BBC Radio Four. Champion of cool rationality

May 8, 2014

While other media succumb to cheesiness, Radio Four remains a bastion of rationality

Yesterday, I combined business with pleasure, listening to Radio Four, driving to the metropolis of downtown Bramhall for early morning coffee, and thinking about a rewrite to a chapter in a textbook on leadership and rationality.

Radio Four remains a bastion for cool unemotional broadcasting. Even the most dreadful event is communicated with the minimum of fuss from Radio Four World.

If I want cheesiness…

If I want cheesiness, Radio Five is a button away. Radio Five World has cornered the market in the sort of personal hardship stories which are banned from Radio Four.

Back on Four, I hear the reassuringly rational tones of a national treasure who has been broadcasting for many a decade. She is in conversation with someone from the Empire. Sorry, I mean The Commonwealth.

Her guest is a creative artist whose work involves the indigenous culture of New Zealand. Talk turns to the expression of Maori culture through rugby, and its ferocious team performance of the Hakka before matches.

“And this Hakka. What’s it all about?”

“It’s a kind of war dance.”

“War dance!?” [Rationality alert.]

“The chanting and rhythmic stamping of feet bond the players into a team”

“Ah. That all seems very rational.” [ A relieved interviewer is audibly more relaxed.] The conversation was not drifting beyond the boundaries of the Dominant Rational Model.

Meanwhile, on Radio Five

I switch to Radio Five Live. An empathic interviewer is sharing the distress of a mother whose child is being bullied by Face-Book Trolls.


Roger Bannister and Guto Nyth Brân

April 27, 2014

The distinguished historian Mary Beard celebrated the breaking of the four minute mile barrier by Roger Bannister, sixty years ago

The race took place on the 6th May 1954. Writing how times have changed, Beard gently points to the social message in the mythologised race:

For the few months before the big event he practised at weekends too with Brasher and Chataway, and took advice from Brasher’s coach – often over baked beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. As for his equipment, just the day before the race he was found sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the lab.

So-called “effortless superiority” is rarely as “effortless” as it pretends to be. It wasn’t all do-it-yourself preparation on the lab grindstone. [Bannister] himself explains that he had some super-light running shoes specially made (4oz rather than 6oz per shoe – enough, he reckoned, to make all the difference between coming in under four minutes and not).

But the most disconcerting side of the Iffley Road race is its glaring display of class division. Sport is well known to reflect, or to reinforce, social, cultural and political hierarchies. The mile event was part of a bigger competition between Oxford University and the national Amateur Athletics Association. Although we only ever see photographs of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway.

Tom Hulatt, from a local athletics club in Derbyshire finished third behind Chataway. Hulatt worked in the local colliery near Tibshelf, and had a rat-catching business on the side. His training was largely running the five miles to and from work. Afterwards, the Oxford students presumably went back to their colleges, the Bannister trio went celebrating and clubbing in London, Hulatt got his programme signed by Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and took the train back to Derbyshire. I doubt that, outside his home village, Hulatt who died in 1990, will be a big part in our commemoration of the mile-record of 1954. Rightly, perhaps, the moment will belong to Bannister.

Counter claims from North Korea …

A charming piece with a gentle social message. But I await the claims from North Korea for the achievements of their great champion and leader which have not been reported in the Western media.

…and from South Wales

Mention should also be made of the folk hero Guto Nyth Brân from my own little village in South Wales, where Guto’s feats have become famous in poetry and song. Every New Year’s eve, a race is run in his honour.

Guto was a man of the people who was said could run seven miles, from his farm in the hills to Pontypridd and back, before his mother’s kettle had boiled.

Difficult to translate into modern time-keeping and tea-making technologies and race distances of course.


Sherlock Holmes series on BBC TV illustrates charismatic infatuation

January 26, 2014

The recent Sherlock Holmes series on BBC Television was launched in a sustained and skillful blaze of publicity. Its impact suggests an explanation of charismatic influence

The advertising hype created a teaser over the apparent death of Sherlock at the end of the first series two years earlier. The character in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories survived a fall. The viewers were now invited to explain the survival of the Sherlock as played by Benedict Cumberbatch

The Holmes Watson relationship

Two themes dominated the first of the three episodes. The first was How did Sherlock survive the fall from a high building? The second was the intense homoerotic nature of the Holmes Watson relationship.

