BBC 5 Live at 20

The BBC loves its own anniversaries. So it was no surprise that Radio 5 Live lost no opportunity to tell listeners that the station turned 20 years old this week.

Is it really 20 years? I remember joking about the name of the station when it launched in 1994: it sounded like 5 Alive, the fruit juice. It was the month John Major’s government was in trouble (just for a change), this time about funding of the Pergau dam in Malaysia.

I also remember an earlier fifth BBC radio network: Radio 5, launched in 1988, which broadcast an uneasy mix of sport and education programmes. Its successor station 5 Live has successfully mixed sport and news, but as Nicky Campbell said on 5 Live Breakfast today, some doubted that 5 Live would be any more successful with its own mix of sport and news. It has proved the doubters wrong.

I was a teenage fan of Radio 4’s Today programme, but during my forties I felt more at home with 5 Live. I like the more informal approach, and the banter amongst the presenters. The newer station can also be harder hitting: I blogged last year about Nicky Campbell’s brilliantly forensic demolition of hapless Blackberry boss Stephen Bates. Peter Allen is equally incisive.

I did feel nostalgic this afternoon listening to Peter Allen reunited with Jane Garvey on Drive. And their mention of former travel news reader Jo Sale took me right back to my early days regularly listening to the station in early 2005.

Here’s to the next 20 years. You can bet the BBC is already planning the 40th anniversary programmes. PS: look out for the half century celebration of Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 in 2017…

Jane Garvey, Adrian Chiles and Marcus Buckland on 5 Live's launch day. Photo: BBC

Jane Garvey, Adrian Chiles and Marcus Buckland on 5 Live’s launch day. Photo: BBC

Remembering Brian Redhead

Brian Redhead

Yesterday’s Today: Brian Redhead

It’s hard to believe that it’s 20 years since the death of BBC Today presenter Brian Redhead. I still remember the shock of hearing the news on a Sunday evening BBC news bulletin, realising I’d never again hear that wonderful, impassioned northern voice on Today as I drove to work.

Brian was an extraordinary broadcaster. He’s best remembered as a combative interrogator of politicians, and for his contempt for Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson’s assumption in an interview that Redhead supported Labour. But Brian was also a fine print journalist on the Guardian – and I cherish the memory of his beautifully judged, tender 1993 interview with a school child over some long-forgotten subject. He was a journalist and broadcaster whose talent ranged far and wide.

Redhead became famous for his Today partnership with John Timpson. They seemed like chalk and cheese: mercurial and mellow; northern and southern. But the pairing worked, and helped transform Today from a lightweight show to national treasure.

Poignantly, Brian’s son Will was killed in a crash that almost took the life of Nick Robinson, Will’s friend and the BBC’s current political editor. Nick has explained how the connection inspired emotional thoughts when he briefly presented Today.

I’ve been a Today fan for almost 40 years. I remember the days when Desmond Lynam presented the programme. As a teenager, my morning routine followed the Today running order, unlike my school friends who preferred Dave Lee Travis and Mike Read on Radio 1.

Thirty years on, Brian Redhead remains a broadcasting legend.

Why I’m cancelling the Guardian after 36 years

The Guardian: from print to pixels

The Guardian: from print to pixels

I’ve been reading The Guardian since 1978: the year the winter of discontent started and the first test tube baby was born. As a 1980s student I endured days when the paper never appeared because of strikes and days when photos were so badly printed they were impossible to discern. Today’s paper is a miracle in colour – and the writing is as glorious as ever – yet I’m cancelling my subscription.

But this is no act of infidelity. I’ve decided after two years that the Guardian’s iPad edition is perfect for me. I prefer pixels to print, at least during the working week. I can read the ‘paper’ at the breakfast table in San Francisco and Sirmione as well as at home in our Buckinghamshire village without looking for a newsagent. I don’t have to recycle yesterday’s paper. And my fingers don’t get mucky with newsprint.

I made the decision after weeks of never buying the print edition with my subscriber’s vouchers. Most days, I read the iPad edition over lunch at my desk at work, avoiding the queue at WH Smith for the printed paper.  I couldn’t see the point of spending almost £40 a month for the print subscription when I could get the digital version for around a quarter of the price.

I’ll still buy the printed Guardian on Saturdays. Weekends are different, and Karen and I enjoy sharing the weekend paper – I devour the opinions and sports sections, while she enjoys Family and Travel. (We both love the Weekend magazine.)

The Guardian is special. It stands out from the overwhelmingly authoritarian, right wing British national press. It has been a digital pioneer, although it was slow to introduce an iPad edition. Like many, I wonder how long it will maintain a print edition. Yet I’ve surprised myself. When I started reading the Guardian, Times and Telegraph on my iPad, I thought printed newspapers had a unique appeal that would endure. Now I’m not so sure.

