Are phone-ins a valuable public service or a cheap way of filling broadcast time?

March 14, 2009

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Welcome to Breakfast on Five Live, bringing you discussion and debate on issues important to you

Hello, this is Nicky Campbell, and you are listening to the BBC’s breakfast show on BBC Five Live, on April 1st 2009

Today we will be discussing the importance of phone-in programmes like this one. Do they play a vital role in society, providing you with a voice to express your views? Or are they a cheap way of filling up broadcast time between news bulletins?

On recent programmes we have discussed such topics as banning chips from school dinners, has political correctness gone mad, and whether President Obama is wrong in backing stem cell research. Last week we looked at whether there is ever an excuse for torture. That was as ever hotly debated, and one caller said he would torture the living daylights out of anyone to get information to save the lives of his children. Strong words indeed.

Today we will be looking at the very important and fascinating question of whether we are serving you the listeners in our phone-in programmes. As well as taking your calls, we have with me in the studio Nick Ross, one of the great broadcasters of all time, and pioneer of the phone-in format for a decade, on Radio 4. Welcome Nick.

Thank you Nicky. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

It’s a pleasure to have you with us too, Nick. It’s a special pleasure for me, having taken over from you after the great pioneering work you did on Crime Watch on BBC 1. And also, of course, we owe much to what is now known in the trade as the Nick Ross question which came from the famous Call Nick Ross programme on BBC 4 in the 1990s.

That’s very kind of you Nicky. I remember getting the idea of the Nick Ross question. We were deciding the discussion topic of the day for the programme when I realised that any topic of public interest could be resolved into either-or format.

A beautiful insight indeed. And so influential to a younger generation of broadcasters listening in awe from regional stations around the country.

Indeed Nicky, and I must say you still look as if you yourself might be a member of that younger generation, although ..

[Hurriedly] ..Thank you for mentioning that, Nick. Working with the wonderful team around me, and being in contact with all our callers, as you well know, keeps you young. And regular exercise of course.

Of course.

Nick. Before we ask the viewers to make their valuable contributions, how do you see this important question? I think I know what you might be going to say.

Maybe, Nicky. That’s the beauty of a good Nick Ross question. Everyone knows there are two answers. For any caller you immediately know which answer you are going to get. But that doesn’t exclude the possibilities of nuance.

Careful Nick, this isn’t BBC 4. We don’t do nuance here. But that’s very interesting. You retain the richness of response from the public.

Thank you for that, Nicky. Yes You retain all the diversity, the warmth and honesty. And, of course, from time to time the unexpected mental leap of association.

Beautifully put. That leap, it’s Like a salmon leaping out of the smooth waters of a Scottish river.

But let’s apply the famous Nick Ross approach to phone-ins, yes even to this one. Where are you on phone-ins, Mr Ross. They are just a cheap way of filling air-time aren’t they? A way of keeping former jingle-writers like me in employment? And they are even easier to do now. A few minutes googling is all you need. Surely you believe it’s a con, and a misuse of licence payers’ money. Doesn’t it make your blood boil when you hear people taking the hypocritical patronizing opposite view.

Maybe …

Maybe? That’s the second time you’ve used that word in reply to a question. Surely, maybe can’t be an answer to a proper Nick Ross question? You won’t be hearing may maybes from our callers this morning, I can tell you.

But I must interrupt myself to tell you about an important news item just coming in. After that, it will be your turn to call me, Nick Campbell and our special guest Nicky Ross. Tell us what you think. Are phone-ins a valuable public service or a cheap way of filling broadcast time?


Fabio Capello gets a make-over

December 17, 2007

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Fabio Capello, The New Manager for England’s football team, has been appointed to one of toughest of leadership posts in sport. The mechanics of myth-making are illustrated in the first episodes of what will be a long-running drama

Within days of Fabio Capello’s appointment as England football manager, the myth-making machines were into full-scale production mode. Strictly speaking, they were mostly engaged in reworking the ideas from an earlier text.

The Build-up to Fabio’s appointment

The build-up to his appointment was itself conducted with considerable intensity, albeit with a few too many overtones of awaiting the puff of white smoke from the Vatican conclave which would announce the appointment of a new Pope.

