Monthly Archives: February 2004

Thank you Faruk!

Andrew Murray at PCM – sponsors of this weblog – delivered my new Mac the other day – my third G4 Powerbook and probably my tenth Powerbook in all. This one was a dud, though. Wouldn’t boot at all or booted and then showed me a lot of nasty debug code before it passed out all together. I assumed the worst and dropped Andrew an email late in the evening of the day it was delivered. The remarkable thing is that by lunch time the next day, it was fixed. A friendly and utterly competent engineer by the name of Faruk Norat, a twelve year PCM veteran, took a longish diversion and came round to my house in Hertfordshire, replaced some dodgy RAM and bob’s your uncle. One happy Powerbook and even happier owner. Another good reason to buy your Mac kit from PCM, I reckon.

Elstein on the Beeb

If David Elstein was a standard issue public service bootboy (like Gerald Kaufman) or a free market storm trooper (like Tony Ball) it might be possible to dismiss his report for the Tories as politics as usual. The trouble is he’s one of the most experienced and intelligent managers in the business and a provocative and forward-thinking commentator. So the report will be essential reading for anyone interested in the review of the BBC’s public service obligations, charter renewal and the scary post-Hutton landscape.

I’ll be trying to digest it over the next few days. In the meantime, I’m interested to note that the Tories are busy distancing themselves from their own report – presumably because they see its central recommendations – scrap the license fee, break up the Beeb, fund public service broadcasting directly from the public purse – as vote losers. Good article about the report from Torin Douglas at the Beeb and a suitably big-brained piece by Elstein from eighteen months ago about the stupidity of the Government’s DTT strategy.

Picturesque Disneyland

A rushing stream at Endsleigh, DevonWe spent the weekend in a sort of 19th Century Disneyland – staying in a gorgeous, completely bonkers, self-consciously rustic cottage by a placid (and artificial) pond, hidden in the greenest (it’s February for Christ’s sake!) valley I’ve ever seen surrounded on all sides by the sound of rushing, tumbling streams. The cottage is on a rugged estate in West Devon – turned into a fantasy alpine tableau by the then Duke of Bedford in 1810 (he insisted that a fire was kept burning in an empty cottage to contribute a properly rustic plume of smoke to the skyline – his descendants kept this up until 1940). The estate’s a landmark for the Picturesque Movement – a uniquely English antidote to the chilly French cult of neo-classicism that dominated the previous century.

This is my first proper exposure to the picturesque – a shambolic movement that never quite made it into the history books – and I find myself in unexpected patriotic sympathy with its messy artifice. This is the same unfashionable, cantancerous strand of English decorative culture that produced the folly – unmotivated, capricious, fantastic.

I’d tell you where Pond Cottage is, only I’d have to kill you in case you decided to go and stay there – it’s already hard enough to get a booking. Thanks to Simon for the tip, by the way.

Our friends in the East

Britain, for the time being, is out on a European limb in regard to immigration from the ten accession states. This is a good thing. There’s competitive advantage in being open to resourceful, economically-active migrants while other Nations aren’t. While the UK economy is still growing strongly and while there are obvious gaps in our labour profile we should be pioneering an economically rational, open migration policy.

Different European nations will adopt different policies on incomers from the new member States. That is as it should be. A healthy European economy – especially in the more complicated, post-accession environment – is going to depend on diversity. A single, continent-wide policy on East-to-West migration will flatten regional development, close off opportunities for migrants and for Western businesses. It’s fascinating that it could be population pressure from the East that produces the first really important divergence in National policy within the EU.

Such a big, philosophical divergence could be very productive for citizens of the enlarged Union. The more open nations will put growth ahead of internal stability and labour continuity – they could rush ahead of the more conservative, closed economies who’ll set aside growth in pursuit of the quiet life. The busier, more open economies will build the capacity to soak up growing demand and they’ll thrive.

This all depends on the continued growth of demand – in Europe and elsewhere – of course but we could begin to see a gap opening up between the slow-growth, closed economies (Germany, France, Holland and the other nations taking advantage of the accession treaty’s full seven years migration protection) and a group of fast-growth, open economies. I’d like Britain to be in the latter group – responsive, risk taking and ready to shape a more open, diverse Europe. A free flow of labour, investment capital and ideas between Britain and the soon-to-be tigers to the East can only benefit all of us.

Here’s an excellent article (with useful graphs) from Stefan Wagstyl in the FT (it’s a real pity that so much good journalism is locked up inside FT.com, inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t buy an expensive subscription).

The really big deal

I know a lot of you come here for straightforward, unbiased advice on what to do with your next $66 billion so here’s my angle on the Comcast Disney offer: they’re on drugs. Executives in big media firms are addicted to the buzz of the epic deal. Do we not have enough case studies of failed mega media mergers? More to the point, what’s the success rate of mergers that produce vertically-integrated media giants? Sony and Columbia, AOL and Time Warner, Time Warner and Turner, Vivendi and Universal (and dozens of smaller but equally ill-starred deals) were all sold to shareholders on the promise of producing new value by hooking together content and distribution.

None created appreciable value – in fact, most destroyed truckloads of shareholders’ money in short order – some of these deals have turned healthy businesses into basket cases. The fact that the engineers of these deals continue to produce the same discredited justifications – Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says: “There is no doubt these two companies can achieve things together that neither is able to do on their own” – says more about the irresistible glamour of the really big deals than about their commercial logic.

