Radio 2 Needs An Overnight Salvation

That’s the thing about the nights…you don’t realise…how much of people’s lives you’ve become…the audience will no longer be having a friendly voice talking with them and holding a conversation with them…the output might be top class…but it won’t be the same, it won’t have that intimacy – BBC Radio 2 presenter Alex Lester .

The announcement that the UK’s most-listened to radio station, Radio 2, is to cut its live overnight output, mainly presented by Alex Lester and Janice Long, has shocked and angered many of those who listen to the station between midnight and 0500 – 0600 at weekends – and sparked a further debate about the purpose and responsibilities of a public service broadcaster.

Of course, no broadcaster likes to lose his or her programmes and any change sparks protest in radio – one of the characteristics and unique aspects of the medium’s appeal is for it to produce far more of sense of ‘ownership’ in its audience than by any other ‘platform’. A change to a schedule and/or presenters feels to many almost like a personal insult, and even (judging from some of the responses) similar to the death of a loved one. But in this case both the reasoning for the change and the manner of its execution seems to have been both cack-handed and sneaky. In what seems to be an attempt to avoid the furore that accompanied the move from weekdays to weekends for Alex Lester in 2014, the BBC has left the announcement to the last possible minute.

For Alex, his thirty years of service, doing a job that few would brave for three days let alone three decades, with an audience numbering around a million when on weekdays, are to be met with a swift guillotine at the end of this month with a brief thanks for the “… contributions to the programme” – a line in a BBC press release that is chilling in its lack of emotion and perhaps indicating there will be no official presentation of a golden alarm clock at a glittering leaving ‘do’. Rather than acknowledge the needs of a very specific audience (and let’s remember the new BBC Charter requires the Corporation to serve diverse communities) the press release relates at length how ‘expert musical curators’, ‘streaming music’, ‘playlists’ etc., etc., must satisfy what has become over the years a devoted listening public.  Comments so far on public media would suggest this is not being greeted with similar enthusiasm – rather there is a growing feeling that night workers are being ignored or dismissed by the Corporation.

If loyal followers of ‘The Dark Lord’ (as he is affectionately known) look carefully they may be lucky; he will be found elsewhere, amongst local radio audiences who have always loved his original and unique personality. And, let’s face it, if BBC Radio 2 loses listeners (as they surely will) this is where they will find a more welcoming home. But if you’re looking for that warm and friendly voice in the long dark hours between midnight and dawn, on a national network you have counted on for the last thirty years, forget it. It’s autoplay and voice tracking for you. If you complain you can look forward to corporate statements citing masses of research data that will prove that those who have enjoyed the company of the Dark Lord on the ‘Best Time of The Day’ show would MUCH prefer a robot providing tracks on a network jukebox. You may have been a loyal audience, but you have little choice as there’s no real alternative available – which will be why the BBC seems to think this is a safe gamble.

Lewis Carnie, Head of BBC Radio 2, says you’re a “… relatively small percentage of our audience …”. But smaller audiences have not traditionally been a problem for the Corporation. BBC Radio 3 is a whole network dedicated to a niche audience which could be culled if that’s the rationale being used, and at its height Alex Lester’s listening figures reached a million – the same as the total audience for BBC Radio1Xtra. So the question that remains is, how does killing off live programmes overnight on Radio 2 fulfil the remit of public service broadcasting?

The axing of the live shows has been justified by the need for the station to cut its spending, which is part of the BBC’s need to trim its budgets overall, due in the main to a variety of new demands and responsibilities foisted onto it by the government – not least the cost of ‘free’ TV licences for the over-75s. The announcement comes during a critical few weeks, in which the BBC’s new Royal Charter comes into effect, and a new unified board – merging the Trustees and Executive – under a new Chairman prepares to take control.

Until the new system comes into effect in April, the BBC Trust is the body that, amongst other things, issues ‘service licences’ for all BBC sectors. Its most recent agreement for Radio 2 notes that it agreed a change to the network’s baseline budget on the understanding that:  “…in giving approval to this change, the Trust has been assured by the BBC Executive that the change to the budget does not reflect any change to the remit, scope or other stated key characteristics of the service”. Doesn’t dropping all live overnight programming constitute a change to its scope? The service licence also revealed that the annual budget for the network was nearly £50 million.

As discussed in a recent ‘radio roundtable’, which contained the interview with Alex Lester quoted above, it seems fantastic to the commercial sector that a station with that kind of budget cannot find the relatively small amounts to pay for live presenters for at least part of the night. How much money is actually being saved? After all, it was reasoned in the roundtable, being a BBC network there would still be a Technical Operator on duty to run the recorded sequences, which in any case are surely not completely cost-free; they’ve still got to pay for the power of the transmitters, so the only real saving is the fee of one presenter per night. Even at BBC network rates (which the Corporation likes to keep secret but we’ve had enough hints and even outright disclosure over the years to have a good idea) it surely can’t amount to a significant saving in the scheme of things.

Another highly relevant part of the service licence (5.4) also highlights that: “Radio 2 should facilitate the growth of communities of interest and enable people to connect with the station and each other.” The live overnight shows certainly enabled people to connect with each other, and this was clearly a much-appreciated aspect of the output.

It’s not as if those working through the night (let alone insomniacs, and those sick and lonely) constitute a tiny fraction of the population. Our service economy and demand for speedy delivery of our online orders means there is a significant ‘community of interest’ of more than three million, one in eight workers, according to a TUC report.

As a former BBC local radio head of programmes, who began that role more than 25 years ago in the week that ten per cent cuts in local radio budgets came into effect – leading in my region to the axing of a number of specialist music shows with devoted followers, and six stations combining their output 6pm-midnight – I know how difficult it is to make economies without upsetting listeners. I also know that although the percentage in my case doesn’t sound that much, of course you have a lot of fixed costs over which you have little or no control, so to achieve ten per cent – demanded from on high – you really have to cut deep into the bits where you do have some discretion; and staff costs are always the biggest part. So you end up losing people, and in radio that means output. In fact, in my case the decisions had been made before I arrived and I spent the next six months or so responding to angry letters and phone calls defending others’ choices. But, heh, that’s one of the joys of management! So I am not unsympathetic to the dilemma of Radio 2 bosses. But there are two other points I’d like to make in favour of retaining live overnight output.

The first is: trying out talent. In the days when commercial radio routinely broadcast live overnight it was a great way of letting aspirant broadcasters have a go with a lower risk of them losing ratings in the key advertising daytime periods – indeed, Radio 2’s ‘Jerry’ Vine (then a student at Durham University) did his first shows overnight on Metro Radio towards the end of my time there. Radio 2 needs to be grooming – if one can use that word without unfortunate overtones these days – its next generation of presenters: people who can mix speech and music and be entertaining, relevant, credible and have an individual personality, yet still able to work in a team to produce a coherent ‘station sound.’ This is much more difficult than many imagine; in particular, the ‘gear-changes’ between speech and music, light and serious fare, can jar and sound crass if not handled with great skill – listen to Jeremy Vine for a daily master-class in this; it sounds effortless because it is done so well. The presenters on the current day-time line-up are all in their 50s or 60s. Sooner or later one or more will depart to new challenges or just to retire; or, perish the thought, be unable to continue for other reasons. At the moment, when one or more of the main team are on vacation, the controllers often fill the slots with people from different backgrounds, some of whom are, in my opinion, ill-suited to delivering the particular Radio 2 mix. But there are many working on the BBC’s own local stations – where both Alex Lester and Janice Long cut their broadcasting teeth – used to the mixture of speech and music and well versed in the Corporation’s ways and requirements who would relish the chance to ‘fill in’ on the network – and, I’m sure, for a much lower fee. So why not have a couple of shows a week that come from one or more of the BBC locals, which have the systems to contribute to the networks anyway?

Secondly, as was pointed out in the roundtable, BBC network radio is proposing, in a process called ‘Compete and Compare’, to make available 60% of its output to bids from those outside the Corporation, in the ‘indie’ sector. Apparently, it has been made clear that the main day-time sequences won’t be opened up to this process, so many of the indies were hoping they could have a crack at the overnights. Some of these are also based outside London – so again there is scope for further fulfillment of the BBC’s requirements for greater geographical diversity, as well as providing a much-needed stimulus to the independent sector.

