This Week with Alan Partridge

February 26, 2019

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Alan_Partridge_booksigning.png

Image via Wikipedia of Coogan in character as Alan Partridge at a 2011 book signing

 

A Review

Steve Coogan’s new mini-series for the BBC started [25 February, 2019] in a blaze of pre-publicity. His defining character Alan Partridge returns in half-hour comedy chunks just before the ten o’clock news, in weekly chunks.

Coogan’s success in grounded in his believable gaucheness, in his professional role as the hapless radio presenter. He has elevated the cringeworthy to a comedic art form. Come to think of it, he over-sensitises viewers to the possibly of ‘doing a Partridge’.
For example, the mockery in the programme of the competitive tensions between Partridge and co-host Susanah Fielding shows him in full-on cringe-making action, as he blunders through a scene intended to wring the last drop of ooh factor from baby seal images.

Reviews have varied from the good to the Guardian’s hysterically good. Unsurprisingly,
the BBC assesses the programme as five star, although this has a whiff of doing a Partridge about it. Interestingly, BBC Radio’s Five Live earlier today was rather more open to the accusation, with a not-to-subtle hint of disapproval sheltering a ‘balanced’ reading of readers who raved and those who ranted about the first episode.

It reminds me of an episode from my next book

A radio sports programme is reporting the first day of the Masters in Atlanta. A golfer had hit his ball repeatedly into a lake. The Interviewer manages to work the story into her next item, about a gold-medal winning athlete at the Commonwealth games in Brisbane. 

“How would you have kept out of the water,” the interviewer asks. 

The question puzzles the athlete. “Like, I’m mostly in the water. I’m a swimmer.”

“Of course you are. So, what were you feeling, in the water there, when you find out you had won gold for England? I got goose pimples listening to the commentary.”

“So did I,” says her co-interviewer, “do you get goose pimples?”

“Not when I’m in the water,” says the athlete.”

The goose-pimply journalists move on. “We have just lost Eric and Ray “, one says solemnly, not referring to studio guests, as Bernard momentarily thinks, but to the overnight news of the untimely deaths of two sporting celebrities. (and OK, so it already seems I am also ‘doing a Partridge’).  In the relevant scene, two detectives are driving to a possible crime scene, listening to a radio show of Partridge-like nature.

[Extract from The Unnamed Threat, publication date scheduled for later this year]

I leave subscribers to decide whether my fictional broadcasters have any characteristics of any real-life broadcasters of which they have experience.

 


Why Ryanair keeps making money and losing surveys

January 17, 2019
rynair commercial airplane

Photo by Marc Linder on Pexels.com


For the sixth year in succession, Ryanair is voted worse airline by its own customers. Yet despite numerous survey results reporting poor reliability, pilot strikes, poor customer relations, and eccentric leadership, it continues to remain profitable. So how does it do it?

Over the years LWD has examined the leadership styles found in various airlines. It has been a rewarding trawl for examples of buckaneering entrepreneurs. Michael O’Leary of RyanAir is an egregious example.

Business school types (OK, myself included) rather poo-pooed his style. He was brash,  and exploited the admiration his bad- boy image attracted . In hindsight, I see parallels with aspects of Donald Trump’s success in the Presidential primaries and then election,  as rivals and critics under-estimated his potential and awaited his downfall.

Nevertheless, regardless of highly adverse news stories, Ryanair prospered. O’Leary suggested that such stories merely drew attention to his unique selling point of presenting itself as the lowest price airline, regardless of the anger of travellers (or worse, would-be travellers suffering flight cancellations).  

I suspect the question is particularly puzzling to non-users who are all to aware of  the negative news stories, and decide that the advertised low prices come with too many risks. The company has another explanation. The surveys, they sniff, are ‘too small’. [Like other claims from Ryanair this hardly survives close scrutiny. The recent survey was of around 8000 respondents.] 

I offer comments from two satisfied Ryanair customers who has used the airline more than once. 

Cameron: My experience with Ryan was a quick one, however efficient and reliable. I recently used Ryan air when I flew out to Majorca with my Dad and Sister. Ryan air were quick with check in- albeit online, friendly and the flight landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule. However the leg room and plain features with limited items available on the in flight trolley, made my flight quite mundane. Nonetheless, an all round good experience with minimal issues.

Conor: My experiences were wholly good. You get what you pay for. Anything more would have seemed luxury but that’s all I’ve known until recently. For short flights at low prices there’s very little wrong with it in my experience.

The profitability of the airline has not come without hitting a lot of turbulence. Recently, [late 2018] its pilots protested pay and working conditions in a damaging strike.

