John Whittingdale: The BBC bites back

April 13, 2016

The culture minister John Whittingdale is embroiled in a story about his relationship with a consort considered unsuitable for a minister of the crown.  It is tempting to link his story to that of the affair of the hapless John Profumo, many years ago

 The context to this story is the febrile political atmosphere in the UK, where there is an appetite for political mischief in the run-in to the EU referendum.

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I dreamed I couldn’t see the future and like Caliban I cried

October 21, 2015

CalibanIt’s Back To The Future day. I remembered how in The Tempest Caliban dreams sweet dreams and cries piteously on waking up

I did have a dream last night. It was soon after a discussion on BTTF on Newsnight with the wonderful Peter Snow. In my dream I was defending an assertion that there was no way of seeing the future. I was in a lecture room among mostly friendly academics. That bit of the dream is possible if relatively rare.

How can you say that? I was asked. It goes against all your writings on creativity. Still in my dream, I produced a yellowing diagram. It was a flow chart showing how creative ideas can be produced systematically. It seemed close to something I might have written about in the 1980s. I struggled to explain it, to defend the claim I had made by reference to it.

I woke up more than a little disturbed. It was then I remembered Caliban’s speech. Shakespeare has given the monster a beautiful exposition of human aspirations.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Ho Hum.

Happy BTTF day.

Diversity and its downside

December 15, 2014

In a Newsnight interview, the Economist Paul Collier sketched out his concerns over diversity and its political implicationsThe Human Development Context: Paul Collier

The BBC Newsnight interview [by Kirsty Wark, Dec 11th 2014] was partly framed by the increased importance being attached to the question of immigration control in the build-up to the General Election next May.

The distinguished economist Sir Paul Collier was introduced as a ‘liberal leaning’ figure who nevertheless had ‘expressed concerns about immigration’ in his work, including his analysis to be found in his recent book Exodus

Unsurprisingly, Sir Paul gently evaded attempts to simplify his ideas into an ‘immigration good or bad’ discussion. He suggested that the economic consequences of immigration were less significant than might be believed from the current narrative. His own concerns were that the consequences could result in a deterioration of socially cohesive factors of generosity, trust, and willingness to collaborate.

Loss of generosity
Loss of trust
Loss of collaboration

Wark suggested that her interviewee had been reported as relying too much on anecdote rather than evidence. Collier pointed out that the use of anecdote in his work was to illustrate the technical evidence, not replace it.

I found the interview a serious contribution to a debate on immigration that has increasingly demonstrated a preference for the glibness of absolute beliefs and evocative anecdotes. The issue is not so much whether immigration is good or bad, but how leadership and citizenship deals tolerance, trust and a willingness to seek collaborative over confrontational actions.

World War One and Jeremy Paxton’s existential dread

March 31, 2014

In the projection of his professional persona, Jeremy Paxton conceals and reveals his personal anxieties

Jeremy Paxton is one of England’s best-known media celebrities. He has became the inquisitorial voice of the BBC’s Newsnight programme [1989- present] and with little shift of style, the inquisitional voice of University Challenge. Building on these achievements, he has produced literary works often with grand themes of British achievements. He is currently fronting one of the BBC’s series to mark the events of The Great War of 1914-1918.

The other Jeremy

His style is combative and ironic. Some years ago, in 2009, listening to a radio interview,I mistook him for another celebrity Jeremy. Only at the end of the interview did I discover I had been listening to the equally combative and ironic Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear. Clarkson is arguably the greater financial asset to the BBC, and equally assiduous in cultivating a controversial and discomforting personal style. In the earlier post, I made tentative analyses of the behavioural styles of each.

I return to this topic as Newsnight Jeremy is making an acclaimed contribution to the Nation’s commemorations of WW1.

The mask of control and the mask of command

Leadership studies sometimes refer to the mask of command. Both Paxton and Clarkson show the mask of control, beneath which lurks the existential fear of losing control. The leader inspires confidence by concealing the natural human feelings of despair and weakness. For Paxton, the TV interview, and the quiz with answers to all the questions provided to the interrogative quiz master provide ideal situations to act out his concealed anxieties.

On the dark side

I make no claims for the validity of these observations. They may be rooted in my mistaken reading of Jungian psychology. They just make sense to me. They confirm my belief in the nature of the concealed dark side of the persona of some of the leaders and celebrities who gain cultural acceptance.

BBC chief Entwistle quizzed by MPs over the Jimmy Savile scandal

October 27, 2012

The Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, went before a select committee of MPs at Westminster recently, arising from concerns about what had become known in the UK as ‘The Jimmy Savile’ affair. It was an unedifying event, part showboating, part inept and ill-informed interrogation

Do you know what a chief brewer, a chief engineer, a chief chemist, or a chief journalist does? Outside a specific business sector, the labels are misleading. Each designation refers to a head of a group of professionals within an organisation. These are important leadership roles. The more generic label for the role is that of COO or Chief Operating Officer, which is a director level function. A COO has ultimate responsibility for the professional operations in a company, including line-management responsibility for the effective functioning of more junior professionals.

