Archive: USA

Bobby Fischer Against the World cover

This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.

The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.

But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.

But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.

In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.

In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.

It is hard to believe that the 11 September attacks were ten years ago now, when I was only 15.

I was at school, waiting for my German Writing lesson to begin. It was probably my least favourite subject. As such, I didn’t especially mind the delay in the lesson beginning, thought it was quite odd.

My teacher kept on going between the classroom and the staff room. Eventually he wheeled a television through and told us we should watch this because it would have pretty big implications. If I remember correctly, we saw the second plane hit as it happened.

I thought I was pretty switched-on for my age in terms of knowing about politics and current affairs, but Islamic extremism of this nature was new to me. At the time, I mistakenly thought that the fact that the Pentagon had been hit was the biggest story. In isolation it would be bad enough.

But the resonance of the images of the World Trade Centre was incredible, and the scale of the loss of life was unimaginable. I seem to remember the news reports talking about the potential that tens of thousands of people may have been in the World Trade Centre at the time.

It was difficult to comprehend. There was one person in my class who had to have the concept of a suicide attack explained to him several times. We laughed at the time, but his attitude was right. Why would you do that?

What a tangle Formula 1 has found itself in, again. The sport has ended up on the front pages for the wrong reasons yet again.

The problems with rescheduling Bahrain

The reinstatement of the Bahrain Grand Prix is somewhat of a surprise. Clearly the situation in Bahrain is not the sort of circumstance where you can reasonably expect to hold a major international sporting event in complete security.

Employees of Pirelli were in Bahrain when trouble first flared up, when the GP2 Asia race had to be cancelled at the last minute. According to Adam Cooper, they are “not keen to return”.

Then there are the morals of holding the grand prix when the spotlight is on Bahrain’s human rights record. (Not that regularly holding grands prix in China seem to make many people bat an eyelid.) If Bahrain’s problems are temporary, as some maintain, then let them prove it and return next year.

If holding the grand prix will be a “unifying force” for Bahrain, as others claim, take a look at the planned “day of action” for 30 October, the rescheduled date for the grand prix.

30 October. That brings me on to the logistics of this. It is clear that holding the race even in a perfectly peaceful situation would involve a logistical mountain to climb. Not only does it involve moving the Bahrain Grand Prix. It also involves moving the inaugural Indian Grand Prix to the end of the year, which in turn stretches the length of the season to breaking point.

The teams are not happy about the prospect of racing just a couple of weeks before Christmas. By that time, their workers will be overdue a holiday. If the season gets much longer, teams would have to contemplate hiring extra staff. But with everyone involved in Formula 1 desperately trying to keep a lid on costs, this would be a painful step to take.

All of this makes me think, what is really going on here? Is it feasible? What is the real story?

Why move the Indian Grand Prix?

30 October was whispered as a potential date for a rescheduled Bahrain Grand Prix a few weeks ago. My very first thought was, “Why move the Indian Grand Prix?”

Last year there were high-profile troubles with the new Korea International Circuit. The circuit was barely finished in time, as it failed inspection after inspection. In the end, the race could be held — just. But it was marred by a dreadful spray problem in rainy conditions, which some attributed to the type of tarmac that had to be used to lay it in a hurry.

Fernando Alonso recently said, “It was completely dark and it was so wet. It was one hour delayed because of the wet. We could not follow the safety car because of the spray. There were so many things in one race that it remains quite shocking what we did in Korea.”

As far as I’m aware, there is no serious suggestion that the Buddh International Circuit in India is in danger of not being completed in time. But it is not complete yet, with just a few months before the original October slot.

Has the Indian Grand Prix been moved to give the circuit constructors a bit more breathing space to ensure that the circuit is completed properly? To have another Korea-style embarrassment for a second year running is clearly to be avoided.

Perhaps the main aim was to move the Indian Grand Prix, and use Bahrain as the pawn to do it. If the FIA decide that the Bahrain Grand Prix cannot be held after all, they will simply cancel it and keep India in its new 11 December slot.

What’s going on with the 2012 calendar?

On the same day, the provisional 2012 calendar was published. It also had a couple of surprises. Bahrain and India are both in the calendar in the positions you would expect, the same as the original 2011 calendar.

What is a surprise is that Turkey is included — albeit with one of those infamous asterisks. All previous indications were that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix would be the last one.

With the addition of the United States Grand Prix, this nudges the calendar up to 21 grands prix. This has always been a big no-no. Even 20 races is pushing the limit of what the teams are in favour of. Bernie Ecclestone claims his aim is for a 20 race calendar. Jean Todt says that there will “absolutely not” be as many as 21 races next season, despite the provisional calendar.

