Matthew Norman's Media Diary
A ramraid on Paxo and Humphrys
Monday 15 October 2007
If Sir Michael Lyons' appointment as chairman of the BBC Trust was a three-pipe mystery at the time, his first foray into public controversy suggests the urgent need for a ram raid on the meerschaum warehouse.
A majestically obscure economist and local government bod with no apparent interest in broadcasting, and no discernible qualification at all other than having been Gordon Brown's little helper on various commissions, Sir Michael takes umbrage at the expression of free speech within the BBC. "In most companies you would not have members of staff openly debating whether that company's strategy was right or not," he said last week, inviting Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys to hold their tongues about the horrendous job cuts in news and current affairs, which the director general Mark Thompson will announce on Thursday.
It's that "most companies" that seems so unwittingly revealing. Whatever the BBC is, it isn't most companies. It isn't really a company at all. It is a corporation with a unique tradition of stringent self-criticism, extending from the demented self-flagellation we have seen lately to allowing employees to criticise it as openly as they wish. If Sir Michael wants to pick a fight with the country's two most unsackable media figures by trying to compel them to use "internal channels" for their complaints, at least the man must have balls. However, if he tries to impose the mores of News International or McDonald's on the BBC, he must expect his staff to use external channels to ask in what possible way Sir Michael is a suitable person to protect the Beeb from the phalanxes of its enemies now attempting to damage it beyond recognition.
Doughtily maintaining their scandalised outrage over BBC misdemeanours, meanwhile, are the Murdoch titles. Yet, touching as it always is to find the News of the World risking altitude sickness by ascending to the moral high ground, I am a bit bemused by its front page of eight days ago. "Gordon Brown's plans for an early election were thrown into chaos LAST NIGHT," wrote Ian Kirby, "when he learned of the devastating results of a News of the World poll."
How weird. In fact, Gordon did his "no election" interview with Andrew Marr early on the Saturday, having decided on Friday night long before the poll was done. Either Mr Kirby failed to grasp the chronology, which is worrying for a political editor, or this was a deliberate attempt to mislead a loyal army of readers ... a minor deception by NoW standards, no doubt, and nothing next to the subterfuge over the naming of the Blue Peter cat, but a poor show all the same.
As for the Daily Mirror, perpetrator of the worst fraud ever committed by a British media outlet (the "spot the ball" competition without the ball), it too takes a firm line on journalistic ethics. So it was impressive on Friday to find the headline "Gord Still Ahead In The Polls" and the intro "Gordon Brown is still beating David Cameron despite his hellish week" above a story that just about steeled itself to mention that his "best leader" advantage over David Cameron was drastically reduced, and touched lightly on the Tories leading Labour by three points in that same Ipsos Mori poll.
Some of you may know the hideous sinking feeling you get when, having had a huge antepost bet on a race, you watch your horse take a six-length lead before it starts going backwards just a couple of furlongs from the line. Mirror editor Richard Wallace certainly will.
Richard should have studied the peerless work of Matthew Parris, the Cassandra of political commentators, in the spring. "It has become fashionable among some of my colleagues to murmur wisely that one must never underestimate the Chancellor," wrote Matthew in The Times on 19 May. "In my view it is urgently important not to overestimate Mr Brown. I don't believe in the Chancellor's hidden intellectual superguns, his great schemes and plans under wraps, or his lurking genius... His silence does not betoken strength; his immobility does not betoken carefully guarded plans. His curtness does not betoken honesty. His unyieldingness does not betoken valour. Mr Brown is the most spun politician of our era." As ever, different class.
I am saddened to learn, finally, that despite this column's tireless championing of his work, favourite columnist Jon Gaunt has been impertinent about me on his radio show (thanks to his TalkSport colleague Mike Parry, by the way, for appearing for the defence).
Although ingratitude on this scale isn't easy to take, the sort of woolly-minded, bleeding-heart, cheek-turning liberal instincts that Gaunty finds so irksome compel us to proceed with the serialisation of his memoir Undaunted (School of Hard Knocks Press, £4.99) as planned.
Today, we find him dwelling lyrically on the new girlfriend ("The Slag") of his widowed father ("a right bad tempered bastard"). "The Slag was everything Mum wasn't. She wore miniskirts, tight blouses and black bras that I used to wank over when she hung them on the line."
Delicious stuff. And yet, to the teenaged Gaunty's enormous credit, despite finding The Slag so intolerably vulgar, he and his equally effete brother Simon "told the old man she was great". Fans of Frasier will be deafened by the echo from Frasier and Niles's half-hearted efforts to mask their distaste for their widowed father Martin's brassy new girlfriend Sherry (Marsha Mason).
Next week, Gaunty and Simon come to blows over which is the greatest of the Château d'Yquems at the inaugural meeting of the Coventry Oenophiles Association.
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