Banal Newsnight debate throws little light on London’s mayoral options

April 5, 2012

The Newsnight debate with the leading candidates for London’s mayor was of little help to London’s voters. As an example of a format designed to produce little enlightenment, the programme could hardly be bettered

These were not stupid people. Jeremy Paxman is not a stupid interlocutor. The BBC is not as an organization lacking in skills at putting on political debates. So why was the production so devoid of information?

Social structures

One explanation can be found if we look at the notion of social structures which come in various degrees of stability. A social structure produces a pattern of outcomes which help replicate the original structure. The Newsnight design seems to be rather dysfunctional, with the staged mock-agressiveness of Jeremy Paxman and well-rehearsed messages of the protagonists. The set combined hi-tech perspex podia with garish backdrops. The lighting made Boris look as if his hands were bloodied from some earlier bit of violence.

The back story

The back story is of a debate the day before in which Boris and Ken exchanged claims and counter-claims about tax arrangements. They carried on their dispute in public afterwards in a lift taking them to their next photocall. Boris is reported to have been particularly violent until the cameras started again.

Twitter and the Elevator bitch

One element within the previous encounter was that twitter traffic during the debate was used as a crude barometer of public opinion. Boris seemed to have lost ground as judged by Twitter, and that was considered as contributing to his elevator bitching afterwards.

The Newsnight messages

You can read a summary of the Newsnight event in a Guardian blog by Hélène Mulholland

A space fit for egos?

For balance, the BBC had four contestants in the studio, and mention was made of the other mayoral candidates. In practice, it might have been billed a battle of the egos as Ken and Boris grabbed airspace.


The image from shows Ken Livingstone getting the finger from Brian Paddick. It also shows the Newsnight set with its perspex Podia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture showing Boris and his bloodied hands.

What’s the difference between Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Clarkson?

February 13, 2009
Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

Simon Mayo had mistakenly introduced his BBC radio guest as Jeremy Clarkson. To me, Jeremy Paxman sounded remarkably like Jeremy Clarkson. Which suggests that the two celebrities may have something more in common than a name …

Driving home this afternoon [Feb 12th 2009], I heard the familiar urbane tones of Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5 live. He was introducing his guest, Jeremy someone. He then apologised for confusing Jeremy Clarkson and Jeremy Paxman. The guest accepted Mayo’s apology not totally happy with the start to the interview. It amused me to suspect that one of England’s celebrity broadcasters had been peeved at being introduced as the other, even through a slip of the tongue. A bit thin-skinned, which ever one of them was there.

Then something curious happened. I listened more carefully to find out which Jeremy was in the studio. My point of reference was an interview on the same show, also conducted by Simon Mayo a few months ago, with Jeremy Clarkson the self-confessed petrol head. I could not decide whether this was another Clarkson interview, or one with the Paxman the political journalist.

It was curious, because I (like many others living here in England) have to exercise the off-switch to avoid hearing one or other Jeremy on a near daily basis. But I had never remarked on any similarity in their speech patterns before. Now for quite a few minutes, as far as I could detect, the voice might have been that Petrol Head or Political Journalist. What’s going on? Did they really have such similar delivery styles? If so, why had I never noticed it before? And why should anyone care anyway?

Why might it matter at all?

It might matter if you are a friend of both Jeremy C and of Jeremy P and you get a phone call from someone announcing “Jeremy here, I want you to appear on my programme next week”. It would make a difference if you then agreed and found yourself on the wrong sort of programme.

For those us not in that hypothetical position, why might it matter at all?
Probably not a lot, but the unexpectedness of that interview today set me thinking about sense-making, and role-playing. I’m intrigued enough to invite subscribers to share their views.

