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Profile: John Birt

Despite what many would consider a liberal background at LWT, when John Birt became Director General of the BBC people realised he was there to put the Government’s proposals into action.

In the 1980s Thatcher, angry about coverage of her government, had intended to scrap the license fee, make the BBC carry advertising and effectively privatise it. Fortunately this did not happen but her complaints; that there was not enough choice, that pay was excessive, that the trade unions had the BBC in a vice-like grip, and that news and current affairs coverage was anti-government were effectively incorporated into the BBC’s Charter when it came up for renewal. It was Birt who would do the streamlining.

In 1989 Birt was promoted from Deputy Director General to the top position. Change came quickly. He stripped down the organisation, merging the News and Current Affairs operations to a great degree and putting Documentary and Current Affairs in one building. To help justify this he brought in a series of consultants. This cut the amount of money available for ‘minor things’ like floats to virtually nothing.

Birt introduced the concept of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) into regional news. The idea, borrowed from north America, is that a news crew consists of two people. One is the cameraman, who also does sound, lighting, driving, and sometimes editing. The other is the reporter who also does the directing, research, and the job of the Production Assistant.

The BBC had been a vertical organisation with jobs for life in a duopoly with ITV. But, just as Thatcher had hoped, Birt smashed the unions. Ideas such as ENG which merged jobs were dubbed ‘multi-skilling’, but they amounted to de-skilling. The days of 3-month paid holidays ensured by BECTU (the broadcasting technician’s union) were over. Massive redundancies followed and it was also the end of internal training so now the employee has to pay.

With the renewal of its charter the BBC had to commission 25% of its programmes from independent producers. Birt pushed for far greater reliance than the charter requirement. He also made BBC an internal market. The ‘internal market’, where everything is priced and producers are given a budget has proved virtually unworkable. There was also a levy known as the “John Birt Tariff” of 20% to pay for consultants (such as John Birt as it later emerged). Producers who had spent their lives working at the BBC had never had to do costing before. This was a disastrous mistake which is only now beginning to be undone.

Due to the reliance on independent companies the BBC now buys many of its programmes from the ITV companies who are busy swallowing each other whole. At the other extreme stars have their own production companies which must be employed to get the star in front of a camera. For instance, if you want Lenny Henry to do a show, you have to hire his production company too. This means stars can dictate programming to a degree.

When Birt was promoted from Deputy DG to DG in 1989 he was faced with revenue problems due to the low license fee (which is not linked to inflation), and facing the prospect of having to re-equip every three years he decided that the BBC would focus on what he called “distinctive programming” to justify the continuation of the license fee.

Birt was about instituting authoritarianism on the BBC because of past programmes that had been critical of government and because it represented a large, public, high-cost, bureaucratic organisation that could not easily be privatised. He was determined to do something about “radical” programmes such as ‘Panorama’. Birt’s hopes to streamline the BBC made it amorphous. It was no longer financially inefficient but it stifled creativity. It was broken up into different department heads who made programmes but didn’t broadcast them.

The main drive of Birt’s changes came in factual programming. It was summarised by the ‘mission to explain’. In practical terms Birt aimed to remove the divide between the TV and radio branches of the news organisation. Birt thought the BBC didn’t explain enough about what was going on in the world. The emphasis was placed on being less populist than World in Action (to be “distinctive”). Current Affairs programmes were more analytical, often backgrounders to a news story. They were inevitably boring. As Panorama became less investigative it also became less challenging to do. The reasoning was to differentiate from ITV with Weekend World, On The Record, Public Eye, the return of Costume Drama.

The argument was “Current Affairs is emotive but has no context or background.” Birt went on to make the BBC’s current affairs all the same. Worse than that, the structure was set up before filming. With a pre-shooting script you are supposed to know what your interviewees are going to say before you interview them. This saves money but journalism it is not.

The other bone that caught in the throat of journalists was the emphasis on “good news” that was probably responsible for putting the Queen’s speech in front of the M40 motor-way crash.

Birt’s overriding mission was to pacify the BBC. He managed it but viewing figures dropped and journalists deserted it. Today the BBC tends to hire people who have already made it on ITV/C4 rather than taking chances. Cable and satellite TV were introduced as part of Government policy but they did not intend to hand Murdoch a monopoly.

