply to the legions of managers that dominate the BBC in their unofficial uniform of pink open-neck shirts and designer stubble (like Alan Yentob and Danny Cohen, more on them later).

You can’t go around launching physical attacks on your colleagues, and yes, there are limits on what you can say when shouting at subordinates, even in a high-pressure environment.

It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but the BBC were wrong turn a blind eye to the warning signs in the months leading up to the incident by increasing Clarkson’s workload.

His friends and colleagues had known that he had been fragile for some time following a difficult 2014 – his mother had died, his marriage had broken down, he’d had health problems, and the N-word scandal in the middle of the year had left him clinging on to the Top Gear job by the tips of his fingers.

Whether in sport, the movies, music or TV, it’s a fact that talented people are often difficult to manage, and the BBC didn’t manage Clarkson at all well for the 12 months prior to his departure.

However much the BBC bigwigs hated Clarkson and everything he stood for, the fact is he was the frontman for one of the most successful brands it has ever had.

It’s worth remembering that for the first 24 years of its life, Top Gear had a more sombre magazine format that mixed reviews of new cars with features on motoring safety issues and the impact of new government legislation. Presenters in its early years included former newsreader Angela Rippon, as well as the science-based academic William Woollard and the calm, thoughtful, understated motoring journalist Chris Goffey.

The emphasis began to shift towards entertainment from the time Clarkson joined in 1988, initially as a bit-part reporter. Within a few years, he had become the programme’s main presenter, and with Clarkson at the helm, it was regularly BBC Two’s most-watched programme of the week throughout the 1990s.

The old Top Gear began to lose its way towards the end of the 1990s as long-standing presenters left to be replaced by relative unknowns, and following Clarkson’s first departure in 2001, the programme appeared to have run its course and was axed later that year, with many of the then-presenters going on to take an almost-identical format to Channel 5 under the name Fifth Gear (a programme still going strong 14 years later, now broadcast on History).

Top Gear LogoThe following year, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a radical new look. A returning Clarkson was at the helm of a new studio-based format that went for mass entertainment, humour and controversy, complete with sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May (who replaced Jason Dawe from the second post-relaunch series), which helped build a chemistry and rapport that remains fresh well over a decade later.

Clarkson owned a stake in the new format and could share in its commercial success. Thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s presenting style and very, very strong work ethic, the new-look Top Gear rapidly became a flagship of the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule, providing a welcome alternative to the genteel dramas that generally dominate the timeslot.

The format’s success was good news for Clarkson, who sold his stake in the franchise for a reported £13 million in 2012, but also great news for the BBC, for whom the Top Gear has become big, big business.

In January 2015, the new series of Top Gear on BBC Two was simulcast in more than 50 countries across Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, with a further 10 countries in Asia showing it within 24 hours of its original transmission, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.

Then there are the format rights, which the BBC sells to overseas broadcasters to make their own versions, as well as live arena shows, the Top Gear magazine, repeats on Dave, BBC World and other channels globally, DVD releases, and other branded merchandise. Not bad for a series that began as a regional programme for BBC Midlands in 1977!

All these factors combined means that Top Gear is now worth somewhere in the region of £150 million per year to the BBC. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for BBC Radio Four is £115.9 million, the entire BBC local radio network in England is £146.5 million, while on TV, BBC Three’s annual budget is £112.9 million, BBC Four’s is £67.8 million, while the BBC News Channel costs £57.5 million.

Whichever way you look at it, if Top Gear was axed, it would create quite a shortfall in the BBC’s income.

The BIG question is this: Which is bringing in the money? Is it the Top Gear brand/format? Or is it Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and the senior production team?

Yes, the BBC owns the Top Gear name and franchise, but without Clarkson and co, how much use is it to them?

Clarkson and co can come up with a new programme name, tweak the format and keep going with another broadcaster, but the BBC has a far tougher task in making Top Gear a success with Chris Evans, Joss Stone or whoever else at the helm. They own a programme name and a format, but not much else.

