Monthly Archives: July 2009

Editor’s blog: Auntie must go on the offensive

More misery heaped on the BBC today. First, its prodigal son and ex-journalist Ben Bradshaw, the new Culture Secretary, has accused BBC chiefs of showing such ‘wrong-headed’ leadership that they have lost the confidence of many of their senior staff. Bradshaw – who now has his own political axe to grind – says that the corporation’s complete rejection of sharing out a portion of the 3.6bn licence fee had left many senior staff demoralised.

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Editor’s blog: Teenage kicks aimed at Twitter

Anything that brings Twitter, Icarus-like, back down to earth with a thump is fine by me. MT readers will know I am no fan, Twitter is mindless twaddle IMHO – as they like to put it online – and will pass as sure as night follows day, in the footsteps of the likes of boo.com to the oblivion it deserves.

The latest piece of ack ack that threatens to punch a hole in Twitters feathery fuselage comes from an unlikely source – a teenage intern at Morgan Stanley’s European Media Analysis Unit. Rather than being put in a corner with a Kit Kat and a company brochure for a week, the youth in question, Matthew Robson, was actually asked to write down a few ideas about his ideas on the current state of the media.

What he turned out has caused a minor sensation in the generally sensation-free world of investment bank media analysis and they published it. (No doubt after it had been through the spell-checker four times.) One of the clearest and most thought-provoking insights we have seen, mused Morgan Stanley’s Edward Hill-Wood. (Which kind of begs the question why these people don’t drag themselves away from their Bloomberg terminals for a couple of hours every now and then and actually go and ask kids what they like?)

Twitter does not impress young Robson. ‘Teenagers do not use twitter,’ he wrote. ‘They realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless.’ When you’re on a pricey pay-as-you-go option on your mobile it costs too much to update anyway. No, Twitter is, as we always suspected, for helpless PR and Marcoms-types short of an original idea to promote themselves and their clients.

But before anyone in old school media starts crowing…Just hang on a minute. It gets worse. Twitter may not be ideal for teenagers’ needs but the print medium is utterly redundant to them. Robson said he hardly knows anyone who reads a newspaper since his mates ‘cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text.’ They prefer light summaries. Neither do they have any time for advertising which they find little more than an irritation – ‘extremely annoying and pointless.’

So what do they like – besides laying around, emptying cans of foul-smelling deodorant over themselves and splatting their spots into the bathroom mirror? Well, Robson reckons advert-free music on websites, cinema and concerts. Which is exactly why those money-hungry lizards at AEG thought they’d cattle-prod the recently late Michael Jackson to perform 50 times at the O2.

If my own observations of teenagers are worth anything one thing that does wildly amuse them is The InBetweeners, a truly profane but pretty funny online Channel 4 2009 version of 80s favourite Grange Hill. The first episode I watched made me laugh so much I almost tweeted about it. Not.

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Editor’s blog: reality TV has no bite

I’ve watched two programmes on TV this week: ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ and ‘Gerry’s Big Decision’ both on the beleaguered Channel 4. (That’s a lie actually, I switched on the test match when I arrived home last night just in time to see not one but two Aussies getting their hundreds within minutes of each other. It’s going to be a long, hard Summer for Strauss and his boys.)

Anyway, ‘Giants’ was an amazing documentary featuring a pint-sized female American academic in protective goggles, Dr Joy Reidenberg, using a very sharp knife to eviscerate and then clamber inside a beached whale. She explained with compelling enthusiasm during a lengthy autopsy how the animal evolved and the way in which it lived. It even had a cool commentary from the heroic Richard Dawkins. It was dramatic, informative and even found the long-lost vestigial hind leg among the blubber at the back end of the unfortunate beast, a throwback to when it walked on land.

Gerry Robinson’s programme is big on evisceration but is really a lot less good. It’s an idiot’s blend of ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragon’s Den’ in which Sir Gerry journeys around in his Jag having a look at the entrails of failing business and deciding whether he wishes to save them from rotting on the beach by investing his hard-earned millions. All over Britain companies are going bust…but now one man wants to help.

