BBC’s WW1 centenary season

The BBC have had a pretty shoddy few years. Savile and Newsnight; pay-offs and salary disputes, camera trickery and other sleight of hand within its management. The organisation – not something everyone would deem it fit to be called – is so vast that many who work there consider it a corporation of mini corporations. But for all its many faults, the BBC continue to produce some of the most watchable, popular and educative programming anywhere in the world. Who else could even contemplate competing with the ambition they have shown in their World War One “centenary season”?

Of course, a centenary only happens once, and let’s not be naive: the BBC, like all companies, needs success – now more than ever. Success for them is in numbers, eyeballs, readers and consumers, so there’s no grander way to prove their worth than by dramatising parts of our history whose stories have yet to be properly told. And why not start with the bloodiest of conflicts? Seems as good a place as any.

The scale of this project is startling in its ambition. iWonder guides (digital interactive content); 1400 separate local stories; apps and microsites; nine or ten TV documentaries on TV, yet more on radio. Fully-fledged films. Programmes dedicated to the art and music born during the war. There’s even a radio programme called Day By Day broadcast every day between June and August showing the build-up to the war, “live”, 100 years on. The list goes on.

As a friend said the other day, the only annoyance is the pre-curtain-raiser anxiety of knowing that you can’t possibly watch everything, but there’s a part of me which wouldn’t mind putting my life on hold for a few months and gobbling it all up. I’ve been fascinated by World War Two all my life – I think most of my generation are, in fact – but know little of its predecessor. The BBC’s going to change that and I’ll happily pay my licence fee for that.

Talking of which…

* * *

It’s coming to that time of the year when I have to renew my TV licence. I always hold an unjustifiable grudge about this; I love the BBC, its programming, authority and balance. Well yes – the scandals are a bit of a blight, as are the pay rows and bonuses, and some of the output is outrageously repetitive and often the presenters talk to us as though we’re imbeciles and I hate it when the local news people with enormous shiny faces just appear in between programmes “with YOUR 90 second update” (it’s mine? Oh, thanks, but no thanks).

But apart from all that, I admire the BBC and watch its channels (and listen to its radio) more than any other broadcaster, and £145 a year represents incredible value for money.

Anyway. This came up recently while C and I were comparing Portuguese and British media (we are thrill-seekers). In Portugal the equivalent licence fee is included with their electricity and costs roughly €3/month, but all they get for that are two measly TV channels (RTP1 and RTP2) and some radio. The rest is privately owned and, overall, the quality is fairly mixed. Their daily national evening news, for example, lasts an interminable hour-and-a-half, every night. And on their commercialised channels, you can forget brief four-minute advert breaks. You have enough time to make dinner and, in some cases, gobble it up, salted cod and all. In contrast, not only is our news distilled to about 25 minutes, but we have a stack of regionalised news centres around the country.

£145 is a lot of money, but we get a vast amount. BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, and BBC News. The entire BBC website is free and uncommercialised. Mobile apps; catch-up apps, supportive apps and other appy apps. The BBC World Service, the largest international broadcaster. BBC Radio. And bear in mind, when the licence fee was first established in 1948, it cost £2/year – the equivalent to over £70 in 2010, but you didn’t get much for your money.

We are a nation of moaners, and that’s a good thing, but we really have no idea how lucky we are to have the BBC.

Notes from the pavilion for October 20th

Links of note from the past 24 hours:

2007 Cowdrey Lecture

Have you read this year’s Cowdrey Lecture, delivered by Christopher Martin-Jenkins’? Hmm, thought as much. Well you really ought to, not least because this year marks the first time in its brief seven years that it hasn’t been delivered by a professional cricketer. And it is fascinating.

I confess not to have read it all, yet, but am working my way through it and finding myself nodding all too frequently. Pleasingly for me and my employers, he mentions Cricinfo (and, revealingly, by name and not “the cricket website Cricinfo” as we are so often called. Clearly the brand hasn’t extended that far yet…) while raising a very good point about the access to, and interest in, county cricket.