As the situation stands the BBC now does deals with BSkyB, negotiating for second showing rights to major sports events. And while the corporation is running World Service TV on tax-payers’ money it is also seeking to buy in more American drama to compete with Channel Four’s ‘ER’ and ‘NYPD Blue’. One of the biggest producers is Fox TV, of ‘X-Files’ fame, so ultimately there are very close ties between the BBC and Murdoch. Unless legislation is put in place to secure major sporting events such as Wimbledon and people become more reluctant to pay the license fee, the future of the BBC seems increasingly uncertain.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Media, Profile

 

Profile: Teresa Maughan

“Why am I a magazine publisher? Is it because I love magazines?
No. It’s because I had a tiny success back in 1967 selling a hippy magazine on London’s fashionable King’s Road.” —Felix Dennis

T'zer: The YS years

Long before Felix Dennis struck magazine gold with Maxim, Dennis Publishing was known as Sportscene Specialist Press, and as the kung-fu fad of the 1970s passed home computers were going to be the next big thing. One of the many titles Dennis launched in that period was called Your Spectrum, a magazine dedicated to an 8-bit computer designed in Cambridge, England and made in Scotland.

Possibly the longest serving YS staffer, Teresa Maughan, known as T’zer, rose through the ranks to become production, then deputy editor under Kevin Cox. Kevin had taken over editorship from Roger Munford in 1985 and oversaw the relaunch as Your Sinclair.

“He’s a transvestite and likes to be known as Kylie to his friends,” she alleges.

In 1987 she took over from Kevin and remained editor until 1989 when she became YS publisher.

“In reality I did anything and everything,” she says.

Her abiding memories of YS are “laughing like a drain for four years solid, listening to Snouty and Berkmann swap jokes continuously—some of them were actually funny, dressing up in ridiculous outfits in the name of work, young boys asking me to sign their T-shirts (and other things!) at the Earl’s Court games shows—I could never understand why, as I didn’t feel famous, wondering whether Duncan MacDonald was going to show up for work or whether he was out on one of his ‘jaunts’. and Hold My Hand Very Tightly—nobody croons like David Wilson.”

Since leaving YS, she has had three children, born in 1993, 1995 and 2000 and continued her career in journalism. This has included editing Dennis’s Mohammed Ali: The Glory Years, a stint of production on Linux User magazine, and launching and packaging the now forgotten Star Pets Magazine.

“It was aimed at girls and all about celebrities and their pets and pop,” she recalls.

She has written extensively for the teen market from a series of unofficial pop biographies to more serious titles for Channel 4 Books including Model Behaviour, and four self-help books to accopmany the award-winning Wise Up Sunday morning show for teens. Her favourite ZX Spectrum game of all time is the unreleased Prince of Persia. “I loved the way he moved. Otherwise it has to be Advanced Lawnmower Simulator designed by Duncan MacDonald.”

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Entertainment, Profile, Technology

 

Profile: Keith Perch

“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.” —Cyril Connolly

When Keith Perch took over the editorship of the Cardiff based South Wales Echo in 1993 the paper did not know what was about to hit it. Almost immediately on arrival he fired 40 people and replaced them. He says: “The trouble with the profession is you spend a third of the time trying to find good people.”

The then 37-year-old went on to spent quarter of a million pounds on new technology placing the Echo at the forefront of newspaper publishing with full electronic page makeup and saving £1 million a year in production costs. From the time printing starts, an issue could now be on the streets in under half an hour.

In the first six months Perch turned the broadsheet with falling sales into a tabloid with increasing sales and rather than reducing quality he improved it. He knows the key to success and it earned him a free reign in a company which was supposed to frequently interfere in editorial decisions. But as he explains he was their “experiment” and he appeared to be leading the way for the entire Thomson group.

Perch was born in Epsom in 1957. His father was in the Royal Air Force and his mother did secretarial work. He has a sister and three brothers who are not journalists. After gaining a degree in philosophy and classics he got started in reporting in 1978 by writing a ten page letter to the editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. After a two day interview he was accepted.

His career has involved Perch in most of the positions on a daily newspaper. It took him from Grimsby to the Derby Evening Telegraph and then on to the Birmingham Post Mail where he was made head of special investigations. He was expected to produce three stories a year. “It was a ludicrous job,” he says, “I got so bored waiting for the phone to ring that I had to do more.” After six months he returned to Derby to become news editor and after 18 months he was assistant editor of Hull’s Daily Mail.

Perch left the Mail to set up Select, a free, locally published magazine packed with posh, expensive advertising aimed at the middle class market. Three editions still ran in 1994. He used the profits to set up a newspaper but it was a flop.

After selling the Hull, Harrogate and Scarborough editions Perch returned to Derby to become deputy editor for a year. He then spent six months as editor at UK News, the main rival of the Press Association. On the day of his Norman Lamont resignation scoop he received a phone call offering him editorship of the Echo.