We learned a lot about his unrivalled success as coach in the largest clubs in the world.

We learned of the credentials of his impressive back-room team he would bring with him

We could even see the poke-in goal administered by a youthful Capello against England at Wembley in 1973.

The established story

These initial accounts provided a consistent picture of the new manager:

Capello has guided teams to nine league championships in 16 years as a coach, although Juventus were stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles because of the club’s involvement in a match-fixing scandal …he was the mastermind behind one of the greatest ever club performances when his AC Milan team trounced Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final, but he will also arrive in England with a reputation as a fierce disciplinarian …Capello is not in football to make friends. He is interested only in success …Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon likened him to a dictator while he played under him at Juventus

The media, and fans appear mostly very positive, although with a minority vehemently holding to the view that ‘The England Coach needs to be English’.

The BBC as viewspaper?

A somewhat disturbing illustration of how news is fabricated can be found in the BBC treatment of the appointment. In the absence of a direct interview (for the moment), producing a news story requires a certain amount of creative effort. (Just why the story is needed so urgently seems to me a more complicated matter.)

Attempts to win an exclusive interview had stopped short at the gates of Capello’s Milanese villa. With some resourcefulness, the BBC finds one of their own expert commentators Marcel Desailly, and proceed to interview him (Sunday December)

I listened to the interview on the morning Sportsview programme. Desailly has a rapid-fire delivery, and delivers his observations with energy and emotion in fluent English. He makes it clear that he has enormous respect for Capello’s virtues as a coach.

This is hardly news. There follows that special kind of nurturing to ensure that story takes the required shape. In courtroom dramas, such actons are followed by the objection that counsel is leading the witness.

Desailly is pressed to work a little harder.. Doesn’t Capello have any weaknesses? Desailly obligingly tries to be of assistance. Maybe the new coach is not a good listener.

Hm, that’s not much of a story either, I thought. I wondered if ‘not listening’ meant not receiving the message, or not taking the views of others into account.

I was very shortly more than a bit surprised at the speed with which the replication process was taking place. The leading sports item in the next BBC news bulletin, a few minutes after the interview, was the self-same ‘story’, presented as a kind of mini-exclusive: Capello will have trouble communicating. He is a bad listener.

This was later was incorporated into the BBC webpage account of Capello’s appointment.

Former France defender Marcel Desailly, who played under Capello during both of the Italian’s spells in charge of AC Milan, believes language difficulties might not be the 61-year-old’s only barrier in the England set-up. “You can’t really communicate with him,” Desailly told Sportsweek. “When you are talking about tactics or other players he doesn’t really listen but he’s a wonderful man and loves to travel and discover new countries …”He’s not very open about football, but most of the time his ideas are the correct ones.”

This is not news

I have several problems with the ‘story’. It is not news. The widely-received story of Capello is that he does not suffer stupidity, including stupid questions from the press. He has been known to ignore such questions (‘not listen’?). He may even walk out, ending such sessions prematurely.

Another problem I have with the story is that the sense placed on Desailly’s comments is different when taken out of context, as it has been.

My third problem is that the story has been fabricated rather obviously, with the BBC interviewing one of its own, (that’s OK) and then presented the results in a dodgy way and claiming them as an exclusive. (not OK). That’s how news stories are fabricated and replicated.

The process followed the pattern at the BBC in the stories involving Robert Peston and Northern Rock, which we reported on in an earlier post.

BBC financial expert Robert Peston has an inside track into City chatter. He reports the chatter. Usually with insight and authority. Then the BBC takes its own exclusive story, from its own employee, and makes another story out of it. In the role as celebrity, Peston is now presented as making news rather than reporting on it.

This sounds to me rather like The Independent’s stance as ‘a viewspaper not a newspaper’. Maybe that’s what the BBC is also in danger of becoming.


