Hancock’s half hour: How the Health Secretary has helped Boris find his feet

In this morning’s Mail there is a great article by Dan Hodges about Boris Johnson. It argues that the coronavirus crisis, far from exposing the Prime Minister’s weaknesses such as his widely-reported lack of attention to detail, has in fact proved (so far) to be the making of him. I would absolutely agree.

So far the Johnson premiership has not unfolded entirely as he would have wanted. Yes, he got Brexit done but his efforts to change the narrative and ‘move the country on’ have not been wholly successful: the media persists in banging on about the pesky trade talks with Brussels. The Government didn’t handle the recent floods terribly adroitly, and the swirl of allegations about the Home Secretary’s bullying nature continues to, well, swirl. Losing a Chancellor shortly before one of the most important budgets of modern times looked a bit clumsy. And the early days of coronavirus were not well dealt with either.

Yet after those initial stumbles (scheduling a meeting of an emergency committee for a few days hence looked leisurely, to say the least) the Prime Minister has hit his stride. In many ways he was made for this moment. His blokey, friendly, reassuring persona, all washing hands and looking calm and unruffled, is well-suited to a moment when the media at least seems to think we are all hysterical. But as Dan Hodges points out, Boris being Boris is only part of the reason he is having a good crisis. The other reason is that the scientists and doctors are back.

The ludicrous demonisation of ‘experts’ during the referendum campaign might have led some to think that they would be allowed only the smallest of walk on parts during this outbreak. But instead they have been to the fore: Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, and Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, have all played big roles in recent days. And they have been calm and reassuring and the Prime Minister has appeared respectful of their expertise. It has been quite a turnaround since 2016.

Dan Hodges says that this approach results from a ‘pact’ between the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister some days ago. If so, Boris Johnson has a lot to thank Matt Hancock for, since his Cabinet colleague has created a platform on which the PM has thrived. And Mr Hancock has had a good few weeks in his own right, coming over as thoughtful and measured and pretty much on top of his brief (and his word perfect defence of Priti Patel last weekend literally made me laugh out loud). My guess is that the odds must be shortening on Matt Hancock leading his party if and when the current leader steps down. But he needn’t worry about that for now because, in large part thanks to him, Boris Johnson is currently thriving.

Hurdling the one-inch barrier: Why subtitles just don’t matter anymore

When ‘Parasite’ cleaned up at the Oscars earlier this month there was much excited comment about whether or not its victory marked about a breakthrough for foreign-language movies. Comments made by the film’s director about how “overcoming the one-inch barrier” of subtitles opens up a vast new world of content have led in turn to a debate about their use, with the BBC asking this morning whether it is better to “dub or sub” when it comes to enjoying films in another language. For me, this debate feels weird and redundant.

Why? Because subtitles have already won. They won when teenagers started watching content on their smartphones; anyone with teenage children will know that they are now so used to subtitles they often put them on when watching regular TV with the sound on. What teenagers started we all then picked up; how often do you see commuters watching clips and whole programmes on the train with subs on? They won too when Narcos taught us to switch effortlessly between Spanish and English dialogue, and when Daeneyrs first met the Dothraki and none of us could understand a word.

In other words, thanks to Facebook, YouTube and Netflix, we’re all very used to subtitles. So it is a bit of a surprise that this is still a revelation to media pundits or, for that matter, to Bong Joon-ho. And it’s not just that subs have one: dubs have lost, surely, after we’ve all seen so many horrible examples over the years. It always takes me back to the prudish ‘melon farmer’ days of 1980s television movies (shudder). Subtitles are so much better than this.

So Director Bong is right: there is a rich and diverse array of content from all over the world just ready and waiting for everyone to see. But he and all the commentators filling their column inches are wrong that subtitles are in any way a barrier; they are more of a gateway, and one that a lot of people have already taken.

I know delusion when I see it: Why the BBC has to give up the licence fee, and fast

I love the BBC.  I’ve always said so, in conversation, in blogs and in tweets.  It is genuinely a ‘national treasure’, doing more for our soft power and national culture than any other institution.  Attacks on the BBC by national politicians always seem to me to be uniquely self-destructive, since if Auntie wasn’t there the UK would be diminished (even if only by a tiny bit), and the lives of our diplomats, exporters and many others would be that bit harder.  Whatever happens, in my eyes the BBC should be protected and cherished.

I am also maddened by the BBC.  There are things it produces which are lazy tripe (the 606 football phone-in is probably the worst of all, although those cheap and nasty shows featuring “calls from the listeners” all deserve a special place in Hell).  But these are trivialities compared to its tendency for navel-gazing whenever it reports on itself.  And when the issue is the way it is funded the waves of defensiveness make me ready to chuck the radio or television out of the window like any common or garden gammon-faced Telegraph reader.