So what’s going on? It seems to me like the powers that be are trying to cover all the bases. If Bahrain can’t take place next year, Turkey is ready to go and Bernie has his 20 races. Similarly, if India can’t take place, or the USA, or indeed any other race, the backup plan is there.

With one extra race in the calendar anyway, this looks like a way for Bernie Ecclestone to be sure that, after this year’s hiccups, 2012 will have 20 races.

This week, I have decided to make another attempt at reading more books. I read stuff all the time, but almost all of it is on the web. A few hundred words at a time. Lots of breadth but not much depth.

I have never done much in the way of reading books. Fiction is not for me, so novels are more-or-less out of the question. However, I do enjoy reading non-fiction books. But I somehow never get the time to read them.

Time is the scarcest resource imaginable, and I have a tendency to build these backlogs. Not too long ago I wrote about the huge number of podcasts that are stuck in my backlog (I am just about getting that under control). I also have a small pile of CDs that I bought several months ago and still haven’t listened to, and a slightly smaller pile of DVDs from before Christmas that I still haven’t watched.

The unread books shelf But books are the big daddy of my backlog. I have special shelf just for unread books! Currently, 15 books sit there. Some of them I must have got almost a decade ago.

I think they are perhaps the wrong books. How tempted am I to ever reopen the ten-year-old book about US radio stations that I started but didn’t finish? How about the two political books that I started but never finished? Or the two books about economics that I started but got bored of?

In the summer of 2006, between my second and third years at university, I went on a big drive to read economics books. I had begun to realise that I was struggling at economics, and decided to spend the summer reading less academic, more accessible economics book in an attempt to soak up some of the subject and hopefully become a better economist in third year.

I happened to read a blog post by Greg Mankiw called Summer reading list, which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After a bit of research, I selected five books from the list and ordered them. Sadly, it took me a year to read one of them. I finished another of them last year. I started one of them this year but gave up, and two others sit on the shelf virtually unopened. (I finished Freakonomics very quickly, but I think I bought that afterwards.)

My lack of talent in economics became clearer in third year, when I performed abysmally. My motivation plummeted. I later bought the Penguin History of Economics, which was on the reading list for the History of Economic Thought course that I took. This, also, has been started but not finished.

For a while, my main plan was to get through these economics books, and the other books in my backlog, before buying any others. But having not done any reading for several months, I had to recognise that this wasn’t a good plan.

Before I completed my degree, I had already more-or-less made the decision not to pursue economics further. I was lucky enough to somehow get a 2:1, but mostly due to the politics courses and my dissertation. It was clear to me that I just wasn’t cut out for economics, even though I planned to maintain an interest in it.

But there was no point in pretending I was going to start reading these books. So I have decided to buy more books on different subjects and start reading them. Last week I acquired seven new books — six that I had bought, and one surprise gift. It’s a mixture of stuff — some about writing and editing, a humour book, some motorsport books that I will probably blast through, and… an economics book.

Well, I figured that since I liked Freakonomics so much, I would probably actually read Superfreakonomics. Wish me luck. I will keep my LibraryThing thing updated.

As regular readers may know, I worked for Woolworths until it closed down in January this year. You can read the series of articles I wrote in the aftermath of its closure.

In one of my articles, I wrote about the poster that appeared in the staff area this time last year. It announced:

Remember Remember the 5th of November!

In just less than a year, on the 5th November 2009, we celebrate our 100th birthday!

Watch out for more details coming soon…

Unfortunately we didn’t get many more details about the centenary celebrations. All we heard after that was stuff about trying to sell the company for a pound.

I regret not taking the poster to keep as soon as it was clear that Woolies would not emerge from the mire it found itself in through late November and December. Someone is selling one of these posters on eBay at the moment. The poster is a great piece of history — the 100th birthday that never was.

Or was it? Today, the new owners of the Woolworths brand have been celebrating the centenary nonetheless by putting on 100 promotions and giving away free Pic ‘n’ Mix with every order. That is what I like about the new Woolworths, owned by Shop Direct. Despite being a separate company, they are respectful of the name’s heritage. In fairness, they would be mad not to — the Woolies name must still have appeal, especially among those in a nostalgic mood.

Not everyone is so happy about it. The Woolworths Facebook page is often full of offended comments from people who feel that it is presumptuous and opportunistic of Shop Direct to cash in on the 99 years of Woolworths that preceded their involvement. There were, after all, around 30,000 workers made redundant at the original Woolworths last Christmas. Most probably aren’t in the mood to celebrate.