The date of the general election is fixed beyond doubt

October 4, 2007

The date of the next general election in the United Kingdom will be announced imminently. This is a belief now fixed beyond doubt in the mind of politicians and political commentators, who even believe that the day will be either the first or second Thursday of November 2007

As the Conservative Party Conference drew to a close, uncertainty over the next general election was virtually over. Professional gambling firms placed November as odd-on favourite. Commentators also shifted from ‘likely’ to ‘probable’. In the conference hall it was clear that the party activists had reached a curious and heightened state of excitement.

The story changes

At the start of the Conference season, a few weeks ago, there was little talk of a general election. Interest was mainly on whether poor old Ming Campbell was going to survive, (he did), and whether an heir apparent could be identified (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne).

Then at the Labour party conference, the story was at first whether wooden Gordon would survive comparison with charismatic David. This notion was weakened as various opinion polls suggested that Gordon was increasingly rated as more capable in a crisis than David. At this point my own perception began to diverge from that of the emerging story, that that the new Prime Minister was preparing for a snap General Election.

What had Gordon Brown said to have left this impression? Not for the first time, I found myself reminded of the phenomena impression management and sense making. A story was developing to help those involved deal with their deeper psychological needs.

Lack of trust helps create a story

Taken out of context, Gordon Brown’s speech could be observed as a politician doing what politicians do, presenting himself and his party as favourably as possible. The reactions of the political observers and activists was quite different. Elsewhere I have written of how fear and suspicion can turn into conviction that something very bad is about to happen. The threat has become psychologically potent.

Coverage of the election by Press and Electronic media become more frenzied. To such an extent, that not saying there was not going to be an election was taken as evidence there would be one (hope you get my drift). The news becomes “Gordon Brown hasn’t ruled an election out” Or, “He hasn’t made up his mind but is thinking had about it”.

Then every statement and action of anyone offering a view is interpreted in these terms. The conference speech is demonstrated to be one designed to kick off an election campaign. For example, Gordon hardly mentioned the conservatives (or the other political parties). That’s blatant electioneering, pretending to be above such knockabout matters. He hardly mentioned Iraq. Later the conservatives quoted the puny number of words devoted to Iraq in the speech. So there, the point is scientifically buttressed.

More straws in the wind
Then, more straws in the wind. The Prime Minister’s diary is being rejigged. That clears the way for a General Election. Even if he doesn’t decide to go to the country in November, all these actions are about outmanoeuvring the conservatives, those bastards to be ground into the dust, in the typically restrained and considered words of Lord Kinnock, at a fringe meeting this week.

Why this all seems a bit hysterical

I just don’t get it. The views of political commentators have converged on the significance of a general election. Gordon Brown could have stopped such speculation if he had wanted to. Perhaps. If he could. If he had to. But not just because he could. Now, the media argue, if he decides not to hold an election, it will demonstrate he has bottled it.

The sort of mood around at present seems to me to be that of ritualized posturing that conceals nervousness. I’m reminded of herd behaviour. The combined galloping herd of media and political hacks are galloping about, instinctively sticking close together in a state of panic, seemingly unaware that ‘it’s not the election, stupid’.

If the Prime Minister now avoids an election he’s timid. Afraid he won’t win. If he does, it’s because he’s afraid that the economy will be in a worse state in a year or two. At least, that’s the analysis of former Chancellor Ken Clarke, remembering Clinton’s motto always that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

In the disdainful words of Margaret Thatcher many years ago, he’s frit. Challenged that she might ‘cut and run’ she responded to questions by Michael Foot and some barracking by Dennis Healy.

The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Could not take it? Cannot stand it? If I were going to cut and run, I should have gone after the Falklands [when her political standing was at the highest it would ever be].

A political insight

Listening carefully to insiders interviewing insiders, I arrived at a political insight. The view heard, and the herd view is a genuine belief that Gordon Brown’s actions are all part of carefully prepared plan to gain short-term electoral advantage to reinforce the decision to call an election.

During the conference, we learn that Mr Brown is going to Iraq. More electioneering. On the brief visit he announces a troop reduction. Even more electioneering. Could his words be shown to be a form of stealth electioneering, this time taxing credulity?

The anger expressed by two former Conservative leaders, John Major and Ian Duncan Smith in interviews was intense and utterly convincing.