The only way telly people these days feel it is possible to portray business is as middle-brow drama, otherwise all the couch potatoes switch off. Real drama is far too expensive in this straitened times, so Gerry with a bit of slap, swagger and synthetic jeopardy is the best they can come up with. The vast majority of business coverage now uses the reality TV device with us all hanging on the edge of our seats until the final dnouement when Gerry decides whether he’s going to flash his cash or not…

Sir Gerry is an old mate of MT’s, so I’m not going to slag him off too rudely. I hope he regards it as a bit of fun and he’s good at telly. The old twinkle is still there and he does the full gamut of emotion rather than the monotonous, one dimensional irritability of Alan Sugar.

But the point is that reality television is a fundamentally dishonest medium – both actively in what it chooses to portray from a complex story and passively by glaring omissions. Watching Gerrys’ show anybody with even a GCSE Grade C in Business Studies is going to be shouting Hang on a minute. What about…. At the screen. In its endless and tiring efforts to stoke up a sense of dramatic tension everything is repeated ad nauseam between the endless commercial breaks. All at the expense of elucidation.

Last night’s edition featured a long-established but failing family furniture business, HJ Berry from Lancashire. It was a basket case with Sir Gerry eventually deciding on screen – after a lengthy, tear-soaked dramatic pause – to invest the not inconsiderable sum of over a million quid for 60% of the outfit. But, as usual, the detail and explanation of what this involved was entirely absent.

It won’t have escaped the shrewd Robinson’s notice that the company appeared to own most of the village in which it operated. So plenty of assets there if the whole thing goes chair legs up at some point in the future. Gerry always was one for bagging a bargain. Just how much more there is to the story than meets the eye can be seen by this statement which sits on HJ Berry’s website this morning. Whilst we were delighted and flattered to receive an offer of investment from someone of such caliber, (sic) who had obviously seen the great passion & potential we have within our unique company. However we also have to consider the finer detail and long term consequences of acceptance before the board can make their final decision. Finer detail and reality TV just do not mix.

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Michael Jackson rises again

Last night global web traffic rose a third above normal – peaking during the moving memorial service to Michael Jackson. However, it was nowhere near the unprecedented surge following the announcement of his passing. It was then that people clamoured to be the first to pass on the shocking news and fans descended into mass hysteria. It’s all been relatively restrained though – especially in an age when we get in a lather over any old Boyle, Goody or Potts. His ‘cult of personality’ seems no more extreme than any other. What’s more interesting is the fact that last night was further evidence of a burgeoning new era for the Internet. Thanks to the ubiquitous I-phone, Facebook, Twitter et al, consumers are becoming directors and disseminating information with much more immediacy than the TV networks. Most importantly, they’re putting their own personal spin on things.Something which mass media can never do. What about the question of ‘over coverage’ though? Yes Jackson did push much more important stories out of the limelight. But, like or loathe him, this was one the major cultural figures of our era – so perhaps, for once, all the fuss was justified.

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Editor’s blog: Ecclestone and getting things done

So little Bernie Ecclestone has put his big foot in it again. In one of the most ill-advised interviews he’s ever given – and there have been many – Bernie told The Times that he preferred totalitarian regimes to democracies and even praised Adolf Hilter for his ability ‘to get things done’. Slipping ever downwards in the hole he was digging for himself, Bernie went on to muse that his equally wilful friend Max Mosley, the departing president of the FIA, was a great example of a strong leader who would make an excellent Prime Minister. (It’s just as well that Mosley has legally and definitively established that he has no interest whatsoever in the goings-on of the Third Reich, otherwise you could argue the pair were developing an unhealthy obsession.)

I remember meeting Ecclestone a number of years back when, over shepherd’s pie in his local, he likened his role running Formula One to being a ringmaster in a circus filled by recalcitrant performers, or a teacher trying to keep order in the middle of a class of unruly pupils. He was like the sighing godfather in the middle of a huge squabbling family, laying down the law and sorting out the disputes. During our meeting Ayrton Senna came bursting into Ecclestone’s office because he’d thrown his toys out of the pram during some spat or other. Ecclestone loves a bit of divide and rule because it diverts energy that otherwise might be aimed in his direction, wondering whose sweat and risk-taking earned him all those hundreds of millions over the years.