Britain’s papers have embraced the iPad. The broadsheets have become pixel publishers, yet it’s not clear how much money they’re making from their digital editions. But there are two brutal truths: they cannot survive on print alone. And giving away content for free online threatens everything. It will be fascinating to see how this story develops over the next few years.

PS: my review of the very first Guardian iPad edition has stood the test of time. You can also read my post about The Times’ iPad edition.

The Telegraph's iPad front page

The Telegraph’s iPad front page

Thanks for the laughter, Simon Hoggart


Above: The Guardian mourns its star sketch writer

Saturdays won’t be the same again. The Guardian weekend columnist and parliamentary sketch-writer Simon Hoggart has died aged 67.

Never again will we savour Hoggart’s waspish columns, mocking politicians and everyday people – especially Christmas round-robin letters.

Today, The Guardian’s obituary recounted examples of Hoggart’s wit, as well as his serious journalist, notably covering the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.  His damning account of the British Army’s actions on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 was confined by the 2010 Saville inquiry.

Hoggart was also a witty broadcaster, and he transformed Radio 4’s venerable News Quiz in the 1990s when he took over as chairman from Barry Took. He made it essential listening compared with the tired show that he inherited. (Helped by a fresh generation of brilliant comics, including Andy Hamilton, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith.)

A sad loss.

The Daily Mail’s shameful attack on Ralph Miliband

I’m not a great fan of  Ed Miliband. I’m even less of a fan of Marxism. But I was disgusted by the Daily Mail’s attack on the Labour leader’s late father Ralph Miliband, and its bizarre claim that Ralph hated Britain.

Miliband senior fought for Britain in the Royal Navy in the second world war after fleeing Nazi occupied Europe as a Jewish refugee. He went on to become a famous Marxist acedemic. He died 19 years ago.

The Mail today carried a reply from Ed Miliband. Yet the paper showed its true colours by repeating even more strongly its attack on Ed’s father, and using typically contemptuous language to mock Miliband’s right of reply: “He has stamped his feet and demanded a right of reply”. This is the behaviour of a school bully attacking a victim who dared fight back.

The Mail’s ludicrous attack suggests that the Mail is seriously scared that Miliband’s popular attack on the energy companies at Labour’s conference will kill the possibility of the Tory party winning the 2015 election. That would also hugely increase the possibility of statutory regulation of the press, as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, and blocked by David Cameron. The Mail will do anything to prevent anyone taking away its ‘power without responsibility’, as Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin put it.

The Daily Mail has been a huge success since the late David English reinvented it as a tabloid 40 years ago. It’s routinely described as the voice of Middle England. Yet it is strangely out of tune with traditional British values. It ruthlessly attacks anyone who doesn’t share its world view. It lacks a sense of fair play. It has no sense of humour except in its brilliant cartoons. This week’s distasteful stories will prove a seriously misjudgement, boosting Ed Miliband’s reputation and diminishing the Mail’s.

The Daily Mail, Mick Philpott and the welfare state

An evil man, Mick Philpott, was jailed this week for killing six of his children by setting fire to his house.  His actions were, it seems, a grotesque attempt to frame his former lover for arson. An extraordinary and unique story – hardly a parable for the decline of a nation.

Yet the Daily Mail immediately used the Philpott case as a weapon in its war against the welfare state in one of the most notorious front pages in recent years:

Hate crime: Daily Mail's Philpott front page

Hate crime: Daily Mail’s Philpott front page

No one should be surprised by the Mail’s cynical attempt to use the tragic deaths of six children to further its campaign against the welfare state. This is a paper that revels in spreading disharmony and fear. As Labour’s Dan Hodges points out in a Daily Telegraph blog:

In truth, it’s impossible to rationalise the logic of someone who pours petrol over their home, consigns six children to death, and then according to evidence presented in court “engaged in “horseplay” when he went to view his children’s bodies”. But one thing is certain, the man responsible for this act of barbarism is Mick Philpott, not William Beveridge.

The Mail’s Philpott front page is the latest move in a cynical campaign by the Conservative right wing and their media supporters to smear the poor and disadvantaged. At a time when thousands of families are struggling to make ends meet, the right is very deliberately attacking the postwar consensus that the state should help when hard times strike. At the same time, the coalition’s cabinet of millionaires is cutting benefits and imposing a bedroom tax, while cutting their own tax burden.

All that said, it’s entirely reasonable for the media and politicians to ask serious questions about how the welfare state operates. (In the same way that we should be able to talk about immigration openly and sensibly.) You don’t need to be a right winger to ask whether someone like Philpott should be paid over £54,000 a year by the state to father 17 children. As Dan Hodges said in his blog, the left can be just as cynical in exploiting the vulnerable for their own political purposes. But nothing quite matches the fact that the memory of six tragic children has been used by a newspaper that cares nothing about them, but everything about its hatred for Britain’s welfare state.