Last night I listened to Stephen Nolan’s show on Radio 5 Live on the way home, and was treated to the classic defence of the licence fee.  It is always horrible to hear: smug and complacent, and utterly divorced from reality.  The argument has four main strands:

  • Other media organisations are just trying to do us down for competitive reasons, and they’ve got in the ear of all these Tories and/or politicians don’t like us because we hold them to account;
  • We’re a national treasure and people like watching Strictly;
  • Nobody likes adverts getting in the way of the drama; and
  • Because we are funded by the licence fee we have to produce programming for everyone, which means we have to collect more and more money so that we can make popular shows that could easily fund themselves, and also keep churning out ‘yoof’ programmes on BBC3 even though no-one watches them.

So much for the BBC’s arguments.  Maybe there is an element of truth in all of them.  In particular, I have quite a bit of sympathy for the claim that politicians often say the BBC is biased because it is relatively impartial and happens not to be willing to parrot their point of view: the same is often said of the civil service and other institutions.  (Having said that, there is a reason why Auntie’s employees, like Whitehall officials, are easy to lampoon as middle-class, north London, Guardian-reading liberals who are pretty comfortable with the world as it is, and thus have cautious and conservative instincts – and so irritate all sides in these populist times.)  But in the end none of this matters.

The sad fact is, for the BBC, that change is coming whether it wants it or not, and it won’t be the result of ideological conviction.  Technology will kill the licence fee, just as it is forcing every other media outlet to change its funding model.  Spotify and even Amazon make music radio pretty redundant.  Netflix and other streaming services undermine the case for televised drama.  News can be obtained from a million different sources, sport from a million more.  There is no case for trying to charge everyone for the BBC’s output when more and more people can manage without it and will increasingly refuse to pay the licence fee.  In pretending otherwise the BBC is like a modern day King Canute, closer and closer to drowning as wave after wave of technology washes over its head.

The BBC needs to accept this.  It needs to start to make a case for funding from general taxation for the public goods it delivers: essentially its relatively unbiased news, much depended-on at times of national crisis, and the World Service which takes a positive view of the UK all over the world.  It might be able to claim support for BBC Worldwide on the grounds that it extends our ‘global reach’, and there may be a case for it – and others – competing for grants for some important programming with a limited audience.  But the rest of it has to be funded in another way – adverts, sponsorships, subscriptions, maybe a combination of all of them.  Time for the BBC and those who work for it, Mr Nolan included, to change their views of the licence fee, and fast.

Everything Changes But You: The terrible overuse of cliched words

In recent weeks we have been treated to the soap opera of Meghan and Harry trying to quit the Royal Family, and all the breathless media coverage that has inspired.  Whether you think this is the most important thing ever, or you can’t quite believe that the spectacle of an affluent and privileged 30-something adult trying to resign from a job really merits all this attention, one word has been seared on everyone’s consciousness.  No, not ‘Megxit’.  The word of the month has been ‘transition’.  Which has made me wonder how it is that this perfectly innocuous, vaguely technical, word has gone from obscurity to overuse in just a few short years.

Because these days everything is about transition.  Once upon a time Harry and Meghan would simply have scaled back their Royal duties over a period of months; now they are in transition.  We can’t just say the UK is leaving the EU in a two-stage process, we have instead to say we are in the transition period.  Footballers no longer play the ball through the midfield from defence to attack, they transition through the lines.  Nobody leaves a company or a school or anything else: they make the transition from work to retirement, or from school to university, or from Company A to Company B.  Television shows do not shift from one scene to the next, they transition between them.  And Taylor Swift didn’t change her songwriting and singing style from country to pop, she experienced a transition between the two.

In other words, ‘transitions’ are going on everywhere.  And even worse is the verb, ‘to transition’.  I’m not even clear that this is really a verb but everyone is at it, transitioning from one role to another, transitioning through middle age or into retirement or from childhood to adulthood.  (NB: some people, obviously, transition from male to female or vice versa and for me that is one perfectly legitimate use of the word, since it is so widely associated with that process and experience.)

The sudden prevalence of ‘transition’ doesn’t really matter, yet it still irritates (at least, it bothers me).  The word is more than just overused: it is tired and hackneyed, and often used inaccurately.  Actually, it is more often not used wrongly but not used fully accurately to describe what actually is happening.  It would seem that people like to use it because it sounds a bit smarter than other, simpler, words like changing, altering, shifting, moving, progressing, proceeding, and many others.  And this is just one example of an ‘in vogue’ word just about killing off other, better, ones, when using the same buzzy word to describe lots and lots of different things is lazy and, frankly, boring.

