Friday, February 24, 2017


I suppose I shouldn’t be at all surprised about what I read on Facebook, given the measures being currently rolled out to combat “fake news” articles, but what surprised me more was an advertisement that appeared in the middle of the long procession of updates from family members and work colleagues. Somehow, Facebook’s data and algorithms suggested I read an article, first published by “The New York Times” in October 2016, titled “Is It OK to Find Sexual Satisfaction Outside Your Marriage?” The article turned out to be the from the newspaper’s problem page, which also answered a query about smoking after beginning a new health insurance policy.
I certainly didn’t need to read it – it’s not a case of, “she doth protest too much,” I’m just not married, and I don’t smoke – but it made me wonder what it was about me, or my associates, that made Facebook suggest this to me. An algorithm is not “artificial intelligence,” in which case it would have known better, but all it had to go on is the information we had all been feeding into it.
Later the same day, my thumb clicked on the wrong “Maps” app on my phone, clicking on the app provided with the phone, and not the better one I usually use. Somehow, without me never having asked it, the app had plotted my usual journey to and from work, even down to marking the two ends of the line as, “Work” and “Home.”

We had this coming. Tesco Clubcard, the supermarket loyalty card launched nationwide in 1995, may be the first time most people had come across the idea of “Big Data,” where the data being collected was so large, so complex, that the ways of storing and reading through it had to change. The results, however, caused Lord McLaurin, a Tesco executive, to declare, “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.”
We rely on “Big Data” to anticipate our needs, demands, and wishes. What that means, however, is that companies can no longer be in a position to guess what people might need. Tesco has expanded enormously over the twenty years since Clubcard began because it knows exactly what it needs to buy – it is a business that no longer needs to anticipate demand, in the same manner as Facebook, Google, Apple, and so on.
However, in the rush to accept the more convenient future that Big Data can bring, we often rush past the Terms & Conditions to press the “Accept” button, something I am also guilty of doing, in the name of convenience. Would we be less accepting to give away our information if we took the time to read through the T&Cs? R. Sikoryak has created “Terms and Conditions: The Graphic Novel,” a 94-page comic adaptation of the Apple iTunes Terms and Conditions but, with this being unauthorised, is it against Apple’s business plans to make their conditions more entertaining to read? Does it no longer matter? I have a good idea for Netflix’s next big show.

Friday, February 17, 2017


Once upon a time, televisions were made in our home town. We owned a few of them, but the most memorable, were two black-and-white portable televisions which, like the others, were made by Ferguson, a major employer in Gosport, Hampshire, and a division of the enormous Thorn-EMI corporation. The cathode ray tube in one TV gave up one day, but the other hung on for a very long time: when the on-off-volume switch fell off, it was replaced by the end of a used chapstick, jammed into the hole to serve for nearly a full decade. Colour television arrived in my bedroom when both progress, and a Christmas present, replaced the Ferguson with a portable Matsui TV.
It turns out that this coming Monday, 20th February, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the closing of the Ferguson factory, which has since become a business park. The US conglomerate Cyanamid, once owners of brands as disparate as Old Spice and Formica, had a pharmaceutical plant down the road, but it has since moved out, the factory knocked down. The remaining mass employer in Gosport, apart from the Royal Navy, is the Finnish company Huhtamaki, makers of food and drink packaging, and formerly known as the great-sounding Sweetheart International, whose base is big enough for them to sponsor the flowers on nearby roundabouts.

It is too easy to get sentimental about these things, especially the jobs that are lost – I have only worked in my home town for five months out of the last twelve years. However, the reason the last TV was replaced was the same reason the factory closed: competition. In 1987, Thorn-EMI sold Ferguson to Thomson, the French company that already shared production and designs with them, but they themselves pulled out of a market where Ferguson no longer fit.
Back when people rented TVs, because they were often too expensive to buy, Thorn-EMI not only made the TVs, you rented and bought from them too – their Radio Rentals, DER and Rumbelows rental businesses have since become Bright House. Thorn-EMI also made some of the programmes you saw, owning half of Thames Television, and all of EMI Records. Only Sony has gone as far as this since, owning Columbia Pictures and record labels, but they don’t keep their customers tied in to the same extent, as TVs have since become cheap enough to buy, and to throw away – no jamming in any chapsticks there.
If people are looking at bringing back industry the way we used to have it, so long as you are able to innovate and adapt as well as any other part of the world, and you know that the conditions are different from the way they were, then it is certainly possible. Whether it means anyone will buy up Gosport’s KFC drive-thru, knock it down, and build the Cyanamid factory on top of it, is another question all together… one that has the answer, “probably not,” unless plans for the future are being made over a bucket of chicken.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Last week, planning my article about a possible “bias against understanding” in 1970s TV journalism – still much more engaging than it sounds – I did what I usually do, talking about what I had in mind with a couple of people at work. Going through the bits of information I had, I was surprised when one section, later deemed superfluous to the rest of the article, got a laugh at the end. Thinking about it afterwards, I had introduced an idea of something, presented it in the right order, and added a punchline to it.
I am not someone who thinks of themselves as someone who can tell a joke, and have never gone out of my way to write one. However, recognising a skill to be developed, here is that excised section from last week, plus two other observations from the last week.