It’s not just papers like the Mail who exploited the Philpott story. Before the Derby killings,  Philpott appeared on so-called reality television shows. He became a minor celebrity. This violent and evil man became a figure of entertainment.

One final word. The Daily Mail would have us belief that benefits and allowances are easy to come by. But our family’s experience shows that the state can be callous. My mother is partially sighted. She is totally dependent on my father for support. They’re both in their eighties. They were totally entitled to attendance allowance. Yet she was turned down. The form was designed to ensure people’s applications failed, no matter how worthy their claim. Mum only got the money she deserved because her wonderful MP, Labour’s Alun Michael, took up her cause. (Alun is now  Police & Crime Commissioner for South Wales.) So much for the welfare state.

The state should be there for people when they need help. It often isn’t. But Britain’s millionaire cabinet and the Daily Mail’s calculating editor in chief Paul Dacre live in a different world. They will never comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the press is meant to. No wonder they’ve formed a cynical alliance to prevent regulation of the press. How telling that they’re more concerned to punish the poor than condemn the bankers, like HBOS bosses Crosby, Hornby and Stevenson, who trousered millions while leaving the state to spend unimaginable billions clearing up their mess.

Let us mourn six tragic children without using them for political purposes.

The Times and Sunday Times Newsstand app – crash!

I wrote last November that Apple’s Newsstand app was seriously flawed. It promises to deliver your daily (digital) newspaper to your iPad overnight ready for your commute. It’s never worked well – now it never works.

Britain’s News International has just launched a combined Times and Sunday Times app within Newsstand. Judging from today’s performance, this is the worst Newsstand experience so far. I saw glimpses of the Sunday Times front page – but never got any further as the app crashed every time.

Must do better…

Leveson: David Cameron, the press barons’ friend

“What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

So said Stanley Baldwin in 1931. (The phrase was provided by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.) He could have been talking about today’s press barons, and their criminal behaviour.

His current day successor as Tory prime minister is made of different stuff. He sided with the press barons and rejected the central recommendation of the Leveson report: proper regulation of this unruly industry, backed by statute.

Cameron naturally cloaked in noble concepts his rejection of the recommendations of the inquiry he himself set up:

“The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”

A moment’s consideration shows this to be utter nonsense. Parliament has passed countless laws that infringe free speech and a free speech, in many cases for profoundly sensible reasons. (The obvious one is the contempt laws that try to prevent the judicial process being compromised by unfair reporting. Yet the odious tabloid press ignored those laws in its rush to destroy the reputation of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates.)

It’s no surprise that Cameron rushed to rubbish Leveson: like too many politicians, he was unhealthily close to the press barons who have behaved so appallingly. (He rushed to show that Leveson cleared him of any deal with News International, ignoring the fact that a deal was unnecessary: a nudge and a wink was enough, as it was with Tony Blair’s relationship with the Murdoch empire.)

Here are just a few examples of why the argument against statute-backed regulation is so weak:

  • Our criminal and civil justice systems are even more important defences of freedom than the press. Has anyone ever suggested they are weaker for being statute-based?
  • Politicians and journalists claim to fear politicians getting involved in the press. Haven’t they noticed that three out of four chairmen of the useless Press Complaints Commission were Tory peers? And that two of them are lobbying on behalf of the press proprietors against statutory regulation, regardless of the public interest?
  • The press has had countless opportunities to put its own house in order. As long ago as 1991, Tory minister David Mellor said the press was supping in last chance saloon. Twenty years on, it’s still at the bar. If there’s a regulator in the last chance saloon, it might as well be called Ofpiss.
  • Tory and Labour politicians have rightly demanded stronger regulation of industries and professions that have proved inadequate, corrupt and self serving. They have passed laws to enforce that regulation. Yet David Cameron thinks the press should escape scot-free. This is simply not on.
  • Press barons cannot be allowed to choose to be regulated, as Express owner Richard Desmond has exercised to stay out of the Press Complaints Commission. (His titles acted despicably in libelling Madeleine McCann’s parents.) We need legislation to ensure that the likes of Desmond never have this choice again.
  • Legislation and international agreements provide a strong defence of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Britain was a powerful influence in the creation of the European Convention of Human Rights over 60 years ago. Labour incorporated the ECHR into British law in the Human Rights Act. Yet many Tories opposed both. So much for their concern for freedom of expression.
  • Opponents of the idea of statutory press regulation argue that it’s unnecessary as phone hacking and other press outrages were infringements of existing laws. Yet the point is pointless: the press ignored the law. It needs greater enforcement controls.