What David did next

David Cameron made a speech that was billed as significant for the very future of the conservative party. I will reconstruct my notes for a further blog. The test was now whether David’s assured style could prevail against Gordon’s weighty woodenness.

Suffice to say that the speech was reported as impressive in style. I take the BBC view, as that venerated agency still attempts to provide a balanced view of the political scene.

It was also a performance that fired up the party faithful.

He spoke without notes … warning the audience that it might be a bit “messy”. It wasn’t. It was a highly polished performance – and a lot more measured, serious and policy-heavy than we are used to from Mr Cameron. He once again tried to cast himself as the voice of optimism and sincerity – compared with the “cynical” Gordon Brown, who was trapped in the “old politics”.
Mr Cameron ended with a challenge to Gordon Brown to call an election.
Come on Gordon, make my day.
But it was exactly what the party faithful wanted to hear. He told them to “get out and fight” for the changes they want to make and they cheered him to the rafters.

Fear and threat had temporarily been abolished in the hall.


Paxman Patronized by Politician. Man bites dog?

September 26, 2007

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Foreign Secretary David Miliband is accused by BBC’s Jeremy Paxman of showing him insufficient respect. We ask whether such bullying behaviour is acceptable, and whether Gordon Brown should immediate relieve Milband of all formal duties, pending a full enquiry into the matter

Late last night, I witnessed an unprecedented and unprovoked verbal attack on a BBC employee. It took place in a near-deserted conference hall at Bournemouth. The aggressor was the young and newly-appointed Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. His victim was the aging public servant Jeremy Paxman, who has suffered similar attacks down the years, while carrying out his duties as a distinguished political interviewer. It was typical that Paxman was disgracefully portrayed as a gruesome and sneering figure in the infamous Spitting Image show.

Mr Paxman was at a grave disadvantage during the exchange. He had courageously left the relatively secure location on the Newsnight studio, and entered a dangerously open space for the interview.

The aggressive young politician, clearly looking for trouble, had taken up an arrogant and insouciant posture, on a plastic chair. His interviewer, handicapped by the various bits of equipment required for him to carry out his duties, had been placed in a relatively servile position. This would have been evident to any observer of Celebrity Big Brother body language.

At one stage, Miliband’s distainful manner got through to his innocent victim. ‘Don’t patronize me’, Mr Paxman cried in despair. But his plea for mercy was too late. Quite clearly, he had been bullied into submission.

Later in the interview he could be seen staring into space. Maybe, in his prime, his posture could be interpreted as part of a well-known strategy to unsettle an arrogant interviewee. But that was then. Yesterday it looked more as if there was not a lot going on between those glazed eyes. The brutal attack on him had scored a technical knockout. Outrageous. In future, will Jeremy be able to operate in quite the same much-admired fashion that had earned him such celebrity status?

Perhaps Mr Miliband was still over-adrenalized from the heady experience of making his speech to Conference. Clearly he was spoiling for a fight. [How far away, I thought, from the graceful and courteous way that Douglas Hurd would fulfil his duties as Foreign Secretary, in the long-gone days of Margaret Thatcher’s governance. However robustly he would be pressed on behalf of the people, Mr Hurd always respected the fact that the interviewer was only doing his or her duty].

How different, I further mused, from the graceful exchange between Mr Paxman in his younger days, when taking on the guileful Home Secretary Michael Howard. The polite and insistent repetition of the same question by Mr Paxman. The polite refusal to answer it by Mr Howard. The basic move repeated in a seemingly unending exchange. But that was also a long time ago.

We are living in times when politicians may even see political advantage in dissing public servants.

An apology is called for

This is of some interest to readers of this blog. I like to think of us as a community concerned about leadership behaviours. I suggest that the cruel behaviour of Mr Miliband requires a firm leadership response.

In the interests of the nation, Mr Brown should insist that Mr Miliband should apologize to Mr Paxman and the BBC and promise to reform his ways and treat much-loved national icons with appropriate respect.

More, I call for a public enquiry to see whether our much-loved national icons require additional protection against violent behaviours of interviewees.

Something must be done before careers come to a premature end. Foreign Secretaries come and go. But there’s only one Jeremy Paxman. Surely he can be permitted to continue in the sunset years of his career, without vicious bullying from the supporting cast of actors?