It took the arrival of Independent Local radio (ILR) in 1973 to provide 24-hour broadcasting in this country – including the first round-the-clock news service. (At the time, and for a few years afterwards, Radio 2, which had then the longest broadcasting hours, still closed down between 0200-0500.) The first of the ILR stations was LBC in London, and today that continues to broadcast live through the night – now, through Digital Audio Broadcasting, on a national platform. I’m told Smooth Radio – not available all over the country – reintroduced live overnight broadcasting a couple of years ago. If it’s possible for commercial broadcasters – who have to find every penny through advertising and sponsorship and have no certainty of income or profit – can find the resources to provide live companionship and dialogue with its listeners, then so should the BBC.

This decision should be challenged. Leave Streaming to Spotify and Apple Music. Sequences of music are not ‘radio’. As Alex Lester says in his interview, everyone, whether they listen to Chris Evans in the peak morning sequence, or to ‘the Dark Lord’ over-night are listeners to the BBC, and (if they have a TV or TV-viewable device) are licence-fee payers. One is not more valuable than another and they all expect a service that suits their needs. This change is not the right approach for a public service broadcaster. It feels petty, mean-spirited and tokenistic. We’ve a right to expect better from Auntie.



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Brexiteers Should Back The Judges

newspapers-euThere are many reasons for objecting to the EU and for wanting to leave it. Surely one of the most honorable and decent criticisms is that the supposed ‘pooled sovereignty’ between member nations has in fact resulted in, at best, a dilution of representative democracy: the idea that our laws, taxes and general governance should be decided only by those the people have the power to choose in free and fair elections.

My principled and, I might state rather pompously, principled objection to the EU is that our parliament has the right to do anything that it wishes EXCEPT to transfer to give away its powers to others, because that power is lent to them by the people – it is not theirs to give away. If it is going to do so, then the people must give specific and direct permission for it do so do, and the best way of doing that is in a referendum – a device which the British resisted for decades on the sound reasons that in the recent past it has been a tool for demagogues and dictators to acquire consent to the abandon basic human rights of its citizens and for unchecked authority. Despite its unfortunate heritage, many European countries have, in their constitutions, a requirement  for a referendum if national powers are to be handed to other institutions, which is why a number of EU treaties have run into trouble, notably in Ireland. An EU Treaty is one of the areas requiring unanimity in the member states – every country has a veto.

In the UK we have only had three nationwide referenda; whether or not to remain in the EEC (1975); to adopt a new voting system, the Alternative Vote, for elections to the Westminster parliament (2011) and, of course a second referendum on the now European Union, in June this year. Each referendum has not been triggered by democratic principle but to try to resolve splits in the government party – or, in the case of the AV Referendum, parties in a coalition government.  Both the EEC/EU referenda were advisory – they were not binding on parliament. By contrast, the AV had a mandate within it – because parliament chose to insert a clause to state that if there was a majority in favour of switching to the Alternative Vote, this would happen.

Those of us who have been campaigning  against the EU for years (in my case over two decades) argue that, whatever the merits of and good intentions behind the EU, the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ was too high a price to pay. Whilst some think it is humiliating and embarrassing that we voted to Leave, I take the view that it’s humiliating that it took a huge battle in Brussels and threats by Conservative backbenchers to vote against their government’s budget before the UK won the right to scrap VAT on sanitary products – this was claimed to be a great victory!

Many were very suspicious of the way in which more and more powers were transferred (or ‘pooled’) from national governments and parliaments and it’s been clear for some 25 years that, whatever the official denials, the ultimate goal was for a United States of Europe – but with the member states having even less power than do the States in the USA. However, ‘they’ knew that such a  move would never be endorsed by the demos, so ‘they’ went about by underhand means; notably in the creation of a single currency and monetary and interest policy, which, as no less an authority than Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz concludes, has proved disastrous for hundreds of millions of citizens and their democracies.

This was a policy backed fervently backed and pursued by the ‘New Labour’ Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1997, most of the Labour party in government, by many Conservatives,  the TUC, CBI, and the bulk of economists and academics who opined in the few years before and after it was introduced. I took my ‘shock troops’ out on to the streets of Southport in that period and we were told by most of the great and the good, including the local MP, that we were wasting our time – that the single currency was inevitable and we were petty little Englanders, etcetera. They were all wrong. But, despite the opt-out on Economic and Monetary Union secured by the UK – and the realisation by Blair that he could never win a referendum on the UK adopting the single currency, which even he had felt obliged to offer – further attempts to integrate the EU countries in all sorts of areas continued, without the people having any direct say in it.

I look forward to the day when no petty bureaucrat can say “aaah, well, you’re right mate, but we can’t/ have to/ do it because of Brussels”. We might not like our government but we at least have a chance to chuck  one lot out and put another lot in, and to change laws, including how parliament works. At the moment, you can have a party committed to a policy, elected with a majority of 400, and parliament still couldn’t enact the policy if it was against EU rules.

The ruling by the High Court last week that, despite the victory for the ‘Leave’ side in this year’s referendum,  the government does not have the authority to trigger the process to leave the EU without parliamentary approval boils down to the view that, as parliament has agreed on all the legal ramifications of those treaties, parliament must also give express permission to start a process for them to be undone, via invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It is an assertion of parliamentary supremacy – and all those in favour of leaving the EU should welcome it.

The Conservative MEP and veteran anti-EU campaigner Daniel Hannan on today’s Peston on Sunday said that, in the past, government has signed treaties and then parliament has passed an Act and therefore, by precedent, can trigger Article 50 and THEN have a debate/vote in Commons and Lords. But this neatly glides over fact that we only joined the then EEC AFTER the European Communities Bill was passed and every further treaty has only had legal effect after parliament has passed a bill. Does Hannan not remember the row over the Maastricht Treaty, which usurped parliamentary power in many more areas? (This was the development which triggered my opposition to the EEC). It was signed by John Major in February 1992, yet the relevant bill wasn’t passed for another 18 months or so, with a general election in between (in which Labour opposed Maastricht), the government then losing a key vote and having to make it clear that unless this was overturned they would regard it as a vote of no confidence and there’d be a further general election.

Therefore, if we are to start an irrevocable, time-limited process of leaving the EU and consequently changing all these legal arrangements, then logically parliament must first agree.

If parliament had put a line in the European Referendum Bill stating something like : “In the event of a majority vote in the Referendum to Leave the European Union, the government shall have the power to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty at a time of its choosing”. But it – as I pointed out many times on social media through the campaign – it didn’t! It doesn’t matter what Cameron put in that Referendum leaflet – it has no more legal validity than a promise in an election manifesto.

The High Court judges ruled that it was not their job to try and determine the wishes of the people, or determine the merits of the case for and against membership of the EU, or what the government’s negotiating position should be. Its judgement was a matter of law and constitutional precedent and principle. That’s the deal with judges – they are sticklers for that sort of thing.

Instead of certain newspaper attacking the judges as being ‘enemies of the people’ and other overblown claims (though I defend their right to do so!) they should welcome the ruling as a confirmation that, despite the embers of feudalism still burning in such things as the Royal Prerogative in our weird, non-codified constitution, we are not ruled by executive diktat and that nobody is above the law.

It should only take a single-clause bill to be passed by both Houses to satisfy the judges and for Article 50 to be triggered. There is a broad consensus that MPs – 62% of whose constituencies voted Leave – won’t try to frustrate this. If they did, even though calling an early general election is trickier than it used to be, there are two parliamentary devices for triggering one. A Conservative landslide would surely follow and most of the ‘deniers of democracy’, as they would surely be labelled (at best!), would be out. I think they get that!

Far from getting steamed up about the judges and predicting riots in the street, all those who support the Leave cause should urge the government to abandon its legal challenge, put its short bill to parliament, get it passed, and then start negotiations when it is ready to do so. Parliamentary authority will have been re-asserted, and, I fervently hope, will never be squandered or compromised again.

(Newspaper graphic copyright The Guardian) Composite: The Sun/Daily Express/Daily Mail/The Daily Telegraph

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Get Your Fix On Election ’66

election 66

Pic: Copyright BBC

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.


Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.


History at its best is vicarious experience.
Edmund S. Morgan


On this Easter holiday Monday, hard-core political and media anoraks were enjoying the 1966 general election re-run on the BBC’s Parliamentary Channel (three days ahead of the actual 50th anniversary – tssch!). The election resulted in one of only two decisive majorities in UK history for an avowedly Socialist party.


It has become a part of a public holiday treat for the channel to do these general election re-runs. For me and similarly nerdy/geeky types (OK, I admit it!) they provide a fascinating, indeed compelling spectacle.


