The fifth emergency service

19 June 2017 UPDATE: I’ve just taken down the picture of my staff pass that sat at the top of this post – I’ve been advised that these days it’s thought to be uncool to share pictures of your pass online.

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 badge, 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). I was 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?

I don’t want a right to see my MP’s expenses

UPDATE April 2022: I wrote this in January 2009, right at the beginning of the expenses scandal and several months before the Telegraph began the week-by-week disclosure of hideous abuse of the system after hideous abuse of the system – duck houses and moats and multiple flipped second homes and families on the payroll etc. But still, the naivety!

I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny.

I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.

But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.

This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.

That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.

Brand and Ross are innocent

The Russell Brand show was outstanding radio and didn’t deserve censure.

I’m just going to come out and say this because I have a feeling you might not agree with me (at least not if you’re over about 35). The Russell Brand show—the one with Andrew Sachs’ answerphone—was absolutely brilliant. Offensive and childish (clever Howard Jacobson in The Independent calls it ‘front bottom babyishness’) but also genuinely exciting. I imagine you’ll think me shallow now, or worse, collusive in cruelty to elderly actors, but I’ve listened to the whole show and it’s very funny—in that hands-over-your-ears, can’t-bear-to-listen kind of way that edgy comedy ought to be.

Brand is a charismatic radio performer. Jacobson says “when he winks at you, you stay winked.” His schtick is an adrenaline-rush of allusion and filth: some clever, some bewildering and some just plain dumb but all of it genuinely electrifying. I don’t want to overdo this but I won’t be the first to say that he’s got a lot of the Lenny Bruce or the young Mick Jagger about him, a lot of that edge-of-your-seat, anything-could-happen amphetamine tension that raises the heartrate and makes your palms sweat. It’s thrill-a-minute stuff.

The show in question, of course, also features Jonathan Ross and right from the beginning it’s clear that Ross is in the driving seat. Practically everything lewd and insulting comes from his mouth and the whole tone of the show is set by Ross. He’s a big presence at the BBC and a big presence in the show too, an overbearing figure in fact: forcing the pace and driving Brand to go further and further. Listen to some of Brand’s other shows and you’ll get plenty of ‘dick sacks’ and orgasms and libidinous chit-chat but nothing as aggressive or insulting as you do on this occasion. If there’s a villain in this affair, it’s definitely Ross.

But the thing is, there’s no villain. There’s nothing wrong with the show. It’s really hardcore, really edgy stuff but not a sacking offence and definitely not cause for the tearing down of the licence fee or the demolition of the BBC or even the initiation of a ‘national debate’ or a ‘period of introspection’ as the Corporation’s enemies would have you believe. The show went out after the watershed on a Saturday night with a prominent warning about strong language. Brand’s been on the air for a long time too, plenty of time for any potential listener to understand where he’s coming from. This, of course, explains why the show got two complaints on transmission: an entirely proportionate number for a show of this kind.

And there’s more. Andrew Sachs, the innocent victim, had been booked to come on the show to promote a TV programme he’s presenting appearing in. ITV’s press office His publicist or his manager presumably hustled to get him on the show in the first place. Calls were made, producers cajoled, lunches promised. Sachs knew what to expect. I think this explains Sachs’ diffidence about the furore: he knew he was no victim. He was doing his marketing duty and he’d cocked it up by being out when Brand called. Earlier in the show, Dennis Norden—even more elderly, even more revered—navigated the Ross/Brand experience with aplomb. He too was on the air to promote something. If he’d got an earful of filth it might not have been nice but it would have been the price of entry and probably just as funny.

What went wrong here, of course, was all in the management of the fall-out from the Mail on Sunday’s hatchet job, in Radio 2’s disastrous executive inertia and in the naivety of allowing Ross and Brand’s implacable enemies at The Mail to control the story for days. But I’ve written about all that over at Common Platform. Have I got this wrong? Should the BBC really have caved in so cravenly? Could Thompson not have come back from his holiday with a robust defense in his briefcase and told The Mail where to get off? Listen to the show yourself, and tell me what you think.

What’s the difference between the common platform and the web?

James Cherkoff wonders (in a comment) if my common platform isn’t really just… well… the web. It’s a good question because the web, of course, is the mother-and-father of all platforms, a place with such a richness of tools and outlets that it might seem as if it has no need of an additional layer like a common platform. But I think the answer to James’ question really is ‘no’.

The Common Platform (see, it’s already acquired a ‘The’ and Capital Letters like it’s a real thing!) is a designed overlay for the web, an elaboration. The sort of secondary functionality that all platforms sooner-or-later acquire. That’s not to say that it’s separate from or outside the web proper (not a walled garden or a locked-down proprietary thing). In fact it’s strength will lie in the fact that it is profoundly of the web.

Trying to be as ‘web-like’ as possible here I can imagine a common platform, at its simplest, as barely more than a commissioning model plus a tag-cloud. At its largest and most monolithic… It shouldn’t really be large or monolithic.

Expanding on this slightly, the Common Platform should be an organisational device plus some commissioning logic plus some kind of resource discovery gubbins and a wafer of UI to point all the different stakeholders at what they need. Bob’s Your Uncle. Job done. Public service media transformed. Next!

Is the BBC Trust a Trojan Horse?

Looks like it, doesn’t it? The history: a short-term crisis (Hutton and then all that premium-rate stuff and the lies about the Blue Peter cat?) produced an apparently innocent change in the way the BBC is governed (and a new royal charter to go with it) and now, eighteen months later, it’s just sinking in that the BBC Trust is potentially the corporation’s unwitting nemesis.

No one seriously thinks that the Trust has it in the for the Beeb but the kicking doled out to news chiefs in the latest report could be a sign of things to come. The problem is that The Trust is a strange beast: a kind of internalised regulator, a body paradoxically obliged to provide statutory oversight and to defend the corporation’s independence and standards. The Trust must, by law, be tough and impartial and this will necessarily lead to some damaging analyses—and coming not from an arms-length regulator but from right inside the corporation.

The Beeb’s top managers must fear a drip drip drip of negative reports and impossible-to-ignore prescriptions. Legislators hostile to the corporation for various reasons must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of lots of new ammunition for their causes. As the Trust’s reports pile up on the DG’s desk, each demanding an expensive response and quite possibly deep and structural change (like, for instance, spinning off and funding Scottish and Welsh mini-Beebs), it might look increasingly like the corporation is tearing itself apart.

The potential for damage to the BBC from its own governing body, doing no more than its job, might make ‘top slicing’ look trivial. Is that what was intended when the Trust was set up? Obviously not. Can it now be avoided? Probably not.