Would the British public warm to it? Would international audiences take to it to the same extent? That’s anyone’s guess at this stage.

One big irony is that Top Gear is a very un-BBC programme, made by and broadcast on the BBC.

As an institution, the BBC has, in the last two decades, become increasingly inward-looking, bland, self-satisfied and smug, dominated by a metropolitan elite who all went to the same universities, attend the same dinner parties in Islington, shop at Waitrose, have the same cultural tastes, and hold the same set of liberal views.

This culture has been allowed to expand over the years as BBC mandarins recruited and promoted from within their own kind.

Andrew Marr, himself a part of that set, put his finger on the pulse of the BBC’s institutional bias a few years ago when he said: “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities, and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

Do goldfish know they’re goldfish? Are they aware that a world exists outside their goldfish bowl? I’ve no idea, but BBC executives don’t appear to know much about life beyond their own goldfish bowl of BBC buildings, fashionable restaurants, pretentious opera houses, and designer-furnished homes in the more fashionable parts of London.

Last week, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s ‘Creative Director’ said on Newsnight, said, in defence of the BBC: “There are quite a lot of programmes which reach out to audiences which are C2s, DEs, which aren’t the metropolitan elite.”

C2s are the social demographic described as ‘skilled manual workers’ and DEs are ‘semi and unskilled manual workers, pensioners, widows (no other earner), casual or lowest grade workers’.

They’re not the sort of people Yentob or other BBC executives encounter very often, but believe they know what they want to watch, and kindly make programmes for.

I have been known to mingle with such peasants, usually for a few beers and a game of poker than a dinner party with overpriced, obscure food and wine from Waitrose, and I can assure Mr Yentob that these philistines consume very few of the BBC’s programmes outside of sport and Top Gear, generally preferring the offerings of Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and, increasingly under Peter Fincham’s leadership, ITV.

Then there is Clarkson’s old nemesis, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who made an offensive comparison to Jimmy Savile when describing Clarkson’s situation. This is the same Danny Cohen, still only 41-years-old, who, fully aware of Savile’s, erm, ‘dark side’, commissioned a special ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ programme shortly after his death, and also has such highbrow, intellectual hits as ‘Snog, Marry Avoid’, ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ to his commissioning CV.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons for liking Clarkson and liking Top Gear. But less clear is why Clarkson is somehow considered a ‘right winger’.

Stephen Fry was once described (by an uncertain source) as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. On that basis, Jeremy Clarkson is ‘a left wing person’s idea of what a right wing person is like’.

Driving gas-guzzling cars and making politically-incorrect jokes about foreigners and homosexuals does not make you right wing.

In the eyes of BBC types, a right winger is something undesirable that behaves like Clarkson, but where is the evidence that Clarkson is especially right wing?

Yes, he attended Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, and he’s friends with David Cameron (not that David Cameron is truly right wing). He comes from a well-off background and his mother, Shirley, did very well out of manufacturing Paddington Bear toys (the prototypes being Christmas presents for a 12-year-old Jeremy and his sister, Joanna).

But beyond that, the evidence is thin. When has Clarkson ever said anything of note about the things that right wingers (quite a broad church, actually) consider important?

Has Clarkson had much to say at all about things like national sovereignty, a low-tax economy, the traditional family, law and order, proper education, Christianity, personal responsibility and individual liberty?

These are values the BBC cliques are at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile to, but are the values that millions of ordinary British people hold dear.

That’s not to say Clarkson should have things to say on these matters – he’d be well-advised to stick to what he’s good at, but to claim he is a ‘right winger’ is neither fair nor accurate.

Clarkson Hammond MaySo what happens next? We know that the planned arena shows are to go ahead without any Top Gear or BBC branding (the shows will be known as ‘Clarkson, Hammond and May’), and inevitably, Clarkson’s agent will be (has already been?) inundated with offers.

James May and Richard Hammond’s contract expired at midnight on 1 April. They, too, are free to speak to rival broadcasters.