Cricinfo recorded 29 million page views from 7.5 million visits to county cricket alone in 2006 – and has already had 19 million this season so, despite the rain, they expect the figure to be exceeded. Obviously because a great many people want to find out the latest scores. Sadly, if they are on the move in their cars they can listen for them in vain; and when they are given it often seems to be as a breathless afterthought following the big story that Scunthorpe’s millionaire chairman has denied rumours that their controversial manager Bruno Boscovic is going to be sacked. Or, more to the point, some utterly mundane comment by Jose Murinho such as he thinks that Chelsea have the players to win the Premiership. What a surprise. The media has been conned to a dangerous extent – if you value the variety of life – into becoming a sort of spin machine for the all-pervading, all-powerful Premiership. Also into the belief that it can’t be of interest if it’s not on television.

Regular or past readers will know of my near-hatred of football, and it is primarily for this reason: that it consumes so much media attention, undeservingly so. But hey ho (Flint), that’s the way of the world.

The lack of fast bowlers also come under Christopher’s scrutinous gaze – and he reveals that changes are afoot to decrease the boundaries. My boss and I went to The Oval earlier in the season and I was absolutely shocked at the shortness of the boundaries. Cynics argue that they are brought “in” from their original position in order to maximise the chances of sixes, increase the number of runs scored in a day and generally get the game finished as quick as possible. The evidence is damning too.

But there is a tremendous amount to be thankful for in the contemporary game – in many respects the standards are higher than ever. There are some magnificent batsmen in world cricket and some magical spinners too. The fielding is sensationally good. It is the fast bowlers who are in short supply in the current phase of a game that has always evolved. In the eternal struggle to find that essential balance between bat and ball what we need is a determined effort to lengthen boundaries – happily both the MCC World Cricket Committee and the new ICC Cricket committee are agreed on that but there is no evidence yet of boundaries being stretched to the furthest practical limits on all grounds as they should be.

Do give it a read, and offer your thoughts of the points he raises.

Australian media reflect culture of winning

I can’t help but enjoy Australia’s slip from grace. I’m British and it’s my absolute right. Most of all though it’s the Australian media which really gets me going.

Australia only need lose once and immediately, without prejudice or loyalty, their champion side is reduced to a bunch of complete losers. When they enter a losing streak, as they have in the past two weeks, the headlines make hilarious reading: “hapless,” “demoralised,” “licking wounds,” “Australia agony”. It goes on and is completely, brilliantly merciless. Until they win, and they’ll once again be hailed as the greatest sporting side in the history of the planet.

I’m probably completely wrong, but the turncoat style of Australia’s papers is in some ways a microcosm of a society which simply cannot accept losing. Ever. In any form, at anything. And this isn’t to say the criticism isn’t valid – Australia have been shoddy, no mistake. It’s just the tabloid turnaround which just astounds me…there is never any balance or reasoned debate as to their fall from grace. “BLOODY LOSERS. SACK THEM ALL” you half expect a headline to read.

I met two great Aussies on safari last week, Shelley and Paul. Both in their thirties, travelled all over the world, they were eager to hear my thoughts of Australia. “Been to Aus then Will?” And I told them I had. Before I could finish Shelley said “Yeah great isn’t it? Awww the beaches, everything’s just great isn’t it? Don’t you think?” And it is, and I love the country. But disliking Australia was not an option!

Billy Connolly observed this in one of his stand-up routines years ago. He’d arrived in Australia for the first time and, at a press conference at Sydney airport, was bombarded with questions about the country. “How are you finding Australia Mr Connolly? Liking it here?” “I’ve only just got off the fucking plane, but the tarmac is indeed terrific!”

Not all Aussies are like this but the positive, must-win vibe runs through the country like a critical artery. Cut it, and there’s blood everywhere. Losing is just not an option and losers should be shamed. Britain is completely, emphatically the opposite. We love to shame the losers too, but we also love to love the losers and the underdogs. Whereas in Australia, a crap league side would be backed to the hilt with a genuine belief their fortunes would turn around, in England we actually enjoy the struggle! Of course we don’t want England to lose, but we just shrug our shoulders, tut, throw a dart at Ricky Ponting and move on. C’est la vie.

