Saturday 10 May 2008
Richard Ingrams' Week: 'Institutional failure' is the curse of our times
It is unfortunate that Ant and Dec, about whom I wrote last week, should now find themselves involved in yet another unseemly controversy involving their television show.
After the revelations of how their ITV programme Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway had raised millions of pounds from viewers' phone calls when the winners of their competitions had already been decided, they are now revealed as winners themselves of a British Comedy Award that should rightfully have gone to the BBC's Catherine Tate.
We are by now familiar with the expression "systemic failure" to account for various unfortunate events of this kind. Now the Ofcom report which reveals the latest scandal talks of something called "institutionalised failure". What this seems to imply is that it is the institution of ITV, rather than any specific individuals, which is to blame for what has happened. And the fact that so far nobody has been named, yet alone dismissed as a result of the revelations, seems to confirm this convenient way of looking at it.
ITV chairman Michael Grade has himself been keen to stress that Ant and Dec themselves knew nothing of what was going on even though they call themselves executive producers of Saturday Night Takeaway. Critics might reply that if they didn't know what was happening, they certainly ought to have done. But Grade says the "executive producer tag was what he calls "a kind of vanity credit", ie it didn't mean anything very much.
From Grade's point of view, this may be important. He can survive a massive fine but he could ill afford to lose two of his most popular performers at a time when, quite apart from these scandals, the fortunes of ITV are at their lowest ever ebb.
Justice for all ... who can afford it
Privacy law took another giant step forward this week when Harry Potter author J K Rowling won an appeal case against a Scottish photo agency. They had taken what she described as an unauthorised picture of her two-year-old son David in a buggy which was published in the Sunday Express. Rowling claimed that her two-year-old son's right to "a normal life" had been infringed – a claim that has now been upheld by the Court of Appeal.
There is no such thing as a normal life. And something that cannot be defined ought not to be recognised by the law. What it seems to amount to in this instance is that J K Rowling, who is one of the richest and most famous people in the world, would like to protect her children from all the consequences of having a mother like that. An impossible task. Like it or not, any child of J K Rowling will have to go through life publicly branded as the son of the woman who wrote the Harry Potter books and presumably as the heir to a vast fortune. Not very normal, in other words.
Of greater concern is the precedent set by the court. Critics of the privacy law have always maintained that it is something that will simply be used to protect rich celebrities from press intrusion. And Rowling has provided them with confirmation. Very few supposedly "normal" people could afford to take a photographic agency to court, let alone fight the case to the Court of Appeal when the claim is initially thrown out. It is only the Rowlings of this world who will benefit, thus reinforcing the truth of the old saying that "justice is open to all – like the Ritz hotel".
* The way politics works nowadays is that you don't have to do anything. You just announce that you are doing or going to do something. That will be sufficient.
Boris Johnson very typically began his career as Mayor of London this week with an announcement that he is going to ban the drinking of alcohol on the Underground. That made a good headline. And not too much attention was paid to the objections of Tube workers and union representatives who asked who was expected to enforce the ban. British Transport Police will have no power to fine passengers and there will be no regular patrols through the carriages.
I shouldn't think Boris was too concerned by such objections. The main thing was that he had made an announcement. He was going to take action. Tough action. Something must be done.
The same kind of approach is typical of Mr Brown's government. It is going to reclassify cannabis as class B – in the same category as ecstasy – in defiance of the advice of a group of scientific experts who see no reason for the change.
Once again it makes the headlines. The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is getting tough and won't be told what to do by a lot of so-called experts.
But it means nothing. Whether cannabis is class B or C the police are not going to do much about it. Those who smoke the drug and those who deal in it will continue much as before. But, like Boris, Jacqui will be pleased that she has taken firm action.
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