Monthly Archives: September 2009

It’s better than real, it’s fake

Kenwood House in North London is impressive. The exterior, the interior, and the gardens. As you approach you notice the perfect symmetry of the house.

Both wings match exactly, windows delicately balancing each other either side of the entrance. Once inside, you’re impressed by the library. Both the extensive collection of books and the large marble pillars.

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Editor’s blog: The childishness of the cuts debate

There’s something unbelievably childish about the ‘cuts’ debate, and the refusal to be heard on-the-record using the ‘C’ word. It’s akin to not stepping on the cracks in the pavement, or that daft superstition held by actors never to call ‘Macbeth’ by its title but refer to ‘The Scottish Play’, lest they trip and fall down some stage trapdoor. Apparently the Prime Minister is actually going to allow the word to be heard passing his lips later today. Well, hey wow.

When you’re in hock to the tune of 175bn, there are going to have to be cuts. And like most cuts made by knives, paper or chainsaws, they are going to hurt. Cuts in public spending will take great chunks of cash out of the economy. And in some areas of this country, government cash forms getting on for 65% of the money sloshing around in what remains of the economic system. You can be sure taking some of this away will prove especially painful.

So how do you cut? With a pragmatic or an ideological scalpel? That’s the most interesting question. The message from the Conservatives is that government has run riot over the last twelve years and it’s going to take much more than tinkering at the edges to put things right. Everyone has his own hobby horse – an example of a dreadful waste of public funds. There is likely to be a good deal of blood-letting at the quangoes, which may not be entirely a bad thing. Beer at the House of Commons is going up in price.

But it’s the real big spenders that present the true challenge. Far tougher is trying to establish what on earth one can do with the appallingly swollen benefits budget, which now stands at 170bn. It is an intractable problem and was of a ghastly size even when the economy was motoring along. Now it has stalled, more are going to be reliant on the safety net provided by the state. So, it’s got to be done – but anyone who pretends that the process can be easy or painless is kidding themselves.

If I had my way I’d start with identity cards – a nonsense from the start – and then start looking very seriously at Trident. The days of believing that it’s vital we own nuclear warheads capable of being lobbed at an enemy and wiping out hundreds of thousands of people in one fell swoop are long gone. It’ll be a cheap radio-controlled drone that nails Bin Laden’s mates, not a billion pound ICBM.

Nor do I think the NHS should be sacrosanct. There is no logic whatsoever to the argument that an organisation with an annual budget of 120bn cannot do some belt-tightening without the need to fire any nurses or doctors. It now carries a spare tyre bureaucracy that would make weight-watchers swoon. Less nip/tuck, more gastric band…

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It’s a boy. We’re getting divorced. She’s dead.

What exactly is/isn’t acceptable fodder for announcing via social media? A pregnancy – complete with scans on Facebook? A compressed critique of landlord failings via Twitter? A video diary of your kidney stone op via YouTube?

Your viewpoint, like most questions of broadcasting ‘good taste’, will probably be influenced by your age and moral standing. However, the truth is that the question of acceptable ‘netiquette’ changes by the day. We’re all getting used to the brash immediacy that new technology brings. It’ll also differ according to the social media you use and how you use it. For instance, do you really count a loose amalgam of Facebook buddies as ‘friends’ or are they just acquaintances? Like real life, it’s more to do with what’s acceptable within your particular group than the medium itself. What if that group is made up of your mum, your manager and your childhood sweetheart though? Even worse, what’s the netiquette for announcing news second-hand? Could you be sued for disseminating the ‘secret’ forthcoming divorce of a close friend? It’s a minefield and one that the law will find hard to keep pace with.

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The one where M&S advertise me clothes they already know I’m interested in

I’m getting used to behavioural advertising. It makes me amused when I’ve read an article about a Maserati to then be served an ad for one on another website (note to advertisers – interest does not equal income). But at the weekend something new happened. I was browsing the M&S website, looked at a couple of items and then put them in my shopping basket, then realised that payday was not for ages so shut down the website and carried on surfing the net when twenty minutes later on the news of the world site (I’m fascinated by Katie & Peter, please forgive me my bad taste) I was served an ad for M&S that showcased exactly the two pieces of clothing I had been looking at on their site. Clever, and kind of cool when you think about it. For a demo of how this works visit

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All the real Englishmen are in America

My brother-in-law is from Indiana. One time we were in a bar discussing something over a few
cold beers.

I forget exactly how the subject came up, but he made a
remark that resonated with me. He said, “All the
real Englishmen are in America. The ones that stayed in England are just the
wimps who were happy to let the King tell them what to do.”

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Editor’s blog: Putting the squeeze on the booze industry

I’ve been predicting for ages now that booze will replace tobacco as Public Health Enemy Number One – the drinks industry needs to ready itself for a sustained assault in the decade to come. The latest salvo came yesterday, with a call from the British Medical Association for a complete ban on all advertising and marketing of alcohol. The doctors are claiming that alcohol-related damage is especially prevalent among the binge-drinking young and that young people are being ‘thoroughly groomed into a behaviour which is extremely damaging to their health’. (Note the choice of verb which equates booze with predatory paedophiles.)

As you or I sit down of an evening for a quiet glass or two of Fleurie once the kids have gone to bed, we may feel this assault on our freedom to enjoy a drink is unacceptable. We all know the doctors are unlikely to be satisfied with a ban on marketing, if they were to achieve it. The Doctor State would be even more draconian than the Nanny one. Their ultimate goal is probably prohibition, which would make life a lot less fun.