Mandrill management

I have an interest in evolutionary models of human behaviour, as they throw light on leadership patterns. In this respect, Jeremy P has long struck me as a fine example of what I have called Mandrill management. The metaphor implies a highly developed power drive which ultimately takes its toll on the alpha male and those further down the order in the social group. If I had thought about it, I would have noted Jeremy C as having similar characteristics. Clarkson’s recent public outburst against Prime Minister Gordon Brown (“that one-eye Scottish idiot”) seems illustrative of the almost uncontrollable and habitual actions of the Mandrill manager in action. These are gifted but rather fearsome creatures who may be conditioned to act out their need to be alpha males in their public interactions. Under stress, the Mandrill comes to the party.

It turned out that it was Jeremy Paxman being interviewed. The following interpretation of the interview is even more speculative than my usual efforts. But [At first Mr Paxman] seemed to have a restricted range of delivery, but even a more exaggerated way of emphasis (compensation?). Later in the interview, the familiar wide range of tones re-emerged. The staginess at the start reminded be of an actor with a rather over-ripe style which was then replaced by the staginess of a consummate professional interrogator and public speaker.

Clarkson’s normal delivery is closer to someone acting out the on-stage heavy from a crime drama. Paxman’s voice at the start of the interview was closer to Clarkson’s explosive attacks on the English language. Perhaps the ‘threat’ of not being properly recognised triggers a surge of adrenaline in a Mandrill manager’s blood.

Maybe there are a few ideas about leadership behaviour to be gained from an episode in which one gifted radio performer made a little gaff, and another reacted in a surprising fashion.

Guido Fawkes Blown Up?

April 26, 2008

The influential Guido Fawkes blog disappeared from the blogosphere this morning. Has its author finally succeeded in getting himself blown up?

What I Didn’t See This Morning

I didn’t see something this morning [Saturday April 26th 2008]. I didn’t see a blog on the web. I was looking for the latest posting from a political blogger described as one of the most influential around. The blogger goes under the name of Guido Fawkes, in homage to that earlier revolutionary figure Guy Fawkes.

This Guido Fawkes has acquired a bit of a cult status among bloggers. He has been attributed with breaking political stories which eventually have impact in the real world. For example, he can claim credit for starting the stories about a damaging bit of naughtiness by Peter Hain, during the campaign to replace Mr Prescott (arguably also caught in e-flagrante.

The convenience of pseudo-anonymity was blown most obviously in a Newsnight interview, after which a Mr John Staines claimed that he was indeed the blogging Guido Fawkes.

Guido Revealed

Another blog [‘Tunbridge‘] described the outing of Guido:

Despite the pantomime of the shadowy, unidentified mystical figure sitting in the studio, which everyone in political circles knows is Paul Staines; and Paxman’s usual put-them-on-the-back-foot opening gambit of “Why do you insist on this preposterous charade of sitting in a darkened studio?…” or words to that effect, the central question being raised by Paxman and Michael White, of the Guardian, was a crucial one. That Guido as a blogger can say pretty much whatever he likes and that newspapers, TV and more traditional media have all kinds of pressures and restrictions on them which prevent them from being so loose tongued.

Which remains the central point of the blogging debate and of this post.

In Search of Guido

Anyway, this morning there was an item on the BBC webpages which again referenced the egregious Guido, which prompted me to follow the link to his web-site. Not available. A bit surprising, but it happens, so I tried a few other ways to locate his site. Same results. Guido was no-where to be found.


Only if you believe in conspiracy theories. I’m on the opposite side of the world on this one, as far away as possible from believers in Lady Di assassins, cover-ups of alien visitors, Masonic plans to rule the world, and so on.

But I found myself wondering if Guido has been taken out of the game, having gone too far. Something he has done, or was about to do called for swift action. It would have taken some clout to do that. The sort of influence required to ‘persuade’ Google to operate a censorship filter to prevent its zillions of users in China from accessing the sort of information available in the West. A Mr Big has nobbled Guido. Or maybe a Ms Big ?

Guido Restored

Later: [1500 hrs]. Guido is back. But he was worried too, noting

Overnight something has happened. Not sure if it is technical failure, a hacker attack or just a glitch. Everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…

[Later] UPDATE : It was a glitch.