The beauty and fun – yes, fun, say I! – of studying media ‘texts’ is that it involves the analysis of both form and content. In this case, we have in these few hours of archived, continuous television coverage (aside from state funerals and The Coronation about the only such television output that is available) a window on the politics of the time: the issues, the personalities, the psephology – AND on the way that BBC television at least, covered these events. How the audience and the politicians and other ‘actors’ in the drama are addressed; who is chosen for comment and reaction and how it is framed; how different demographics are incorporated into the unfolding, dramatic narrative of an election night (and following morning), and how the available technology is used. It was the last general election coverage to be in black and white.


Just a quick snapshot of the times and situation: Labour had been elected back into government in October 1964, after 13 years in opposition, with an overall Commons’ majority of just four. It was clear that such a majority would be insufficient to last the full, maximum parliamentary term of five years, without the constant risk of government defeat, and it being stymied in enacting a pretty radical programme. So, Prime Minister Harold Wilson – whose birth centenary was this March – having seen the favourable opinion polls, decided to gamble the small majority for a more secure base.


Wilson was from a modest, lower middle-class background. A clever, scholarship, grammar-school boy he went onto Oxford University and achieved great academic distinction and seemed to set to become an Oxford Don, until politics (originally he was a Young Liberal) took hold in his imagination and drive.


His main opposition was from the Conservative party, under leader Edward Heath, who was from a similar humble background, also grammar-school educated and who also ‘went up’ to Oxford. Unlike Wilson, he served with distinction in the army in World War II. Heath was the first Tory leader to be elected by his fellow MPs – all the previous ones had ‘emerged’ through what was known as ‘the Magic Circle’ of Tory grandees.


I guess if you’ve got this far in a blog like this you know all of that, and more. But it’s just worth pointing out that this election, although held in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, with The Beatles about to hit the crossover high-point between popularity and artistic achievement and England set to win the FIFA World Cup a few months later, and the country having experienced a ‘satire boom’ a few years earlier, British society was still very ‘small c’ conservative, not least amongst the working class.


The great social reforms of de-criminalising (to a very limited extent) male homosexual acts (the prospect of this was a hot topic in the election, as we shall see), of legalising abortion (again under strict terms), were still over a year ahead. The Race Relations Act had still to be passed, so signs advertising houses to let could still legally (and did) state ‘No, Irish, No Coloureds, No Dogs’. ‘Racialist’ prejudice was in common parlance and actions. Children were legally beaten in schools, and often at home, and flogging in prisons had only recently been abolished. The London theatres were still under censorship; the execution of convicted murderers had only been abolished the year earlier, and then only for an experimental period.


The British Empire still existed in a tangible form east of Suez. Most people still left school at 15 and went straight into work. University education may have been free and supplying a grant, but only a tiny proportion of school-leavers went there. Most men still worked in the tough, manual industries such as coal-mining and ship-building or on factory production lines. There was near full employment, though, and unionisation was high, as was class consciousness, with distinctions in so many ways between the social classes. Millions of homes were without central heating, or even indoor lavatories. There were hardly any women in politics, broadcasting, or on company boards.


The National Health Service and ‘cradle to the grave’ social security and insurance was less than 20 years old and millions not only had direct memories and experience of a world war, but also of the preceding great depression, with its mass unemployment, misery, insecurity, degradation, absolute poverty and humiliations.


As we’ll also see, controversy over whether the UK should or should not join the European Community – usually referred to as ‘the Common Market’ – was a huge issue in 1966. The country’s application in the previous Conservative government had been vetoed by France’s de Gaulle, as was to be the application the following year under the second Wilson administration. Heath, who was to unexpectedly lead the Conservatives to victory in the next general election in 1970, finally succeeded in this, in a move that is, of course, reverberating to this day, with a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the now European Union in June this year.


The BBC-TV’s election night and following morning’s programmes (a novelty to have any TV then after midnight and in the mornings) were ‘anchored’ by the avuncular and urbane Cliff Michelmore – a former RAF Squadron Leader, who died earlier this month. Michelmore had taken over from the election coverage duties from Richard Dimbelby who had prematurely died in 1965, and whose eldest son, David, did the honours in general elections from 1979 to 2015.


What I had intended to be a few comments on the re-run of election ’66 and a couple of threads on Facebook, tuned out – I noticed to my genuine surprise – into some 30 comments and a total of some 2,000 words. In the event I had, to all intents and purposes, a live Blog. What follows is pretty much the unedited flow of these comments, with only the comments to them from other blameless Facebook friends cut. What I think (hope!) emerges is a commentary that, yes, demonstrates the huge changes in the last half century – hardly surprising – but also fascinating similarities and parallels with today.


Curiously, at the time of writing, the first part of the coverage is not online (but is promised soon) but if you are in the UK, you can watch the second part of the coverage online until the end of April, 2016


Thanks for your interest! (Note: ‘vox’ or ‘voxes’ refer to ‘vox pops’ (vox populis – the voice of the people).


  • Harold Wilson just on, being his usual public self – sharp but good-humoured and self-deprecating. Observes that the majority in his own constituency (Huyton on Merseyside; think the interview will be from Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool) goes up the less time he spends there, and uses this to pay tribute his party workers. Takes a dig at newspaper political commentators who don’t have enough to do and just write one column a week for the Sundays (those were the days!) and notes they’re nearly always wrong. He simultaneously blames TV for “boring” the electorate due to all the coverage, but also concedes that, over the years, TV has helped people understand the main issues. Interesting that – presumably to reassure the middle-classes – he makes a cricket analogy as to who will be in his Cabinet and in what position (who will be ‘square-leg’ and so on). After England’s World Cup victory four months later his analogies were always football-led (who will take the penalty, et al).
    Ted Heath (first Conservative leader to be elected by MPs, and just eight months before) now on – effectively concedes: Bob McKenzie says this is the closest you will ever get in a British general election to a leader conceding defeat before the majority has been won on the other side. Heath has just seen his own majority slashed in Bexley, as well as the loss of many Conservative seats. He is unrepentant about his policies and campaign – “we were ahead of public opinion”. In other words: “WE were right and YOU (the voters) are wrong – IDIOTS!”. Ha ha.


  • Cliff Michelmore just mentioned his own seat in Surrey – ha! I was born in house very near his and although we left when I was barely two, we used to go back there to see friends every Easter. It became a joke that whenever we passed his house we saw him! Vividly remember going past and seeing him coming out of the front door and getting into his car. SOOO exciting! He was such a HUGE TV personality at the time and had been for years. And amazing to me that his house wasn’t that big and he drove quite a modest car – himself!


  • Fascinating int’ with Conservative Humphry Berkeley, who’d been defeated in Lancaster. Widespread agreement that this was cos he had introduced private member’s bill (!) to de-criminalise homosexual acts in private. Interesting character (I read on Wikipedia!) – in 1968, he resigned from Tories over their support for US in Vietnam War and later stood unsuccessfully for Labour.


  • …Barbara Castle says “we all agree” about only going into the Common Market on the right conditions – and notes approvingly that even Heath has said that!


  • …just a few seconds given for result from Finchley and win by a Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Only comment is that the Labour candidate has taken over from Liberal for second place – she is clearly of not interest at all!!


  • (Co-presenter) Michael Barratt saying “the Black Country is looking blacker than ever”. Bit unfortunate. In the last pre-colour election the black circles in fact represent Labour. But doubly unfortunate that he then goes straight on to talk about immigration issues! Different world.


  • Oh, I was wrong about locale of previous int – that must have been from Huyton. Wilson just arrived at The Adelphi – live coverage from outside, after link broke down. Harold now not playing ball – “I’ve already given interviews to the BBC and ITN and I’ve nothing to add”. “What are you going to do now?”, asks hapless interviewer. “I’m going to get some sleep”. Interestingly, there’s a lot of boo-ing as well as cheering. Imagine that now! Whole thing would have been stage-managed to ensure only loyal, security-cleared party members there and anyone else wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close.


  • Peter Griffiths out in Smethwick – yay! Won seat on notorious “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” slogan. Defeat gives Michael Foot particular pleasure, and attributes it to “the good sense and decency of the British people”.


  • “Now over to Alan Whicker, who once again is surrounded by pretty girls!” First vox (man) is one who voted Communist. (White, ob) Rhodesian woman is depressed about result. Another man predicts new govt will increase international debt and fail to get us into the Common Market. “Yes, that’s possible”, says Whicker. Due impartiality?! Still, that guy was a better predictor than most!