With friend like these …Gordon and the Unions

September 8, 2007

welsh-battle.jpg The new Prime Minister faces the annual conference season. It will be a testing time for Gordon Brown during which we may learn a little more of his longer-term plans and short-term tactics related to industrial relations

This week, Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union, brought his transport members out on a lightening strike, to the inconvenience of London’s commuters, and the fury of London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone.

‘Nobody loves us we don’t care’

I was reminded of Millwall’s football chant when I read that Bob Crow was a Millwall fan. According to a reliable source, the song can be read as postmodern irony associated with the defiance of Bermondsey’s dockland’s culture towards its detractors.

The song was a reaction to what the Millwall fans perceived to be sustained, exaggerated and unfair criticism of their behaviour by the press and the stereotypical image of all Millwall fans as hooligans, perpetuated by certain sections of the media in general.

I have heard it remarked that at Girton College before male students were admitted, the gals also had been known to chorus the Millwall anthem. Perhaps that was another postmodern gesture, indicating distain for the behaviors displayed towards Girton’s students by Oxford’s chauvinistic males.

But to return to our main story … This week, Bob’s actions brought his members out on strike, and dragged London Mayor Ken Livingstone into the dispute with a few far-from-brotherly remarks.

As the BBC put it

For Ken Livingstone, its decision was unfathomable.
“This must be the first time in history of a union going on strike when everyone has acceded to their demands,” he said.
Mr Livingstone added that he could not “explain the mindset” of the RMT

Bob Crow

To his many critics, Bob Crow is an unwanted throwback to the

worst excesses of 1970s union militancy… To his supporters, however, the 46-year-old leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union is simply a resolute defender of workers’ rights.

RMT members may hold Mr Crow in great esteem, but he is certainly not liked by the Labour government, which has historically branded him “a wrecker” … Back in 2004 his hostility to the Labour came to a head when the RMT broke its ties with the party – a link which dated back to 1899 – following a row over the RMT’s decision to allow local branches to affiliate with other parties.

Bob and the Treaty

Mr Crow has also been in the headlines for his support to the movement calling for a referendum over the new EU treaty. We have commented on this in an earlier post, as had The BBC

The RMT’s motion asks the TUC to campaign for a “no” vote, if a referendum is held on whether to adopt the treaty. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, told the BBC: “They [the government] went to the British people on the promise there would be a referendum … What we want him [Gordon Brown] to do is implement what his manifesto was.”

What’s going on?

The reported stories indicate that the RMT union is embroiled in an industrial dispute. Also it is becoming involved in the wider debate on Britain’s role in the EU. It joins a rainbow alliance ranged against the Government in calling for a referendum.

Without more information we have to speculate on whether the two stories are interconnected. The imminence of the so-called (political) conference season suggests they are.

Whatever the intentions of Mr. Crow, the intentions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron are clear. Both are seeking to hold on to their territory on Middle-earth, and perhaps expand it. But to do this, Mr. Brown was to reassure the inhabitants of Middle- earth that he is in no way in thrall to the dark forces, particularly those of the left. Mr. Cameron is also having to calm concerns that he is abandoning his allies from the right.

With these considerations in mind, neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Cameron wants to be too friendly to Mr. Crow.

So that old refrain may well be rather apt. Nobody loves me and I don’t care, and I can be very difficult when I get upset.

Outcome. Skirmishes. Casualties mainly to the front-line troops caught up in a rather complicated set of political moves. Troops watch on sympathetically from the ranks of the Post Office workers. They are caught in a similar difficult position to defend.

Acknowlegement

Image is from Google, citing Ben Becker’s armies of painted warriors as a representation of a battle beween the Celts and the Romans.


Skunk control and the Clinton puff

July 27, 2007

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Governments want to solve the problems of drug abuse. But programs of drug education are sadly ineffective. This suggests that politicians need to change if they are to escape the suspicion that they are untrustworthy spinners of tales in the interests of personal agendas

The overall thrust of this post is how the public is influenced by thought leaders, particularly in the context of issues of public health such as the dangers of vaccination and of drug-taking. The post opens up several issues which will have to be developed in subsequent posts.

