Call me a curmudgeonly old thing, but am I the only person that finds a newspaper column written by Mr Snuffles, the BBC political editor's guinea pig, deeply unfunny? Last week the BBC announced new guidelines preventing staff and freelances whose main income derives from the BBC from writing columns on current affairs or
other contentious issues. As one of these broadcasters, Andrew Marr seems to be troubled about whether being the political editor of one of the most prestigious broadcasting organisations in the world is a big enough job for him. As well as appearing on our screens daily as its major political commentator, he also presents Start the Week on Radio 4. I was somewhat surprised when Mr Marr added a weekly column in The Daily Telegraph to his portfolio, in which Mr Snuffles looms large. But then Marr is only following the examples set by other BBC stars such as John Humphrys, John Simpson and Rosie Millard.
The fall-out from Andrew Gilligan's unfortunate piece in the Mail on Sunday about Alastair Campbell "sexing up" the case for war in Iraq has done all licence-payers a favour. For it has drawn to our attention the ludicrous double standards that prevailed in an organisation which prides itself on impartiality. There are policy-making departments in the BBC that produce volumes of guidelines on sponsorship and conflicts of interest, but somehow no one minded if John Humphrys wrote a column in The Sunday Times attacking the Americans for killing innocent children in Afghanistan or John Simpson penned several hundred words about cluster bombs in The Sunday Telegraph. Please don't think that both Johns are not readable - far from it. But their employer is paying them extremely well to present current events to us in a focused, cool, detached way and to interview leading news-makers in a productive, impartial fashion which seeks to arrive at the truth. Comment is not part of the deal. Both have a clear choice: alter your contracts with the BBC so that you become commentators, and can pursue a career in journalism alongside opinionated broadcasting, or put up and shut up.
In the case of Andrew Marr, the situation is even more clear cut. Penning any kind of whimsical column, be it about his pets or the state of restored buildings in Britain, serves only to detract from the gravitas that his job demands. I personally would find it bizarre if award-winning senior writers on this paper such as Robert Fisk and David McKittrick suddenly presented programmes on Scrabble or bread-making on ITV. Somehow it would di- minish their stature. Interestingly, they don't seem to have the same desperate urge for self-validation that their counterparts at the BBC seem to suffer from. As for Rosie Millard, how she thought that it was acceptable to combine the role of arts correspondent for the world's leading arts broadcaster with writing a column in the property section of The Sunday Times is fascinating. Does she think that we value her thoughts on Turner or Titian more if we factor in her position on mortgages?
Let's be perfectly clear: these columns are about the exercise of egos and the earning of large sums of money and nothing more. The people concerned are handsomely paid by the BBC, and they earn even more money from public speaking, corporate events and writing books. They will bleat and squirm, but these guidelines are long overdue. The only problem is, they don't go far enough - sadly the drivel about the guinea pig is so uncontentious that Marr will be able to regale us with his anodyne thoughts on everything from conservation to pets for as long as the Telegraph is stupid enough to pay him. Millard, however, has decided that her future lies outside reporting the arts and has quit the BBC. In the meantime, I note that the keenest employers of these people are the Hollinger Group, owners of the Telegraph papers, and News International, owners of The Sunday Times and The Sun. Neither is a friend of the BBC, or wants to see its charter renewed, another reason for the BBC to put its foot down.
The tabloid corporation
I wrote the other week about the intrusive nature of the television coverage of the Soham murder trial, particularly on Sky News, with its nightly dramatised transcripts. On the night of the verdict last week BBC1 broadcast an hour-long special on the case with copious use of dramatic reconstruction as well as footage of police interviews with both Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr. Once again I have serious misgivings about the way that fact is being moulded and blended into drama to make programmes as "sexy" as possible. The way that Carr's tape-recorded answers were broadcast, with the camera playing over the eyes and lips of an actress in extreme close-up as she was talking to a fake policeman, make for uneasy viewing. I thought that the word "reconstruction" had to be on the screen at all times in sequences like this so that the viewer could be perfectly clear where dramatic licence was being taken. It was not. Fiona Bruce kept referring to pieces of information as "exclusive" or "shown here for the first time", all clear attempts to sensationalise the storytelling. The way the police were shot in their interviews, in extreme close-up, sometimes wilfully in profile, and the way they performed for the cameras once again, was playing to the gallery. Finally, the inclusion of close-up footage of the girls' red T-shirts in a rubbish bin was unspeakable. At times like this I simply do not know how those two brave and dignified sets of parents are coping. And broadcasting unproven allegations by Huntley's neighbour about his violence towards Carr was reprehensible.
The artist Alison Jackson uses lookalikes in her work to great effect. Who can forget her sensational image of Diana, Dodi and "their" baby? Now the windows of Selfridges are home to a group of fake celebrities (Posh, Becks, Blair and Sven) in the unlikely location of a sauna to publicise Ms Jackson's first book, Private. But now I am starting to feel sorry for her victims. Photography is one thing, and artistry is certainly involved. But this strays into the realms of second-division showbiz. Writing as someone who's endured her fair share of bad impersonators, I think that all this stunt does is promote Selfridges and diminish Ms Jackson's work. Surely there will come a time when Posh and Becks will claim the copyright of their images - and while it is perfectly acceptable to mimic them in the name of art, I'm not sure how they'll feel being used as disposable icons to promote a department store. Are they entitled to any privacy at all any more?