Creativity in action

May 2, 2018

Winter of discontentThe Government suffered a defeat yesterday (appropriately, the 1st of May) brought about by the creative actions of two former ministers.  

The vote was over the proposed measures against money laundering by the Government, and considered by opponents to be weak on disclosures from well-known territories including the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands. This in turn followed revelations in what became known as the Panama papers.

The leaders (or ring-leaders, from another perspective) of the opposition were an unlikely couple, a former labour cabinet member, and Andrew Mitchell, a former conservative international development secretary. Both are currently out of favour.

Both have reputations of independence of thought and strong enough characters to take on all-comers in causes they believe in. However, without context, it is hard to imagine them plotting together.

The context, and the creativity of their actions deserves study. According to The Guardian, [May 2nd 2018] Mitchell ‘has frequently worked across party-lines’ , requiring independence and resilience in bucketloads. Hodge was a powerful and outspoken chair of the publics account committee for five years.

The strategy they adapted was aimed at protecting recent back-bench MPs from rebelling, as they were easier targets for political influences from the Government heavies (aka Whips). Instead, they concentrated on influential former ministers who were less vulnerable, and some with experience as members of the awkward squad opposing government policy. Mitchell was able to deploy an extra argument, that their proposals were a reviving of plans under preparation in 2015 by the former conservative leader (David Cameron).

In a nutshell, this was no knee-jerk reaction by two discontinued ex-ministers. It was a well-thought out plan which required both creative thinking and a lot of grunt work in the background.





Katherine Viner faces big changes as the new Editor in Chief of the Guardian

May 1, 2015

Katherine Viner takes over a unique organization newspaper operation whose cultural influence [as parodied by Inspector Grim] belies its rocky finances and declining print circulation

In recent years, The Guardian has gained international attention for its part in the wikileaks drama. The business operates through The Scott trust, established to preserve the liberal values of its founders. As such, editorial appointments are made by the board, but after taking cognition of the result of a vote by its journalistic staff. Ms Viner won 53% of that vote.

The values do not include making money, which is just as well, because the Guardian doesn’t, at least not from its core print product.


The new editor will be well aware of the long and distinguished history of the Guardian, through which it seen as a custodian of the moral compass of cultural correctness in the UK. As such, its faithful readers, the Guardianistas, are mocked satirically by Detective Inspector Derek Grim [in the you tube above] as being “Namby pamby wishy washy hoity toity, snotty snooty,” and as a personification of “political correctness gone mad”.

Preserving a culture

The history of the Guardian is briefly recounted in a 2002 article in the newspaper:

The Manchester Guardian was founded by John Edward Taylor in 1821, and was first published on May 5 of that year. The paper’s intention was the promotion of the liberal interest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre and the growing campaign to repeal the Corn Laws that flourished in Manchester during this period. The Guardian was published weekly until 1836 when it was published on Wednesday and Saturday becoming a daily in 1855, when the abolition of Stamp Duty on newspapers permitted a subsequent reduction in cover price (to 2d) allowed the paper to be published daily.

The Guardian achieved national and international recognition under the editorship of CP Scott, who held the post for 57 years from 1872. Scott bought the paper in 1907 following the death of Taylor’s son, and pledged that the principles laid down in the founder’s will would be upheld by retaining the independence of the newspaper. CP Scott outlined those principals in a much-quoted article written to celebrate the centenary of the paper: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred… The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.”

Today’s paper is now utterly comfortable in its metropolitan clothes, but still with more than skin-deep liberal tendencies inherited from its Mancunian predecessor.

Its new editor in Chief faces challenges of all print media, but at least does not have a Proprietor and a board of activist shareholders urging her to place financial considerations before all others.

‘England aim to trample over New Zealand on road to world domination’ and I am writing this from a new pram on the planet Zog

November 16, 2013

Child's pramA Guardian Sports Writer reaches new heights of irony in his pre-match analysis, or is he in need of serious new medication?

On the eve of the 2013 England v New Zealand rugby union international, the Guardian’s Rugby Union Correspondent Robert Kitson offered a remarkable analysis of what might happen. The article stands for itself but I couldn’t resist adding a few comments of my own.

The surge

Stuart Lancaster’s young side are surging up the world rankings and victory over the All Blacks may send them to a new level

[This is true. The surge has taken England from sixth to third in the rankings during the period when the New Zealand All Blacks comfortably retained the number one slot.]

It could be different …

What price would the bookies be quoting, if Alex Corbisiero, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Marland Yarde and Christian Wade were all fit? Instead Paddy Power has England at 13-2 with the All Blacks 1-9, reflective of the home side’s imperfect build up.

[So the bookies think the victory somewhat unlikely, offering odds of 9 to 1 on for an All Blacks victory despite England’s aim to trample them.]

England coke?