A specific incident triggered this note.

My story begins with an exchange of views between a BBC broadcaster and someone calling in to a morning chat show. The phone-in was on BBC Radio Five live. The format is very much customized by long-established practice, and tends to invite text, emails or calls from listeners. Issues are picked up mostly from the popular issues of the day, with a steer from the early morning news media. The approach has never been accused as a dodgy means of cash from callers. The interviewer generally plies his trade in a bright and intelligent fashion.

The selected issue on the morning of Wednesday 25th July 2007 was that of drugs, drug dependency, and the impact of government initiatives. The interviewer permitted himself to be hooked into a pub-level exchange of views about the validity of the scientific evidence over the dangers of cannabis.

‘There’s no evidence’ asserted the caller.
‘There’s lots of scientific studies’, replied the BBC moderator.
‘Not proper, thorough ones’.
‘Yes, I’ve got the information front of me … [reads from his video feed]. …The evidence is endorsed by the British Medical Association…’.
‘That’s not proof, that’s propaganda’.

Interviewer now intent on winning this one, calls up yet more evidence on to his screen.

‘Alright. There’s another example from New Zealand. A longitudinal study with a thousand subjects shows that cannabis use led to more mental illnesses and hospitalization’.
‘A thousand people! That’s nothing. What sort of sample is that? I’d be laughed down by those medical experts if I said Cannabis was safe on evidence from just a thousand people’.

At which point, the interviewer ended the discussion, politely thanking the caller for sharing this point of view.

Monty Python and what the Romans ever did for us

The debate reminded me of a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, about what the Romans had ever done for the ancient Britains. In the film, each counter-example of what the Romans did (aqueducts, roads, central heating, and so on) was grudgingly granted as one little example insufficient to win the argument.

Today, the claims of the New Zealand study were similarly brushed aside.

Does this matter a Clinton’s non-inhaled puff?

I rather think it does. There is a need to improve public awareness of medical findings. A current debate is emerging around the dangers of cannabis use. A recent example with adverse consequences to public health was tragically demonstrated during the MMR vaccine case, where public opinion was violently polarized. For a while, there were two views, each supported by influence figures or thought leaders. Eventually, the evidence overwhelmingly lined up behind the view endorsed by the British Medical Council. The vaccine was safe. Its use did not have the side effects that were concerning parents, and leading them to hold back on vaccinating their children.

But a proportion of parents remained in denial about the trustworthiness of the conclusions reached by the medical authorities. The popular view had been shaped by thought leaders who had aired plausible arguments which fed through into public assertions on web sites and in workplaces. When the topic was aired on chat shows, politicians seemed unable to counter views rejecting the credibility of the authority of the conclusions of the British Medical Council.

My depressing conclusion is that the political figures had an inadequate grasp of how medical research works. Also, I’m not sure the BBC mediators could elevate the level of discussion, even if they abandon their commitment to promoting ‘unbiased’ debate.

In other words, a few thought leaders with dubious arguments retain credibility, because of a lack of general education of others who might have been figures of influence.

Ttis may be a bit much to ask of primarily commercial broadcasters. But the BBC holds to its mission to entertain, but also to educate and inform.

What might help in such discussions?

A greater awareness of medical methodology is needed among politicians. Researchers worry a great deal about the appropriate design of an investigation. They know otherwise they will not be able to draw conclusions with any confidence. They also know that every research proposal will be scrutinized carefully. If the work goes ahead, the results will be even more carefully examined by other researchers (peer-review).

Sample size does matter. But the general public could be quickly introduced to a few principles or guidelines. How studies often only show association of a few factors, not causal links. Why some kinds of study require a few hundred individuals while others need far fewer.

A thousand people included in the New Zealand trial makes it quite a major one. Its longitudinal nature made it possible to consider causation, not just connection or association.

My point is that these ideas are not difficult to introduce into more widespread currency. That we all become less vulnerable to uninformed opinions taking hold. We accept the thought leaders after a more informed reflection of their arguments.

What’s this got to do with the Clinton line on drugs?