  • Interesting that all opinion polls had Lab majority much larger than turned out to be the case – ‘Daily Express’ poll predicted 250 Labour maj! Still shy Tories in ’66?? And of course they would vastly over-estimate Labour vote in 1970!


  • Young Labour activist says hopes new increased maj’ will mean government won’t support US so much over Vietnam and claims that current attitude “is more right-wing than some American Senators”.


  • Int with Edward Rowlands, first war-time baby (1940) to be elected to parliament. “I’m beginning to feel very old”, says Cliff Michelmore. Right!


  • By the way, technical matter. We are clearly watching a Telecine recording, presumably taken from original VT recording. Why preserved on film? Less expensive than keeping on VT? Or thought wold survive longer than magnetic tape? Surely not for overseas, later TX? Curious!


  • Michelmore: “We’ve had several appreciative calls from viewers saying the girls (women, confined to off-air roles as secretaries, result-takers, etc., natch) are much prettier this time – it’s because they’re younger this time!” Nice to get the continuity anno and the clock, closing down the overnight broadcast. Now we’re back at 0600 on Friday, April 1st. Michelmore pictured going through the studio to take his seat, like a bank manager entering in the morning. Famous bit, used in his obits earlier this month, where he blames a bird twittering at White City for depriving him of sleep even in two hours between broadcasts.


  • Patrick Gordon-Walker, who had been in the forces that liberated Belsen concentration camp, and who was defeated in the racist Smethwick content in ’64, is “overjoyed” that Labour has won back the seat.


  • Gerald Priestland, on phone, (still pics only to accompany report) reports from Washington. US press compare Wilson to LBJ – a giant in politics. Government there evidently pleased Labour has won as know the top team and clearly trust them. (Later, Heath was most anti-US post-war PM). However, press in France and West Germany aren’t happy – they think a Labour government means there is much less chance of UK joining the Common Market.


  • David Sutch shown standing against Wilson as candidate for ‘The National Teenage Party’ – very modestly dressed compared with later incarnations, and no mention of his peerage!


  • Impressive for the time live coverage from TV camera in car from Liverpool of Wilson leaving “the well-known hotel” and “into the rush-hour traffic in Liverpool”.You can see the then new Metropolitan cathedral. Then in Lime Street, and noting that Wilson’s car has to go through the one-way traffic. Michelmore is clearly knowledgeable about traffic system in the ‘pool: “he has to turn right, right , right and right again to get back to Lime Street station”. And this indeed is true! ….Amazing! We are informed of the arrangements for Wilson’s drivers and even the number of his hotel room (no.100!). Wilson gets on ‘The Shamrock Express’ – so-called cos timed to meet the Irish boats. Station-master wears a top hat: “Pretty sure the last one to wear a top-hat…the next one will wear a bowler-hat”!! Dig at BBC techies – “the engineers told us last time it was impossible to get live pictures from underneath the arches at Lime Street! Well, we did it – they told us again it was impossible but we did it again!” Wilson appears from carriage to acknowledge bag-pipers, there to play him off and out back to London!


  • More impressive use of technology for time – Alan Whicker on the move walking across Waterloo Bridge whilst doing vox pops.


  • Very chummy interview with the just-defeated Christopher Chataway, ex of ITN. “I’m sure you’ll be back soon”, gushes Michelmore. Indeed he was – in ’67 became Chair of the Inner London Education Authority and became an Alderman; in May 69 won a by-election to the Commons and following year in new Conservative government became (the first) Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and as such introduced independent radio to the UK. Strong opponent of apartheid and later headed charity in developing world. A good man!


  • Patrick Gordon-Walker who was defeated in the racist Smethwick contest in ’64, is overjoyed that Labour won this time.


  • Fyfe Robertson is on the production line at Dagenhams for voxes. Sounds like a caricature of himself! First assembly-line worker he accosts refuses to tell him how he’s voted – quite right! Very little interest from workers – and certainly not impressed – that they are on live, national TV. Just seem annoyed it’s getting in the way of their work!


  • Live voxes from steelmakers Stewarts and Lloyds in Bilston (west midlands). Michelmore says he gave reporter instructions on how to get to the two big green chimneys that you can see on main road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham (he obviously got about!). (Re)nationalisation is on the cards and there’s mixed views from workers and management about this! 14 years later I was there covering the national strike of that nationalised industry!


  • Taking advantage of crew and live link in Liverpool, reporter – with police permission, he’s keen to point out – stopped traffic out of the Mersey tunnel. What did commuters hope the government would do for Liverpool? Work to improve transport, is reply. That hasn’t changed!


  • Discussion with three foreign correspondents, from France, US and USSR (Radio Moscow). All fairly impressed with campaign – US one says there’s nothing wrong with UK body-politic with three such good and attractive party leaders. Naturally, the Moscow guy approves of Labour and its nationalisation! The French one says the parties there can’t work Wilson out – both the Gaullists and non-Gaullists suspicious re relationship with US (esp over Vietnam), the Common Market and international corporations. Michael Aspel in news noted that the ‘New York Times’ hoped the new government wold join the ‘Common Market’. Interesting.


  • Interesting point from Scotland – nationalists now taking place of Liberals as the radical party in the urban central lowlands. Michelmore craves forgiveness for referring to Scotland and Wales as ‘regions’ – explains they have divided country into regions for coverage purposes: but that doesn’t mean they think of these nations as ‘regions’! Shape of things to come.


  • Vox with man in Devon who served in the Royal Navy from 1906-1929. I remember so many World War I veterans from childhood. That does emphasise the distance from now.


  • Lots of support for very conservative (by today’s standards) issues – capital punishment (abolished for murder for an experimental period a few months before), and flogging of prisoners both popular. The ‘racial’ issue much discussed, though only one non-white person consulted: African-Caribbean man in Birmingham, who hoped, very politely and reasonably, for ‘equal treatment’. Mentioned there were no black policeman. “There’s one in Bristol!”, claimed one white woman. “But he isn’t paid!”. “Yes, well, you’ve got to start somewhere”, she rejoins. Later there’s an int from Birmingham with African-Caribbean who has lived here for nine years. To her, Wilson is “the best Prime Minister England has had…since I took an interest in politics”. But starkest difference is lack of women. None in presenting/reporting/interviewing/commentating team. None in discussion panels. A few in vox pops (but very much out-numbered by men, and, if not obviously young, usually framed as ‘a housewife’), and only one female politician, Barbara Castle. Who, as usual, is fantastic!


  • Discussion with Ray Gunter and others over an ‘early warning’ trades union bill. This eventually led to In Place of Strife White Paper in ’69; modest proposals from Barbara Castle, which tore apart labour movement and all but destroyed Wilson’s credibility when it was abandoned, and helped the Conservatives win power in 1970.


  • Reporter is on Harold Wilson’s train – live coverage from there is great technical achievement, but has to forlornly report that Wilson refuses to speak to him. The reason? Wilson was furious with the BBC (most of the time, after a brief honeymoon period!) and gave exclusive int to ITN on same train journey! See opening par of this piece:



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SaVILE and the BBC – class is ‘in plain sight’


BH pic

The BBC’s HQ, Broadcasting House. A ‘ship’ that’s now holed below the waterline?


How did he get away with it? Why did no-one stop him? Why was everyone fooled by him?The report by Dame Janet Smith into the late Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, directly or indirectly linked to his BBC work, far from answering questions and satisfying his victims that some sort of justice had been done, seems to have caused only further anger, frustration, and accusations that it was a “whitewash”. One of the (surely?) unintended consequences of the report is of the veteran DJ, Tony Blackburn, being ‘sacked’ after he denied that a meeting had taken place 45 years ago after he was apparently named (amongst others) in a diary of a  15-year-old girl who committed suicide.

Tony Blackburn gave a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger interview to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, broadcast today, in which he gave a (to me) highly plausible possible explanation as to how a memo of this supposed meeting could have been written. 

Full disclosure before I go any further: whilst I don’t claim to be ‘great showbiz mates’ with Tony Blackburn, I’ve met and chatted to him on several occasions, and I like him very much. He is an extraordinarily kind, positive and generous man, with a genuine love of music and an absolute passion for radio. I also have a pension from the BBC – so, on those grounds, at least, I’d rather it didn’t collapse for while yet!

As I’ve blogged before, I met SaVILE only once, though it was over several hours, when I was Programme Controller of a commercial radio station, when he came to do a promotional visit after I agreed to take his part-syndicated weekly show in the 1990s. I have a team studio photo, with SaVILE in the centre – with, naturally, one of the female presenters on his knee. In complete contrast to Tony, I took an instant dislike to SaVILE; finding him cold, cynical, arrogant, and totally untrustworthy.