According to the BBC report:

Many Ryanair staff have been on strike across Europe.

Earlier this month, there was a 24-hour walk-out involving staff in Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

About 50,000 passengers were understood to be involved in the cancellation of 400 flights.

Ryanair has cancelled 600 flights that were due to fly this week but says the majority of European customers are not affected.

In July, 300 Ryanair flights were cancelled when cabin crews in Belgium, Portugal and Spain went on strike for 48 hours.

Earlier this month, there was a 24-hour walk-out involving staff in Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

 

Scanning the back posts of LWD, I note very few references to Ryanair. An article on no-frills (peanut airlines) concentrates on South West Airlines, much loved in business cases. Wikipedia still contrasts the two airlines, placing emphasis on a culture coming from CEO O’Leary:

O’Leary has a reputation for loose talk in the airline industry and among its regulators. Many press articles have often described him as arrogant, and prone to making comments which he later contradicts. He has been extravagantly outspoken in his public statements, sometimes resorting to personal attacks and foul language. His abrasive management style, ruthless pursuit of cost-cutting and his explicitly hostile attitude towards corporate competitors, airport authorities, governments, unions and customers has become a hallmark. He was reported to have been aggressive and hostile in dealings with a woman who was awarded free flights for life in 1988.

 

According to wikipedia [downloaded January 18 2019]:

In 2007, [O’Leary] was forced to retract a claim that Ryanair had cut emissions of carbon dioxide by half over the previous five years; the claim should have been that emissions ‘per passenger’ had been cut by half. O’Leary has been reported to have impersonated a journalist in an attempt to find information passed on to a newspaper following a safety incident on a Ryanair flight.On occasion he has apologised for personal attacks under threat of legal action.He has been criticized by a judge for lying, who said he was lucky not to be found guilty of contempt of court.In April 2017, he called concerns about climate change “complete nonsense”.

In a press conference discussing Ryanair’s planned intercontinental service RyanAtlantic, O’Leary jokingly described the airline’s planned business class travel experience as featuring “whores and rum”.

 

Later, he was to announce a more friendly culture towards customers. I welcome further information on this change of heart. 

 


Newsnight’s Tower of Westminster wins first Bad Idea Award

December 6, 2018


The Leaders We Deserve Bad Idea Award goes to the BBC’s Newsnight programme and its Tower of Westminster representation of the current BREXIT situation.

This week, the annual much-prized bad sex award was won by the novelist James Frey (He faced stiff competition, as the Sunday Times stated, tongue in cheek).

The publicity for the award inspired me to create Leaders we deserve bad idea award, which will be made from time to time, as I come across a promising crop of contenders. 
This week is one such a time. The spotlight is very much on our political representatives and media commentators in the UK, in their efforts to deal with the nightmare known as Brexit. I could have taken a wider bad idea, such as Brexit itself, but that would take far too long to unpack and examine fruitfully.

As I write,  our representatives are half way through forty hours of the time allocated to the proposed method by which the UK will exit the European Union.So my examples are of simpler ideas more typical of case examples often examined within LWD posts and used to illustrate leadership dilemmas.

No such thing as a bad idea

Former students of mine still loyal to LWD, will remember my insistence that there is no such thing as a bad idea, only  ideas requiring a further act of creativity before their merits become clear.

I mention this to suggest that my nominated ideas for the new award are indeed further examples ideas in need of a bit more imaginative effort rather than complete rejection.

The four candidate ideas

My four candidates all come from one of our national institutions, the BBC.  Three are from Radio Five. This reflects my listening and viewing habits and admiration for ‘Auntie’ rather than evidence of its terminal decline.

On, then to the four candidates.

1 An MP talks on air to a voter
The presenters of the radio five live morning show announce breathlessly a first, namely an innovation in radio broadcasting: An MP is to take part live in a discussion with a voter.Wow. This pitch for the idea did not quite convey to me the excitement it was producing in its advocates. Then the first on-air outing of the idea. Others are planned in subsequent days. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough, but I couldn’t see what was ‘the difference that made a difference’ in the little question and answer which followed.

2 The good week bad week discussion

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04gvzmf On the Peter Allen evening current affairs programme, pundits discuss news issues of the week. After each topic, the panellists rate the item either as contributing to a good week or a bad week. There is usually confusion over what this can possibly mean. The format has survived several years (or it seems to me) without attempts to improve on its vacuous nature.


3 The backbencher of the week award. 


Each Sunday morning, Pienaar’s politics presents The backbencher of the week award. An MP appears and receives the metaphorical award. John  Pienaar presents the award with heavy irony implying that ‘this prestigious award’ is all a clever joke shared by each recipient.