The bigger question about Leveson is what it didn’t consider. Ignoring the influence of the online world was a big failure. (Understandable in 1999; inexplicable in 2012.) As the admirable Emily Bell pointed out in the Guardian (before Leveson’s publication), “to put “the internet” within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile, and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who “the press” might be, is a recipe for irrelevance.”

Yet I sense that we will soon see the end of the wild west era of the internet, at least in major countries. (We got a hint of that in Lord McAlpine’s actions against Twitter users who libelled him over the false BBC Newsnight allegations.)

Leveson didn’t get everything right. In the first few pages of his report, he called the Mail on Sunday the Sunday Mail (a very different title). More seriously, he misunderstands the importance of protecting sources. Yet overall, he offers a historic new settlement between the press and the people. Politicians and the media should seize the chance.

BBC’s George Entwistle: £450,00 reward for failure

“Thanks for resigning, George. Will £450,00 be enough?” Photo: BBC

On Saturday, George Entwistle’s resignation as the BBC’s director-general looked like the act of a decent and principled man. It doesn’t look such a principled act now we know that Entwistle will be paid £450,000 for resigning. (A year’s salary.) A classic case of being rewarded for failure.

True, it’s a lot more modest than Rebekah Brooks’ £7m payoff from News International after the phone hacking scandal. But the licence fee payers are paying for it. It’s more than he was entitled to (six months.) And it’s another gift for the BBC’s enemies at News International and the Daily Mail, who will use it as ammunition in their campaign against the compulsory BBC licence fee.

Millions of licence fee payers face tough times. They will be outraged at the way they’re being punished for George Entwistle’s incompetence. Mr Decent has turned into Mr Shameless.

It suggests that Chris Patten and George Entwistle either didn’t consider how bad this would look, or didn’t care.

Will the BBC survive Newsnight and Savile?

Endgame: John Humphrys ends his editor-in-chief’s career

Last night, the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resigned after just 55 days in the job after horribly mishandling Newsnight’s disastrous false allegation of child abuse against Lord McAlpine. As I predicted on Ertblog yesterday, Entwistle’s encounter with John Humphrys on Today represented his exit interview.

The BBC is now in an even greater crisis than at the height of the storm over Newsnight’s scrapped exposé of Jimmy Savile. That was an error of omission. By contrast, the McAlpine libel was a grievous error of commission. That failure seems inexplicable coming straight after the Savile scandal, which would have prompted any half competent leader to insistent on the utmost vigilance in vetting future Newsnight reporting.

So is the BBC’s future in doubt? No – provided the new director general gets a grip on the corporation’s bloated and ineffectual management. (You couldn’t call them leaders.) What were they all doing? Why didn’t the PR team alert him to the tweet and Guardian story about Newsnight? Why did the lawyers approve the report libelling Lord McAlpine? It’s hard to imagine John Birt’s BBC scoring such an own goal. As the former Panorama reporter John Ware comments in The Observer, John Birt reinforced the Reithian values of rigour, fairness and accuracy during his time as director general – qualities disastrously absent during the latest Newsnight own goal.

And it is surely time to end the fiction that one person can be both the BBC’s chief executive and its editor-in-chief. As the FT’s John Gapper says, that ‘puts immense – perhaps unmanageable – weight on a single individual’.The BBC produced over 400,000 hours of TV and radio programming last year, plus a huge amount of online content. While no one person can personally review all that material, it makes much more sense for the director of news to be the editor-in-chief than the DG, who is in effect the BBC’s chief executive. (The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh disagrees.)

Finally, the BBC Trust remains as ineffectual as the BBC governors they replaced. The Trust does a poor job both as the corporation’s governing body and as the BBC’s cheerleader and defender. Chris Patten’s uncertain performance as the Trust’s chairman during the Savile crisis reflects this ambiguity. Maybe it is time to accept that Ofcom would do a better job as a true regulator.

Why Britain needs the BBC

In this moment of crisis, we must hold the BBC to higher standards while treasuring the corporation as one of Britain’s greatest creations. Witnessing John Humphrys interrogating George Entwistle was to experience the eternal glory of the BBC. As John Ware says in The Observer,’on any objective view, the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding’. It’s hard to imagine the Sunday Times humiliating Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking. (The Times and Sunday Times were very quiet about that scandal until late in the day.) Panorama’s report on the BBC, Newsnight and Jimmy Savile similarly reflected very well on the BBC’s culture and philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the BBC’s commercial and political enemies have relished the corporation’s current crisis. Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail have long wanted to emasculate the Beeb. They must be resisted. Today’s Sun on Sunday headline about Entwistle’s resignation (‘Bye bye Chump’) was a useful reminder of the crassness of the Murdoch press. Britain is a better place for the closure of the News of the World. By contrast, the loss of the BBC would be a tragedy. It must not happen.