The Importance of Blogging

A debate going on about the merits of blogging, and its willingness to transmit (and create) unsubstantiated, and mainly scurrilous stories. It was touched on in the Tunbridge post above on the kind of virtual world whose inhabitants can write ‘pretty much what they like’.

The BBC Story

The BBC story prompted me to take a look at the Guido Fawkes site was about a hoax purporting to be reporting the resignation of a government minister.

Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman is the latest MP to become a victim of internet hacking. An item was posted on her personal site for several hours announcing her defection to the Conservatives. It began: “To friends, foes and fans, below is a copy of the resignation letter that landed on Gordon’s desk this morning.”
Beneath it was a link to a spoof Harriet Harman blog. The site ..appears to have been taken off-line following the discovery of the rogue message, which was highlighted by the widely-read Westminster gossip blogger Guido Fawkes.

The story also pointed out that

Last year, Conservative housing spokesman Grant Shapps was targeted by hackers who broke into his YouTube account to post a message under his name saying the party could not win the Ealing Southall by-election. In 2006, David Miliband [environment Secretary at the time] was forced to shut down an experimental wiki site after it was bombarded with surreal and abusive additions.

Games People Play

These examples seem to be indications of assorted behaviours, including creative if malicious japes, to the web equivalent of graffiti, passing off, and evidence of the wisdom or otherwise of the crowd.

The Bloggers we Deserve

One of the few clear aspects in the debate is that no simple answer seems to be adequate. At present, bloggers have a well-earned reputation as purveyor of unreliable stories.

In keeping with the interests of this particular blog, I find myself arguing that the development of the blogosphere comes with its particular context of social action.

Through it, in ways we are still trying to understand, ideas gain credibility in the old world of modernity, with its traditional concerns about truth, reality, and morality. Some ideas take hold. This happens probably because of what people are inclined to believe, which itself indicates something about deeply-held fears and hopes.

On this line of reasoning, celebrity bloggers like Guido Fawkes are the bloggers we subscribe to, and are the thought leaders we create and deserve. The hackers, and jokers come as other denisons of the new blogospheric territories.

Something Old, Something New

For what it’s worth, I find connections with various old and newer ideas about innovation and change. I’m reminded of Rosabeth Kanter who developed a visionary picture in the 1980s of a future in which the most successful organizations operate with open access to information

More recently, a similar ‘freedom is good’ theme can be found in the ideas of Henry Chesborough under the catchy rubric Open Innovation

These ideas present the case for the virtues of cherishing freedom of expression in the interests of social and economic good.

However, I wish I could agree with Guido that ‘everything is backed-up and will be restored in due course…’ That would be very nice.

BBC’s Newsnight Plumbs New Low in Mayoral Debate

April 9, 2008

The declining fortunes of Newsnight were illustrated in an abysmally staged debate between candidates in London’s mayoral contest. The clumsy and faltering efforts of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Brian Paddick were only matched by the antiquated format of the programme, and a predictably offensive and blustering performance from Jeremy Paxman

I bought-in to Newsnight’s marketing of the debate ever since it was trailed last week. The leading candidates to become next London Mayor were to appear in a Presidential style debate, anchored by the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.

That seemed a good chance to see what early form the runners were showing. So I decided to watch, trading off the experience against the chance to watch the highlights of Chelsea against Fenerbahce. It was a bad decision.

Boris Johnson for the conservatives, and incumbent Ken Livingstone, long re-admitted into the New labour fold, are already high-profile public figures. Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems comes with an interesting and controversial reputation and many years of service in the police service.

Boris was recently acclaimed as “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, according to David Cameron, the candidate who was “twice as charismatic, and twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newsnight provided a rather jolly snap of the three candidates for the family album. [I show it above. My excuse for a possible abuse of its IP rights is that the image completely misrepresents what actually happened on the programme. It induced me to watch something completely different to the way the programme was advertised by that charming and jokey photograph.]