Sky are going through a period of cost-cutting at present after paying a staggering £4.18 billion to hold on to their Premier League football rights, up 70% on the previous inflation-busting auction just three years ago. They’re unlikely to splash out on a big contract for the trio.

ITV are the front-runners to sign them. As a business, it’s in much better shape than it was seven years ago, its share price has risen steadily in recent times, and they have money to spend. All they’d need to do is come up with a new programme name, a slight format tweak, and they’d have a product they could export globally and successfully, as they do with Downton Abbey and many other flagship programmes. Could it be as big a hit as Top Gear? There’s no obvious reason why it couldn’t.

Such a programme would also attract, and I hate to use Yentob-speak, the ABC1 demographic that ITV finds harder to draw in – more affluent, younger people (especially men), who are much sought-after by big brand advertisers, like, well, car and electronics companies, the sort who advertise during ITV’s football coverage.

Of course, there are other possibilities, Channel 4, Channel 5 (recently purchased by American giants Viacom), Netflix, Amazon and goodness knows what else.

For the time being, Clarkson would be well-advised to take a break, sit on an island somewhere and get his head together, but bet your bottom dollar on him being back on our screens before too long.

Clarkson is dead. Long live Clarkson!

Written by Marcus Stead

April 2, 2015 at 2:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Marcus Stead’s Coffee Break Episode 1 – The Trial Run

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Me2014Click here to view my new YouTube show, Marcus Stead’s Coffee Break. Episode 1 is very much a trial run, and there’s lots wrong with it. We have: 1. Priceless advice for young wannabe journalists. 2. Shrinking chocolate bars/boxes. 3. Russell Brand – time to show him the red card. Enjoy!

Written by Marcus Stead

March 23, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

30 Years On: An Honest Assessment of the Miners’ Strike

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By MARCUS STEAD

It’s 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, and in the coalfield of South Wales, a version of events has gone down in folklore that bears little resemblance to the facts.

The conventional wisdom dictates that Margaret Thatcher had some kind of mad vendetta against the mining communities in general, and that her policies are somehow to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in these communities in the years since.

This crude, caricatured thinking conveniently ignores numerous inconvenient truths, such as that Harold Wilson’s government closed far more coal mines than Thatcher ever did (Wilson closed 260 to Thatcher’s 154).

The ‘blame Thatcher every time it rains’ rhetoric also ignores the reality that between 1997 and 2010, the party most former miners loyally support, Labour, had an unbroken period of government (on-going if we include the Welsh Government), and did little to seriously improve these communities or the lives of ex-miners and their families.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It’s easier and more comfortable to run with the theory than to face up to the reality that the miners themselves need to shoulder much of the blame for letting themselves be manipulated by National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill’s vanity, hypocrisy and madcap leadership.
On this sad anniversary, it’s time for a reassessment. Nelson Mandela believed in truth and reconciliation as a means of healing a society.

First must come truth, for without it those 30-year-old wounds cannot heal. It’s not morally right to continue to indoctrinate the young with the ‘Thatcher’s evil’ version of events, nor is it right for the miners themselves to continue to present Scargill as a hero, for it was his recklessness that led to ultimate defeat and the eventual destruction of the mining industry.

Let’s start at the beginning: The coal mining industry of the early 1980s required enormous government subsidies. In 1982/83, the stated operating loss per tonne was £3.05 (around £10.20 in today’s money), and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper.

The industry itself was losing around £1.5 million per day (around £4.6 million by today’s figures), making it an intolerable and unsustainable burden on the taxpayer.

Several years before the strike, the Thatcher government made it clear that to return to profitability, the mining industry would need to modernise, invest in mechanisation, and yes, there would inevitably be subsequent job cuts.

The pretext of the strike was a very modest proposal by Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board, to close, over a period of time, just 20 of Britain’s 170 coal mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs, spread across northern England, Scotland and Wales, undoubtedly difficult for those communities affected, but peanuts compared with what happened in the years immediately after the strike.