The Marmite factor

The reaction of viewers to all episodes was intense. The reviews released a quite astonishing emotional outpouring of replies. Fans demonstrated the so called Marmite effect [you love it or loath it, with little cool or rational reactions displayed] Nearly a thousand comments appeared hours after the Guardian review.

For the first two episodes reviewers tended to be rather lukewarm towards the production, acknowledging outstanding elements of acting and plot but rather unsatisfactory coherence and more than a whiff of smug self-indulgence. The third was widely regarded as by far the most dramatic and compelling to watch.

The infatuation effect

As evidenced by the thousand comments [of the first two and more unsatisfactory episodes for the critics], a sizable proportion of fans were infatuated by the mega-star of the series, Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch. For this group, the overwhelming emotion was unconditional expressions of love, coupled with anger at those who expressed any signs of disappointment in the production.

Is this a clue to the nature of charismatic leadership?

Possibly. At least there is a suggestion of a line of research into followership and charisma. The vulnerability induced in followers by the charismatic leader could be studied through investigation of the concept of celebrity infatuation.


BBC SPOTY: Pretentious, sentimental, compulsive viewing

December 16, 2013

The BBC is extremely proud of its Sports Personality of the Year programme [SPOTY]. It combines much that is admirable and more than a little that is embarrassing and self indulgent

You know when a program has achieved cult status when the BBC gives it a cozy acronym or an abbreviated pet name. ‘Strictly’ [Come Dancing] and MOTD [Match of the day] are examples. SPOTY is another.

SPOTY bigged up

Each autumn, SPOTY is tirelessly and shamelessly bigged up by the BBC for several months. It has grown lengthier and more pretentious, decade by decade, for sixty years. It is tempting to have a rant about wasted money of license payers who are also hard working tax payers.By way of contrast MOTD at least remains cozy and relatively low budget and rather unchanged despite the intrusion of new technology, and countless replays of controversial refereeing decisions.

No vote fixing this year

So, SPOTY for 2013 came and went [December 15th, 2013]. One theme this year was avoiding any scandal of vote fixing. The concern was palpable and great effort went into the changes. This partly because of the rise of the mighty on-line betting industry, partly because the BBC is nearly paranoid about SOTY [scandal of the year]. Evidence abounded of potential SOTY bloopers. For example, the extra care to acknowledge disabled sporting figures, since the time they forgot to make suitable arrangements for athletes in wheelchairs, a few years ago.

Don’t forget the gals

Two women were added to the ten finalists after a twitch in the direction of a SOTY story earlier in the year. In a nice touch, John Inverdale, an appropriately cozy and lovey commentator, was banished from the show after inappropriate remarks he made last July about Wimbledon ladies winner Marion Bartoli. And all was made fine by having Marion announce one of the prizes, and having Marina Navratilova hand over the big one to Andy Murray, who, you may remember, won the gentleman’s singles at that same tennis tournament.

And the winner is …Andy Murray

The bookies had made Andy Murray overwhelming favourite. This could have also been the stuff of SOTY because Andy wasn’t present. In the build up to the SPOTY, there was some quite anxious discussion about whether Andy should be banned from receiving any award, because he had chosen to remain in Miami training and recovering from surgery.

PAOTY

Which brings me to PAOTY, the newly installed patronizing award of the year. The winning award was to a nice couple of ‘unsung heroes’ from Wilmslow, who had done much needed work to promote basketball in that neck of the woods. The interview seemed to have had the virtue of being completely unprompted and unrehearsed. A true contender for PAOTY.

Why didn’t I switch off?

OK. So the programme was pretentious, sentimental, and bling-heavy. Why didn’t I switch off? Why was the trusty remote not put to use? I don’t think it was only because of the promise of material for LWD. Truth is, SPOTY, despite all its other features, makes compelling watching. Like a cozy horror movie.


Ann Widdecombe’s ‘Are you having a laugh?’