Nobody yet knows whether Stuart Lancaster’s new England are the real thing, or some other brand of cola.

[Nobody except our insightful Guardian columnist]

The Emperor’s new strip

Those who reckon they are overhyped and got lucky a year ago are still out there. If the English lose by 20-odd points it will be seized upon as proof that the Twickenham megastore is flogging the emperor’s new clothes.

[Not to mention the Guardian’s megastore? My previously private view was that England should be pleased if they keep the deficit in the match to less than 20 points.]

Lucky All Blacks

What if New Zealand are actually the lucky ones, fortunate to catch England’s fledglings now before they soar to a different level?

[Hard to fault this brilliant logic. The momentum is well and truly on Mr Kitson and England’s sweet charioteers.]

It’s the ref wot done it

England are an increasingly tough side to shake off in the final quarter and the referee, Craig Joubert, cannot possibly be as generous to New Zealand as he was in the fateful 2011 World Cup final against France.

[Ah, yes, New Zealand are the world champions because of a dodgy French-speaking South African referee who should have gone to Spec Savers. An easy obstacle to brush aside.]

Swing low, sweet chariot, bloo bloo chocky wocky

Either way, it will be closer than last time. New Zealand must remain favourites by virtue of their 12 straight wins this year. But England are more composed than 12 months ago and 13 is not always the luckiest of numbers.

[And I am writing this from a pram swinging softly in the breeze from a tree on the planet Zog, while plotting England’s rightful domination of the world of Rugby Union down there.]

Humble pie

England nearly fulfilled their dreams, losing narrowly. My remarks were shown to be unworthy. Well done England.

The Guardian’s brilliant map-testing and map-making in Murdoch meltdown

July 19, 2011

The crisis at NewsCorp has been produced in no small part by brilliant investigative journalism from The Guardian newspaper. Their analysis of Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignation demonstrates how a story can be read and tested for its credibility to help reshape public beliefs

Journalists are attempting to create new stories all the time. This is a process which metaphorically examines what is known (map reading), tests its credibility (map testing) and offers re-interpretations (map making).

As the crisis unfolded [in July 2011], the Guardian’s daily accounts became the first ‘go to’ for many who had not been regular readers. A nice example of its approach can be found in its treatment of the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson
as chief of the Metropolitan Police.

An interpretation

The piece was presented as ‘an interpretation’ of the resignation statement. The map was presented as provided by official sources. Its contents were scrutinised to get behind the text (map-testing). By focussing in such a way, a story behind the story emerges. For example:

When Sir Paul writes that he has no knowledge of the phone hacking in 2006

The Guardian notes: Reminds people that the original inquiry happened on Sir Ian Blair’s watch… nothing to do with him

When Sir Paul writes that his meetings with the NOTW deputy editor Neil Wallis were a matter of public record

The Guardian notes: Between September 2006 and June 2009, Stephenson had seven dinners with Neil Wallis. That’s a lot of dinners for a deputy editor. The meetings weren’t “public” until this weekend.

When Sir Paul notes that unlike former NOTW Editor Andy Coulson, who had been employed by Prime Minister David Cameron, deputy Editor Neil Wallis had never been convicted or associated with the phone-hacking issue

The Guardian notes: Stephenson is effectively saying to Cameron: Your guy is smellier than my guy. It leaves Cameron vulnerable to the question: if the Met chief is willing to take responsibility and resign, why don’t you?

The map-making continues

The last piece of map-testing had become part of the questioning of those interviewed about their insights yesterday [July 18th 2011], including London’s mayor Boris Johnson. Boris was announcing the resignation of Sir Paul’s deputy, John Yates, the latest casuality in the crisis. Quizzed on Sir Paul he was somewhat less ebullient than usual, and rather unenthusiastically refused to agree that David Cameron should resign for lack of judgement in the Andy Coulson affair.

Making sense of a complex story

The Guardian method of analysis is worth studying by any student wishing to test the accuracy of some text. It can be extended to ‘reading’ of situations of all kinds.

News of the World killed off. But who is the prime suspect?

July 8, 2011

The News of the World met a violent and unsuspected death in July 2011. A long list of suspects has been drawn up. Collusion between some of them can not be ruled out

In the early evening of July 7th 2011, Former Editor of The News of the World Rebekah Brooks, and now CEO of the holding group News International, addresses the staff of the NOTW and drops a bombshell. The paper is to end publication after next Sunday’s edition. It is believed that the unsuspecting Editor Colin Myer learned of the decision a few minutes earlier.

The NOTW was in serious trouble over a crisis which had strengthened in intensity over a period of days. But the speculation had concentrated on actions that had taken place when Ms Brooks was editor. The issue seemed to be more on whether Ms Brooks would be held responsible, and therefore would lose her job.