Many explanations have been given for how apparently otherwise decent and certainly educated and cultured people, either turned a blind eye to Savile’s grotesque levels of sexual abuse, often on BBC premises,  or acknowledged that something bad was probably going on but excused it, because it was “just Jimmy”.

Looking through Dame Janet Smith’s 753-page report this week-end (I did so you don’t have to!), there are a couple of factors I’d like to discuss that are either not mentioned at all, or are mentioned only obliquely.

My starting point for looking at any situation in England (I specify that nation in the United Kingdom) is social class. It’s nearly always in there. Amongst the many things that Dame Janet seems not to have grasped is that SaVILE’s social background amongst the BBC’s radio and TV presenters at that time was his genuinely working-class roots. Most of the original Radio 1 team (Dame Janet  correctly points out that SaVILE joined the network about a year after its launch) were privately educated. Tony Blackburn is the son of a GP and attended the private Millfield School.   Jimmy Young was quite ‘common‘, being the son of a baker and Grammar-School educated. I think only Kenny Everett, the Liverpudlian son of a tugboat captain, could rival SaVILE’s background. John Peel admitted that he had only been given the job of playing psychedelic and ‘dangerous’ music because he was an ‘old Salopian’ and, therefore, could probably be trusted with the nation’s airwaves. And just as the ‘talent’ was overwhelmingly upper-middle-class, the BBC executives and producers were of ‘officer class’; mostly university educated and of a civil service mentality, who existed in a world of secure employment, graded salary scales, a hierarchy, of ‘referring up’, of BBC social clubs and gold-plated pensions and the countless unspoken but shared assumptions, attitudes, and ‘ways of doing things’. If ‘it’ had to be spoken about, it was a quiet word between chaps, and maybe a discrete note placed on the Personnel File.

SaVILE had left school at 14, had no qualifications, but was very bright and realised if he was going to make anything of himself it would be on his own terms, and forge an indelible impression through outlandish dress, behaviour, mannerisms, and overall persona.

The BBC just couldn’t get a handle on him. Since Reith’s time, the Corporation has treated the entertainment world with the sort of wariness that you might treat an excitable but temperamental dog. And when they had to engage with the showbiz world, they liked to deal with agents and managers, often – like The Beatles’ Brian Epstein – from an impeccable upper middle-class background, or were from the ‘showbiz royalty’ who owned and ran the theatres, cinema chains and ‘talent’.

In his autobiography and in a number of interviews, Tony Blackburn recalls  the legendary agent Harold Davidson, who represented some huge names,  sidling up to him at a party and promising that, if Blackburn signed up, within the year he would be the biggest name in British radio. He was as good as his word. But SaVILE had no agent – unless you count the ‘hard men’ from the northern dance-halls who often accompanied him.

So: he was from the north, he was working-class, he was clearly eccentric and unconventional, and was from the world of tough dance-halls, of chancers, of ‘bouncers’ who settled disputes with a baseball bat; of cash-in-the-hand-and-no-questions. Simply, I think they were embarrassed to tackle him, because to do so could be seen as snobbery, patronising, and implying that his class and attitudes were inferior. They were just too damned polite! And I think SaVILE sussed that and used it relentlessly. Worse, the BBC types – and this is where I think the Dame Janet Smith’s report is good – thought that, well, working-class girls probably are like that; promiscuous and often willingly having sex before the age of consent.

Another aspect is that, until 1967 (the year that Radio 1 began), male homosexual acts, even in private and involving those aged over 21, were illegal in the UK (and only de-criminalised in England and Wales – Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait for a while after that). The BBC had no doubt had many gays in its employ, so there was a long-standing culture of secrecy and ‘knowing winks’ and whispers over sexual matters of a certain kind.   And, whilst the law might have changed, it took a long time for general attitudes on homosexuality to change and before people would feel comfortable and confident in ‘coming out’. I’m convinced that this all added to the mix of –  shall we say – unconventional sex being something that was known about and tolerated, and people not wanting to ‘get involved’ with such matters.

In the same week that the report into SaVILE was published, a number of men were jailed for lengthy terms after being convicted of horrendous and widespread sexual crimes over many years in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, apparently (once again, following a depressing pattern with other scandals) acting with impunity, with the police and social services ignoring, disbelieving, or even conniving with the criminals. In many – but by no means all – of the recent scandals in the UK, the authorities are largely of a different class, and, in this case, of  a different ethnicity. Once again, I think they were embarrassed and very wary of tackling these men, because they were of a different culture and those investigating or challenging such behaviour and incidents could be accused of racism, or at the very least of cultural insensitivity.

But disturbingly, good people often turn a blind eye and refuse to believe the victims because those involved in the abuse are from the same class, background and culture. The excellent movie Spotlight is the story of how a team of investigators on The Boston Globe exposed the wiedepsread paedophilia by Roman Catholic priests in the city – and, as it turned out, in many other places in the US and worldwide. In several scenes in the film, the journalists and the editor are subject to appeals not to expose such gross abuse and criminality out of loyalty to friendships and kinship.

Two other points – touched on by the Dame Janet Smith report but perhaps not given sufficient prominence and which links with the Catholic priests’ abuse:

First, the fact that in the periods when the SaVILE abuse peaked – the 1960s and ’70s – children were abused, legally every day, in schools and at home. Boys and girls were (quite legally) beaten as a matter of course, and there is no doubt that many teachers who got a sexual thrill from, especially, beating boys on their bottoms, stalked the land, unchallenged and acting with impunity. I’ve previously blogged about one particular (I should emphasise long since dead!) master at my own secondary school.


But what I remember, aside from receiving and witnessing many beatings, including in the changing rooms, was this teacher openly masturbating as he watched us troop into the communal showers, in which, almost unbelievably to today’s schoolkids, the teachers joined  us!  On one occasion he had just beaten about half a dozen of us and was clearly relishing seeing his ‘handiwork’ as we walked past him, naked. But this teacher was regarded as ‘eccentric’ and, if you mentioned what had happened, you were just advised you to ‘try and steer clear of him’ and ‘try not to draw attention to yourself’. I think I’ve read all the autobiographies of the BBC’s leading radio personalities and they all have tales about such incidents – often, such  as Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker and Chris Evans – leaving them with a searing feeling of outrage and injustice.  I am not trying to equate these sorts of incidents with those discussed in Dame Janet’s report, but these are exactly the sorts of phrases that were used to any children and others who complained about SaVILE!

In private boarding schools, it wasn’t just the teachers one had to fear – decades after the event, John Peel broke down in front of his wife when he revealed that he had been raped by an older boy at his school. As with the Catholic priests and countless other abusers, the victim is made to feel it is their fault, and carry shame and guilt with them into their adult life; sometimes with tragic consequences.  Children of ALL classes and in all educational establishments just had no power and no control over their lives and, of course, young women were regarded as ‘fair game’ and expected to put up with unwanted advances in a good-humoured way.

Final main point  – and, again, this is certainly alluded to in the report but not, I think, given enough emphasis – and that is the enormous power and celebrity status of BBC TV and radio personalities, especially when there were just three TV channels, and the BBC held an official monopoly of radio until 1973 (and only a patchy network of commercial stations developing for about a decade and half after that); in the first few years  when SaVILE joined Radio 1, the network was the only daytime outlet for popular music and personality- type DJs. The audience figures were ENORMOUS! Out of those millions who listened every day to ‘the nation’s favourite’, there were bound to be some who entertained lurid fantasies about the DJs; as tragically, it seems, one did over Tony Blackburn (she also claimed to have been seduced by Frank Sinatra, and even Rock Hudson – who was gay!). So, you can imagine  that, when complaints were made, from perhaps ‘over-excitable girls’, it would be very easy to disbelieve them. Unfortunately, when it came to SaVILE, it seems they were usually true.


Taking all the acknowledged differences in culture, attitudes, etc. of 2016 compared with the dark old days in which SaVILE flourished, how do we guard against future abusers, be they in broadcast studios, on hospital wards, or in deprived towns of many cultures? I’ve no experience and, therefore, have nothing useful to add to the discussion about Rotherham or Rochdale. And we now have what amounts to a witch-hunt of celebrities from that period, with smears and innuendo, with no corroboration, let alone evidence that would meet the requirements of the criminal law, threatening to ruin the reputations of a wide range of people from pop stars to ex-service chiefs.