It is a matter of debate whether Woolworths is 100 really. Today is nothing other than the 100th anniversary of the first F. W. Woolworth store to open in the UK. The company had already been operating in the USA and Canada for decades before that. The UK company became separate in the 1980s when it was bought by Kingfisher. After that, Woolworths in the UK became a separate company when Kingfisher cast it off in 2001.

In the USA, the Woolworths name ceased to exist in 1997. But the original company still exists as Foot Locker, having decided to concentrate on sports goods. If the operation in the USA still counts, Woolworths is 131 years old.

You can still shop in bona fide Woolworths stores in Germany. These, like the British stores, were originally part of the American company and became separate in 1998. It declared insolvency this year, but struggles on.

(Supermarket chains named Woolworths in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have nothing to do with the original FW Woolworth apart from the name.)

There has been a fair bit of chat in recent weeks about the prospect of a televised leaders’ debate in the run-up to the next general election. This sort of chat always comes up in the run-up to any election, but there appears to be an extra momentum this time round.

It seems as though the promise by Sky News to televise a debate come what may — even if the debate was between tubs of lard — has forced everyone’s hand, broadcasters and political parties alike. It seems as though now it is going to happen, with the involvement of all the major broadcasters. It also appears as though the three main party leaders are on board (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm).

The end of the issue? Of course not. This is just the beginning of the matter. More details will need to be fleshed out. What format should such a debate take? Will there be a number of separate debates? And what about the role of smaller parties?

I am normally fairly ambivalent about calls for televised political debates. Those politicians who call for such a debate usually do so because they perceive that it would advantage them.

Someone like David Cameron will go for it because he is a confident performer, the momentum is behind him and the media appears to have declared him the winner already. Someone like Gordon Brown will reject it because he does not come across so well on television. This time he has been forced into it, partly because of Sky News’ promise to “empty chair” him if he didn’t, but also because refusing to appear would further the idea that Brown is a coward with poor leadership qualities.

The prospect of a televised political debate fills me with dread rather than excitement. I doubt it does much for democratic accountability. Part of me suspects that vain politicians just crave appearances on the television.

No doubt we will be served up a rather unedifying spectacle, like PMQs on steroids. I predict Punch and Judy politics a-plenty. Most likely, as with Question Time, it will be a platform for the most appalling demagoguery, complete with an audience that will clap like seals at any old nonsense.

Most of all, I think the idea of a leaders’ debate just misses the point. While it is useful to know what the major party leaders think, focusing on leaders too much is damaging to the health of our parliamentary democracy. Once again, there is a clamour to bring to Britain a feature of US politics which is a square peg in a round hole.

Televised debates are highly popular in the USA. But that is because the format is practically ready-made for the US political system. For one, the US system is a Presidential system, meaning that voters actually do elect the country’s leader. The US system is also a truly two-party system, with two Leviathans totally overshadowing any minority candidates. This makes it easy to adopt a one-on-one, head-to-head debating format.

Even though the televised debate is more-or-less a perfect fit for a US Presidential election, the format’s success is a matter for debate. In years gone by it may have provided some election-defining moments. But as I recall, the debates involving Barack Obama and John McCain, and Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, hardly set the world alight.

So what on earth makes anyone think that this gimmick will suit British politics? It seems like just another outcome of politicos’ obsession with America. It seems like the idea of someone who has mistaken his DVD box set of The West Wing for real pornography.

Our Parliamentary system doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — place so much focus on party leaders. Very few voters will actually have any sort of say on who the Prime Minister is. I will have the option to vote for or against Gordon Brown, but only because I happen to live in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I will have no say whatsoever on David Cameron or Nick Clegg.

And what of the smaller parties? In the UK, broadcasters are required to be impartial in the run-up to an election, meaning that legally broadcasters will find it difficult to lock out the small parties. Even if these other parties have little or no chance of forming the government. Even if most viewers will not be as interested in hearing from these parties.

The most noise is being made by the SNP. They are threatening legal action if an SNP representative is unable to play a part in a televised leaders’ debate.

The SNP may have a point. Even though they have only a handful of MPs, and are only contesting seats in a portion of the UK, they have a lot of support in that portion. They are not a loony fringe party. They are in fact in government in the UK. Viewers north of the border will certainly be interested to hear what the SNP have to say in the run-up to the election.