I’m not sure what I’m wibbling about now, but do leave your thoughts. Scott’ll be best placed to ridicule this post…

Ghosts in the Machine

The ghost-written sports column is as old as sports columns. It is where the sportsman talks to a reporter, who converts the players views into a column that is fit for printing. Or so goes the theory.

Michael Atherton lifts the lid on the ghost-writing process. It is quite an eye-opener to see how the process works. He comes out against the practice, and I have to say that I agree with him.

Just by the by, is it not odd that the cricketers who are often the dullest to watch are often the most interesting sort of people off the field, and vice-versa?

England fight back, and some thoughts on coaches

To the audible relief of South Australian cricket administrators, England provided some much needed resistance on day four, and saved them the prospect of half-empty stands for the Second Test starting on Friday.

England were set an insane target, worked out by Ricky Ponting on the formula of multiplying my overdraft times the speed of light, or some such nonsense, and let his bowlers loose, while retiring to the massage table. He would have dined well as England lost two early wickets, and with Cook playing a range of loose shots, promise of more to come.

However, Pieterson and Collingwood provided stout resistance and some fiery entertainment for another large crowd, stated as being 37,000.

Yet England will surely lose, and they deserve to lose- while there was some magnificent batsmanship today, there was also some shameful episodes. Strauss, Cook, Collingwood, Flintoff and Pieterson were all guilty of some dreadful shot selection at various points in the day, treating an Ashes Test as little more then a knockabout in the park.

Pieterson’s innings was an instructive example. There was some lovely drives, all through the V, yet there were also some grotesque cross-bat swipes. None of these have cost him his wicket (as yet), but what happens if rain comes about three PM tomorrow and England have been bowled out at 2.35?

If England had batted with a slightly more applied approach, they might well have been three wickets down tonight, not five. That’s a big difference.

****

What do readers think about Andrew Flintoff’s dismissal? Shane Warne gave him an ugly serve on his way, and Justin Langer was smiling in delight even before he took the catch; the arrogance of it will grate on English sensibilities.

But it is an arrogance reflective of an Australian team that knows the value of their wickets, and the absolute folly of Flintoff’s shot. I don’t recall Ricky Ponting playing such an agricultural heave during his defensive masterpiece at Old Trafford last year. Duncan Fletcher may or may not remind his charges of that innings between now and the morning.

****

Speaking of coaches, I came across this article on my web-meanderings this evening, asking about the worth of overseas coaches. Given the kvetching about Duncan Fletcher that I’ve read in British media outlets the last few days, I wondered about the role of the coach.

It seems to me that for a coach to be a benefit, rather then a hindrance, there needs to be an absolute understanding between the coach and his captain. In many first class teams, it seems to be the increasing trend that the coach is the top banana and the captain merely his on-field lieutenant, rather in the way a football manager operates. That may work, but there does need to be a clear line driven, and both sides working in tandem.

It’s never been the Australian way. Would you fancy being the coach telling Steve Waugh how he was to arrange his batting order? John Buchanan always knew his place in Waugh’s order of things.

I’m not sure about the inner workings of England’s team, but Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher certainly were working on the same wavelength. It may well be that the relationship between Fletcher and Andrew Flintoff isn’t quite so attune.

Web versus print

It’s a fascinating time we live in. The emergence of the internet in the 1990s has, a decade later, started to transform news and the way journalists report on it. By and large, certainly in sports journalism, newspapers are starting to lose the battle against the internet’s immediacy and flexibility – but it need not be such a stark, chilling omen for the future of print media, as the following describes:

American sports editor Greg Bowers writes on Editor & Publisher of a revelation he had not too long ago concerning how sporting news is transforming because of the Web. One day when he was deciding what the next days layout would be, his wife, not really a sports fan, mentioned the days two top stories. and then it hit Greg; why should I print these stories in tomorrow’s paper if everyone already knows what happened?