Every year, many teachers and others who have contact with young people, have their careers and reputations ruined by unfounded and often malicious accusations. We have to be careful. And you can produce as many ‘strategies’ and develop as many procedures as you like, but if you don’t have a culture where EVERYONE sees it as their MORAL (not just legal) responsibility to keep an eye and ear open for signs of ‘questionable’ behaviour, and where staff feel confident they can report such incidents, then abuse can still flourish. But crucially, we then must also give those against whom accusations have been made to know what is being alleged about them and to answer these claims.

But what, specifically, about the BBC? In a torrid period of scandal of many types at the Corporation, and with rocks being proverbially thrown at them from many different quarters, and its funding sliced and diced, is the world’s leading public service broadcaster now holed below the  waterline? I fear it might be. One commentator said some time ago that the BBC would not, in the end, be finished by right-wing ideologues, who hate and fear its culture, mission, ethos and dominance in our broadcasting and wider culture: it would be the cackling, peroxided pervert of SaVILE that would ‘do’ for them. Perhaps he is, like the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident, able to wreak annihilation from beyond the grave.

I’ll finish with advice that I’m sure the BBC’s Director-General won’t read and won’t heed even if he did see it: give Tony Blackburn his ‘job’ back! HE is a national treasure, and much loved – and you are not.  Do you really want to your obituary and your legacy to be ‘the man who sacked Tony Blackburn’?










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Terry Wogan was even more important to our lives and our country than we realise

Wogan once proposed as his epitaph: “He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing”. Has he improved on that? “What about: ‘Out of shot at last’?” he suggests, jesting till the end.


In what may have been his last interview – and, if so, it is appropriate that he was talking to Martin Doyle of the Irish Times – Sir Terry Wogan, whose death was announced today – ruminated about the importance of his Irishness.


As well as being a radio announcer, he was a pioneer in Irish television and, in his autobiographies, he partly attributes his famously (and genuine) laid-back approach to the terror of the early days of TV in the Republic: nearly all ‘live’ and with hardly anyone with any TV experience.  Naturally, there were numerous and very obvious on-air cock-ups and the consequent ribbing from viewers, I would guess, was a very important part of his fearlessness in tackling live radio and TV when he came to the UK – taking a very great gamble, by the way, especially given his family responsibilities; ditching his staff position with the Irish state broadcaster for the flimsiest of contracts with the BBC.


But his Irishness was of huge importance in the UK. He began his long stint on the Radio 2 breakfast show – migrating from Radio 1’s afternoon show, ‘fighting the flab’ an’ all’ – in 1972; just at the time that Irish republicans began their bombing and assassinations on the British mainland. In his autobiographies, he discusses the nervousness he sometimes felt about going on air the day of, or after, some atrocity, thinking that the English – much the largest section of the audience – would not want to hear an Irish accent on their radios. In fact, his audience kept on growing and his ‘normalisation’ of Irishness and the biggest daily audience on a domestic service, not only in the UK but anywhere in Europe, probably helped reduce tension towards Irish communities. Of course, this is impossible to measure and prove – but imagine if there were an ‘obvious’ Muslim in a similar position today.


I always try and be honest in my postings in social media and I am not going to pretend that he was my all-time hero in broadcasting or that he was the one that made me want to go into that field – I’d decided that when I was about three years old, in any case, long before I first heard Terry! I remember his afternoon shows on Radio 1, but he was in my view, as an early teen, one of the ‘square brigade’; he clearly wasn’t directing his programme at my age group (he is 20 years older), he hadn’t been a pirate DJ, and he didn’t seem interested in the music – or at least the music I liked. But I do remember listening to one link – I think this would be about 1971, when I would be 13 or 14 – that was so intimate that it was like, perhaps, a kindly (but not creepy!) uncle talking to you, in a very quiet, reassuring voice, right into your ear. It was quite astonishing, and I remember being impressed by this, so probably he was an influence on me, as he was on numerous other broadcasters up and down the land over several generations.


Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine recalled on his Twitter feed today how Terry had once been asked how big was his radio audience. He could have answered “about nine million”. Instead, his response was “just one”. Exactly so. The unique intimacy of radio. Of course, knowing that you should be speaking as if to one person is a different matter from being able to do it.


Later, when I had my first job as a trainee newspaper reporter, my landlady had Radio 2 on every morning, so I heard it when I was tucking into her ‘full English’. But he was a bit too whimsical, just too gentle for me, even then. And, again, the music wasn’t mostly to my taste – this was the time when Radio 2 still had the ‘bedroom slippers and Horlicks’ feel about it.


Later still, when he returned to his Radio 2 breakfast foray after his TV chat show was ditched – about which he remained quite bitter until the end, I think, and he certainly let rip about his feelings towards much of the BBC management in his books and several interviews and speeches – I appreciated him much more. The music and the badinage was sharper (of course, I was older!) and amongst his team was Alan Dedicoat, who I knew when we were both volunteer broadcasters for the Birmingham Hospital Broadcasting Network. For me, this was Terry’s golden period. The humour was quite sharp, even subversive.


As so many have pointed out today in their tributes, Terry (I can’t call him ‘Wogan’!) developed and changed his style in subtle but significant ways. He was a man for all seasons and all audiences and several genres. Andrew Neil has just finished The Sunday Politics with a generous tribute to him, with clips from an interview Terry did with Margaret Thatcher. A true ‘national treasure’, whose audience (according to anecdotal but probably reliable evidence) included the Head of State, over her breakfast at Buck Pal’ and who knighted him; first an honorary one but then, a full one. As Terry pointed out, Irish citizens who, like him, were born before the Second World War, could be bestowed full honours, in recognition of the importance of the contribution Ireland had made to the UK and its allies prior to 1916 (and some still after then) in World War One.


In 2007, when I was researching and carrying out interviews for my book on broadcasting, my academic interest in him was mainly how he had adopted and adapted his style and ‘production techniques’ and relationship with the audience in the age of email. I approached Radio 2 to ‘bid’ for an interview and this was dealt with by their head of publicity, who acted as a go-between with the great man, via one of Terry’s sons, who acted as his manager. “Sir Terry says ‘yes’” was the joyful email I received! I was to interview him in person in the studio after the show. But would I like to ‘sit in’ beforehand, as the show went out? Of course, to me that was like asking a devoted Liverpool FC fan if they’d like to meet the players in the dressing-room at Anfield, and watch the match sitting next to the manager!


I arrived very early (of course!) and was taken up just after the show had started and sat in the control-room, so I was able to see how the small team there fielded the responses from listeners and various other programme elements. During the 0800 news (by the way, then as now, the most listened-to radio news bulletin of the day on British radio!), Terry came into the control-room to introduce himself.


“Is this the man who’s come to tell us how we should be doing it?”, he asked with a gentle smile and, (yes) a twinkle in his eye. I did a sort of ‘we are not worthy’ gesture. But I think that opening gambit was very typical of the man – quietly provocative, didn’t take himself too seriously, but at the same time could be a little bit prickly and was well aware of his value to the BBC. This became apparent when he was quite unapologetic when his BBC fees were revealed (or ‘best guessed’ at). Given the audience he brought to the Corporation they had got him cheap, was the gist of his responses.


None of this is to say that he wasn’t as lovely, as generous, as empathetic and as kind as everyone has been saying today. Quite unprompted – and when Terry was back behind the glass and out of earshot – his producer told me: “He is exactly the same with everyone when they come in here, whether they be the cleaner or the Director-General.”


The atmosphere of a radio show that comes over the airwaves is hard to pin down but you know it when you hear it. And the atmosphere in that studio and control-room was just brilliant: relaxed, good-natured, a lot of ‘joshing’, completely professional, but never for a moment self-indulgent or cynical about its audience. They were the people that mattered.


In the interview, Terry answered all my questions openly, and – of course – fluently and perceptively, and was apologetic that he couldn’t give me more than about 20 minutes, as he had a TV thing to do. But at the end he turned to the aforementioned head of the network’s publicity, who was sitting alongside as some sort of gatekeeper (but who didn’t intervene at any time, or ask for specific questions in advance), looked her straight in the eye and said: “Now, if Richard wants to come back or has further questions you must arrange this and give him every possible help – OK?”. It was said quietly, but forcefully. Of course, I loved him for that!