At the same time, their presence may be a distraction from the real purpose of the debate, which is basically to watch the potential future Prime Ministers partake in a spot of verbal mud-wrestling. It is, after all, a “leaders’ debate”. Despite all his ambition, Alex Salmond is highly unlikely to be the next Prime Minister, as is Angus Robertson.

Yet, what if there is the prospect of a hung Parliament? The collapse in Labour support has not been met with a real surge in support for the Conservatives. With so many parties having moderate levels of support, it is conceivable that a party like the SNP could play a king-maker role.

There is no easy answer. This is the core problem with the idea of a televised debate. It might be good for a simple, true two party system such as the USA’s. But for the UK’s more subtle and diverse politics, it won’t fit quite so well.

I’ve been thinking about getting involved in podcasting for a while now. So when I saw a favourite blogger of mine asking for contributors to a new podcast he was setting up, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to dip my toe in the water.

The podcast is the idea of James O’Malley, a fine chap with a jolly good blog. His thinking is to have a number of contributors chipping in to a weekly podcast which will be around 15–20 minutes long. The podcast will be along the lefty / liberal / atheist / skeptical / rationalist lines. Read James O’Malley’s explanation for more.

What was missing was a name for the podcast. A bit difficult to come up with a name for something that only exists in your brain. But with the vague template in mind, I set to work, along with the other contributors, to think of a suitable name.

Suddenly, it came to me. After I had been lying in bed literally unable to sleep for hours, it suddenly came to me: The Pod Delusion. Yes, I know. I’m a genius. Not quite a living legend like James O’Malley though. Nonetheless, the fact that I came up with the excellent name means that The Pod Delusion is definitely my podcast. The fact that I put no effort whatsoever into creating it, producing it or commissioning pieces for it is frankly neither here nor there.

Anyway, I am quite excited about The Pod Delusion. With the stellar line-up of contributors, it seems like it’s going to be ace. If everything goes to plan and this week’s pilot goes down well, you can expect a new episode every Friday. My plan is to publish all transcripts of my contributions, or an accompanying article, on this website as and when each podcast is published.

Here is the first episode of The Pod Delusion. I have just listened to it myself. Since it’s the first ever attempt, it is a tad ramshackular, but that will get better over time. All-in-all, I think it’s a fine listen.

Hopefully sometime soon it will be available over iTunes too. You can follow @poddelusion on Twitter.

My first little piece for The Pod Delusion is about product placement. When I first set about doing it, my intention was to try and make it serious. I had actually been planning to write here about the product placement hoo-ha, but then decided I could kill two birds with one stone by making it my Pod Delusion contribution too.

Unfortunately, I got a little bit carried away with the fact that I was working in an exciting new audio medium. I inserted a few audio jokes which won’t work in writing. From then on, the whole thing became just a collection of bad jokes about product placement, strung together by the flimsiest of wafer-thin serious points.

So, bearing that in mind, here is my contribution to this week’s Pod Delusion.


It was announced last week by Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw that product placement will soon be allowed on commercial channels. I suppose there was an inevitability in this. After all, commercial broadcasters finding it harder to sustain themselves through traditional advertising in a multichannel world. Plus, we are living in an era where so many people use PVRs to fast-forward through the adverts anyway.

There has to be some way to fund commercial television. After all, what would we do without ITV? Okay, that’s a bad example. But what would we do without Channel Five? Well okay, but you get my point.

Many worry about the effects that product placement will have on the viewing experience. With product placement, there will be a question mark over the purity of the programmes we watch. Will our programmes be peppered with subliminal advertising that attempt to brainwash us into changing the brand of soap powder that we use?

I’m not so sure that will be such an issue. After all, we are well used to product placements in major films. Television programmes from other countries are filled with product placements already. I am sure that most people are savvy enough to tell what’s going on.

For instance, it can be disconcerting to watch an episode on Neighbours when one of the characters decides to open the fridge. Inexplicably, the fridge is filled from wall to wall with nothing but cans of Sprite! That is obviously a nonsensical scenario. It would have been far more realistic if the fridge was filled from wall to wall with cans of tasty Dr Pepper — “what’s the worst that can happen?”

The odd thing about imported programmes is that due to the stricter laws in the UK, our broadcasters have to blur such product placements out. But this only brings attention to the fact that there is an alien blob floating around on the screen.

Focusing on the blobs on American Idol, for instance, you can clearly see that the judges have large cups on their desk. These cups are predominantly red but with a distinctive white swirl that can only be associated with Coke. Mmm… fresh, ice cold Coke.