“Sports journalism, actually journalism in general, is in a state of paralysis. Two things that have been constant companions in journalism through the years, have split apart.

“The first thing is reporting, getting out the news. The second is telling good stories, interpreting the news. They once went hand in hand — news and writing. Now the first one is out and about before the second one can get its coat off.

“Getting information to consumers has become a race. And it’s a race that newspapers, by definition, are losing.”

So instead of repeating the same news in the next day’s print edition, Bowers realized that newsrooms needed to tell the story behind the news. Journalists must find the information that the public wants to know and give “depth. Perception. Interpretation.”

Said bower, “The truth is, newspapers are in a particularly good position to play this new game. They just haven’t realized it yet.”

Very interesting

BBC can’t keep their minds on the Test Match

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your lovin’ is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

I have been reduced to listening to BBC online for my Test match fix, and what’s astonished me about the broadcast is how hard the TMS team are finding it to keep their minds on the job. At the drop of a hat they are musing on the Ashes battles ahead. One darn fool idiot (it could be Foxy Fowler) told CMJ just now that McGrath doesn’t like bowling to left handers. That might be news to Brian Lara, for just one.

It’s noticable because I’ve been used to listen to South African and Asian as well as Australian broadcasters the last nine months, and while the Ashes have been mentioned, it isn’t as noticable as it is with the English media.

The importance of being earnest

Tim de Lisle opened up in Cricinfo with an interesting post relating to independence in the media.

Trescothick is much liked, and even after his story changed, most commentators were gentle with him. But one pundit was conspicuously tough: Mike Atherton, cricket columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, who said Trescothick’s virus line was “so utterly implausible” that “ridicule is the only proper response”.

Atherton used to open the batting for England with Trescothick. He was a team-mate for years at Lancashire of Trescothick’s agent, Neil Fairbrother, who also came in for criticism in Atherton’s piece, albeit unnamed. The condemnation possibly went a touch too far, but it came from the right place: a belief in honesty. Atherton can’t stand spin – of the PR variety – and he is right to highlight the way it is spreading through the sports world.

Atherton is one of the best ex-player pundits for three reasons. He wants to get better; after a tentative start, his writing has steadily acquired more scope and flair. He is curious: he asks questions, while some ex-players still wait for the questions to come to them. And he has a clear grasp of the importance of being independent. He knows he is now batting not for England, but for his readers.

In a free press, that distinction is straightforward. In televised sport, it is becoming a grey area. The ultimate producer of cricket in India is now the Indian board. Atherton, who commentated for Sky on the India-England series, says local commentators were “asked not to mention sensitive subjects”. This provoked denials, but it will continue to be an issue. And some ex-players just don’t seem to see that it matters.

I posit that it is not quite so simple as this though. As a general rule of thumb, in whatever field you work in, you do not crap in your own nest. Cricket authorities are different in various places but all of them expect their broadcast partners to be supportive. And the management of the broadcasters themselves would be most displeased if the commentators were to disparage the game, lest they invite viewers to change the channel.

After all Michael Atherton would hardly expect the Sunday Telegraph to be very friendly to him if he bagged the paper in his column.

That is why there will always be a role for newspapers and blogs in cricket and indeed, in many other areas. We can ask the questions that broadcast media can not ask.

Asking the right questions is half the battle.

So The Guardian ask David Lloyd and Bob Willis if England take the limited-overs game seriously enough. Lloyd says yes, and Willis says no.

But the real question is, do the fans take the game seriously enough? And should we take it seriously at all, given the way that cricket administrators fiddle around with it.

Played properly, on a true surface that helps strokeplay but also has some life and bounce and a teensy bit of sideways movement for the bowlers, limited overs cricket can be as skillful and as demanding and entertaining as you could wish for. It is up to administrators and ground authorities to produce those conditions for the players. I think that world-wide, cricket fans have been let down by the people in charge of the game, and it is high time some serious questions were asked about the direction of the limited overs game.