Three years earlier, the Thatcher government backed down from plans to close 23 pits after Yorkshire NUM members passed a resolution to strike if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties.

Following MacGregor’s announcement, Scargill made an unsubstantiated allegation that the government had a long-term strategy to close 70 pits.

There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre with Scargill. Not a single job loss, whether as a result of pit closure or modernisation in working practises would have been acceptable to him. His demands were to intensify to an absurd degree later on.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Crucially, Scargill, a man of infinite vanity, never called a full, national ballot, which would have strengthened his moral case enormously, and would become a legal requirement when the Trade Union Act 1984 came into law shortly after the strike began.

Upon the enforcement of the Act, striking miners were not entitled to state benefits due to the lack of a national ballot, and Scargill shamefully decided he would rather force miners, their wives and their children to rely on handouts and charity for food and clothing rather than call a ballot and ensure they had the safety net of state benefits to keep them in an acceptable standard of living for the strike’s duration.

Each mine had an individual ballot, with 18 of the 28 pits in Wales voting against strike action. The way ballots were held in pits that voted in favour was also highly dubious, with Betws and others holding a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

In other words, miners may well have felt intimidated into voting in favour of action, even if they knew it would be self-defeating. Indeed, that year’s Trade Union Act, soon to be enforced, made secret ballots a compulsory precursor to strike action.

Intimidation was the main method used by NUM militants of spreading the strike across the many South Wales pits that didn’t vote for it and didn’t want it, with flying pickets appearing at mines as men arrived for work. This was confrontational, anti-democratic and bullying behaviour from Scargill and his apparatchiks.

Scargill’s other gross miscalculation was to begin the strike in the spring, when demand for coal had peaked. Unknown to most at the time, the Thatcher government was well and truly ready for the strike.

It had stockpiled enough coal to fulfil the country’s energy needs well into the future, thus ensuring the NUM could not hold her government to ransom the way they did with Heath, Callaghan, and indeed Thatcher herself in the near-strike of 1981.

Striking miners protest in London.

Striking miners protest in London.

By the summer of 1984, Scargill’s demands had intensified and become even more ludicrous. Preventing pit closures was no longer enough. He now also demanded, amongst other things: A four-day working week; a substantial increase in wages; retirement age brought down to 55; consolidation of the incentive bonus scheme, development of 40 million tonnes of new capacity; new investment to expand all existing pits.

There were other demands, too, but these are the ones that stand out as the barmiest. There was no way the Thatcher government could possibly give in to them.

Scargill himself was now a regular fixture not just on the heavy political TV programmes, but also on light entertainment chat shows, where he made no secret of the fact he was a Marxist who wanted to bring down the democratically-elected Thatcher government.

This was now a straightforward battle between parliamentary democracy and mob rule led by a union baron who didn’t even legitimise his own strike with a full, secret ballot. We should all be glad that parliamentary democracy won, including the miners who lost their jobs.

As time went by, a minority of miners in South Wales returned to work, believing the strike to be futile and knowing it wasn’t in the best interests of themselves, their families, or the long-term future of the industry. They were subjected to cruel taunts of ‘scabs’ by their colleagues, for abandoning a strike that was only ever going to end one way.

It wasn’t just name-calling. Many strike-breaking miners had their properties vandalised, faced physical violence, and were shunned by former colleagues when the strike eventually ended.

One other highly irritating aspect of the strike’s legacy is the way people in mining communities try to romanticise and sentimentalise it, by talking about the sense of community, the togetherness, and of fighting for principles.

The reality was far less happy. The lack of money coming into their homes meant miners were reliant on union reserves for food, as well as parcels from Paris, Amsterdam and even Russia.

Striking miners depended on money gathered from charity collections in town centres to pay their household bills, with public sympathy gradually eroding as the months rolled by as the futility of the strike became apparent, all while Scargill lived a life of luxury cars and properties paid for by his members.