The new product placement rules do not affect the BBC. But it would be interesting to consider what it might be like if one day the rules were relaxed for the BBC too. After all, is there anything more ridiculous than the slightly awkward attempts to avoid using brand names during makes on Blue Peter? Referring to “sticky back plastic” may be quaint and traditional, but it is also distracting and sets off a klaxon in your brain that sounds something like: “SELLOTAPE! SELLOTAPE!

I once saw a Blue Peter make where you had to use a “crisp tube”. What on earth is a crisp tube? Crisps come in packets don’t they? What they were talking about was a pack of Pringles. Given that Pringles are the only make of crisps to be sold in that style of tub, you can more or less guarantee that sales of Pringles went through the roof anyway — all because of the BBC’s massive abuse of power.

Well I think I have said all there is to say about product placement. I think what I will do now is take off my Specsavers glasses and shut down my Asus Eee PC. Then I think I will listen to my Apple iPod, while eating a fresh sandwich from Subway.

Or perhaps I will just go for a piss in my Armitage Shanks toilet.

Last night I was a bit bored so I indulged in a spot of channel surfing to see if there was anything decent on. There usually isn’t. But even with my lowered expectations, my jaw literally dropped when I saw what STV were broadcasting — STV Roulette.

Yes, if you thought dodgy gambling programmes were the preserve of the arse end of the Sky channel list, think again. It is right here on Scotland’s Channel 3 franchise, a public service broadcaster no less. You will be delighted to know that STV plan on broadcasting this tat three days a week, for three hours a day.

Presumably this is part of of STV’s much-hyped strategy of promoting “home produced content”. However, STV Roulette and the STV Casino website are produced by NetPlay TV, whose studios are in London.

In recent times, STV has increasingly pursued a strategy of turning down the opportunity to broadcast some of ITV’s best programmes in favour of showing dodgy local clip shows, American imports and… oh, “home produced content”. But the identity of this “home produced content” remains a mystery to viewers. That is probably because it simply doesn’t exist.

I suppose Fitz — a cheap American import — is supposed to count. Apparently it has some kind of vague connection to Cracker. So the trailer tells us anyway. In fact, “Fitz” turned out to be a description of what STV viewers go through every time they realise that their favourite programme has been ditched in favour of some kind of low budget michty-me, jings, crivens and help ma boab bunch of SHITE.

Oh, and apparenty South Park counts as “home produced content” because, in the words of STV’s Managing Director of Broadcast Services, Bobby Hain, it is “mischievous and cheeky”, just like Scottish people! Huh?!

This new found love for “local” programming really is rich coming from STV too. This is a station that, just a few years ago, would do anything to avoid showing locally produced programmes. It blatantly reached its quota of regional programmes with cynical late-night repeats of Weir’s Way and extra editions of Scotland Today Interpreted For The Deaf. As if the ploy wasn’t blatant enough, these showings were ramped up a bit towards the end of the year as well, presumably because the quota needed filling.

I think a lot of people assumed that STV had already been taken over by ITV plc, which sadly is not the case. Any bosses who think people tune in to watch STV are living in cloud cuckoo land. They press button 3 to watch ITV, and expect to watch ITV programmes. That is because regional television is an anachronism that viewers do not care about. This is why STV’s odd strategy has proved so controversial.

STV’s plan wouldn’t be so laughable if it wasn’t based on the totally bogus premise that anyone actually likes regional variations. As I have written before, regional variations are always rubbish, as this excellent clip from The Armando Iannucci Shows ably explains:

I know plenty of people who have mentioned in passing how upset they are that STV refuse to broadcast their favourite programmes. Among the programmes missed by Scottish viewers are showings of the FA Cup, The Bill, Midsomer Murders, Kingdom… I could go on.

New episodes of Lewis are not broadcast, but repeats are fine. New episodes of Poirot are bumped in favour of repeats of Poirot. If those have run out they will show a series of South Park. Other gaps can be filled with cheaply-sourced American imports, Irish (!) imports or films.

That shows up the policy for what it is. This stunt is nothing to do with locally produced programming. This is no favour to the Scottish viewers. It’s all about money. Or so you would think. Quite how STV intends to increase advertising revenues by showing a load of cheap C-grade crap in place of what the viewers are actually expecting is a mystery to all.

STV Roulette is a prime example of STV’s clueless desperation to make money. It is not as if ITV plc has a better record in this department. A couple of years ago it fell in love with the then-fashionable “quiz television” fad, where late-night viewers would be goaded into phoning a premium rate number to answer a question with no proper answer. ITV even set up an entire channel, ITV Play, dedicated to the genre. That was until the public realised they were being hoodwinked, bad publicity ensued and the whole quiz television industry backfired on itself.