The format was the stilted and clumsy one of the so-called debate between the candidates for the Deputy Leader of The Labour Party last year That was when each candidate stood rather foolishly and gaukishly answering questions such as ‘if you weren’t standing, which candidate would you vote for’. It was hard to imagine Newsnight could ever do something quite as bad again.

Well, they did. Monday April 8th 2008. This time there were three candidates not six. But the cheap lecterns were brought out of storage again. The hectoring blustering style from Jeremy Paxman was if anything even more deranged. ‘You must be living in a parallel Universe if you think that people …’ [can’t remember what followed. My notes just read ‘grey, witless, dire’ and that was just the questioning].

The candidates fell into the trap of squeezing as many words as possible into each time-compressed reply. From time to time they were allowed to snarl at each other, but they didn’t try to snarl at Mr Paxman.

Mostly the statements made little sense. Among the breathless platitudes there was one almost interesting and surreal bit about bendy busses and how many people were killed by them. But that didn’t make much sense either.

Its fifteen minutes seemed to go on, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop for a very long time. But it was hard to concentrate. Boris seemed determined to avoid letting the most engaging part of his persona shine through, less his exuberant sense of fun be too closely connected with buffoonery. Ken’s drier wit was also under lock and key. Mr Paddick may have made some concession towards the existence of an audience, but if he did, I missed it.

The missing audience

That’s it! No-one seemed to be acting in a way that might engage an audience. Mr Paxman, the old warrior and professional trooper is still able to perform his roaring and ranting bit. But even he had trouble with the epilogue to camera. You can watch it again he said. Then added, as if with a glimmer or irony and self-awareness, again and again, thanks to the shiny new podcast service available from the BBC website. But that was about the only concession to the needs of an audience. All four were performing an intense tag game. Once they got into the ring, awareness of the need to win the favours of an audience out there somewhere was lost, as the combatants grunted and groaned to the final bell.

Questions we deserve

Turns out the BBC had been encouraging people to suggest questions. Not sure if that absolves anyone from the general crassness. Question Time seems able to collect enough people to ask some worthwhile questions to its panels of politicians on a weekly basis.

What did the charisma go?

Where did all that charisma go? I could only see four adrenalized alpha males in identikit dark grey Business gear engaged in mock combat. Conclusion. The format all but snuffed out any insights into the ideas or personalities of the candidates. I am as unenlightened as ever about their competences relevant to being the next London mayor.

Wish I’d watched Chelsea. Still, I can always upload it (or do I mean download it?) from the BBC website.


The image above came from the BBC website. So sue me. And I’ll make a counterclaim using the image as evidence that I had been mislead into watching a programme of such dismal format that it succeeded in sucking all the vitality out of three able people (four if you count Jeremy Paxman) and in misrepresenting them as unfit for office. Perhaps Ken, Boris, or Brian could be called as witnesses for the defence. Jeremy would presumably be a witness for the prosecution.

Why British Business Leaders won’t appear on TV shows

March 28, 2008


In the US, appearing on the right news shows is part of a business leader’s job. In the UK, there is far more reticence by business leaders to court such publicity. Which culture is better served by its leaders and celebrity news presenters?

In one of his recent blogs, Robert Peston draws attention to an interesting difference between American and British business leaders.

When a chairman or chief executive appears on BBC television or radio, he or she is typically talking to millions of people in the UK and across the globe via our assorted programmes and channels and platforms. That’s appealing to a minority of business people, such as Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer or Justin King of J Sainsbury. Their visibility, they believe, sends out a strong message of confidence in their respective businesses to their customers, employees and shareholders. Other executives are more reclusive, they cherish their privacy – which is understandable. It’s part of my job to persuade them they have a duty to be accountable, via the BBC, to the many different groups which have an interest in their respective companies

Well, yes, up to a point. As one of the BBC’s celebrity business journalists himself, Robert Peston has taken an understandable perspective. But methinks he doth protest a bit too much. Or, anyway, glosses over a very interesting difference in the way in which the media interact with business in America and the UK.