March 28, 2013

Ann WiddecombeTV Review: BBC1 Wednesday March 27 2013

Last night I watched a rather sad late-night programme fronted by Ann Widdecombe. Her focus was the hurt caused to Christians by assorted humorous treatments of religious themes. The humorists she interviewed argued they were mocking not Christianity but attitudes of Christians

Background

Ann Widdecombe has celebrity status in the UK, for her uncompromising views on matters political, social, and religious. Following a career in politics she moved into the world of media and journalism. Her visibility is enhanced in a culture which delights in unself-conscious eccentricity. Her views are mostly of a socially conservative kind which she is prepared to back up by taking a moral position, at one stage refusing higher office during her time as a junior Government minister which would have required her to work against her beliefs.

A regiment of mockers

In the programme ‘Are you having a laugh: Humour and Christianity’ She offered an unshakable position, setting out to confirm it under the guise of rational discourse. Anger at the mockery naturally led her to name, shame, and confront a regiment of mockers ranging from the Monty Python team, Ricky Gervase, stand-up comedians as a tribe, and a few producers of other assorted media programmes.

Feel my pain

Her pain, induced by what she sees as the mocking of her beliefs, seemed genuine enough for some of her interviewees to show empathy, not a quality particularly manifest by the interviewer. I found my own sympathy diminishing she moved from the [in]famous crucifixion scene ending of the Life of Brian film to other less cogent examples of blasphemy through mockery.

Dangerous Territory

There was one point made about fundamentalist evangelical Christians in America, which fitted in with the general narrative, and yet was different. For once, Widdecombe’s views were not expressed with clarity. She seemed to be sensing dangerous territory to be skirted. Or maybe she felt that however egregious were the actions of these leaders, the basic point did not really fit into the theme of blasphemous mockery.

The arrogance of the mockers

The examples seemed to be located along a wide spectrum of any mock scale. Collectively they capture the libertarian component in British culture rather well. The perpetrators, one confessed to the confronting Widdecombe, are often prone to arrogance and a belief in the superiority of their views. Ms W, who presents herself as rather similar to another Conservative, Margaret Thatcher, in her grasp of irony, found only pleasure in the repentance of the wrong-doer.

So long as it doesn’t offend…

I detected an inauthentic note in her conclusion that ‘we’, (presumably Christians), should be more robust about such humour,’as long as it doesn’t mock ‘our’ beliefs.’ Quite so.

It was then I turned

I watched the programme feeling that I really should go to bed, or turn over to anything else that might provide me with less disappointing viewing. Eventually, I turned to my trusty non-religious tablet, and began writing…


The Woolworth’s choir: Tragedy as art remembered

December 4, 2012

Woolworth's fireThe 2012 Turner Prize was won by Elizabeth Price for a 20 minute video which transforms tragedy to art and back again. It even defies the conventions of Artspeak

Elizabeth Price, the winner of the Turner Prize [December 3rd, 2012] was considered an outsider. As is often the case, her creative work of art is now ‘obviously’ great . It has been discovered in a kind of Emperor’s new clothes moment of cultural insight.

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 refers to a fire that resulted in ten fatalities in a Woolworth’s Store in central Manchester. [The site is by coincidence close to that of the IRA bomb explosion which wrecked Manchester's sity centre many years later]. The work was part of a solo exhibition by Price at the Baltic in Gateshead.

The artist’s style was described by the Telegraph:

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 [is] a 20-minute film that begins with drawings of Gothic architecture and ends with footage of a Manchester department store fire in which 10 people died. The judges praised “the seductive and immersive qualities of Price’s video installations, which reflected the ambition that has characterised her work in recent years”.

Artspeak

The subject matter was of personal interest. It helped me recall the fire and the dreadful lack of fire-proofing of the furnishings. So I started reading reviews of this year’s Turner prize before the result was announced.

Price was seen as an outsider, and the nature of her work mostly damned with faint praise. But the more favoured works attracted a lot of what might unkindly be called Artspeak, the peculiar dialect through which critics attempt to capture the essential message within works of art. The other short-listed works were each given the Artspeak treatment, not intentionally intended to belittle the works, but risking accusations of pseudery.

Beyond Artspeak

The Woolworth’s Choir was described in terms which were almost absent of Artspeak. That set me thinking. For some reason, great art defies attempts to reduce it. Maybe it deals with life first and art second. In comparison, novelty and the shock of the new are at best of transient worth.

Note

The image is from archival materials of the Manchester fire in 1979, and is not part of the Turner prize-winning entry.


Wimbledon’s warring football tribes: Peace one day?