At least ITV have got over the fad however. STV seems not to have noticed that it’s bad form to put on this sort of programming. It apparently has no qualms about dedicating 9 hours per week of its channel towards encouraging late-night (i.e. drunk) viewers to gamble.

Sometimes I wonder if STV’s real strategy is to deliberately drive itself into the ground. That way it wouldn’t have to bother with all of that pesky “catering to the viewers” or “making money” business like other commercial channels. Instead it could rely on subsidies for its eternal existence. Genius.

It is already going cap in hand asking for a £5 million subsidy in return for carrying out one of its obligations as a public service broadcaster. Apparently five mil a “reasonable sum”. I am not sure how many people would agree with that, though I reckon a lot of people would be more receptive to the request if they actually showed any sign of wishing to serve their viewers rather than going on some odd crusade of apparent self-destruction.

Watch STV? I’ll opt out, thanks.

A deal has been struck between Max Mosley, Fota and Bernie Ecclestone, and the threat of a breakaway series has been averted. I think there were a lot of people out there who quite liked the idea of a breakaway series. Indeed, given the choice between Max Mosley’s rotten vision and a Fota-run series, I would have gone for the Fota series every time.

But a split would have been a calamitous situation. The new series, despite having all the big names and probably some decent circuits, would still have taken some time to find its feet. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Fota series would have got good television coverage. Don’t forget that for the vast majority of fans, television is the only way we can consume the sport that we love, so this is an essential element.

In a lot of ways, the roots of the current problem in Formula 1 lie with Bernie Ecclestone. Or, to be more precise, CVC. They are the ones who suck the money out of the sport in order to pay the interest on their debts. That is why F1 ends up visiting sterile circuits with minuscule crowds — because those governments will pay huge sums of money for the privilege of holding an F1 race. That is probably also the reason for the fervour over cost cutting. If the teams spend less, Bernie can get away with giving the teams less of the sport’s revenues, and giving CVC more of them.

But despite that problem with CVC, I can’t find it in myself to be too angry with Bernie Ecclestone. In truth, he has done a great job of promoting the sport, and F1 may never have appealed to me were it not for Bernie’s efforts. Sure, there are a lot of areas where he can improve, particularly on the dire online offering.

But under Bernie Ecclestone, the television coverage of Formula 1 has been revolutionised. He got his fingers burnt with the adventurous F1 Digital+ endeavour. But while those innovatory days may be no more (and it is notable that F1 is still not broadcast in HD), today’s FOM-produced World Feed (used for all races except Monaco and Japan) is based on many of those innovations and television coverage has improved immeasurably over the past fifteen or so years.

We seldom have to deal with relatively amateurish efforts from the host broadcasters. Just compare these two videos of the same incident as it unfolded live. One is from the FOM F1 Digital+ World Feed, and the other was from the host broadcaster. (To view them side-by-side ‘as live’, start the second video when the first video reaches 17 seconds.)

The difference in quality is massive. F1 Digital+ caught the accident live so viewers knew immediately what happened. This was no coincidence. It happened because a system of sensors around the circuit could detect when cars were running close together, and coverage automatically switched to those cars in the expectation of some kind of incident unfolding. Later, replays from multiple angles enhanced the viewer’s understanding of the incident.

Meanwhile, the host broadcaster cut to Ralf Schumacher climbing out of his car ten seconds after the incident originally started. And it was a long time until viewers found out that the accident also involved Jacques Villeneuve — and there was only one angle of the incident. Note also how Martin Brundle had to rely on the superior coverage which he could see outside his commentary box window to tell viewers that Villeneuve was unhurt.

The Australian host broadcasters were not dummies. They just did the best job they could with the resources they had at their disposal. “Bernievision” was only good because of heavy investment and years of experimentation.

Bernie’s television operation was pretty impressive even in 2001, though not all of the innovations remain in today’s coverage. But it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone that today’s coverage is more like the first video than the second one. A Fota-run championship would not have had such a slick operation going from day one, and the fans would have been worse off for it.

(For more on the amazing “Bernievision”, check out these decade-old articles on GrandPrix.com: Inside Bakersville and Inside the F1 digital television centre.)

Then there is the question of whether it would have had any coverage at all. The BBC would have been scared off, and television executives would have been confused. They want the World Championship, whether or not an alternative series is better in the eyes of the fans. Take, for instance, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which I hear is better than the FIA’s World Rally Championship. Not that I’d know, because the former is ghettoised on Eurosport while the FIA’s weak WRC gets terrestrial coverage.

