The fifth emergency service

I’m quite new at the BBC so I’m still pretty wide-eyed about the whole experience. Actually being allowed into Broadcasting House and TV Centre still makes my heart race. I just wave my staff pass and I’m in. OMG.

People tell me I should take that staff pass off when I leave the building. I think that’s actually policy, in fact. Health and Safety, privacy and so on. But I don’t. I leave it hanging there and wander round like a big BBC dweeb. Partly because I’m proud of it (showing off a bit really) and partly because it gets me into the most interesting conversations.

And in the time I’ve been wearing the thing, of the literally dozens of encounters it’s triggered, only one has been even slightly negative: the old guy who leaned in close on the Central Line and said, quite loudly, “British Bullshit Corporation innit?” But even that one wasn’t really negative, since it developed into an excellent ten-minute chat about spin in politics.

And there’s more. Not only do people react in a positive and friendly way to my BBC pass, they go further and routinely provide evidence that they trust me more because of it. Evidently, working for the BBC puts me in that category of near-public servants, the AA men and commissionaires and bus inspectors and Salvation Army buglers who are routinely asked to help in public places. The other day, a woman practically jogged across Tavistock Square to ask me how to get to Euston Station: “I saw your lanyard, I knew you’d help.”

On the train to Birmingham I was asked to watch two small children while a bacon roll was fetched, an American asked me how to get a tour of Parliament, two women asked if it was OK to reverse on a one-way street. I’m the fifth emergency service – the one you ask to hold your brolly or steer your car while you push it (I’m not making this up). Twice I’ve been asked “Is this a good book?” in Foyles at St Pancras. There’s a kid on the till in a Central London supermarket who grills me about current affairs every time I go in.

And the message, of course, of all this happy, trusting behaviour (I can recommend it, it’s a proper cheer-up) is simple. Almost every day, my BBC staff pass provides me with evidence that the Corporation is not the Great Satan that some (even people who’ve got their own BBC passes) would want you to believe. And this, of course, encourages me hugely. The political classes and the haterz in the pop media may have scented the opportunity to topple the whole eighty year-old, self-contradicting edifice but the general public thinks it’s all right and would even trust it to help them top up their mobile (there’s another one).

Am I deluding myself? I don’t think so. I’m sure that some of the nice folk I meet harbour misgivings about executive pay or dumbing down or crowding out and it’s not inconceivable that some of my fellow commuters would like to work me over with a rubber hose or push me under a train because of where I work. It’s just that the data doesn’t support it. I’ve got data and you can’t argue with data.

Do people wearing the staff passes of British Gas or The Telegraph or Schweppes get this treatment? More to the point, do people stop Jeremy Hunt in the street and ask him where the oil goes in a Honda Civic?

24 thoughts on “The fifth emergency service

  1. Having worked at the BBC, there’s no doubt that the general public are wonderfully supportive of the programmes and the output. My family were delighted I worked there.

    There’s a danger that management perceive this as a general acknowledgement that they’re doing a great job and that the BBC is run correctly. Caution should probably be exercised here.

  2. James, the risk at the moment is the reverse – that management respond as if the hostile climate produced by media, Parliament and competiton represents the public mood – which, my evidence suggests, it doesn’t.

  3. I work for Sky and our passes simply don’t have the logo on them. I don’t know what the reaction to a Murdoch company would be if we did walk around with it pinned to our chest! Fantastic blog though, keep wearing it with pride!

  4. I’ve a BBC News bag I was given, people always stop and ask me questions when I’m walking to work. This post has really cheered me up this afternoon!

  5. “I’ve got data and you can’t argue with data.”

    You haven’t got data, you just have lots of anecdote and to use a favourite aphorism of the internet “the plural of anecdote is not data” especially since your sample is suffering from self-selection bias.

    Please report to Radio 4′s ‘More or Less’ for retraining, I don’t know the dumbing down at the BBC today, tut.

    ;->

  6. Wonderful post Steve, and makes me feel slightly less geeky when I don’t mind keeping mine on for a while.

    I remember during my very first week at the BBC – before I’d even landed a journo role – I was commuting in on my usual train.

    Opposite me were two middle-aged women, chatting away about their work – at Huntingdon Life Sciences, of all places – and how it was all “going to pot”.

