Lanyardula fever

February 3, 2010 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social brain 

I have been busy conducting interviews for a Radio Four mini-series, ‘God on my Mind’. One of the most interetsing , was with Bruce Hood of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Bristol University. He argues in his book ‘Supersense’ that the process of child development leaves us predisposed to supernatural beliefs. One aspect of this is how we feel emotion about inanimate objects, not because of their inherent qualities but their associations. So, for example, very few of us are willing to touch a cardigan when we are told it was once worn by Fred West, as if somehow evil has rubbed off on the garment and it is contagious.

I was reminded of my own irrational feelings towards everyday objects when I went to get a temporary pass for the BBC (soon to be followed by the real thing). It filled me with a quite undue sense of pride and achievement.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Over several years I took great pleasure in keeping my Labour Party conference passes as I passed through various stages of promotion from research assistant to head of rebuttal to head of policy and ultimately assistant general secretary. And when I left Number Ten I went to quite some lengths to hold on to my Downing Street and Parliamentary passes, not because I wanted to gain illicit entry, but because each pass carried a great symbolic weight.

Indeed, so voluminous has my collection now become that I suspect if I ever go completely dotty I will be found running naked down the South Lambeth Road wearing nothing but hundreds of brightly coloured passes and lanyards.

Getting the BBC pass involved another memorable moment. The young man in the ID office was having some difficulty printing my photograph when an internal BBC messenger came to his desk to drop off a parcel. When the messenger held out his clipboard for a signature the ID guy said ‘sorry I’m a bit busy can I sign for it later’. The messenger was walking away when he turned; ‘sorry, mate, I think I need it now’. At which point ID guy leant over and signed, an act that must have taken all of two seconds.

I always think when I say it that it’s true, but I guess the statement ’I am too busy’ is an assertion of status, a way of showing that your job is more important that the person seeking your time. Maybe ID card guy was once assistant ID card guy, someone who had no choice but to sign when asked. But now he has moved up in the world and everyone needs to know it.

‘How funny; to be so obsessed with status, to behave in such an evidently silly way’ I said to myself slightly adjusting my jacket collar to make sure any passer-by caught sight of my bright blue BBC lanyard.

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Good news is no news

January 24, 2010 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

On the face of it last week contained two really good bits of news. First, there was unemployment apparently peaking at nearly half a million fewer people than most analysts, including the Government’s, were predicting this time last year. Second, the crime stats showed an 8% headline fall, again defying the widespread prediction that there would be more offences committed during the recession.

I am sure the Government wishes more attention was being paid to the good news, and hoping an effect might show up in the opinion polls. If so, ministers will have been disappointed to open Sunday newspapers, brimming not with glad tidings but endless analysis of the child assaults in Edlington, plus pages of speculation about how the current and previous Prime Minister will perform in the Iraq inquiry. But it’s not so much the politics that interest me.

Both the employment and crime news are genuinely interesting. There are various explanations for the former and tucked away on the BBC website is a very good overview from Stephanie Flanders. So the news was reported and there are analyses available, but why don’t people seem particularly interested? Compare this with the endless agonising – on the news, in the papers, but also in bus queues and pubs – about whether this would be the worst recession since (or even including) the Great Depression.

It’s a cliche that the news focuses on bad things. Over the years various people, from newsreaders to website founders, have tried to get people interested in a more balanced offering.  But our lack of interest in how we have come through the downturn better than we expected, and our willingness to put so much more emphasis on the terrible crimes of two disturbed boys than the benign social trend revealed in the crime stats, underlines the depth of our social pessimism.

Last week, in an RSA Thursday event discussing optimism, a telling point was made. One of our advocates for pessimism, the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, said that a great thing about thinking the worst is that pessimists are surprised and delighted when things go well. But, as Laurence Shorter, author of The Optimist replied, what actually happens when inveterate pessimists are presented with good news that they ignore it, discount it or start looking for its drawbacks.

So wedded are we now to social pessimism that we are unwilling even to acknowledge that as a country we appear to have become both more economically resilient and socially responsible. If we don’t take in the good news we will be even less able to deal intelligently with the bad.