1) When the BBC merged its News and Current Affairs departments together, Current Affairs moved out of its centre, based in another part of London. Formerly the Gaumont-British Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock made “The 39 Steps” (1935) and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), Lime Grove was bought by the BBC in 1949. However, Lime Grove is also the name of the residential street in which the studios were based - when the BBC ran out of office space, they started buying up the terraced houses next door, meaning episodes of “Panorama” were being planned in someone’s old front room. The studios were demolished when the BBC moved out, with the rubble being used as hardcore for widening the M25 motorway – you can no longer visit it, but you may have driven over it.

2) On Monday 6th February, Bauer Media relaunched their local radio network, which includes Key 103 in Manchester and Radio City in Liverpool, with a refined station sound and playlist. However, others focussed on the style guide given to presenters, tightly restricting the subjects and time they could speak, some links needing to be signed off by their “content controller.” Bauer later issued a statement that described parts of the radio industry as having “indulged itself in hyperbole,” [] but it didn’t stop me from thinking they could do with hiring Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google Assistant for their mid-morning shows. So, I wrote on Twitter: “@bauerradio How come @wave105radio, one of your stations, can do perfectly well without all these rules?” Wave 105, “The South’s Best Variety of Hits,” liked the Tweet in return – I should have asked why, but if they answered, they could become Magic 105 by the next time I tuned in.

3) So, that Donald Trump, eh? That President of the United States that needs members of his staff to clarify what he says on Twitter? When Steven Poole decodified “Trumpspeak” – all the “dishonest,” “failing,” and “bad” stuff - for the “Guardian” newspaper, [] I realised how darkly funny this could be. George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” gave us the idea of “Newspeak” as a way of restricting the population’s ability to articulate itself, allowing the rulers to control them more easily – but what if the head of state does it to themselves first?

Saturday, February 4, 2017


[John Birt, with Mick Jagger, for "World in Action"]

Once upon a time, in a United Kingdom riven with economic and social problems, and questions over our future relationship with Europe, people began looking at how the news was not informing us in the way we needed, to help us understand and solve our problems.
I could be talking about Brexit, “fake news” and “alternative facts,” but the year is actually 1975, marked in Britain by high inflation, social unrest and voting to remain in the Common Market. Like now, it was people within the news companies themselves talking about how to properly reflect what was happening.
The key arguments were published in a series of articles in “The Times” in 1975-76, co-written by its Economics Editor, Peter Jay, with John Birt, the Head of Current Affairs for London Weekend Television. Birt was also responsible for LWT’s political discussion show “Weekend World,” which was presented by Jay. If you can find these articles, you will be rewarded with passionate polemic sent out by two people who must have loved working out what they would propose, as manifestoes come about when there is a moment to be seized.

The extremely short version of their findings was that television journalism, an uneasy mix of newspaper-style reporting and film-style documentary storytelling, had a “bias against understanding,” caused by providing too little time in news bulletins to provide enough context and focus to events happening on the surface, not providing enough of a link to what they highlight and the wider issue it illustrated, and focussing too much on stories, rather than issues. Failing to inform the public could even be considered as anti-social.
Their solution would be to create one central news unit, encompassing numerous disparate news and current affairs programme teams, in order to work together. The main focus would be one hour-long programme every night, covering the main five or six stories of the day in great detail, not unlike later shows like “Newsnight” or “Channel 4 News,” complemented by weekly reviews, monthly investigations of the main issues of the times, and feature programmes that answered questions as they came up.
If this proposal sounded like fewer people would watch, the argument was that the public reaction to the new style of stories would be more “oh, I see,” than “oh, my god!” Likewise, mixing of fact and comment already happens, as choosing what to include in a report is already making a value judgement. Any concerns on integrating teams into a big bureaucracy would be countered by the opportunities provided by working together.

Did anything ever come of this? What didn’t help is that 1970s television was slower in general, the first news bulletins of any type not appearing until lunchtime, making an end-of-day wrap-up easier to implement. However, as 24-hour news cycles were replaced by constant streams, from the introduction of CNN in 1980, through to online sites and social media, it is too easy to be simply be given all available information, then to make of it what you will, all by yourself, or with those that agree with you.
While “Newsnight” and “Channel 4 News” have more time to go into detail, did John Birt and Peter Jay get the chance to make their proposals work? After writing the articles, Jay had a term as UK Ambassador to the United States, and Birt produced David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon, in which the former president ultimately admitted to letting the American people down. Jay would then be asked by Frost to become chairman of breakfast television station TV-am, where its “mission to explain” stuck to the “Times” articles closely, but petered out after a few weeks, due to a lack of viewers, infighting at the station that resulted in Jay leaving, and the simple fact that heavyweight analysis doesn’t work at six o’clock in the bloody morning.

At the BBC, John Birt, who was hired as Deputy Director-General, before getting the top job, enacted the proposals as far as he could. News and current affairs departments, based in different parts of London, were merged into one, and “Editors” were employed to inject context straight into bulletins – Peter Jay became Economics Editor in 1990.

If there is a moment to be seized, you have to make a persuasive argument. If it has been made before, then it has to be clear why it is worth making the case again. Change never came easy, as Birt and Jay made clear:

“There is no easy path to understanding. The conscientious journalist, having climbed the mountain, should of course make it easier for those who follow. But we should be suspicious of those who offer a low and painless road to the top. For it seldom, if ever, exists.”