Well, this has been a terrible month for losses in the broadcasting, music and acting fields. Those who have been part of our lives, who have been influences, who have given us so music pleasure and happiness, have been snatched by the Grim Reaper. But radio personalities in particular, especially perhaps those best known for their morning shows, who were part of our routines, and who (in the word of a great media academic Paddy Scannell) insinuate themselves into our lives, and over so many years, have a special place in our psyche and affections. This was especially so in the days before the great fragmentation of audiences; when most people’s first sensory input of the day was the radio alarm going off, rather than scrolling down a social media feed. In this, the clichés of tributes to the just-departed really do speak the truth. We, truly, shall never see – or hear – the like of Terry Wogan again.



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From the miners to Sports Direct, it’s a Dickens of a life

A Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favourite books and certainly my favourite  Christmas story.  Although, like many of Dickens’s works, it is often criticised for being oversentimental, even mawkish, and ties up all the loose ends just too neatly.  To that I say: ‘Well, if you write something with such enduring appeal over such a long period which is capable of being adapted into so many different forms and come back in 180 years or so, then maybe I’ll take the criticism seriously!’

So many aspects of the story have a profundity that speaks across the years and the generations, and in the very different times which we live today compared with Victorian England. This is the first of two blogs I intend to write, inspired by this story, which speak to aspects that I think have so much relevance to wider society, and to my experience and thinking. The second, much more personal than this, will follow if I can to get around to writing or dictating it without sobbing, which has been the main difficulty so far!

In this first one, I wanted to reflect on the attitude to work and the part it plays in our lives and emotions, which forms such an important part of the story. Scrooge, the miserly, surviving partner in a small financial firm, sees Christmas – which he is expected to support through the payment for non work on Christmas Day of his clerk, Bob Cratchit – as an unwelcome interruption in the business of making money, and a tiresome imposition.


In fact, compared with the working experiences of the majority of those at that time in England, Cratchit’s working conditions are not so bad. He is lower-middle-class and at least has some say over his work and has a direct relationship with his employer. This was not the case for the majority of the working classes who, if not in service, were mostly working in fantastically dangerous, dirty and literally backbreaking industries, such as coalmines.  They could expect to work in such conditions, at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, from before puberty until their bodies could no longer cope, with no welfare benefits and security offered by central government for when their ‘useful life’ ended.


Last Friday saw the last shift on the last deep coal mine in the UK. A moment in a day filled with poignancy; with some recriminations about the lack of government support and the consequences of free trade. There is still plenty of need for coal in these islands, but it will now come from imports – and there was much comment and wider reflection on the changing nature of work, indeed of working-class culture, of masculinity and self-respect. At one time 1.2 million men worked in that unforgiving, dark and dangerous subterranean world.


Going a down deep mine for a special programme when I worked at BBC Radio Sheffield (in a normal ‘sequence programme’ slot) was one the most memorable experiences of my life and, of course, now that it’s all gone I’m especially grateful that I had an experience that is now unrepeatable, at least in this country. This was in the very early ‘90s – after the miners’ strike, in which the coalfields of south Yorkshire had seen some of the most violent and bitter scenes of that pivotal moment in Britain’s post-war history, but only a year or so before the wave of massive pit closures, which were a prelude to re-privatisation of the pits.


The young, energetic, and forward-looking management at Maltby Colliery were keen to promote a better image of the industry – one with a good future, which used the latest technology, and approached the station to see if one of the mainstream presenters would like to go on a shift and do a whole programme from there.


I did the programme in what is called ‘as live’ mode: that is, I recorded all the introductions and links, from the start at the surface of the pit; into the ’cage’ as we plunged deep underground,  clutching on to my tape machine; doing interviews there and at the end the shift, and then mixing all the other elements of the programme ‘live’ in the studio on the day of broadcast.


The machine I used was one of just two supposedly portable reel-to-reel tape recorders that the BBC especially adapted for such a purpose.  It had a special outer case and insulation to prevent even the slightest, potentially explosion-causing spark from an electrical action being emitted. I remember it arrived with some fanfare at the radio station from ‘that London’ and it was quite an awesome responsibility to look after it, to use it in such difficult conditions and then return it undamaged.  This I managed, although I did slightly stumble a couple of times as I was bent double in the seam, wearing my overalls, helmet with light, boots and not much else (I was supplied with underpants – “don’t use your own, you’ll never get the muck out”- I was advised by the young manager who fixed it all up).


Trying to keep up a conversation/interview and refer to my clipboard, using the light from my helmet to introduce the next predetermined song to be played on the day of the broadcast, was something of achievement and I will say immodestly that I was very proud of the overall result. In fact, it was so authentic sounding that, when I was playing in the recordings, someone in the newsroom ‘buzzed up’ to the studio and asked who they thought was the technical operator to relate some information to me at the pit. They were amazed to hear me respond and find that I was sitting just a floor above them in the studio! They didn’t seem to realise that you cannot have a ‘live’ broadcast from that deep underground! I was so happy to come up in the cage, back into the fresh air: I was only down there a couple of hours but it was such a different world, so isolated from the rest of life, I felt that anything could have happened up in the surface and we’d have never known. A very strange, disorientating experience.


But, aside from these general impressions and the broadcasting side, the most interesting thing, and which stays in the memory, are the comments from the miners about their work – which varied enormously. Some had great satisfaction from both the work and the strong male bonds they formed; the comradeship, and indeed – though they didn’t state this specifically, it was not hard to decode – the status and respect they had in their communities.


For others, though, it was a dirty, dangerous job that they only did because they had no alternative and they certainly hoped their sons would not follow them down the mine.


It reminded me very much of when I talk to the General Infantrymen (or ‘Squaddies’ as they are usually termed), in the British Army in West Germany and West Berlin. They, too, loved the Band of Brothers aspect, and the fierce loyalty they felt for those in their own Battalion. For many of them, only mining or other heavy industries, provided any alternative. Going out with them on ‘the razz’ on a Saturday night gave me an insight into what is sometimes called ‘the biggest gang in the world’, or at least the country. And if some of them did think, as I’m sure did some of the miners, that I was a soft, middle-class ponce (and I couldn’t have blamed them if they did – I would probably have said that of me had I been in their boots!), they didn’t say so to my face, and in fact showed great respect, hidden amongst the usual ‘badinage’ (you only know you’re accepted, however fleetingly, if they take the p**s).


The thing that interested me was the lack of resentment towards, or even much curiosity about my (it seemed to me) much more congenial life, or of any of those outside their own situation. Both the army and coal mining produced a very insular world (literally in the case of mining) and set of assumptions about life and their own prospects and abilities.


As with those who leave the army, the miners who have suddenly found themselves unemployed will find life outside very hard. They’ve lost their employment, like many before them, but they’ve also lost their status and self-respect. The jobs that supposedly replaced those of the old industries on which Britain built its great, wealthy empire (which, of course, was of great benefit only to a tiny number) provide neither the security nor the status or self-respect.


At the beginning of last week came The Guardian’s  investigation into the working conditions at Sports Direct. In some respects it was like reading about the working conditions of old. The employment may not be as dangerous, but the attitude of the employer to the employees is something that Dickens, along with Marks and Engels and  numerous other agitators and reformers of the period, would have recognised. Or, for conditions between the world wars, you can’t beat Orwell for clarity of prose and clear-eyed judgement.


As in the classic capitalist mould, it appears the workers are treated just as units of production. There is no care, consideration or compassion, it seems. They are virtually chained to their work area and their every move is monitored. If they do not reach their targets they are shamed through loudspeaker announcements. If they have to take time off to cater for sick children their card is marked as being unreliable, so children are at home alone.


It took decades and numerous strikes and disputes for miners to have the right for their bath/shower clean-up time at the end of their shift to be classed as working time and paid as such. The modern equivalent is the search – intrusive and degrading to many– at the end of the Sports Direct shift. Up to an hour a half of waiting to have proven that they are not sneaking off the premises with company goods.


After the report was published, the company first blustered and denied the journalists’  findings and criticisms, but is now supposedly looking into its work practices. But it seems that all the rights gained over decades after so much hardship and sacrifice of those in the mines and steelworks and many other industries, will have to be won all over again in the modern service industries.


Now, once again, heartless bureaucrats – themselves under a harsh regime with targeted sanctions, privatised out from a direct government department – decide whether you are fit for work and entitled to some kinds of benefits, often with humiliating and degrading tests, leading many, especially those with mental health problems, to suicide. A heartless, harsh world – without now even the comradeship and solidarity of close, work-related communities to fall back on.  An individualistic, consumerist culture that excludes many and, I think, diminishes us all.



Tiny Tim’s survival chances today would surely be much greater that at the time of Dickens’s novel but many would still find Bob Cratchit’s working conditions and relationship with his employer enviable.