Some people don’t agree: Business Week, Forrester. Lex in the FT lays out some defense strategies for Disney (subscription required).

A bloated Lear

Without the distractions of Hutton and the BBC’s self-immolation we’d probably all have been paying more attention to the Shakespearian Conrad Black saga. Black is an appalling figure. Decades of cringing deference and unaccountable power have turned him into a bloated Lear, raging against the ingratitude of his shareholders and erstwhile friends – many of whom he is now suing (pursuing the metaphor a bit too far, maybe, he even has his own, twisted Cordelia in scary wife Barbara Amiel). It’s too much to hope that Black’s wheel of fire will change him as it did Lear, ‘adjusting his attitude’ as they say. A wiser and gentler Lord Black of Crossharbour would certainly be an interesting outcome.

Incidentally, what do the people of the Isle of Dogs think about Black’s adoption of Crossharbour as location for his made-up estate? Do they think it makes him seem pompous and arrogant or do they just laugh at the absurdity of locating your estate amongst run-down council estates and unusable business premises.

Stephanie Kirchgaessner’s long piece in Tuesday’s FT was excellent (but you’ll need to be a subscriber to see it) and The Guardian has a pretty good overview page and a handy timeline.

The best way to read 10,000 word reviews online?

So I renewed my NYRB subscription and this time I went for the cheaper electronic subscription. This will make me feel a bit better about not reading it (and there’ll be no reproachful pile of nicely-bagged newsprint to remind me). If I could get the NYRB through the admirable interface of The Guardian’s new Digital Edition I might actually read it, though. It would make the fortnightly’s often dense and always very long reviews much more accessible if I could spread the paper out on The Guardian’s giant dining room table, flick through the issue page-by-page and click to enlarge David Levine’s illustrations. The same applies to dozens of other titles. I’m serious about this. The guys at The Guardian should pitch their Digital Edition to other publishers – it’d be a huge hit.

The BBC adrift

Friendless at the seat of power, rudderless at a time of critical danger. What a difference 48 hours can make. I have no idea how things came to this. A year ago the BBC was certified golden – officially untouchable. The talk was all about how to rein in Dyke’s resurgent, inflation-protected juggernaut. Now, after (surely?) the most torrid two days in her history, Auntie has apparently lost every friend she ever had in all three branches of State. Executive – any mates there? Are you kidding? Legislature? No, not for years (thank you, Mr, Kaufman). Judiciary? Er, apparently not.

Governments of every colour have an instinctive dislike of the BBC – one they usually acquire pretty soon after gaining office. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this one has now reasserted its ancient right to kick the Corporation around. It’s the extraordinary means chosen – an independent inquiry by a respected Law Lord – that takes the breath away. No one – surely – expected the BBC to get off without at least a warning but only a very subtle thinker could have forecast the outcome of Hutton’s complicated mixture of ignorance (of journalistic practice, of accountability in media), deference (towards ministers and civil servants) and suspicion (of scruffy hacks and media luvvies).

Here’s the thing, though: despite the grievous damage done to the BBC, there’s still no reason why this nasty affair shouldn’t be resolved to benefit everyone. All it needs is some genuine humility and a real eye for the future from the Government. The big thing, the really noble thing (and the properly third term thing) to do right now would be for Blair, Jowell and the rest to roll their sleeves up, set aside their resentment of media loose canons (and their glee at the Beeb’s humiliation) and make a serious effort to rebuild public service broadcasting in Britain. This would mean putting the independence and strength of the license fee-funded media before their narrow political interests and worry more about their legacy than about the next election.

This Government, like many before it, has engineered an opportunity to break and diminish the BBC. They’ve made a depressingly good start but the question is: do they have the strength of character to refuse this opportunity and to leave behind something strong, autonomous and useful to British electors?

Saturday Morning Pictures

An original ABC Minors Saturday Morning Pictures badgeA 'bring-a-friend' card from ABC Minors Saturday Pictures in the 1950s
I took Olly, 5 and Billie, 4, to The Barbican‘s Family Film Club – a sort of middle class mirror image of the Saturday Morning Cinema of your youth. We watched Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and sat on the nicely-carpeted lobby floor to make wobbly clock towers from card and pipe cleaners in a friendly workshop beforehand.

Islington dutifully decamped to the Barbican for the occasion – it was wall-to-wall Jocastas, Luciens and Bellas in gorgeous ethnic knits. In fact, I reckon it would have made a lovely opening scene for the next Richard Curtis Rom-Com (University-educated single Mum working in art gallery/charity/library catches the eye of eccentric, widowed Antiquarian bookseller/vintage Bentley restorer while crafting pointless cardboard gewgaws for ungrateful, distracted children).

Anyway, Safety Last is brilliant and the awesome final ascent of the ‘Burton Building’ produced exactly the seat-clutching, bouncing-up-and-down hysteria it probably did in 1923 (did you know that Lloyd lost one hand in an on-set accident six years before Safety Last was made and produced more than a hundred films with a clever prosthetic replacement? Me neither. How did he hang on to that clock exactly?).

I was really pleased that the kids were able to slot this eighty year-old, silent, black & white comedy easily into their movie landscape alongside Elf and Brother Bear and the Thornberries (they took the poor man playing the piano at the front totally for granted – do they think there’s always a piano player?). Pictures are from the ABC Minors Saturday Morning Cinema Club I attended as a kid.