Perch says he was well paid, “more than most, certainly not what I’m worth. But I’ve got no gripes.” He drove his company Granada to work from his flat in Cardiff. His wife Jenny and children; Katie, then 7, and Amy, then 5, were still living in Derby. Working 70 hours or more a week and only saw his family on Sundays.

Perch’s favourite films are thrillers and he says he “doesn’t really like music” preferring instead to listen to audio books. But he’d rather be playing soccer. A self-confessed football fanatic, Perch has placed the game before his job and even skipped managerial meetings to watch the match. He is an avid Chelsea fan. Before Perch became editor of the Echo he used to play football at a senior level but subsequently only had time to play in the Sunday leagues in Derby and Thursdays in Cardiff. However he still found time to go on tour with his side to France in November 1993.

In August 1994 he launched the Newport and Cwmbran edition of the Echo. With the Cardiff based Echo’s sales hitting 100,000 copies a day and averaging 84,000 Perch decided that nearby Newport needed an alternative to the South Wales Argus. With declining sales of 38,000 daily less than a third of its market is buying it. By contrast the Echo was on the up, selling 15,000 more copies a day than the Western Mail, Wales’s national daily.

Perch puts his success down to his personal news philosophy. “The problem with newspapers is they’re all doom and gloom,” he says, “If there’s bad news we’ll cover it and we’re ten times as good at it.” However it is not the mainstay of his paper. On the last day of the Jamie Bulger trial the Echo ran the story front page along with everyone else but followed it with a feature on “Super Kids”, children who make the tea for old ladies because he wanted to show that most children are not murderers.

“All the newspapers do nothing but rape and violent crime,” says Perch, “People think ‘they’re not writing about the place I live in’.” He adds, “The difference is we reflect the community.” To improve local coverage he introduced the Saturday supplement Celebrations which featured local events. The Echo reintroduced silver and golden weddings, full obituaries, births and marriages because he says, “If there’s a wedding in the office people are talking about it for weeks.” Perch thinks the main problem with the other evening papers is “they’ve aped the nationals ‘don’t care’ attitude.”

One of Perch’s favourite headlines at the Echo was “Betrayed” on a front page piece about the closure of the last mine in Wales. It sums up what he’s about – telling the news from a local perspective. One thing that did not appear in Perch’s Echo were features on films and stars. Thomson provided a show business features service which their editors must subscribe to but Perch would not use articles on Tom Hanks and his ilk because it is not local news and not the reason people buy the paper.

In 1997 Perch returned to the Derby Evening Telegraph as editor, where he remained until 2001. He has now spent a decade at the helm of the Leicester Mercury.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Media, Profile

 

Profile: Chris Horrie

“I can’t stick musicians. I’ve thought about this. I can’t stand them, and being stuck in a studio with them I think that’s my strength I can hear what they can’t.” —Mark E. Smith

On a Monday morning in 1996 a figure resembling Columbo appears at the entrance to a dilapidated building in Back Hill, London, England. His clothes are crumpled and he has the same nervous air about him. He climbs the stairs and disappears into an office. He has not noticed the egg stain on his tie. In the evening he leaves, now bearing more than a passing resemblance to Bela Lugosi. This pattern continues for several days. On Friday he still hasn’t noticed the egg stain.

Christopher Horrie was born in Manchester in 1956 to working class parents. His father was a welder and his mother a school cleaner. He grew up in Gorsehill, Stretford, a stone’s throw away from Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground. As a boy Horrie had always wanted to play for United and was good enough to be called to a number of try-outs for Berry Boys Youth Football Club. Unfortunately he broke both his shoulder bones during a game when he was 15 and that was the end of that.

Horrie first had to come to terms with defeat when he failed the eleven plus exam. He felt totally humiliated. “It remains one of the most vivid things in my life,” he says. The whole experience made him very competitive and insecure.

Later on Horrie joined the Manchester Musician’s Collective which produced bands such as the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. There he met Mark E. Smith and subsequently joined the Fall. “There was no sign we would ever be taken seriously,” he says. “The idea was to destroy rock‘n’roll and the music industry which is an evil thing.”

The main influence on The Fall was Iggy Pop. “It was a disaster for me because I’d spent years perfecting a Jimi Hendrix style,” says Horrie. Smith wanted more of a riotous noise. “I used to say things like ‘Why don’t we play a few Bob Dylan numbers’ and they’d look at me as if I was mad,” says Horrie. He left the band to go to college.

Horrie went to university to get away from home. He studied politics and economics at Warwick University because in 1975, when he was applying, there was a student protest and it was the first university protest in the UK where riot police were sent in. He was also under the misguided belief that Warwick was about as far away from Manchester as you could get.