What Bernie likes is good order and getting his way. He likes the trains in his set to run on time. This was reflected in a rather winsome interview he gave with his daughter Tamara to the Sunday Times magazine slot ‘Relative values’: ‘The one thing that would upset me is her and her sister’s untidiness,’ noted Ecclestone. ‘Order is a big thing with me. If a picture’s crooked, I have to straighten it. It applies to all sorts of things… I feel I have to be in control. It’s the same with work. I’ve tied up a lot of things in the sport by creating order, by controlling the way things are run, by everyone knowing what they should be doing.’

You don’t have to be a professor at Harvard Business School to know that this sort of approach isn’t high on Management 101 in the 21st century. Even the Army says it’s given up on command and control. Neither do you have to spend long around the Formula One game to realise that it is run with a dictatorial edge. It definitely isn’t a democracy, because there’s no free speech within it – traditionally, if you step out of line you pay the consequences. Until you course you can stand it no more and you oust the leader, as the teams have effectively done with Mosley.

Well, part of being a mature leader is understanding and accepting that, as in the playground, things don’t always go your way. Not every picture will always be straight – but you have to control your narcissism and resist the temptation to play god and straighten every picture in the gallery. Even those that aren’t yours. Leadership is about setting an example – encouraging, engaging, taking people with you as they find their own strengths. It’s also now more than ever linked to trust and integrity.

Of course management is about getting things done. But there are very few businesses or organisations that function like Formula One, or Nazi Germany for that matter. This JFDI (Just F**king Do It) school of management doesn’t really make for a sustainable model. It tends to lead to dysfunctional and unhappy organisations, where people feel done-down and miserable. Sending operatives to labour camps when they fail to perform in the desired manner may lead to temporary efficiencies, but it’s going to cause you serious problems in the medium term.

There are unlikely to be many more gaffes like this from Ecclestone, now aged 78. When he goes – as he doubtless will before very long – it is unlikely we will see his like again. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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The new business dilemma

Suppose you are a doctor. A man comes to see you and he’s limping, you examine him. You say, “It’s an easy diagnosis, you’ve got a broken leg.” He says, “I don’t want a broken leg.”

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The internet’s wearing new knickers, let’s be grateful

Our friend the internet has been
showing us a lot of love this year, but instead of being grateful we’ve been
obsessed with Twitter, economics and expenses. Unrequited love is always tragic
so let’s take a minute to appreciate what the internet has been doing for us
lately.

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Reuters sees no benefit in British ties

News that Reuters, the long-established bastion of British news gathering, looks set to disappear from the London Stock Exchange passed without much comment last week, instead cold pragmatism was the order of the day.

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Editor’s blog: Goldman Sachs, the ‘great vampire squid’

Rolling Stone magazine is the kind of place where you are more likely to read about the on- and off-stage antics of Crosby Stills Nash and Young than a stirring 12-page attack on the world’s leading investment bank. But this month the magazine’s contributing editor Matt Taibbi has produced a savage indictment of Goldman Sachs, which has tongues wagging from Wall Street to Canary Wharf.

I’d love to be able to provide a link to the whole piece but it isn’t available online yet. Those old rock hacks still want you to buy the paper version for some real money. But you’ll get an idea of the tone from the first line. ‘The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.’

And that’s one of the politer bits. Taibbi is effectively claiming that Goldman has got the whole game very nicely sorted in its favour. The article goes through a string of conspiracy theories surrounding Goldman’s amazing knack of striking pay-dirt in both good times and bad, highlighting its supposed role in several past bubbles – including last year’s run-up in oil prices, the tech-sector boom and bust at the turn of the century, and the current mortgage crisis.

Taibbi has obviously researched his subject long and hard, and he makes some stark claims: ‘What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain – an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy… The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth – pure profit for rich individuals.’ There’s plenty more where this came from, but you get the picture.

Needless to say Goldman Sachs is not at all happy about this wave of bile. They like to be allowed to get on with making their oceans of cash behind closed doors in piece and quiet. You’re lucky if you get your call returned if you ever ring for information. But Rolling Stone has got them seriously riled, and they’re actually saying something in their defence.

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