4 The cardboard tower of Westminster

This is an innovation introduced this week [December 2018] on Newsnight, (arguably the BBC’s flagship political TV programme, which airs nightly). Various ways of adding interest to panel discussions have been tried in recent months, as the Brexit story unfolds. In the nominated idea, the assorted pundits are invited to stand before a cardboard cutout of the tower of Westminster and stick on it graphics of key individuals and political groupings.  The most influential entities are placed higher up the tower.


And the winner is?


The winner is based on the criteria the voters choose to use.

In everyday discussions these can be finely analysed or based on individual or collective feelings. But closure is soothing thing.  I have chosen my winner as a starting point for further comments and alternative views.

For me (and in the ironic spirit of John Pienaar) I award this prestigious new award to The cardboard tower of Westminster

All four ideas on my long list had aspects which ran the winner close. None of the others had quite the power to provide me with such an excruciatingly  negative response than did the winner. 

I welcome any feedback to LWD or @tudortweet, making a case for candidates for future awards.


Leaders: Myths and Reality

November 26, 2018

General Stanley McChrystal and co-authors explore contemporary beliefs on leadership. They do so by assessing leaders and leadership through a series a case examples, some ancient, some modern. 

The authors acknowledge that the structure can be traced to Plutarch’s Lives, no longer the best-seller it once was. 

Plutarch hit on the wheeze of comparing the recorded acts of the great leaders. Both the method and foundation myth of the Great Man leader persists today, as McChrystal points out.The demise of The Great Man myth has been predicted for long enough, but even the increasing announcements of its decline may prove premature. Arguably, the more interesting question is what permits its survival? I am reminded of the century-long search for the essence of leadership, when trait theory guided popular and scholarly beliefs alike. The American theorist Stogdill is widely regarded as weakening the long-established belief in a trait-based essence of leadership. 

Modern textbooks point to the weakening of trait theory (interestingly, not mentioned by McChrystal), but we are still saddled with a candidate for the essence of leadership, in the charismatic leader. I have argued the dangers of unchallenged belief in the charismatic leader, in Dilemmas of Leadership, particularly in later editions of the textbook, and in the monograph about the charismatic football manager Jose Mourinho.


My own interest in leadership was quickened by the writings of the British academic John Adair, who also drew on his understanding of classical leadership accounts. 


McChrystal’s contribution adds to the genre, and stands above many pot-boilers which continue to be churned out.


Meic Stephens, Welsh cultural giant (1938-2018)

October 3, 2018

 

Meic Stephens grew up in the little welsh village of Treforest and became one of the leading cultural figures of his generation in Wales, as a writer, editor, poet, and arts administrator.
We grew up together in two close families living in one of the ribbon streets of the villages lining the South Wales valleys.

In the 1950s, Meic was a few years ahead of me at Pontypridd Grammar School. One of my earliest recollections of him at the time is our experimenting together at home with one of the new-fangled tape-recorders. Meic choose to declaim with appropriate hwyl, from Under Milk Wood. Even then he had become committed to the nationalist politics, and culture of Wales.

Our paths after our schooldays diverged. I became nomadic, Meic stayed close to his roots. He became more than fluent in Welsh, and a distinguished author and poet narrowly missing the converted crown at the National Eisteddfod. His passion became the development of the Anglo-welsh cultural voice.

Sam Adams, writing in the Guardian, noted his achievements. Academically, he was able to join the University of Glamorgan, ‘a stone’s throw from his birthplace’, on the site of the old School of Mines. He became professor of ‘welsh writing in English’.
One of his interests was reflected in the obituaries he wrote in The Independent, mostly for other literary figures in his extended network.

During my extended exile in America and then England, my main contact with his burgeoning career were those obituaries. I even missed the one written for him, being by then a less-regular subscriber to the i.

I retain some comfort from my  memories, and a story I like to relate of a childhood in which the South Wales valleys were brim full of poets. I was not, I like to say accurately,  even the most celebrated poet in the village. I was not even the most celebrated one in the street.


Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House

September 21, 2018
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Review of Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, by Luke Harding
When I returned from a teaching assignment in Moscow recently, I found Luke Harding’s book waiting for me.  My visit had taken place as relations between the UK and Russia were at a low ebb.  With hindsight, I am rather glad I had not travelled with Collusion as my reading material.
The author has established himself as a leading investigative journalist.  His success might be measured by two movies made from his earlier books, one on Julian Assange and other on Edward Snowden, two of the great whistle-blowers of our times. His credibility as an informed source is strengthened though his expulsion by the Kremlin for his efforts during his time as foreign correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with The Guardian newspaper.
An unfinished drama
Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, deals with an unfinished story, the rise and potential fall of the 45th President of the United States. Nearly a year after publication, the broad analysis remains fresh, and a useful piece of reporting of a drama still awaiting its denouement.
In real-life, a ‘did he or didn’t he‘ thriller, is morphing into a ‘will he or won’t get impeached‘ one, as the indefatigable investigator Robert Muller picks off individuals closer and closer to the President who are reluctantly seeking plea bargains to reduce criminal charges. Parallels with Nixon’s Watergate affair are obvious.
The book opens with a visit by Harding to a secretive organisation in the intelligence gathering business, aka private spying services. It was gaining unwanted notoriety for what became known as The Steele Dossier. Harding was there to meet its author, Christopher Steele.  The dossier was at the time allegedly circulating in Russia’s security agency the FSB, a post-Gorbachev  mutation of  the venerable KGB, as well among Western intelligence groups, and the leaky world of international journalism.
The Steele Dossier
The dossier, according to Harding  ‘would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of ..collusion with a foreign  power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime – vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key aspects unprovable – was treason.’
The information collected by Steele attracted wealthy clients, seeking it as possibly damaging to Trump’s campaign. Then the unverified material was published on-line with only minor redactions, days before the new President’s inauguration. The genie was out of the bottle. The dossier assessed the evidence as pointing strongly to a acceptance by Trump’s  closest associates of a flow of intelligence from Russian sources. Furthermore the Russians were believed to have compromising materials including the sexual frolics which become one of the lascivious shorthands for the possible blackmail.
Trump’s reaction introduced a pattern repeated through his presidency. The use of twitter as his communication medium of choice. The rejection of adverse reporting as fake news (or, in its emphatic capitalized form, FAKE NEWS!).
The episode sets the scene for the book. Much of the subsequent material will be familiar for those who have followed the daily docudrama. Familiar, although bewildering in the the large and shifting cast, although the story-line is comfortingly unchanging.
The two narratives 
Throughout the book, I found myself disentangling two narratives. The first is the story assembled from the facts as recorded by the author.  It tells of a President increasingly mired in controversies and attempts to defend the indefensible. The broad thrust of this narrative mostly fleshes out the explosive Steele dossier.
It portrays a blustering and impulsive President, concealing his financial status and dubious personal and commercial activities, quick to dismiss staff, and railing against his enemies.
One of the more egregious firings was of FBI chief James Comey.  He was abruptly fired at a distance. Hearing the news in public, Comey believed it to be a joke at first. Ironically Comey’s firing was a factor in the arrival of special investigator Robert Mueller, who had been Comey’s predecessor at the FBI. Mueller has become Trump’s nemesis, In this narrative, a year after the book was published, he is patiently collecting evidence against a range of Trump’s close associates and family.
The second narrative is a near mirror-image of the first.  It is mostly reactions to developing adverse news stories. The rebuttals come from President Trump and spokespersons. It draws on claims that enemies of the state, are engaged in a malevolent conspiracy to besmirch the President, through the so-called  ‘deep state’.
The enemies are led by Crooked Hillary, the Mainstream Media with the exception of Fox  News, and the despicable Special Investigator.
It is tempting but simplistic to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Or, as some commentators have noted, we may have increasingly to accept relativism rather than certainties in a post-truth world.
With the benefits of hindsight
One of the problems of an account of a contemporary political issue, is that events can quickly render conclusions failing to anticipate the twists in the dramatic arc of the story.
Nearly a year on, Harding’s conclusions have stood the test of time.
Mueller has succeeded in  gaining convictions for key aides mentioned as targets in Collusion. Significantly, most tof them have been ‘flipped, (seeking modest sentences in exchange for collaboration with the justice system.) The book ends with criminal charges against Paul Manafort, the most knowledgable of Trump’s aides about the impeachable activities of the President.
Fake News?
I found Collusion a well-researched account, drawing on a wealth of personal investigations by the author.
The drama continues. My suspicion is we will have to await a few important and unexpected twists to this fascinating tale of leadership. Maybe, as Harding comments about the Steele dossier, the alleged crime of collusion is in certain key aspects unprovable.

Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

September 10, 2018

Naomi Osaka, a new star of women’s tennis won the singles crown at the US Open of 2018. But the headlines were all about the losing finalist Serena Williams, and her battle with Umpire Carlos Ramos.