Graduating in 1978 with a 2:1 Horrie began working as a freelance sub on a variety of publications including Offshore Engineer and Carpet Review Monthly. He once served as editor of CND’s Sanity magazine. In that role he doubled as public relations officer. He wanted to boil down the arguments for disarmament, such as ‘bases make targets’ but he fell out with CND over the Greenham Common protest. Originally there was no plan to set up a permanent camp and Horrie tried to persuade CND to disassociate itself from those ‘nutters’ who did. Joan Ruddock was in favour of the encampment and Horrie was allegedly finally sacked for calling her a ‘stupid cunt.’

Horrie has since written for every British national daily and Sunday newspaper, even the Guardian which he once described as “a hopelessly disorganised newspaper.” He has also worked extensively in television including a year on World in Action. He has written 14 books including Disaster! the Rise and Fall of News on SundayStick It Up Your Punter! the Rise and Fall of the SunWhat is Islam?Sick as a Parrot: the Inside Story of the Spurs Fiasco, and  Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Media, Profile

 

Profile: Tom Lehrer

“Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” —Tom Lehrer

Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer reissued on the Rhino Records label

In a monologue preceding one of his songs Tom Lehrer once said: “I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphry, he used to be a senator. Every now and then you read something about him in one of those ‘where are they now’ columns. This became quite an issue last winter at the time of Winston Churchill’s funeral when President Johnson was too ill to go and somebody suggested that he send Hubert. And he said ‘Hubert who?’” Now it seems it is ‘Tom who?’

Lehrer was an American satirical song writer who recorded 37 songs between 1953 and 1965, many of which were considered unfit to be played on the radio. He was considered the epitome of satirical bad taste. However, his three albums are still available in the United States and have sold over 1.8 million copies in total. Yet in Britain he seems in danger of being forgotten though in the ’60s playing one of his records at a late night party was considered a sure sign of intellectual maturity.

Lehrer hates to give interviews, “unless I’ve got something to plug” and tells journalists: “Make it up, you do that anyway don’t you?” adding: “It’s okay, I won’t sue.” And he still has that smooth voice that lulls you into a false sense of calm. Though he grew up in Manhattan he has spent most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has lived in his present house there for over 30 years.

With titles such as Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, a song about the joys of spring, Lehrer has always appealed to something of a select audience. The New York Times said: “Mr. Lehrer’s muse (is) not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste” and the Evening Standard called him “obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated.” Lehrer says he has not been spoiled by this critical acclaim. Indeed he once remarked: “If, after hearing my songs just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

Speaking years ago on BBC Radio 4, Lehrer recalls a performance of a song he wrote about the boy scouts called Be Prepared: “I sang it in a night club and this marine came up afterwards, and speaking in his native language, Neanderthal, he said, ‘You shouldn’t make fun of the boy scouts, they’re the marines of tomorrow.’ And he was perfectly right.”

Between 1946 and June 1953 Lehrer was a teaching fellow in mathematics as a graduate student at Harvard University. During that time, if you believe the album notes, he “supplemented his meagre income by regaling local degenerates with songs of his own devising.” Lehrer never received his PhD, and would be a graduate student today “if it wasn’t for those silly rules.”

After spending two years in the army as an enlisted man, in 1957 Lehrer returned to academic life. However, having already released his first record, he found he was in demand for engagements in “hot, fetid, smoky, and uncomfortable” night clubs. At this time he also performed a number of one-man show in concert halls and theatres.

In 1960, after a four-month concert tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, he retired from performing and returned to academic life. Again he was brought out of musical retirement for NBC’s version of That Was The Week That Was, which he thought would be a perfect outlet for his musical work. He has since also appeared in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Norway.

Lehrer gave up writing songs in the late ’60s saying: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you top that?” But he was coaxed back to do some non-satirical songs for the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. That was in 1972 for a programme called the Electric Company which was designed to teach children to read. “It’s always exciting to do something quite different.” says Lehrer.

After this brief ‘come back’ Lehrer went through a further revival in the ’80s with the launch of the London West End production Tomfoolery, a collection of some of his best known numbers performed by an all English cast. That show has since gone on to see nearly 200 productions around the world.

Ask his health, and he replies: “Actually this is a recording, I passed away some time ago.” It sounds like the record and for half a second you believe him. In a 1994 article in Harvard Magazine he said: “The main thing is my mind has deteriorated,” adding “Twenty-two years in California have turned my mind to Jell-O, imitation flavour at that. And my attention span has atrophied. I used to have a long attention span but it was shot off in the war.”

His albums are still available on compact disc from Warner’s Reprise label. They are Tom Lehrer Revisited (originally Songs by Tom Lehrer), An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was The Year That Was.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Entertainment, Politics, Profile