No matter if it has all the current teams and good circuits — signing up to show a new series is a risk which television executives wouldn’t want to take. The prospect of the best F1 series being on some pay channel and having no terrestrial coverage was a real one. That aspect of the breakaway scared me.

On the other hand, the proposed breakaway presented the opportunity to create a great new version of Formula 1, unshackled from the financial needs of CVC or the warped politics of Max Mosley. Fota had some crazy ideas, but they carried out market research and were far more receptive to the views of fans than the FIA have ever been.

I particularly liked the idea that the new series could have been particularly focussed on attracting an American audience. The FIA Formula 1 Championship has dumped on US fans time and again, and today there is no race in North America even though it is a major market for the manufacturers.

There would also have been a careful look at ticket prices and the fees circuits have to pay to hold an F1 race. No-one (apart from Bernie apparently) likes to arrive at sterile circuits with a dozen people in the grandstand. It comes across on television too, whether or not FOM’s cameramen are instructed to avoid shots of empty grandstands.

I could feel the atmosphere of the passionate British crowd on the television. The difference could hardly be more stark from the previous race at Turkey, where the crowd was around 10% of the size. And Silverstone is a circuit that Bernie wants to move away from.

Even the little things that are wrong with F1 could have had the magnifying glass applied to them. Such as, why can’t a driver keep the same number for his whole career. In other categories such as Nascar or MotoGP, a driver’s number becomes part of his legend, every bit as important as, say, his helmet design. Even in the history of Formula 1, the number 27 car is almost synonymous with Gilles Villeneuve. Imagine the marketing potential too. But in the clinical world of Formula 1, driver numbers are determined by the positions of last year’s Constructors’ Championship.

In short, the breakaway could have been a great opportunity to fix everything that is broken with F1. I doubt the breakaway would have been a true ‘split’, and it probably wouldn’t have had the same consequences as the Cart / IRL split. It was pretty clear from the fact that the FIA never released a finalised 2010 entry list that the FIA didn’t have a 2010 F1 Championship to speak of, and Fota’s would have been the only show in town.

That, I think, is why the deal must be seen as a victory for Fota. It has turned out to be a powerful organisation that did after all have the ability to at last stand up to Max Mosley’s dictatorial authority.

There is a part of me that suspects that the FIA as an organisation simply isn’t fit for the purpose of overseeing motorsports. We will eventually see how things develop with Max Mosley’s successor. I think today is just the starting point though, and we will see some more loose ends being tied up in the coming months. There will be power struggles there too, I am sure.

It looks like these negotiations will in fact be handled by Michel Boeri. That in itself is interesting because he is the promoter of the Monaco Grand Prix. It was reported that he would take the Monaco GP with him to the Fota camp if the breakaway went ahead.

What we need now, most of all, is someone in charge of the FIA who is not a glorified politician, constantly interfering. I remember Maurice Hamilton making the point once that everyone knows who Max Mosley is, and many people can tell you that Jean-Marie Balestre was his predecessor. But not many can tell you who Balestre’s predecessor was (for you history buffs, on the Fisa side it was Pierre Ugeux, and in the FIA it was Paul Metternich). Yet the sport still ran.

It sounds like from now on there will be more checks and balances in place, with the F1 Commission being given more of a say from now on. No doubt Fota will continue to play its role too, and I think it would be best for everyone if Williams and Force India re-joined and USF1, Campos and Manor all joined too. That way the teams, who create the sport, can have a say in its governance too.

Speaking of the new teams, I think as we sit here today, with much of the damage repaired, the biggest shame of this episode is that two capable teams have been denied a place on the entry list as a result of Max Mosley’s petty politicking. I think many of us can’t wait to see Prodrive finally get a chance to enter F1, and Lola were a promising prospect too.

No doubt the FIA actually had a tough choice to make, as according to Joe Saward at least the Manor Grand Prix team is actually a seriously strong prospect. With costs set to be cut and a more stable future for F1 promised, and with that troublesome Max fellow out of the way, at least we know there are capable teams that are ready to fill any potential gaps that appear.

The crisis currently facing politics in the UK is massive. Citizens feel detached from the political process and trust in politicians is rock-bottom. It’s been widely noted that this is a perfect opportunity to reform the rotten system.

I only want to briefly cover the main ideas for reform, so I will use The Guardian’s “A New Politics” supplement (PDF link) as the basis for this article. It gives a good overview of the most common suggestions for political reform in the UK.