December 3, 2012

It was more than a local Derby match when Wimbledon Dons met Wimbledon AC in the FA Cup. Fans carried placards, some refused to attend, and the boards of the clubs rejected the customary gestures of mutual respect and hospitality

I was reminded [December 2nd 2012] of the efforts of the Charity Peace One Day in arranging a football game in an attempt to end a feud that had been running for over sixty years.

Football wars

The Wimbledon football wars broke out relatively recently. Before that, Wimbledon had a reputation of a feisty, even madcap, team with characters such as Vinnie Jones who has gone on to translate his hard man reputation into film stardom. Wimbledon was the team other teams loved to hate, proponents of the long ball and the short left hand jab. Street fighters, who held their own, against clubs of lofty heritage and far deeper financial pockets.

When the club ran into severe financial difficulties fans faced a fresh start after bankruptcy proceedings. A rescue plan was somehow cobbled together involving a move from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, an ambitious town fifty miles to the North West.

Preserving the heritage

The fans vowed to preserve the heritage of the club [“two smoking barrels and a packet of crisps?”]. In a move anticipating the one by disgruntled Manchester United fans years later, they formed a ‘spirit of Wimbledon’ team to fight its way back to the top of football’s pyramid. One of the injustices felt by the loyal fans was that Milton Keynes had got itself a football club and flaunted the old name of Wimbledon. And there the story would have ended but for the determination of both teams to make a success of their situations.

As a report in The Mail put it after the match, which the MK Dons won with an injury time goal:

As the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon battled it out on the field in their FA Cup grudge match, both sets of fans did likewise in the stands.
The two sides met for the first time at stadium:mk, nine years after Wimbledon moved 54 miles to Milton Keynes and 10 years after AFC Wimbledon were formed.

Despite threatening to boycott the match, AFC Wimbledon fans packed into the stadium although the promised radiation suits looked to be absent. The visiting fans want MK Dons to drop the second part of their name but their supporters made it clear they have no intention of ceding to that request.

After the game, spokespersons for both clubs made dignified statements expressing hopes that the match will begin a process of healing.

Sibling rivalry?

This, like the feud at Manchester, has the special characteristics of sibling rivalry. It has echoes of ancient mythologised conflicts from Homeric and Biblical times.

Does it matter?

It does not take a great deal to kick off acts of individual violence in football matches. When that happens, the ‘cause’ lies in the fans, regardless of their deep sense of injustice and disrespect. Violence may break out if and when the two ‘Wimbledons’ meet again. I am inclined to think that the ‘feud’ will be retained in the way in which cultures provide a social identity for their members. For all the huffing and puffing, the emotions revealed are mostly ritualised, and not without a social rationale.


Guilt: a new insight into leadership effectiveness and pathologies

November 27, 2012

Guilt has been identified as factor associated with leadership effectiveness. We assess the promise of the GASP scale, and consider the absence of guilt in leadership pathologies

Citing the work of Professor Taya Cohen [image opposite], William Kremer of the BBC World Service suggests that guilt may be an under-researched factor of leader effectiveness.

Shame and guilt cultures

For background, he notes the work of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who as early as the 1940s identified shame cultures such China and Japan, and guilt cultures such as America:

In a 1946 study, [Benedict] distinguished between “shame cultures” such as Japan and China, and “guilt cultures” such as the US. Whereas the guilty conscience is a means of social control in individualistic societies, face, honour and ostracism have the same role in Eastern societies, including China and Korea. Although the distinction is controversial, research suggests that in some cultures shame can be a springboard to positive action. For example, one study found that Chinese managers in Hong Kong used shame to resolve conflicts, while separate research has found that US managers were more likely to use shame to punish employees.

Professor Taya Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University has looked at the correlation between guilt proneness and ethical action. Her work is directed towards understanding the role of moral character traits, such as guilt proneness, and why interactions between groups are characterized by more competition, greed, and fear than are interactions between individuals.

The GASP scale

The GASP scale has been described in the scholarly journal of personality and social psychology in an article by Professor Cohen and co-workers, Introducing the GASP scale: A new measure of guilt and shame proneness.

Another gasp

The GASP scale is simple enough to produce another gasp from traditional cognitive psychologists who would deny that anything credible can be extracted from a four item inventory. [I would argue on the contrary that the more imaginative the concept, the simpler the means needed for collecting initial quantifiable data]

Claims for the emerging research

The research suggests that leadership may be associated with feelings of guilt which are translated into actions of social benefit. I have heard variations of this from friends who acknowledge a sense of guilt instilled in them through a Catholic education.