A conflation of roles

In some organisations, the role of COO gets mixed up with that of the better-known one of CEO or chief executive officer. For example, at the BBC, George Entwistle turns out to be chief journalist, and also its Director General, bringing with it responsibilities roughly approximating to those of the CEO more common in in private sector organisations.

The Jimmy Savile affair

[October 2012].
Jilly Savile, a high profile TV personality over a period of decades, famed for the long-runing children’s programme Jim’ll fix it. Since his death in 2011, stories had begun to leak out over alleged child molestation within the BBC, but also extending far more widely. He had been knighted for services to charitable causes, although his charity work had become seen in hindsight as a cover for more sinister and predatory activities.

A potential cover up

The story had been broken by a TV programme from ITV which told of a possible cover-up at the rival state-owned BBC, which had cancelled a planned investigative piece on Savile being prepared for its Newsnight programme. The decision appeared to have been for influenced by a wider tribute to Savile which was imminent, and which was under preparation as a Christmas special.

The Director General gets embroiled

The newish Director General George Entwistle would always have been embroiled. But Entwistle had also been an editor of Newsnight at the time of another BBC debacle involving the documentation of Weapons of Mass Destruction during the Iraq war. More pertinently, he had also been head of the broader division at the BBC [‘Vision’] when the Newsnight piece on Savile was being prepared.

Another twist

A few days before he was called before the committee, there was another twist to the story. The current Newsnight editor Peter Rippon wrote in the BBC’s ‘Editors blog’ justifying the editorial decision he made to stop the broadcasting of the Savile item.

However, by then, investigations into the Savile affair ordered by Entwistle had begun internal to the BBC. Rippon’s blog was re-corrected’ . and Peter Rippon went on a spell of gardening leave.

At the committee hearing

At the committee hearing, The Director General repeatedly explained that he had been aware of a dilemma of leadership: either to get involved in the operational details [as chief journalist] or remain disinterested as Director General, a backstop ‘above’ those who might eventually have to be evaluated for their operational decisions.
Righteous indignation.

His performance gave the committee members opportunity to work up a head of righteous indignation about Entwistle’s ineffectiveness, The committee seemed to consider his approach” lacking of curiosity. Several of the MPs used the term, which suggested that rather extensive discussions had taken place in advance, and that consensus had been reached.

Not enough like Archie

Archie Norman, former CEO of a retailing organisation, was held up as an example of a hands-on leader, famed for ‘getting on to the shop floor’ . This fitted the prevailing ‘map’ of the MPs better than the more nuanced view being offered them by Entwistle.


The performances seemed to smack of showboating. Perhaps the interrogation of the Director General could have shown some flicker of understanding about the points he reiterated. It was possible that the MPs were genuinely unable to bridge point he was making at the same time as holding on to their pre-prepared lines of attack.

More charisma needed?

Their posture said it all. The MPs were looking for more charisma in a leader. They would not have behaved in such an inept fashion if they had been leader of the BBC. Or maybe they were in search of a scapegoat for the Savile affair. In either case, it was an unedifying performance.

It is mostly a simplistic notion of what a leader should do when faced with a crisis. He (presumably a he) must immediately and personally show who is in control, even if there is a case for holding back and recognising the dangers of impulsive action which, in this case would deny anyone else at the BBC space to take some leadership responsibilities.

Their view of Entwistle’s performance and competence was mostly echoed in the press the following day.

Banal Newsnight debate throws little light on London’s mayoral options

April 5, 2012

The Newsnight debate with the leading candidates for London’s mayor was of little help to London’s voters. As an example of a format designed to produce little enlightenment, the programme could hardly be bettered

These were not stupid people. Jeremy Paxman is not a stupid interlocutor. The BBC is not as an organization lacking in skills at putting on political debates. So why was the production so devoid of information?

Social structures

One explanation can be found if we look at the notion of social structures which come in various degrees of stability. A social structure produces a pattern of outcomes which help replicate the original structure. The Newsnight design seems to be rather dysfunctional, with the staged mock-agressiveness of Jeremy Paxman and well-rehearsed messages of the protagonists. The set combined hi-tech perspex podia with garish backdrops. The lighting made Boris look as if his hands were bloodied from some earlier bit of violence.

The back story

The back story is of a debate the day before in which Boris and Ken exchanged claims and counter-claims about tax arrangements. They carried on their dispute in public afterwards in a lift taking them to their next photocall. Boris is reported to have been particularly violent until the cameras started again.