Bill Clinton serves as an excellent example of how some thought leaders operate. Audiences believed him, and went on believing him, even as evidence began to pile up to the contrary. In England, Tony Blair was having pretty much the same effect on his audiences. Their charisma worked its influence through a rare combination of charm and eloquence. Their most powerful weapons for attaining political leadership were their thoughts, their speech acts.

Clinton could find ways of explaining how he didn’t really smoke cannabis or how he didn’t have really have sex with that woman. And so on. Tony Blair convinced voters that old labour had been replaced by new labour which could be trusted by all sectors of the community. David Cameron is engaged in a similar exercise in thought leadership at present as h struggles to change the conservative party.

There is still much work to be done on the fascinating topic of thought leadership. I suppose I’m arguing for the benefits of efforts that educate people to become more are capable of assessing ideas on grounds that go beyond the skills of gurus, and charismatic thought leaders.

A note on thought leaders

I have indicated some doubts about the current state of knowledge of thought leadership. This has not prevented the enthusiastic espousal of the term by various management consulting organizations. But even Wikipedia is a bit sniffy, describing thought leadership as:

a buzzword or article of jargon used to describe a futurist or person who is recognized among peer mentors for innovative ideas and who demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights

The authors of Dilemmas of Leadership are also suspicious, although they suggest that the term may be theorized by connecting it to social identity theory, which would help understand the features attributed to thought leaders.

Where is this taking us?

Arguably there are several stories jostling to emerge here. One suggestion is how public education into issues such as medication and drug abuse will require a different kind of thought leadership. Another is the dependency which is associated with exposure to that other kind of dangerous drug, the words peddled to us by charismatic thought leaders.


Tevez Transfer Stalemate: A Lesson in Sporting Leadership?

July 19, 2007

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Attempts by Manchester United Football Club to sign Argentina’s Carlos Tevez have been described as in a stalemate. Did complicated legal issues make this inevitable? Or in hindsight, might more creative leadership actions have avoided this impasse? And if so, by whom?

This has not been the happiest week in the footballing life of Carlos Tevez. A week ago he was a leading member of the Argentinian team favored to win the prestigious Copa America competition. In addition, Manchester United Football Club had announced that a transfer deal of the star from West Ham United was all but complete.

Over the weekend, Brazil recaptured enough of their brilliant skills in the final to sweep aside bitter rivals Argentina. Tevez headed for Europe, final destination Manchester, for a pre-transfer medical check-up with the club of his dreams. Personal terms had been agreed with his agent.

No so fast, Senor

Even as he was completing the last leg of the flight, the story took on a new turn. There had been delays in sorting out the contract, and now last-minute talks between West Ham and MUFC had broken down. Tevez arrived in Manchester, but he had not been granted permission by West Ham to put himself forward for a medical examination.

What’s going on?

English football fans were familiar to the background of a rather complicated story. I will try to capture the various inter-related threads, from the various press reports.

Where does a story start? We have to go back at least as far as the time that West Ham became involved in a very unusual transfer deal involving two Argentine footballers, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

The deal in Auguest 2006 was unusual because unlike other contracts agreed through the FA and The Premier league, the players were still, in some unrevealed way, not fully contracted as West Ham players at the outset of the deal. The arrangement was not with their former club (Corinthians) but with an agant, Kai Joorabchian on behalf of a shadowy background organization Media Sports Investments (MSI).

According to BBC reports

MSI were headed until June by Kia Joorabchian, who resigned but retained an investment in the two Argentines. MSI were linked with a takeover of West Ham last season but eventually pulled out.

While the contract was unusual, there have been other abnormal contractual arrangements permitting players to move on loan to and between Premier League clubs, with small-print not made public. The Premier League and The Football Association accepted reassurances from West Ham that satisfied them enough to sanction the arrangement. This was later to become one of the contested areas in the matter.

At the time of the contract, West Ham appeared to be struggling to survive in The Premiership. Financial limitations prevented them investing in top-flight players. Within considerable turmoil on and off the pitch, performances remained bad.