One thing before I start though. Ten years ago in Scotland, when the Scottish Parliament was set up, there was a lot of talk about what the “new politics” would look like. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been disappointed with what the political elites came up with.

On with The Guardian’s suggestions.

Written constitution

For a while now, I have been sceptical of the desirability of a written constitution. I’m sceptical about rules in general. After all, it was rules that got us into this expenses mess in the first place. Politician after politician lined up to excuse their behaviour: “it was completely within the rules”. In many cases, their behaviour was in the rules. The overwhelming message to the voters was: screw the morals, I only care about the rules!

Think to yourself, why is murder taboo? It certainly isn’t because murder is against the law. It is because murder is absolutely abhorrent. You don’t need rules to tell you that. So what would a written constitution do? It might give people with dubious morals a set of loopholes they can exploit, with a ready-made excuse for their behaviour.

As for Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion that every schoolchild should be taught about the importance of such a constitution, can we not leave that sort of cheesy crap to the Americans?

The monarchy

I am no monarchist, and I really wouldn’t mind if the monarchy was abolished. But who really believes that doing away with the Queen would restore trust in politicians? The Queen is probably the one person involved in the government that anyone has a modicum of respect for at the moment.

Electoral reform

As you may guess from my previous post, I have a strong interest in electoral reform. For several years I have felt that the voting system is the most important part of the system to get right.

For me, the First Past the Post voting system is the thing that stinks the most about Westminster. As I pointed out, it is the sort of system that allows a party to gain a thumping majority having gained the votes of just 16% of the population.

It also means the creation of safe seats, the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs, where voters are utterly neglected. Incidentally, there appears to be a correlation between the safeness of an MP’s seat and their likelihood of being implicated in the expenses scandal.

John Harris seems happy to settle for the Additional Member System currently used in the Scottish Parliament. But this system has enough problems to merit its own post. His other suggestion of Alternative Vote Plus is not ideal as it has the same problems as AMS, but with the added “bonus” of being rigged in favour of the larger parties and having a relatively low level of proportionality.

For me, little other than Single Transferable Vote will suffice. STV vastly reduces the number of safe seats and places more power into voters’ hands, and takes it away from the smoke-filled rooms of political parties. I am quite perturbed that John Harris neglected to mention STV at all.

Parliamentary protocol

Here, Hugh Muir seems most concerned with the quaint traditions such as Black Rod and “blather about “honourable” and “right honourable gentlemen”?” As with the monarchy, though, I see little harm in these things, and it really isn’t the issue at hand. I would certainly like to see a less stuffy approach though, and I think the Scottish Parliament has just about got the balance right on this sort of thing.

House of Lords

Jonathan Freedland wants an elected House of Lords above all else. But I think more elections and more elected politicians are the last thing we need. Of course the present system is unacceptable in many ways, but there is no denying that it has saved our skin a number of times by holding the government to account in ways which I doubt an elected House of Lords would ever be able to do.

One possibility would be for people to be appointed for a term at random, like doing jury service (this is also one of The Guardian’s separate sections, so I consider it further below). Perhaps it would be good for Lords to be appointed, but by a wider range of bodies, not just the Prime Minister.

Local government

Simon Jenkins suggests that MPs have a dual role, and they must do a lot of local work in their constituencies which would have been “unheard of 50 years ago”. He suggests that there should be local mayors to relieve MPs of these duties. Again, I would be reluctant to introduce more elected officials. Surely the answer is to strengthen the already-existing local authorities.

The speaker

I have no firm views on how the role should be reformed, but none of Jackie Ashley’s suggestions sound undesirable.

MP numbers

Given some of what I have written above, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I would be in favour of reducing the amount of MPs. 400-odd sounds about right to me. Again, the increased workload of each MP should in fact be absorbed by local government.

Representation

I would not be against attempts to increase, say, the number of female MPs. But stunts such as quotas have no place in a truly meritocratic system. Moreover, it is well known that voters tend to see such initiatives as an insult, and a backlash ensues. This is certainly not one way to restore faith in politics.

Direct democracy

Julian Glover says, “use the jury system as a model”. That is one suggestion for reform of the House of Lords, so I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that idea. I doubt many would be too keen on that idea though, and I don’t think I’d be up for taking five years out of my life either.

Mr Glover seems to think there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of representative democracy, but I really do not think so. The role of such juries should be limited, and I wouldn’t give them much of a role in the House of Commons.


I will consider The Guardian’s other proposals tomorrow