Twitter and the Elevator bitch

One element within the previous encounter was that twitter traffic during the debate was used as a crude barometer of public opinion. Boris seemed to have lost ground as judged by Twitter, and that was considered as contributing to his elevator bitching afterwards.

The Newsnight messages

You can read a summary of the Newsnight event in a Guardian blog by Hélène Mulholland

A space fit for egos?

For balance, the BBC had four contestants in the studio, and mention was made of the other mayoral candidates. In practice, it might have been billed a battle of the egos as Ken and Boris grabbed airspace.


The image from shows Ken Livingstone getting the finger from Brian Paddick. It also shows the Newsnight set with its perspex Podia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture showing Boris and his bloodied hands.

BBC’s Newsnight Plumbs New Low in Mayoral Debate

April 9, 2008

The declining fortunes of Newsnight were illustrated in an abysmally staged debate between candidates in London’s mayoral contest. The clumsy and faltering efforts of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Brian Paddick were only matched by the antiquated format of the programme, and a predictably offensive and blustering performance from Jeremy Paxman

I bought-in to Newsnight’s marketing of the debate ever since it was trailed last week. The leading candidates to become next London Mayor were to appear in a Presidential style debate, anchored by the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.

That seemed a good chance to see what early form the runners were showing. So I decided to watch, trading off the experience against the chance to watch the highlights of Chelsea against Fenerbahce. It was a bad decision.

Boris Johnson for the conservatives, and incumbent Ken Livingstone, long re-admitted into the New labour fold, are already high-profile public figures. Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems comes with an interesting and controversial reputation and many years of service in the police service.

Boris was recently acclaimed as “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, according to David Cameron, the candidate who was “twice as charismatic, and twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newsnight provided a rather jolly snap of the three candidates for the family album. [I show it above. My excuse for a possible abuse of its IP rights is that the image completely misrepresents what actually happened on the programme. It induced me to watch something completely different to the way the programme was advertised by that charming and jokey photograph.]

The format was the stilted and clumsy one of the so-called debate between the candidates for the Deputy Leader of The Labour Party last year That was when each candidate stood rather foolishly and gaukishly answering questions such as ‘if you weren’t standing, which candidate would you vote for’. It was hard to imagine Newsnight could ever do something quite as bad again.

Well, they did. Monday April 8th 2008. This time there were three candidates not six. But the cheap lecterns were brought out of storage again. The hectoring blustering style from Jeremy Paxman was if anything even more deranged. ‘You must be living in a parallel Universe if you think that people …’ [can’t remember what followed. My notes just read ‘grey, witless, dire’ and that was just the questioning].

The candidates fell into the trap of squeezing as many words as possible into each time-compressed reply. From time to time they were allowed to snarl at each other, but they didn’t try to snarl at Mr Paxman.

Mostly the statements made little sense. Among the breathless platitudes there was one almost interesting and surreal bit about bendy busses and how many people were killed by them. But that didn’t make much sense either.

Its fifteen minutes seemed to go on, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop for a very long time. But it was hard to concentrate. Boris seemed determined to avoid letting the most engaging part of his persona shine through, less his exuberant sense of fun be too closely connected with buffoonery. Ken’s drier wit was also under lock and key. Mr Paddick may have made some concession towards the existence of an audience, but if he did, I missed it.

The missing audience

That’s it! No-one seemed to be acting in a way that might engage an audience. Mr Paxman, the old warrior and professional trooper is still able to perform his roaring and ranting bit. But even he had trouble with the epilogue to camera. You can watch it again he said. Then added, as if with a glimmer or irony and self-awareness, again and again, thanks to the shiny new podcast service available from the BBC website. But that was about the only concession to the needs of an audience. All four were performing an intense tag game. Once they got into the ring, awareness of the need to win the favours of an audience out there somewhere was lost, as the combatants grunted and groaned to the final bell.

Questions we deserve

Turns out the BBC had been encouraging people to suggest questions. Not sure if that absolves anyone from the general crassness. Question Time seems able to collect enough people to ask some worthwhile questions to its panels of politicians on a weekly basis.

What did the charisma go?

Where did all that charisma go? I could only see four adrenalized alpha males in identikit dark grey Business gear engaged in mock combat. Conclusion. The format all but snuffed out any insights into the ideas or personalities of the candidates. I am as unenlightened as ever about their competences relevant to being the next London mayor.

Wish I’d watched Chelsea. Still, I can always upload it (or do I mean download it?) from the BBC website.


The image above came from the BBC website. So sue me. And I’ll make a counterclaim using the image as evidence that I had been mislead into watching a programme of such dismal format that it succeeded in sucking all the vitality out of three able people (four if you count Jeremy Paxman) and in misrepresenting them as unfit for office. Perhaps Ken, Boris, or Brian could be called as witnesses for the defence. Jeremy would presumably be a witness for the prosecution.