Hollywood invented the star system as a brilliant marketing strategy. The image of the star was supported by the studios and developed the image-building techniques and principles.

Off screen, the Holllywood star had to have an impeccable public life. On stage, the image was also that of the heroic figure. The male lead is exceptional, and yet someone who is also recognised as role-modelling important cultural norms. These include self-reliance, championing the oppressed against the forces of evil or morality. The faithful lieutenant knows his place, and his place is to perform well but not to upstage the star.

Every Lone Ranger has his Tonto …

The drama creates the world in which the audience suspends disbelief in the artifice. When successful the production helps generate popular demand for more of the same. For sequels and even prequels. The images replicate themselves.

We do things differently

Pursuing the metaphor, we can detect cultural differences. If Hollywood produced its heroes capturing and arguably helping create the American dream. While influenced by Hollywood, The British Film industry developed its own cultural mores through its own golden era of war-time propaganda firms in the 1940s, Korda, and Rank were driving forces behind the studios at Ealing and Pinewood.

These centres of creative film-making also helped establish the courageous and modest British hero with intrepid sidekick.

Every Holmes had his Watson …

Propaganda films reinforced the rigid class stratifications of the 1940s, although if anything the class divide between hero and chirpy sidekick in the war dramas strengthened the notion of an officer class, leading a nation of cheerful and indomitable lower orders.

Fast forward

In their related ways Hollywood and Pinewood found space for the rebellious hero. They also celebrated the progress of the self-made man.

Let’s fast-forward to a world of multi-media communications. California has provided a former American President, and its current State Governor.

The candidates for the next president of The United States are a charismatic young man making good; the dynastic successor of a former charismatic leader: and the veteran war hero. More than ever, media presentation will be vital in deciding the way the non-party voters move.

A similar context can be seen around the image-making of commerical figures. With some honourable exceptions, American TV interviewers of business leaders tend to be far more respectful.

The encounters are more obviously a performance in which each of the actors knows his or her parts. There is little difficulty in seeing how that old sociological metaphor of role-players applies. The business leader acts out the role of the able, honest, trustworthy figure. The interviewer acts out the role of able honest, trustworthy lieutenant.

The convention permits some variations in the playing of the roles, but there has also been a lot of convergence towards what is box-office.

Meanwhile, something quite different has happened in the UK. There has always been a theme of the revolutionary and rebellious hero. In the UK, the theme has developed into the celebrity newscaster taking on the establishment. The lawyer, politician and BBC journalist Robin Day was an early proponent in the 1960s.

Fast Forward to Modern Days.

The trend-setting Robin Day has been followed by another generation of celebrity journalists. The dominant themes of drama has all-but-been inverted, with the action reverting to the ancient Greek dramas in which vengeance is meted out to evil leaders by the avenging nemesis as played by the interrogator. It’s Tonto punishing The Lone Ranger. For episode after episode.

The star-system now builds up the image of the studio or channel’s new stars. Competition is fierce. As the Guardian recently reported, the stars are really battling with each other.

The paper was commentating on a public spat between two of the snarliest beasts in the media jungle, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman.

To help decide the issue, perhaps we need a Celebrity Newsreader [contest] , scoring the two on Aggressive Interrupting, Exasperated Repetition and Curmudgeonly Books about England …

The problem with superhero battles, as any comics fan will tell you, is that it leaves the way clear for an arch-nemesis to clean up with nefarious schemes. Have you seen how much work Sir Trevor McDonald is getting these days?

Quite. It is hardly surprising that business leaders and politicians are avoiding the roles offered them in the dramas.

Leadership lessons

If the increasingly dated style of Humphrys and Paxman were to be seen and compared with interviewers with a less confrontational, yet engaging style, we may well get more glimpses of our business leaders.

Would we be better off as a society? The American system offers more showings of their business and political leaders. They are not particularly popular as prime-time material. As with the president’s well-managed press conferences, they are too rehearsed to be particularly revealing.

Perhaps in the UK, a successor to the much-missed Antony Clare would be worth seeking.