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The wrong answer to the BBC’s image problem?

May 14, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I was on a panel yesterday at an event organised by outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas. It wasn’t my finest hour, as I tried unsuccessfully to disguise having a tenth as much knowledge of data and civil liberties as the other participants. But I did have a good conversation with Jonathan Dimbleby, the event chair.   

Jonathan has written a powerful attack on the BBC Trust for its censuring of BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen. Now, I am all for media accountability, but having read through the detail of this case the Trust response does seem excessive. An essay by Bowen on the 1967 Six Day War was criticised by two well-known pro-Israeli activists. The Trust then agreed to a number of small amendments to Bowen’s piece. Supporters of the journalist fear that the damage to his and the BBC’s reputation caused by this apparent censure from the Trust is massively disproportionate.

My many friends in the BBC tell me that the system of editorial compliance now feels out of control. Fear of any criticism of content is creating cumbersome form-filling processes, a burgeoning bureaucracy and posing a threat to freedom and creativity (there is even talk by some programme makers of establishing an anonymous website on which to publish what they see as the more ludicrous compliance decisions). I was reminded of these concerns this morning when I heard that the BBC is again investigating Jonathan Ross, this time as a consequence of four complaints (so far) that a joke he made last weekend was homophobic.

Of course, these issues are difficult. The BBC is still in the shadow of a variety of attacks including the Gilligan affair, Ross/Brand, the misrepresentation of the Queen and dodgy phone-ins. Various other media interests – most obviously Associated Newspapers – are always on the look out for populist exposes of the BBC and the Conservative Party is adopting a position of studied neutrality about the future of the Corporation. But is it the right strategy to try, at whatever price, to ensure that no content ever upsets or irritates anyone, whatever their agenda?

In my experience, few thoughtful people are seriously critical of the range of BBC content; indeed most continue to regard it as excellent. The real image problem for the BBC in media circles right now is not its editorial policy but that it can seem impervious to the wider problems of the sector and public service broadcasting in particular. For instance, BBC executives can still be heard saying – as its BBC Trust Chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, did here last year – that any diversity needed in public service broadcasting can be delivered by pluralism within the Corporation! And, as the BBC argues that it can’t afford to lose a penny of its funding to help the rest of the sector, the pay of its senior executives doesn’t help its cause. 

We form general impressions of organisations, as we do of people. Those we judge to be modest and generous we are inclined to forgive when they make errors. But when those we deem arrogant and self interested err we enjoy their discomfort (witness the MPs’ expenses saga). Could it be that instead of attempting to avoid all editorial criticism – a project that will either fail or be deeply counter productive – the BBC should be focussing more on its image as a Corporation?    

PS: In case there is any doubt that my views may be influenced by the RSA’s new chairman, here is a link to a blog wote in May last year expressing some similar views.

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The politics of tax pledges

November 24, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics 

Having argued just a few days ago for an increase in tax for the highest earners to help fund public spending and tax cuts that help the poorest, it is beholden on me to applaud Alistair Darling’s announcement of a deferred rise for those earning over £150, 000. By delaying the increase until 2011 Labour can remain true to its manifesto pledge to maintain income tax rates.

Over the next 24 hours we can expect to see footage of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown signing the first income tax pledge back in 1996. Darling’s move will be portrayed as a watershed and, for some, the final nail in the coffin of New Labour. Given that today’s move is, we understand, to be justified not just in terms of fiscal rectitude but also fairness this is a significant shift (although the contribution the higher rate increase will make to the overall fiscal gap is pretty small). Polls taken before the financial crisis did not suggest much appetite in the electorate for redistribution, but now we all know we are going to feel pain down the road the voters will probably think it right that the best off make their contribution. The public may also approve of Labour’s political courage – it is not often that the first pledge to go into a Party’s manifesto is to raise taxes.

