Editor’s blog: Socially useful banks, and Big Brother

Adair Turner is a smart guy, and when he ruminates about the causes of the crash and how we might seek out some remedies, it’s worth listening. Being a Prospect magazine fan (I once read an whole edition from cover to cover and it passed nearly a quarter of a 12-hour flight back to London) I’d read the piece in bed last night that caused all the front page headlines this morning: ‘Tax socially useless banks, says FSA chief’.

What Turner says in the article is far more subtle and nuanced than he’s being given credit for. He very rarely shows his hand by advocating firm policy answers to all the problems, merely considering options. One of the points he makes is that: ‘It is hard to distinguish between valuable financial innovation and non-valuable… I think that some of it is socially useless activity’.

The relationship between money and social usefulness has occupied economists and philosophers for hundreds of years, but it’s on all our minds at the moment. I worry that if bankers were to be reduced to funding what is ‘socially useful’, that might lead to quite a few problems. Even if what they do behind their Canary Wharf terminals has no more immediate social use than an hour’s blackjack in a casino, the trickle-down effects of their huge tax contributions still pays for nurses and teachers.

And further, what does the manager at Barclays or HSBC do when approached by Richard Desmond seeking a nice little loan to set up his latest version of ‘Skinny and Wriggly’ or ‘Big and Bouncy’? Porn may be legal and a good way of making a living, but socially useful it normally isn’t. Also, why is the engagement in credit default swaps and other weird financial devices any more socially useless than a dam in China that will despoil the environment and wreck the lives of tens of thousands? Many pension funds that will enable you and me to live comfortable secure lives in our retirements had their coffers swelled by such devices (before, of course, it all went belly-up and they went on to wreck them).

On the subject of social usefulness, one cannot allow the passing of Big Brother to go unremarked. I lost interest a long while ago in a programme that appeared to defy its audience to derive viewing interest from the very essence of banal mediocrity. That, of course, was its schtick: making a bunch of ignorant, no-talent nobodies famous not for 15 minutes but a whole Summer. And very nicely it did for Channel 4, too. At its peak, it was providing the channel with some 25% of its revenue – and it’s still profitable today, despite the suits stretching it thinner and thinner with numerous multi-platformed spin-offs. C4 provided live feeds online and overnight, so we could watch all the time, kidding us that this was some sort of deeply interesting and worthy social experiment. A less malign Truman Show.

The point of Big Brother and much other reality TV offering is quite precisely to defy that sort of social usefulness that Reith had in mind for TV and other media in the good old days. It’s cheap, garbage entertainment – two fingers up to edification and what used to be termed ‘the higher things in life’. The problem for Channel 4 is that it’s in a parlous state financially – which serves it right, because that is the result of the utter lack of original programming ideas from its management. Pushing boundaries is what it is supposed to be there to do. But it now wants government cash – top-sliced from the BBC or wherever it can lay its hands on it – to continue on its dubious mission. But if it goes on the way it has been in the last decade, it will be barely more ‘socially useful’ than Diva TV +1 or ITV 12. In which case it can fight for its own place in the market.

In today’s bulletin:

FSA chairman mulls new tax to cut City down to size
Diageo growth hit as drinkers shun premium booze
Editor’s blog: Socially useful banks, and Big Brother
Lego declines to Tap new market
Delivering change as a new leader