The story had begun to dominate the headlines in the UK for some days. It was summed up in one executive briefing as follows:

It has long been public knowledge that NOTW journalists (and more recently “investigators” acting on their behalf so as to distance the journalists and the paper itself) have had a cosy relationship with certain police officers – a relationship that often crossed over into bribery for tips and other information. It is the brutal release of this information to the wider public and the raising of the matter in Parliament that has at last blown the lid off the NOTW.
The newspaper has been embroiled in a scandal over the hacking into mobile phones and that, too, reached a new level of disgrace when it was revealed this week that the paper’s agents had (allegedly) listened into the calls, and read SMSs, of victims of the London terrorist attacks on 7 July 2007 and to the messages of murdered teenagers.

David Cameron and his chums

The current story has embroiled Prime Minister Cameron who is a close friend on Ms Brooks, and who had also hired another former editor Andy Coulson as his Press Officer on coming to power in 2010. Coulson later resigned for his involvement in some of the phone-tapping allegations.

The sins of the fathers

The announcement may be seen as a case of the sins of the fathers visited on the children. The paper’s current editor and staff claim to have cleaned of the previous culture within the paper.

The major allegations against the paper refer to events that occurred under an earlier regime. These implicated among others Rebekah Brooks and another editor Andy Coulson.

The usual suspects

If the News of the World was killed off, the list of suspects is a long one.

[1] The dynastic founder Rupert Murdoch. Rupert founded News Corp, the global media corporation. A simple view of business leadership would place him as the tycoon at the top of a pyramid with ultimate control over every big decision. His direct influence on political leaders is well-recorded. His capacity to act decisively to innovate and change, and confront potential threats is the stuff of legends. A fall-back plan which would create a new paper is rumoured.

[2] James Murdoch. James, son of Rupert is ascending to his dynastic destiny, and has recently been appointed Chairman of News International, one of News Corps major divisions. Currently embroiled in another battle which would see Sky taken over by News Corp.

[3] Rebekah Brooks currently cast as one of the villains of the piece, for her public escape from blame, and for the endorsements from her Chairman James. But it is the even more evident positive light in which she is held by Rupert which is commonly reported as providing her with job security. Rebekah is a larger-than-life celebrity figure who seems to have collected a lot of enemies as she had progressed in the Murdoch Empire

[4] The Guardian and its editor Alan Rusbridger for campaigning until the story of the NOTW’s assorted practices went viral. Rebekah Brooks is reported to have tearfully told the NOTW staff to ‘blame the Guardian’ for the paper’s demise.

[5] Twitter, Face Book and the Blogosphere
The story trended on Twitter and there will be those who will claim the ‘victory’ for the power of social media damaging the powerful in ways that were not possible a few years ago.

[6] The advertisers who announced plans to withdraw support from the NOTW

Distributed Leadership?

We should not look too hard for a prime suspect in this case. There is no single ‘cause’. Nor is it clear whether there was a single leader of a cabal to bring down the paper. The notion of distributed leadership seems worth considering.


The Mail, in its own inimitable style recounts the 168 year old history of the News of the World.

Starsuckers: A Review

November 2, 2009


A new Chris Andrew documentary, Starsuckers, shows how the media blur the line between truth and fiction

The Guardian newspaper played an enthusiastic part in the promotion of Starsuckers, and the sting which was successfully perpetrated on The People, the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror whose journalists believed (or published anyway) various tales of celebrity goings on.

An entertainment review by Matthew Champion outlined the stories ‘sold’ to the paper of Amy Winehouse and other celebrities.

The headlines including the completely invented line that Amy Winehouse’s hair caught on fire when she tried to mend a broken fuse at a house party; that Guy Ritchie gave himself a black eye in a London restaurant with some misguided cutlery tomfoolery; and that Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding is a quantum physics aficionado. But the main thrust of Starsuckers is the unholy alliance by the media and famous faces to exert an almost unshakeable grip over the world’s (western) population.

Another sniffy review, in contactmusic, found Starsuckers a bit of a dogs breakfast of a product. It found its format lacking in focus, smarmy and unconvincingly implying a global conspiracy to dupe the public for commercial ends. Nevertheless it grudgingly concedes that the documentary is packed with critical and entertaining material.. and that Atkins makes his points with wit and irony.

Righteous indignation

The film seems to have the righteous indignation of a Michael Moore shockumentary. Its format will find an appreciative audience in those with pre-wired suspicions and concerns about the nature of popular media. It will likewise be dismissed by others as a pretentious and righteous over-stating of the bleeding obvious

A conceptual model

Students of social media will be interested in a conceptual model provided by Atkins proposed for the alleged conspiracy: Start them young; keep them hooked; hard-wired urges; gathering information; and creating news.

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.

Who Will Save our Post Offices?