But if Darling’s announcement goes down well commentators from the left should resist the temptation to argue that Labour should never have made the tax pledge in the first place. In looking at the opinion polls leading up to the 1997 election some analysts have argued that the Blair modernisation project was unnecessary. After all, the decisive decline in Tory support happened immediately after Black Wednesday (when John Smith was Labour leader) after which Conservative support flat lined right up to their election rout.

Attempts to reconstruct history usually provide more insight into the prejudices of the person doing the reconstruction than say anything useful. No one knows what would have happened had John Smith lived. But the last 18 months have certainly taught us three things. First, holding on to a poll lead is just as hard as grabbing that lead; we are now in our third major swing of the pendulum since Tony Blair left office. Second, there is no simple correlation between the state of the economy and a Government’s performance in the polls. Third, once things start turning against you, they take on their own media-fuelled momentum – just ask George Osborne.

Unless someone can explain why the electorate has become much more inherently volatile over the last ten years, Blair and Brown’s achievement in keeping their foot on the Conservative’s political windpipe looks more and more impressive. From the perspective of 2008 there doesn’t seem there was anything inevitable about the situation in 1994 that would lead to Labour’s victory in 1997. It was Labour’s single minded determination to win and the Conservatives apparent death wish that turned an economic crisis into a political sea change.

Tony Blair’s tax pledge in 1996 was an important part of maintaining the contrast between a brilliant opposition and a hopeless Government. Today, as Alistair Darling reverses that pledge the balance of political forces is much more even.

Update: I’m on the World at One to talk about this

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Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross debacle

October 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public policy 

The Guardian’s Jenni Russell is always worth reading. Today she shines a light on an important dimension of the Brand Ross debacle. She describes her own experience as a young BBC producer trying to deal with a cantankerous and sloppy radio presenter. After trying to get the star in question to perform better it was quickly made clear by the powers that be it was he the ‘talent’ – not she the producer – who would call the shots. Within days the presenter had her removed from the programme.

Russell cites her own experience to underline the thesis that the problem at the BBC was about the power imbalance between Brand and Ross and their fixers on the one hand, and the young producers and corporate executives on the other. There are parallels here with the widespread feeling among football fans that individual players and their agents (who, unlike the fans who pay their wages, generally lack any loyalty to a club) have too much power. Echoes too of the City in which mathematical whiz kids and super charged deal makers ran rings round both internal and external supervision.

Which takes us to a much bigger debate about the nature and value of individual talent. Coming from another angle Malcolm Gladwell has made two important contributions to this debate. First, he has demonstrated that the point at which geniuses produce what is deemed by their peers to be their master work is distributed across the life cycle. The Mozart phenomenon of genius being exhibited almost from the cradle is the exception. Of course, people who prove to be great artists, intellectuals or inventors are likely to show talent in their youth but the point at which this talent creates a truly exceptional product is unpredictable. This randomness is often subsequently disguised. This is because once someone achieves genius status all their work before and after their breakthrough will tend to be favourably reassessed.

This is a point made by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in ‘The Black Swan’ where he suggests the process by which certain authors or composers emerge as geniuses while the rest fall back into obscurity is much more serendipitous than we like to imagine. I love Dickens and think Great Expectations is a work of genius but I suspect that in the canon of Dickens there are many novels which are seen as classics even though they are inferior to other forgotten works by Victorians who never got their big breakthrough. Thus the idea that Dickens was a genius throughout his life and that he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries is a self fulfilling prophesy.

Gladwell has also thrown his weight behind the argument that scientific breakthroughs, which end up being attributed to one person, are nearly always the outcomes of the work of many people, one of whom happens to put in place the final piece of the jigsaw. Had the so called genius not existed then the piece would have inevitably been put in place by someone else.

The combination of post-hoc rationalisation, the allure of simple stories of human heroism and the ideology of individualism has cemented the myth of individual talent. Globalisation, the growth of PR and celebrity culture have accelerated this process. Those deemed talented are then in a powerful position to reinforce the myth at every turn.

The blind worship of individual talent is intellectually suspect and socially destructive. Maybe this too will be a welcome victim of these new times.

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