DJ Taylor: What'll it be, torture or Jordan?

If you're relying on the BBC to let you know what's going on while you're on holiday, you may need to be patient
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The Independent Online

Becalmed in the un-Anglicised north Dordogne, with only two day-old English tabloids available from the news stands ("'Jordan is disgusting' – Pete's shock confession" etc) one inclines even more to BBC news bulletins for information.

Useful as these are, it's always interesting to note the variations in tone and quality. BBC News 24, not hitherto viewed in much depth, struck me as a faintly amateurish production, with stories that would never have made it on to the terrestrial channels teased out far beyond their natural length, and some clunking banter from the presenters. Over on BBC1, on the other hand, a curiously skewed sense of priorities seemed to prevail. Monday's big story, so far as I could tell, was the denial by the head of MI6 that Britain had colluded in torture – something with enormous implications both for our standing on the international stage and the present Government's commitment to human rights.

Lead story on the lunchtime news, alternatively, was a painfully over-stretched piece about a report suggesting that Tamiflu might not actually ameliorate the symptoms of swine flu in young children, in which Emily Maitlis, interviewing one of the report's authors, asked several minute variations on the same question and received several minute variations on the same answer. Item two was a report from Salford on the vandalising of the car of the local MP, Hazel Blears, while she was out canvassing, in which the injured party declined to appear and the reporter was reduced to interrogating grim-faced bystanders ("Everyone knew it were her car", and so on.) Finally, a good 10 minutes into the programme, when most casual news-surfers would already have switched off, we got the torture report. It was all rather like the moment in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, when a trick-cyclist who has momentarily attracted the attention of Lord Copper, monomaniacal proprietor of the Daily Beast, is hired to edit the sports section, and the football news is relegated to a couple of paragraphs on the inner back page.


The news that councils, police forces and other public bodies are seeking access to private telephone and email records almost 1,400 times a day stirred some predictably irate newspaper headlines. "A request to snoop on public every 60 seconds," The Daily Telegraph reported, with blithe disregard for the definite article, quoting a figure of 595 annual errors in interception requests. According to Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman, "we have sleepwalked into a surveillance state but without adequate safeguards".

Deep-rooted national characteristics tend to take rather a back seat these days, what with the descent of the multicultural blanket, and it would be an exceptionally sanguine social commentator who started talking about manifestations of "the British spirit", if indeed there ever was such a thing. All the same, you suspect that a hatred of "snoopers" would feature highly on any such list. The significant thing, perhaps, about this mistrust is its rootedness in language, the way, above all, in which it manages to colonise different generations and social contexts. Sixty or 70 years ago, for example, one of the popular press's great hate-figures was the "nosey-parker" – sometimes a means-testing government official, but equally likely to be a net-curtain-twitching neighbour taking an officious interest in other people's private lives. Ancient Rome reserved its scorn for the delatus, or tale-bearer. At school in the 1970s, the worst thing you could be called was not a bully or a halfwit but a sneak, and going behind your classmates' backs to teacher was regarded as more or less on a par with urinating on an altar.

Keen as I am (and was) on the individual's right to privacy, this reluctance to convey certain choice

and well-attested facts to those in authority always used to puzzle me. In fact, nothing would have improved the atmosphere of my school more than the presence of three or four top-grade sneaks sedulously at work to inform on the dozen or so Crabbes and Goyles who made life such hell for the rest of us. In much the same way, people will go on complaining about "snoopers" in the mistaken belief that some kind of fundamental human right is being infringed – I have lost count, for instance, of the number of times some apparently easy-going friend has gone bananas about the iniquities of speed cameras. The 595 annual "errors in interception" extrapolates to a chance of just under 1 in 850 of a mistake being made. There are worse odds.


According to the music papers to which my teenage sons subscribe – or rather to which I subscribe on their behalf – the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is set to be altogether dwarfed by the 20th anniversary of the Mad- chester movement. The first Stone Roses LP has been grandly repackaged – the greatest album in the history of rock, if you believe The Guardian – and the air is thick with the reminiscences of those whose proud task it was to collect the Happy Mondays' methadone scrips from the chemist. Trying to work out why, even at the time, I never liked the idea of Madchester, I decided that the gap wasn't so much generational – after all, the Mondays' frontman Shaun Ryder must be in his late forties by now – as behavioural. No offence to anyone involved, but the movement's finest, as captured in Nick Kent's legendary New Musical Express interview with both bands as they prepared to play Top of the Pops, weren't exactly the most prepossessing pop ambassadors on the block.

A false distinction, of course, and Shaun Ryder's spaced-out tabloid-baiting no more invalidates his records than the second-best bed left by Shakespeare to his wife invalidates Hamlet. The real problem lay in the music, which, apart from a few token gestures (the republicanism, say, of the Stone Roses' "Elizabeth My Dear") was almost as forgettable as the Manc posturing, being nothing more than the usual hedonism of girls, drugs, and 24-hour party-peopling. Watching the NME channel with the children the other day I found myself trying to explain why the video of Pulp's "Common People" single from 1995 was superior to the three minutes of grinding orc-thrash that succeeded it. The Pulp track, I declared, had witty lyrics, a tune, and was actually about something, in this case class tourism. What followed was just sonic cliché. Then I realised what a boring middle-aged parent I was being, and subsided.


The latest shot in the campaign for increased food production has been fired by the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn. Taking his cue from a demand by the United Nations that the world must produce 70 per cent more by 2050 to prevent major shortages, Mr Benn has announced plans to encourage consumers to eat more food in season, as well as growing their own. The fascination of these proposals lies in the hint they offer – not always let slip by government ministers – of what the real (as opposed to the fake-technological) future might look like.

Like many teenagers in the late 1970s, I used to spend the period between 6.50 and 7.20pm on Thursdays yawning through a BBC1 programme called Tomorrow's World, merely because it preceded Top of the Pops. Oddly enough, hardly any of the raptly adumbrated inventions it went on about – gyrocopter fleets, telecommuting and all the rest of it – have come to pass. The UN's vision of the medium-term future, on the other hand, with the population increasing and the oil running out, seems at once a great deal more frugal and a great deal more convincing . Quite probably, in a hundred years' time we shall all be living in much smaller communities, growing most of what we eat and riding around on bicycles: reverting to a kind of quasi-feudalism, in other words, that wouldn't have seemed outlandish to William Morris.


No one would want to add to the considerable burden placed on the shoulders of that fine body of men and women, the Advertising Standards Authority, but you sometimes wonder if the injunction that adverts should be legal, decent, honest and truthful shouldn't be extended into more philosophical realms. In particular, there is a strong case for an outright prohibition of ads that peddle some immensely arguable statement with a vigour designed to seduce the impressionable viewer into believing that it happens to be true. This thought occurred to me while watching the new Samsung advert in which, over footage of excited young people rushing through hotel corridors and jumping half-dressed into swimming pools, a strident Scottish voice intones the words: "Impatience is a virtue." As a template for living, this is surely in the same debatable category as "Cigarettes make you live longer'' or "Stay thin – eat more lard" and ought to be treated as such. Festina lente, as we used to say at school. Hurry slowly.