March 19, 2008

The entire British Post-Office network is under threat. This has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s policy for the coal industry. If so, who will rescue our Post Offices?

Make no mistake. The prospects for the Post-Office workers of the land are as bleak as those that faced the miners under Margaret Thatcher.

In a brilliant polemic, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian puts the case against closures. His prose is as vibrant as it is compelling: Arguing that closure mania ignores the real cost of axing post offices he continues:

The state’s pursuit of shortsighted savings is ripping the heart from communities. No wonder Britain is up in arms …What causes a third of the cabinet and one in five ministers to break ranks and campaign against their own government? Is it faith academies, a massacre in Iraq, or the suspension of habeas corpus? None of these. Go out into the highways and byways of the nation and ask what moves the political soul at present. It is the threatened closure of some 2,500 local post offices. The village post office evokes the age of Hovis and prison mailbags, of bicycle clips and little red vans. It is the Miss Marple public service, the acceptable face of nationalised industry.

So why should the Government hit such a culturally precious icon?

There are echoes of the battles fought by Margaret Thatcher, who had an appetite for social pain in pursuit of economic gain. Not that she would acknowledge any such fuzzy concept as social pain, I suppose. The fundamental similarity today is the belief by Gordon Brown’s Government that there is no alternative strategy to savage cuts in the Post Office network.

Ministers point to the estimates losses of £4m a week by the Post Offices, and two minnion fewer customers over the last two years, The removal of contracts in earlier efficiency moves have contributed to the drop in ‘footfall’ .

This is used to explain the decision that 2,500 of the country’s 14,000 post offices are likely to close in 2008 .

TINA stalks the land again

TINA. There is no alternative. Is there a need to explain what TINA has come to mean? It was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite aphorisms. For her, it was a weapon of defense to brush aside attacks on her proposals.

TINA is implied within performances of charismatics of all kinds, in the board room as much as the political debates. It helps create a sense of helplessness in thos most affected. There seems nothing to be done against such the overwhelming force of argument.

But There are Always Alternatives

Let’s take one step back for a moment. Suppose the expression of an absolute espousal of a belief is no more than a signal of a conviction-based perspective?

This is one of the fundamental canons of human creativity. Its importance is based on recognition that one of the most powerful bocks to creativity is rooted in what is sometimes called functional fixedness, sometimes mind-set, sometimes the ‘one right answer’ syndrome. Google it, and you’ll find a lot of popular practitioners supporting the view. I’ve written about it from time to time. Another more recent example is in an article entitled How bad habits kill creativity

The Voices of Protest

There are voices of protest. As Simon Jenkins suggested, these come from unlikely comrades in arms. Or maybe not comrades but associates. Victoria Wood, a much loved comedienne, says she is prepared to barricade herself, suffragette style, to appropriate railings.

The BBC reports

Essex County Council has said it could make a profit by combining postal services with council services. The stated aim is for any investment to be used over three years to help each branch to move towards becoming financially self-sufficient and “cost-neutral”.

The Government found muted support from unlikely sources
The TaxPayers’ Alliance described the plan as “extremely risky”, adding that councils should focus on providing basic services.

Conservative MP Peter Luff, who chairs the Commons business and enterprise committee, told [The BBC’s Daily Politics Programme]: “It [the Essex scheme] may be a good idea that perhaps is being done in a bit of a hurry [because of] the “very rushed nature” of the national consultation over which post office branches should close, he added.

On Wednesday March 19th 2006, political efforts were made to weaken support on the Government side.

Shadow business secretary Alan Duncan said 90 Labour MPs, including seven Cabinet ministers, had campaigned against the closures…and that Business Secretary John Hutton could make himself “one of the most popular” ministers if he stops the closure of 2,500 post offices. But Mr Hutton claimed the Tory motion to suspend the closures was based on “false hopes, flawed economics and opportunism …”Postponing difficult decisions is rarely a sensible course of action to take… There was an “inescapable fact” that had to be accepted, “however difficult” – the role of the Post Office has changed because of technology and consumer behaviour – he said.

So there you have it. TINA.

Neither David Cameron nor Gordon Brown is showing much enthusiasm for leading from the front. This makes it a sad case, as I suggested in an earlier post about the industrial dispute at The Royal Mail, of which The Post Offices are a part.

From a leadership perspective the lack of a vision is painfully apparent. Perhaps the question is not ‘who will save our Post Offices?’ but ‘What is worth fighting for here?’

Is it the cosy image ruefully presented by Simon Jenkins? Or the nostalgia front with Victoria Wood and Essex County Council?

Or the betterment of the lot of those who have become habituated to their treatment they receive as recipients of benefits and other social services at the nearest (but increasingly distant) post-office.

The answers require something a bit better than might be found in TINA : The Sequel.

Image acknowledgement: Victoria Wood from the BBC website