The problem is the undeniable force of the BMA’s stats: that alcohol-related damage costs employers in England up to 7.3bn, crime and disorder another 7.3bn and healthcare up to 2.8bn. Aside from the costs to the taxpayer of clearing up the mess and paying for liver-transplants, I’d say there’s also a growing revulsion about the anti-social effects of alcohol. The New Age of Austerity may well give them some political traction.

Northern European drinkers just cannot get the idea out of their heads that when beginning an evening with a couple of units, the endpoint of the process has to be to get legless via 23 units more. And it’s not just those teetotallers who have been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of alcohol-related nastiness that are fed up with the effects of booze madness on everyone else.

I thought that Mayor Boris’s idea, for example, to ban boozing on the tube was a good one. Travelling on the underground is a vile enough experience without some moron wrestling with his demons and spraying his Red Stripe all over you. And as much as I sympathise with the alcoholic derelicts in the local park who piss everywhere and scare the kids, I wouldn’t mind seeing them be forced to consume their Tennants Super somewhere else. I was nave enough to walk into the convenience store that serves them once and politely suggest that at the end of the day they go round the park benches clearing up the discarded cans. They looked at me as if I’d just urinated all over their floor.

So a few new ideas from the drinks industry, with its 800m a year marketing budget, would not go amiss. They badly need to go beyond paying their annual sub to the Portman Group and trotting out the old chestnut that advertising only shifts brand loyalty. Because if they don’t show willing, they are going to regret it. The doctor’s tourniquet is tightening.

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All eyes on Spotify

Murdoch and the paid content coalition would do well to keep an eye on Spotify. Spotify, the new music streaming service, offers two options to consumers: 1. Listen to unlimited music online for free but with advertising 2. Listen to unlimited music without adverts for £10 a month.

Up until now, this choice hasn’t been forced, but now the Spotify iPhone app is out, you can only use Spotify on the go if you are a premium, £10 a month user. Personally I think this is a righteous bargain – £10 a month for unlimited music? I used to pay this exact amount before Spotify for unlimited music on Napster, and that didn’t even work on iPods. Convenience was its draw.

Will it work for the mainstream? It depends whether content publishers can deliver quality, exclusive content for consumers. At the moment Robbie Williams, Madonna, Cheryl Cole, Shakira and more new singles aren’t on Spotify and won’t be for at least a month, yet I can quite easily download them illegally. Not quite there yet music industry, but Spotify is a massive step in the right direction.

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Recession = innovation

Working at the IAB is a funny old job. Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while an entire industry worth of stakeholders are peering over our shoulders egging us on to do it faster. It can be a tough slog figuring out how we get all of the colours into the right place, but when we deliver, it’s hugely satisfying and often powerful. That’s why we love it… The satisfying bit, not because we’re power mad!

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Editor’s blog: The internet ain’t all great

Sometimes, amid the continuing wonder of all that is provided by the web, one sees the downside: the way in which the digital world has lessened our existences. This was brought home hard by a piece in last week’s FT under the headline: ‘Friends, not editors, shape internet habits’. The article showed how consumer’s media diets are shaped no longer by editors and journalists in newspapers and news websites but by their mates as the masses begin their day on Facebook and even, incomprehensibly, Twitter, that favoured medium of the Twerp.

This would be all very well if we were sharing pieces on subjects of even medium weight. But we all know that the vast majority of such stuff we ping around to each other is pap: clips of blokes getting their bits caught in zips, kittens doing utterly hilarious things, and YouTube resumes of that really ace moment when the latest snaggle-toothed no-hoper from Humberside is ritually humiliated on the X Factor (God that show is vile). You think I protest too much? Just look at the most-viewed items in a ‘respectable’ news website this morning. In the Telegraph’s Top Five are placed a piece about an Adolf Hitler sex video and some load of balls about Chinese UFOs.

But the key to the problem is the line in the FT article: ‘The people you know are going to pick things that are more interesting to you.’ It may make me sound like an old fart, but I believe it’s actually quite important in a democracy that the media exposes you to stuff that you do not find intrinsically interesting. Such as, for example, seriously tedious items like the pensions crisis, lumps falling off the polar ice caps, local council and court reports and, even, if necessary, the continuing tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the old days this act of presenting information – i.e. the news – was the job of editors. They told you what was going on in the world – the things they thought people ought to know about. (This didn’t mean wall-to-wall worthy boredom: there was always space for great crime stories or randy vicars to leaven the mix.) Now you are the editors and you go a la carte rather than being forced to stick with the fixed menu.

But if we all only have to read what we like and what titillates us then I fear serious problems may be in store. Because, in this rejection of collective, shared knowledge, what results is a situation where people develop their own parallel realities and live in complete ignorance of the things that affect us all. In the worst cases you take to the hills with your assault rifle and a supply of baked beans because, after months of exchanging crackpot information with your like-minded associates online, you’re utterly convinced the Commies or the Little Green Men are going to take over next week.

By the way, the Telegraph today also includes a thoughtful list of other things that are being killed by the web. A simultaneously amusing and sobering roll call it is, too, including memory, concentration, watching TV together and knowing telephone numbers by heart.

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Spanish English v Italian English

In a tiny little village in Umbria I found the only place that had an Internet connection. I stopped in to use it and bumped into the only Englishman I’d seen since I got there.

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