Janet Street-Porter: How the Post Office is junking its reputation

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The Independent Online

The Royal Mail is very concerned about branding its image, and spends a fortune in getting their message across. It seems to have forgotten, in its search for profits, that it is also in a "people" business, and all over Britain, their customers have very strong relationships with both their local postman and their nearest post office.

At a time when impersonal supermarket chains proliferate, the Post Office has a difficult dilemma - as an Age Concern report published this week demonstrates. It is made up of thousands of very small units that are impossible to run cost-effectively. Almost all - 90 per cent - of rural post offices make a loss, but if the Government decides not to renew their annual subsidy of £150m when it runs out in 2008, 8,000 are expected to be closed (out of 8,037), leaving many villages without a grocery shop and isolating the elderly residents and non-car owning mums even further.

The post office in my small village in Yorkshire (less than 30 homes) serves a vast area including four other hamlets and isolated hill farms - the nearest branch is nearly 10 miles away, and there are no buses or public transport in the valley. If it were to close, we'd have a long drive to buy the newspapers on Sunday, eggs, tinned food, and basic supplies. There would be nowhere to get a bit of local gossip, and nowhere for new arrivals to start meeting their neighbours.

The Post Office lost £111m last year, but it is part of the Royal Mail Group, which made profits of roughly £355m. Executives have refused to let one part of the business subsidise another - but surely the Post Office represents far more to the British public than just a money-making concern. We have a very emotional attachment to its employees, either behind the counter or on the street, which is why there was such outrage over the television documentary last year which showed widespread pilfering in one sorting office.

Now Royal Mail executives have acted in a ham-fisted way by suspending one of their postmen in South Wales for giving his customers a home-made leaflet telling them how to avoid unwanted junk mail. After protests, and a petition, he has been reinstated, but back in the sorting office. For 10 years Roger Annies had delivered post to customers in Barry - and was a popular member of the community - many would have said an excellent advertisement for using the Post Office. Now he has had to resort to the services of an employment lawyer to keep his job. At the moment the Royal Mail delivers up to three items of junk mail a week, but is in negotiations to have this limit lifted. Customers can opt out of receiving this stuff by contacting their post office and filling in a form - but this option, which would remove a highly profitable bit of business from the Royal Mail, is not promoted.

Postmen in rural areas have already been threatened with the sack for delivering groceries and newspapers - but if rural post offices are to close, then that is exactly the kind of service they will have to provide in the future. For over 20 years now I have had the same postman in Yorkshire, and if I need a newspaper, then he will very kindly bring it for me. I dare not praise him by name, because under the current regime at Royal Mail, he may be stripped of his van, ordered back to base and severely reprimanded for performing his job a little bit too well.

In the end, the Post Office is about providing a service, and it is one their front-line workers do very well.

Mexican wave madness at the BBC

Yesterday, Peter Fincham, controller of BBC1, appeared on breakfast television to defend his decision to spend £1.2m on new on-screen "idents". The BBC is tremendously good at using its airtime to promote itself - and research shows that this infuriates licence payers. We don't just sit through channel idents, but puffs for its sports coverage, music programming or news output. At a time when the BBC hopes the Government will increase the licence fee, an increasing amount of it is spent on self-advertising.

Fincham smugly justified flying all the way to Mexico to film a wave - leaving aside the environmental message that sends out - by saying that you couldn't get big photogenic surf in this country. He couldn't have been more wrong - last week, huge waves off Newquay, above, made every single newspaper - but perhaps his promotions department was too busy watching its own output.

* In 2003, the Berlin opera staged a new production of Mozart's Idomeneo, which culminated with the King of Crete holding aloft the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon and the Prophet Mohammed and declaiming "The Gods are Dead" - clearly implying that in the 21st century humans have to take over their own destiny and not rely on religion to guide them.

Ironic, then, that Germany, a country where half a century ago the Nazis sought to control freedom of expression with book-burnings, is indulging in an extraordinary act of self-censorship. Bosses at the Berlin Opera have decided not to revive this version of Mozart's classic this November, for fear of "disturbances" from religious groups.

Why do religious groups, from the Christian right to Muslim fundamentalists, react so violently to artists who only seek to present a different point of view? Jerry Springer: the Opera faced an unrelenting barrage of protest when it toured Britain, and many theatres cancelled the show citing "safety" as a reason. The Berlin Opera company is run by feeble nonentities who should be sacked.