Well okay, let’s look on the bright side. Many children in Dickens’s time were brought up in institutions, often because they were dammed and cast aside as infants due to their illegitimacy. That, at least, is one stigma that has been all but eliminated. Today, those who are shunned and despised are those that arrive on our shores, seeking refuge and asylum, after experiencing unspeakable scenes and events in their home country. Now, they are the ones who have to throw themselves at the mercy of charity, with the state reducing its support even for unaccompanied children, and local authorities increasingly having to turn their backs on them, due to the public spending cuts, forced on them by central government. Just as with illegitimate children of old, these youngsters are blamed and sneered at for their own misfortune: but rather than being born ‘the wrong side of the blanket’, now it is for having been born in the wrong tribe, the wrong sect, the wrong religion in the wrong country at the wrong time.  Friendless, highly vulnerable and homeless, they now live on the streets and sleep rough.


I’m no theologian and indeed have never been baptised in any faith, but I think that those who think themselves even nominally Christian should pause for a moment – at this time of year if no other – and think that, if there is a Second Coming, another Christ child, from where would they come and in what circumstances. I’ve a notion that he (or she!)  would not be born into a comfortable family, set up with a trust fund and put into one of the top private schools from birth, but rather would be an abandoned, orphaned child refugee.


How the Dickens did we let this happen? And on that, rhetorical question bombshell….




Next Time – The Ghost of Christmas – and other times

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It’s one of those stories that leaps out at you. Partly because it’s probably something you never think about, partly because it seems so sad and partly because it tells you how society is changing. Kind of a canary in the mine.

Figures put together by BBC Local Radio following a Freedom of Information Request show that the cost to local councils of funeral and burial costs for those who die without any family or friends have greatly increased over the last couple of years. It used to be that councils only had to do this for vagrants – those of no fixed abode or known lineage. But, according to the Local Government Association, increasingly the deceased does have family – but they refuse to pay the costs. The fracturing of families, with the prevalence of second marriages, partners, ex-partners, step-parents and the kaleidoscope of relationships in modern Britain – and, perhaps, mere selfishness (“ should I pay out £3,000 for the old bugger when he’s left me next to nothing in his will?) – has led to a modern phenomenon. It’s sad enough and bad enough that there should be so many such people who die without any caring relatives or friends. But it also highlights how much as a society, for all our Smartphones, Tablets, email shopping and recreational culture, we rely on public services; of government at different levels; of ‘them’ to step in to save the day. The biggest increase in such ‘paupers’ funerals’ as they used to be called (‘public health funerals’ in today’s more sensitive/euphemistic times) is in the north-west – the region that is amongst those likely to be hit worst by the biggest change to the way local government is financed and configured since – well, pretty much since ever!

A combination of the HUGE cut in direct grants from central government ( 56% over the next four years; a figure buried away in the small print of last week’s autumn financial statement: no, you didn’t miss THAT in George Osborne’s statement – he didn’t mention it – on top of cuts of around 40% initiated by the previous ConDem government); the abolition of the redistributive nature of business rates and devolution to most of the big city regions (including Liverpool) amount to nothing less than a revolution.

Lord Porter, the Conservative peer who heads the Local Government Association puts in stark terms that are easy to comprehend the extent of the cuts and their likely impact:

“Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.

“These local services which people cherish will have to be drastically scaled back or lost altogether as councils are increasingly forced to do more with less and protect life and death services, such as caring for the elderly and protecting children, already buckling under growing demand.

Given that Lord Burns is not one of the usual suspects who can be expected to condemn everything a Tory administration does, I think we should take these remarks seriously and as correct.

Of course, the government will say that it is providing a pool of money for enterprise and that councils will be able to keep all of their business rates (levied on commercial premises at so many pence of the pond of their rateable – or rentable – value). Councils can also put up their Council Tax by 2% to help pay for social care – residential properties are put into one of eight bands, depending on their market value, mostly set nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Unfortunately, places like Liverpool are going to be clobbered all over again, in relation to other parts of the country. First, outside the retail sector, it has fewer, high-paying businesses and benefitted from the re-distributive nature of the national business rate ‘pot’. Secondly, it has far fewer domestic properties at the top Council Tax band, so a 2% hike here will be much less than, say, leafy Surrey. Plus, of course, Liverpool suffers from a range of ‘deprivation factors’ that means its citizens require – and rely on – more of the public services provided by councils than in other parts of the country.

Liverpool’s Directly Elected Executive Mayor Joe Anderson – true, a combative Labour politician but who has an open offer to government ministers and anyone else to look at the council’s ‘books’, probably does not exaggerate when he says:

…despite working hard to find innovative ways of keeping our libraries and children’s centres open, we cannot absorb such a scale of further cuts without it having a deep and lasting effect.

“But there is only so far we can stretch and the next wave will decimate us.”

The council’s own auditors give a stark non-political summary:

“It is possible that during 2017/18 the council will no longer have sufficient funds to deliver any discretionary services. A tipping point could be reached in 2018/19 when the council could struggle to fund all its mandatory service provision.”

So, we could be just 18 months from the council stopping everything except that which it has to (no libraries, leisure centres, etc.) and just two and half years when it cannot even carry out its legal duties – providing care for the elderly in their homes, or funding ‘care packages’ in residential homes, caring for vulnerable children, and – yes- funding the ‘paupers’ funerals’.

The combination of the cuts allied to devolution (an offer of extra powers over such aspects as planning and training but not, as in Manchester, the health service, and a so-called Metro Mayor for the city region), means that when people do realise the extent of these cuts, central government will be able to say “well, don’t blame us, look to your council for not spending their money wisely or being an attractive place for business”.

In the interests of political balance, it should be noted that the government says that, taken as a package, the spending on local government has not been reduced in a draconian fashion, but as a nation we’re still borrowing money at an unsustainable rate, and if not local government, what? Schools? Hospitals?

All that acknowledged – and the fact that central government is closing some of the tax avoidance loopholes, and that cuts already made to public services, particularly in the police, have not, in the event, had the calamitous conferences many had predicted – this is still a really big change; one of the most significant we’ve had in public life since World War II.

The effects are not going to be evenly spread and it’s hard to see how the cuts will not exacerbate a broad north/south, poor/rich divide and have a very significant impact – to put it mildly – on vulnerable people, as well as a further and dramatic hollowing out public provision more generally.

Indeed, the effects of all these changes – none of which, it should be stressed, the result of any direct democratic process; council leaders agreed the change with ministers, and then gained formal approval from their councils – are so huge, so fundamental, they amount to the ending of local government as we have known it.

At the time when my grandfather and great-grandfather were grand fromages in local government, the councils did most of the things most people cared about and which had a material effect on their lives – even survival. It was councils who largely built the sewerage systems and generated clean water supplies (so saving untold thousands from Cholera), built the homes and rented them out to most of the population, set up the gas and electricity organisations, built and repaired the roads, and managed the schools. Even in my time when I started as a trainee newspaper reporter in the mid-‘70s, they still did a lot of that, and we had the staff to ensure that we attended every meeting of every council, even the parish councils – one of my first jobs was to attend the meeting of such a council in a mining village. Council stories – whether from meetings/agenda or otherwise – generated page lead after page leads. Often the front-page splash. Local councils mattered and the local media (radio, too) covered their activities in great details. Even now, a quarter of all public spending is on local government – only, at the moment, most of that money is sent by grants using various formulae and criteria from central government. But no more.

As one commentator put it, councils are changing from being local welfare systems to enterprise bodies. I don’t think the majority of people have even begun to understand the earthquake that is going to hit them. And I’m not sure that local media are up to the task of either explaining what is going on, or galvanising their readers/viewers/listeners to start preparing for alternative ways to do the things that ‘they’ used to do, even with the BBC’s enthusiastic noises for support for hyperlocal news websites. A perfect storm of huge losses in journalistic staffs in local media and the closing and merging of hundreds of titles that used to be the ‘watchdog’ for local authorities and inform the residents as to what has been proposed and decided, has coincided with the point where social media has resulted in an increase in identity politics and new networks which owe little or nothing to geographical spaces, at the point where we live ever more atomised existence with many not even knowing their close neighbours.

Most importantly, we need to start thinking NOW how we can come up with alternative strategies and systems – involving charities, the voluntary sector, new groups as yet to be formed, with the means of communicating and generating support. Doing nothing, making no changes on how we ‘imagine’ local services and local governance, is not an option. If we don’t act, our local services and facilities will be dead and some sad souls will be buried without a funeral.




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