Enter The Egg

It was with some sense of relief that the club passed to new ownership with deeper pockets. The new owner quickly caught the public imagination. Eggert Magnusson (The Egg) is a wealthy Icelandic businessman who had already been involved in football as President of the Football Association of Iceland
His somewhat quirky appearance and enthusiasm and commitment to West Ham seemed to silence even the more extreme xenophobic reactions from the Alf Garnet faction still active among the club’s supporters.

West Ham’s problems persist

The club’s fortunes continued to decline until demotion was almost inevitable. Tevez had failed to live up to the reputation mainly earned through his World Cup performances. Magnússon sacked manager Alan Pardew in December 2006 replacing him with Alan Curbishley. The question of Tevez’ contractual position was again raised. A lengthy enquiry began.

The great escape

Then a great escape occurred. Tevez began to score match-winning goals. West Ham began a remarkable winning streak. Survival was still a possibility. Eggert had a contagious belief in his new players.

But other clubs facing relegation began to speak out against the arrangements that had brought Tevez to West Ham. Legal action was threatened. Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock, anticipating a close finish, was particularly vociferous, arguing that West Ham should be punished by losing points. This would help Sheffield United but effectively condemn West Ham to demotion.

An independent enquiry found that the club had initially been technically wrong in their contractual arrangement. The punishment was a fine, but no point deductions. During this period, one concern regarding the outcome of a future transfer of Tevez. The club claimed to have ‘ripped up’ an agreement [presumed to be Joorabchian and partners]. This was seen as protecting West Ham from the charge that future transfers might also be unconventional and taken as possible evidence of the club’s further illegal arrangements with Tevez’ agents.

In a gripping climax to the season, other struggling clubs (including Sheffield United) stumbled. West Ham avoided relegation when they won the last game of the season against Manchester United who had already won the League. Desperation triumphed over classy complacency. Tevez impressed enormously and scored a fine goal.

The legal challenges to West Ham petered out.

Manchester United bid for Tevez

The close season in the English Premier league is also a transfer window (the other window is in January). After their League triumph, MUFC revealed their recruitment plans for the new season. Unlike West Ham, they were able to compete for the best players.

Apparently, Tevez is a player whom Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had admired for some while. His admiration must have been reinforced by the performance of Tevez in the last game of the season.

In a recent press conference, AF announced that a deal to secure Tevez was nearly complete, subject to some details to be agreed with the League. He sounded confident, revealing that the final details would be sorted out by Club lawyer and former director Maurice Watkins. He added that Club Chairman David Gill had been working on the matter for a while, but he and Gill were shortly leaving with the squad on a pre-season tour in Asia.

Confidence at Old Trafford in clinching the deal began to drain away, after an emphatic statement from West Ham to the effect that they still held the rights to the player, and that he was not up for transfer.

From Japan, David Dill announces that FIFA has been called in to ‘expedite a resolution’ of a dispute between player and West Ham, and that he expects the resolution to find ‘in favor of the player’. He still expects Carlos Tevez to be playing for MUFC at the start of the new season.

Leadership lessons

The stalemate metaphor is only of limited application. Stalemate in chess occurs when the player to move has no legal move available. This is invariably the player who would otherwise lose. The stalemate is the result of a previous careless move from the player who was in the stronger position. In this case, it seems as if MUFC had the stronger position, but West Ham had been able to avoid accepting defeat. MUFC has to set up arrangements for another more conclusive battle.

In fact, you can see how chess metaphor as a source of strategy insights can be taken a bit further. The MU leadership may have taken for granted that their position was so strong as to require no deep risk analysis. This is suggested by the way that David Gill had delegated the case to solicitor Maurice Watkins, while Magnus Magnusson remained very much on the case at West Ham.

One of the special features of the business is the potential for blame to be attached to various parties, including the Premier league. The blame may have serious financial and legal consequences.

These were the ‘events’ that turned the matter of completing a football transfer into a complex problem.

Don’t hold your breath on this one…

Update

There were a few more twists and turns. Eventually a contract was signed and Tevez joined MUFC on loan for two years. On loan from whom? Not West Ham, although the club received a payment from the Joorabchian camp in a deal which confirmed it was not West Ham.


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