So my plea is for new words to be found.  Or more accurately for old words to be re-found.  Perhaps this can be a lasting legacy of Megxit: that everyone transitions away (see what I did there?) from cliched, overworked, trendy words towards a fuller and more descriptive vocabulary.

Response to the consultation on the PRCA public affairs code

The PRCA has launched a consultation on its public affairs code.  The following is the response from Park Street Partners, which is based on finding pragmatic and sensible solutions that come as close as possible to eliminating any risk of impropriety.

Are you entirely satisfied with the PRCA Public Affairs Code in its existing form?

No.

How should the PRCA Public Affairs Code be amended? We would welcome views on issues including but not limited to the issues listed below.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the purpose of the PRCA Public Affairs Code, which is to prevent impropriety or the appearance of improper behaviour when it comes to lobbying Government and Parliament (and the devolved institutions).  The Code rightly exists to ensure that unfair access is prevented, improper payments are not made or received, and lies are not told by lobbyists.

In this context it is important to make a distinction between the House of Lords and every other elected national body in the UK, namely the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the London Assembly.  Unlike the others the House of Lords is simultaneously a (weak) legislature, an advisory chamber of the great and the good, and a place which includes those who have been honoured for their contribution to society, business and politics.  Peers fulfil a range of roles and are there for a range of reasons.  It would be perverse for our industry to be so un-self-confident as to effectively rule out peerages for the top practitioners in our sector (and in related areas covered by the PRCA such as local government or charities) by not recognising this difference.

At present the definition of public affairs is too broad (albeit very slightly) to apply specifically to members of the House of Lords, and this can be confusing for those covered by the Code and also allow those who want to secure a competitive advantage or to make mischief to score cheap points by pointing the finger at practitioners who are doing nothing wrong.

I would therefore propose a broader definition of ‘public affairs’ that applies to all legislators other than those in the Lords, and a much tighter definition of ‘lobbying’ that would apply to Peers.  The latter definition should read:

“Lobbying” means activities which are carried out for the purpose of (a) influencing government, (b) or advising others how to influence government in relation to a specific aspect of policy or the expenditure of public money on a specific project or in a specific sector. Activities are to be taken as having the purpose specified if a reasonable person would assume, having regard to all the circumstances, that the activities were intended to have the effect described.

The definition of ‘public affairs’ should read:

“Public affairs” includes lobbying as well as any activities relating to providing advice and insight into the policies, intentions, and operations of the Government, Parliament and other public bodies, and how to influence those organisations.  Activities are to be taken as having the purpose specified if a reasonable person would assume, having regard to all the circumstances, that the activities were intended to have the effect described.

The restrictions relating to the employment of MPs, MEPs, Members of the House of Lords, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the National Assembly for Wales, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the London Assembly, and Councillors.

Given the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union we should delete all references to MEPs from the Code.

In order to make the distinction between the House of Lords and the rest, paragraph 8 should be amended as follows:

  1. Members must not:
  • Employ any MP or any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly to conduct public affairs in any capacity.
  • Employ any Member of the House of Lords to conduct lobbying in any capacity.
  • Make any award or payment in money or in kind (including equity) to any MP or to any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly
  • Make any award or payment in money or in kind (including equity) to any Member of the House of Lords other than if they are legitimately employed by the member company on a permanent contract in accordance with the terms of this Code.

For former Ministers and former MPs who are not Members of the House of Lords, and hold no other publicly elected position, the PRCA currently imposes no restrictions other than on the holding of Parliamentary passes.  We would welcome members’ views here too.  Do you agree with the current restrictions, if so explain why?  Do you think these restrictions should be more robust and if so how would you suggest this could be achieved?

There should be no restrictions on employing former Ministers and Parliamentarians other than as laid out by the Government (in the ACOBA and other guidelines) or the administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and by the relevant legislatures.

PRCA members should not hold Parliamentary or similar passes in any circumstances (whether they are former Members, spouses or partners of members, working on a contract let by Parliament or any other body or in any other circumstances).  There is absolutely no need for anyone not employed by any organisation to hold a pass to access its office or workplace (and arguments that Parliament is ‘different’ are hogwash); holding a pass not only confers privileged access but looks unfair and potentially dodgy.  Paragraph 14 of the Code should be amended accordingly.

The PRCA Public Affairs Code applies only to PRCA members, rather than to holding groups which own member companies, or to member companies which own subsidiaries. Should there be any change here?

Yes.  As appropriate the PRCA Code (as amended, see above) should apply to all subsidiaries of companies which are themselves members of the PRCA which are majority-owned or otherwise controlled by the member company.