Strains were put on marriages, long-standing friendships were tested, and there were several violent incidents where innocent people tragically lost their lives.

Due to the sheer length of the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers, at a time of extensive competition in world coal markets as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas power production.

There was to be no way back. The NCB accelerated the closure of pits on economic grounds, resulting on a far greater loss of jobs over a far shorter period of time.

The knock-on effect of widespread pit closures was massive. In many valley towns, the pit was the main employer. It was going to be extremely difficult to encourage new jobs to the affected areas to fill the gaps.

Long-term unemployment became a very real problem. Areas that were known for their Protestant work ethic, close families and tight-knit communities began a downward spiral into crime, poverty, drugs and welfare dependency.

Of course this is something to be regretted, but former miners owe it to themselves, and to future generations, to acknowledge that were it not for Scargill’s gross mishandling of the conflict, the speed and scale of pit closures would have been far less severe, as indeed would the social impact that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

A Christmas Reflection

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Years ago, I attended a church where every Christmas morning the priest went through a routine at Mass that has stayed with me ever since.

It was the same every single year. He would begin his sermon by inviting all the children to sit in a semi-circle at the front. Then he would ask them what presents they’d received for Christmas. Excited hands shot up and the answers were much as you’d expect: games consoles, footballs, dolls houses and so on.

Next he would ask them what presents they had last Christmas. No excited hands shot up this time. A small number, maybe 10% of those assembled, cautiously raised their hands and could just about answer.

Then he would ask them what they received two Christmases ago. Not one hand went up. Nobody had a clue. Then he would turn to the adults and ask them the same question. In a congregation of around 300 people, not one individual could remember.

Now it’s your turn. What presents did YOU receive two Christmases ago? Can you really remember what you got last Christmas? There may be the occasional reader of this blog who received an engagement ring from their partner from the top of the Empire State Building, but for the most part it’s long forgotten.

This year, a great deal of media attention has been drawn to the phenomena of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Manic Monday’. I first became aware of the former around a decade ago from America, where apparently it crept in during the late 1990s, but until now was unfamiliar with it in a British context. I can honestly say I was completely unaware of ‘Manic Monday’ in any sense until this year.

Those crazed scenes of stampedes of people  charging through supermarket doors before they’ve had a chance to open properly and those arguments between customers over who put their hand on the last cut price 42” LED TV first have become extremely ugly, unhealthy aspects of Christmas.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, ask yourself how much the presents will matter to you next month, let alone by next Christmas. In reality, people are sucked in by cleverly-pitched marketing campaigns and alliterative tabloid headlines. They are told that aspiring to own that TV or that computer game will make them happy and their life complete.

The truth is that excessive consumerism offers us no such thing. The more you have, the more you want. What you currently have will become the norm, and you will want more. This leads to neither happiness nor contentment long-term. In fact, the novelty will wear off in days or weeks, months at the absolute most.

Think back to your old childhood Christmases. Most people, including those youngish like myself, can remember a time before Black Friday and Manic Monday, when there was very little hype until well into December, and shops weren’t afraid of putting up Nativity scenes in their windows – the official excuse for not doing it is that it’ll offend people of other faiths. The reality is that it’s generally the aggressive secularists and radical leftists who dislike it the most.

Can you remember many (or even any) of your presents from those Christmases? Probably not. What you are more likely to remember, especially if you were fortunate enough to have a happy childhood, are family gatherings, nice meals, sitting in front of a warm fire watching TV or playing games together.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you’ll want to remind yourself every year of the Christmas story – of the baby Jesus born in a stable to give hope to a troubled world. But even if you’re not, it’s time to go back to basics, to a Christmas of families, long days spent with people who won’t be around forever, children appreciating the magic of the season.

These are the things you’ll cherish in your hearts in years to come. The other stuff, the forced jollity, the Black Fridays, the Manic Mondays, the big-screen TVs and games consoles that seemed so important at the time will all be long forgotten.

A happy and joyous Christmas to you all.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 25, 2014 at 3:42 am