Leaping to conclusions

I find the central idea of interest although the concept is one which risks too rapid evaluation. There is need for some thorough ‘map-making and testing’ here. Maybe Benedict’s guilt/shame distinction would be a starting point.

The absence of guilt

I find Professor Cohen’s work a refreshing addition to the leadership canon. Most of my life I have tended to dismiss guilt as a residue of social shaping and something to be overcome. However, a complete absence of guilt may be a contributing factor to the behaviour of leaders deficient in ethical judgements of their actions, and thus one explanation for the much discussed dark side of leadership.


The Democratic Sport of Equestrianism

August 1, 2012

Equestrianism is symbolic of upper-class elitism. Or it is an outstanding example of a democratic sport. It depends which perspective you choose

At the London Olympics,the dabate developed as the equestian event unfolded [31st July, 2012]. The conventional view would point to the elitism of the event in Greenwich Park with its royal spectators and other supporters “in a terribly genteel cavalcade of Hunter wellies and Chanel scarves” as the Independent put it.

The competitors included the Queen’s grand-daughter Zara Philips who received her well-earned silver medal on behalf of her thoroughbred steed High Kingdom. The medals were awarded by Zara’s mother Princess Anne, herself an equestrian of note.

The Loyal family

The Telegraph reported the event:

As the team event gave way to the individual discipline, members of the Royal family seemed to appear from everywhere: some of them even wearing plastic ponchos.

Taking a different perspective

The London 2012 Olympic Games continues to provide enough news for 24 dedicated TV channels on the BBC, plus its Olympic coverage also 24/7 on BBC Radio 5. It was Rachel Burden who offered her explanation of the democratic nature of equestrianism.

She pointed out correctly that is one of few sports in which men and women compete on equal terms. (And don’t go on about it being all down to the horses: that applies for Formula 1, where women in the competition remain a dream for the future). Furthermore, Rachel pointed out, in this particular competition, GB had fielded 51 year-old Mary King. So it’s not ageist. She might also have mentioned Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan, who competes at the age of 71.

A similar defence of the egalitarian nature of the sport was offered by a spokeswoman for British Eventing:

“We are the ultimate equestrian challenge; a healthy outdoor sport, where women and men of all ages compete on an even playing field. Thousands of volunteers and spectators support the sport at fantastic rural locations every weekend.”

Elitist and egalitarian?

Confused? Maybe it’s a case of a sport which is both egalitarian and elitist. It all depends on your perspective. A similar matched pair of conflicting arguments have been deployed by supporters and opponents of Fox Hunting.


Re-housed Blue Peter Goes All Digital

July 14, 2012

Last year, BBC Children’s broadcasting moved to a glossy new home in Salford’s media city. Now its programmes bow to the electronic age in a shift from BBC1 to a digital channel

Report by Susan Moger and Tudor Rickards

It was coincidence that we visited the BBC centre in Media City on the week that the announcement was made [May 15th 2012] that BBC children’ s programmes were to be moved to a digital channel.

Shaping National Culture

The role played by the BBC in shaping national culture should not be under-estimated. Within that culture, the Blue Peter programme has a particularly iconic status.

The Independent noted:

After more than 50 years as a children’s teatime fixture, Blue Peter will set sail from its flagship BBC1 home to a digital channel that the BBC made earlier.

The magazine programme, along with children’s favourites including Newsround and In the Night Garden, will be banished from terrestrial channels as part of a shake-up to cut costs after the completion of the switchover from analogue broadcasts to digital.

Blue Peter, which first aired in 1958, and other programmes for pre-teens, will now be shown solely on the dedicated children’s channel CBBC. Biddy Baxter, the programme’s former editor, opposed the move, saying it would reduce the available audience.

But figures showed that more children aged six to 12 already watched Blue Peter on the digital channel, where the episodes now premiere, than on BBC1, where it is shown on Fridays.

Sailing into the digital future

Media City Salford is a vision for a creative hotspot becoming reality. If successful, it will attract even more creative talent, and produce a 21st century environment for innovation and economic growth. Even not-so-young programmes like Blue Peter are moving with the times.


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