The match filled the front-page headlines as well as the sporting columns around the world. It captured triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors long associated with tennis and sport. It was raw emotion mingled with tennis of the highest quality.

The setting: Male and Female GOATS.

Serena Williams is crowning a glittering career at the age of 37 by returning to competitive play less than a year after becoming a mother. One final goal eludes her. Winning her 20th singles title at a grand slam event. This would exceed the record set many years ago by the Australian player Margaret Court, and match her 24 total including doubles events.
It matters to Serena. Maybe to add weight to the claim by many players that Serena is the Greatest Of All Time Female (GOAT) tennis player, matching Roger Federer’s claims as the male GOAT. The debate is intensifying as both Roger and Serena find a resurgence in form at an age when less super-humans are planning their subsequent retirement plans.

Maybe the motivation is fuelled in part by a controversy over the stance of Margaret Court over Women’s rights, led by Billie Jean-King, a mentor of Serena Williams, and a formidable champion in her own right. Over time, Serena has also fought vigorously for equal pay and other forms of equality for women tennis players.

The young pretender

Facing Serena is Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old Japanese player little-known outside the world of tennis. Insiders, however, have noticed her arrival among a group of emerging young players who have been able to achieve grand slam tournament successes. This has been assisted by the interruption through Serena’s maternity period. Indeed, Serena faced Osaka shortly after return, in a tournament in Miami, and lost 3-6, 2-6, The loss was largely ignored as happening at a fortuitous time for the young Japanese player. This overlooked the unexpected recent result in winning her first senior event in the Indian Wells tournament.

The Serena Slam

Serena went close to achieving the exceptional feat of a clean sweep of grand slam events in the year 2015. She was already champion of three of the four annual tournaments, the Australian, French, and Wimbledon. The story began to reach beyond the tennis reports.
The climax was to be at the US Open, always held in early September. It became labelled The Serena Slam.
I remember it well, as I decided to follow the entire tournament as it unfolded, from Europe, taking as my theme the tensions facing sporting superstars. The story was as fascinating as I hoped. I wrote a book about it, titled Tennis Tensions. The tensions, as so often happens, upset the happy ending for Serena at the time. She went out at the semi-final stage. I suspect that this experience added to Serena’s motivations to end her career with a slam not a whimper.

The Osaka Serena match

The crowd had already delighted in an American success. In the mixed doubles, the ebullient  Mattek-Sands scraped though with partner Jamie Murray, providing  a satisfactory prelude to the main event.

The singles final started with the high-tension Flushing Meadows crowd in even more high-tension mood than usual. Overwhelming support for the last American hope of another victory of the tournament. Williams conceals any nervousness with customary ferocious body language which can reinforce feelings of inadequacy in opponents. But this opponent matches her in physicality and shot-making.

The unlikely starts to happen. Williams is rattled. Fails to deal with the aggression and sprays losing shots. Osaka plays with the freedom granted to the player no one expects to win. Breaks. Then breaks again to take the first set. Pundits expect Serena to reestablish the rightful order of things.

Except it works out quite differently. Serena is now visibly unsettled. Ready to find pressure release valve. Which she does with misdirection of her energies towards the Umpire.

What follows is documented accurately in many reports. What is less clear is the assessment of what happens. Serena receives a warning for (illegal) coaching from her coach. Serena is incensed and demands an apology of the umpire.
Play continues, Serena is unable to gain control, loses serve, smashes racquet, receives a second correct code violation.
The match is drifting away, and Serena redoubles her invective directed at the umpire. Receives third correct code violation of loss of a game virtually gifting the match to her young opponent who manages to look as nothing untoward is happening, and it it is, it really is nothing to do with her. Remarkable composure.
No good can come of this.
The match still requires winning. Osaka finds the mental resources to finish with a strong service game. The match ends. Recriminations begin. What should be a joyous victory ceremony ends in tears from the winner. Serena pleads with the crowd that they treat the winner with respect.

The wider issue

The wider issue is hotly debated. Although the term debated is to strip what happened of its intense emotions and beliefs asserted.

Broadly, there is support for Serena, who states in her press conference she was fighting for women’s rights. Others, including Billie Jean King agreed that there are double standards at play. The alternative view is that the unfolding events left the Umpire with little choice.

Truly a dilemma of leadership. Perhaps it is the dilemma facing the umpire that offers most learning opportunities. What might have happened differently. Is it possible or desirable to ignore context? The context of the importance of the match? The long experience of a top umpire including Serena’s celebrity status, and at times her melt-downs at perceived injustices to her, and in her view to others?img_08401