    At one point, one of them said, “I’m sick of Sandra [I can't remember the name], she’s always so paranoid journalists are hanging around everywhere.”

    At which point I made it look like I needed to fetch something in my bag – placing my pass on the table between us while I searched.

    They sat in silence for the remainder of the trip – about 50 minutes worth – with expressions that looked like their faces had collapsed from the inside. Hilarious.

    (Needless to say, it wasn’t a story. But I bet they don’t rabbit on loudly on a train anymore though, eh?)

  7. Amusing post. My experience with the social power of the BBC ID is perhaps rather more limited, as being on crutches I don’t get out and about quite as much as you, but I have discovered that it makes one into a walking TV guide. Quite often, when I arrive home from work, still absent-mindedly wearing my pass, I pop into my local newsagent / convenience store, and as I’m paying for my shopping the owner will, without fail, ask me “So what good stuff is coming up on TV that you think I should watch?”

  8. I’ve been absent-mindedly wearing my BBC pass all over the shop for four years and not a single person (stranger, that is) has ever mentioned anything or talked to me about it.

    I’m clearly just too scary-looking.

  9. I wish my work pass had the same effect as yours! If I were to wear mine, I would probably get spat at and called a whole manner of nasty names. Instead, it stays firmly hidden in my bag.
    I loved Your post though. Thank goodness people have BBC employees to ask for directions/book advice/child minding services, the other four emergency servicemen/women just do not seem to have the trust of the general public any more.

  10. Thank you for a wonderful, engaging and entertaining post…spoilt only by an absurdly false and prejudicial conclusion.

    I have a Telegraph lanyard and, on the occasions it has been visible, I have been stopped and asked questions by readers or people who just ‘thought I might know’ the answer. Perhaps these are actually the same people that also trust and engage with Mr Bowbrick. Or maybe they’d sooner drop dead than ask advice from anyone working for the BBC. Who knows? Not me, because I have some random experiences, but certainly not data.

  11. Outside the UK the effect is even more marked. My BBC pass serves me as a means of ID every bit as well as my passport, and the latter has certainly never made people ask about my job, not sure I’d like the responsibility which seems to come with it in the UK these days though!

  12. I’m so jealous. I want a pass. I went to Television Centre once before. It was like I knew the place, having seen glimpses of it on TV for 35 years. Yet I saw so little of it. :(

  13. Alistair, My conclusion honestly isn’t prejudicial – in fact, I might argue that that’s a a typical Telegraph distortion :-) . I’m just wondering if this happens to the holders of other passes. Does it?

  14. You do also have a lovely, trustable face… Did this not happen to some extent before the BBC pass? I do love the BBC though. Like most people, I suspect.

  15. I work for Camelot and wearing my pass normally results in one outcome.

    If I had a pound for everytime I was asked what the numbers are going to be on Saturday…

    I don’t wear it offsite now – operational risk.

  16. Lovely post, Steve.

    When people see my pass, a lot of them assume that I’m a journalist. A sign that BBC News is still the cornerstone of BBC output in people’s minds?

  17. Wonderful .. I enjoyed reading this Steve, I’ve experienced the same thing and that excitement stepping through the doors to TVC and BH never went away :)

  18. Lovely warm piece, and you do have an approachable manner.
    However… last February, I tasked you, within your BBC remit, to ensure that Test Match Special on longwave, is no longer burdened with the shipping forecast. It is with great regret that I have to report to my fellow readers that this task remains outstanding.

    (You have to imagine the above is written in green ink)

    TD

  19. Terence, I remember your query! I’ll have another go. I suspect you already know the answer, though. The ‘ships’ is a pretty immovable feature of the schedule and since LW reaches places FM and digital can’t, I’m going to guess that the LW version is even less likely to be moved, TMS or not :-)

  20. It’s ok; I know the shipping forecast is potentially saving lives, and despite its importance, cricket cannot claim that.
    However it always seems to happen that (for example) Andrew Strauss needs three for his century and there’s one over likely to be bowled before bad light stops play.
    And we go to the shipping forecast….

  21. What an idiot you are parading your pass in public as if you are somebody important. Have you ever actually made any programmes? Which ones are you responsible for? Grow up and take your pass off when you leave the building.

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