Aunty needs to look at herself

May 20, 2009

It’s good to see the BBC licence fee being debated again.

 This time it’s the Tories – no doubt keen to deflect some attention away from their own expense claims – suggesting that efficiencies can be made and that the fee be frozen.

Before I go on, I’ll admit to not being the BBC’s biggest fan. I believe it is too big, often goes too far in stepping on the toes of the independent media, and they once turned me down for a job (to be fair I did call one of the interviewers an elitist, posh school cunt).

More importantly, the BBC as an organisation, like our MPs, has taken the taxpayer for granted.

I do accept and strongly believe that parts of the BBC are very important and need protection. It’s news coverage is vital. Its original programming has clearly raised and kept the standards of our television high.

However, there are many other parts of the corporation which need to be trimmed.

I’d put money on there being a few expense scandals lurking in Aunty’s murky corridors.

Some of those we know already know about seem massively excessive to me.
* £33k a day on taxis.
* £120k on a Christmas party for 2,500 staff.
* £45k on a launch party for Merlin.

Then there are the salaries of its ‘stars’. Would you rather spend £2m a year for Jonathan Ross or support 200 well paid journalists? Ross may attract decent audience figures, but his shows could (and probably would have been) easily be provided by another channels without cost to the tax payer.

Earlier this month we had the startling revelation that news reader Carrie Grace earns £92,000 a year for reading out loud. Ok, she’s an award-winning interviewer (although she handled that expenses one appallingly), but I don’t think it’s a stretch for the Beeb to find some equally talented for half that wage.
Afterall, there are (or were) thousands of talented journalists out there, including huge numbers working for less than £25k or even £20k in the regional press.

The digital channels – do we really need to spend so much on so many when the audience share is so low?

Do we really need regional news websites which steal most of its content from the regional press before cutting them down to a very superficial summary?

And then my real pet hate – the regional BBC radio stations. They offer very similar products to what’s already available commercially. How is it a pubic service to repeat what is already being provided by a non-state funded company?
All they do is take business away from non-state funded companies and deny local firms a platform to advertise.

So particularly in these trying times – the Beeb needs to take a long hard look at how it is spending its money.

But the bits of the BBC which provide genuine public service – in particular its journalism – need protection.

A free press/media is vital to a successful democracy, and it’s incredibly important to have news and issues debated by news organisations with differing political slants. Where we’re lucky in this country is that in the BBC, we have a service which reflects the news agenda from a neutral perspective very well.
It tries incredibly hard to present the facts and various points of views without taking sides and letting the reader make up its own mind, free from the bias of owners or market forces.

So before any cuts are made of the licence fee, the money it spends on its (national) news coverage needs to be secured.


Just put your lips together and blow…

May 14, 2009

The one story from the MPs expenses that has really annoyed me – and there are plenty – was the story about police being called in to investigate “the mole” who sold the details to The Telegraph.

Now, I’d rather that person had simply leaked the document, but there’s no arguing as to the importance of the information he gave to the press.

So it infuriated me that another whistleblower is probably going to be punished for revealing a story of vital interest to the public.

We’re supposed to be living in a society which supports a free press – but the heavy handed punishments and harrasment of whistleblowers flies in the face of this.

I was on the newsdesk of the Gloucestershire Echo when the Katherine Gunn case broke.

She was the GCHQ worker who leaked an email to from the NSA requesting British help to bug offices and homes of UN diplomats from countries whose support would be vital to win a resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.

This was an incredibly important story. But what Katherine Gunn went through afterwards was scandalous.

Then of course there was David Kelly – the man hounded to suicide for leaking the ‘dodgier dossier’.

I also had conversations with Sally Murrer, the journalist arrested and detained for 48 hours for having an off the record chat with a whistleblowing police officer.

In the last couple of months we’ve seen a teacher sacked for filming incredible examples of poor behaviour in schools and a nurse struck off for filming the terrible conditions of a hospital – something she only did after her complaints were ignored by her bosses.

So it came as no surprise to me to hear that The Times is going to be punished for daring to point problems with our legal system.  The paper ran a piece from a foreman of a jury who showed how a controversial decision was reached in a manslaughter trial.

All journalists know that the jury is out of bounds when reporting on court cases. And most of us also know that the jury system is absurdly flawed.

 Having served on a jury, I’ve seen first hand how ludicrous a system it can be. In my case, one of the jurors stated, after just the prosecution’s opening statement, that he didn’t care about the evidence. He said that he trusted the police and as the man had been arrested, he had to have done something. He also believed that as it was a drugs case and the man was of a certain age and class, he was definitely guilty.

In the end, two days of arguments were settled by tiredness – the not guilty dissenters backed down because they wanted to go home.

The man was clearly guilty in my eyes, and the verdict reflected that, but the way it was settled was incredibly worrying.

So I think it is an incredible injustice that The Times and the foreman are going to be done for contempt of court for having the balls to say something. They’ve probably done the legal system a great service.

Too many whistleblowers are being punished for bringing important truths to light, and until they get greater protection, a free press will never be fully realised.


Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.