I was sad to read that Frank Sidebottom — or Chris Sievey, his real name — died today. I have vague memories of him being on television when I was very young, and it was a joy to rediscover him when he made his comeback four or five years ago.
He never returned to the heights of his late 1980s zenith, so I have had to make do with YouTube for my fix of Frank Sidebottom. Although I did buy and enjoy ‘ABC&D’, his best of CD.
I had seen that he was diagnosed with cancer recently, and clearly he was in a very bad way. But it didn’t stop him performing and just last week he released a World Cup song, ‘Three Shirts on my Line‘ (“35 years of dirt, just washed out by me mum”).
His former keyboardist, Jon Ronson, wrote a great article about Frank Sidebottom’s career a few years ago. Fascinating reading, and quite sad too.
(If you look carefully in the credits, you’ll see that he is even credited as Frank Sidebottom, not Chris Sievey.)
A Twitter campaign to get Frank Sidebottom to number 1 is gathering steam — @MakeFrank1. I think it would be very apt. Because going by the reaction from people today, while Frank Sidebottom disappeared from view somewhat in recent years, it’s clear that many people loved him.
There is something about the way that economists think that makes them different. Sometimes this makes them downright brilliant. Other times it makes them complete outcasts.
I often enthuse about the paradox of voting — the phenomenon whereby economists struggle to explain why people vote. But when I talk about it to anyone else, the idea is normally met with a combination of confusion and mirth.
I escaped early though. Realising early on that I didn’t really have a talent for economics, I switched tracks soon after completing my degree. I still retain an interest in the subject though, and it definitely still affects the way I think.
The core problem that economics is concerned with is the allocation of scarce resources. Poor John Stuart Mill was traumatised by the problem. When trying to take his mind off the dismal issue, he turned to music. But he only found himself worrying about the scarcity of different musical notes. This insight in turn led him to conclude that, one day in the future, every possible combination of notes will be exhausted and there will be no new melodies.
He needn’t have worried. As we all know in these vuvuzela-aware times, millions will happily make do with one solitary hooting B♭.
A thought about scarcity suddenly struck me today. It is widely thought that this generation will be vilified, but most assume that it will be because we’ve used up all the oil or something.
But what about those all-important usernames on that we depend upon as our identities on the internet? Everyone who has tried to sign up for a half-decent email address knows that it can be a complete pain finding a unique username that isn’t idiotic.
That is how I ended up with an idiotic moniker like ‘doctorvee’. Even this mad username was already taken up on YouTube and Skype when I tried to sign up to those sites. Moreover, some other chappie has decided to call himself ‘Mr DeeJay Doctor V€€’, thereby putting paid to my chance of buying doctorvee.com, should I ever have felt the urge to do so.
The problem is bad enough today. Maybe we can keep on signing up to Twitter with vaguely comprehensible usernames for a few years more. But what about 10, 50, 100 years in the future? Surely by then everything will be used up.
Or perhaps, like Mill and his music, it is just the paranoia that comes with the territory when you think like an economist.
The country lurches back into its usual routine this week. But with the new year comes changes, and a vital part of everyone’s daily life — the radio — will seem very different.
My parents are concerned about what will happen to Radio 2 after the departure of Terry Wogan from breakfast. They were not happy to hear that his replacement will be Chris Evans. My parents originally stopped listening to Radio 1 when Chris Evans took over the Radio 1 breakfast show. (Quite how they tolerated Steve Wright before this is beyond me though.)
I get the feeling that they will stick with Radio 2. Chris Evans is a very different broadcaster to what he was ten or fifteen years ago and has apparently pleased most people with his performances on Radio 2 so far.
While Terry Wogan’s last show was the one that caught all the headlines, the end of two other radio programmes will be far more disruptive to my routine. I was not a listener of Terry Wogan’s, though I don’t suppose I am really part of his target audience.
The end of Adam and Joe
Much bigger news in my world has been the end of Adam and Joe’s programme on BBC 6 Music. They are raising the drawbridge at the Big British Castle for an indefinite period while Joe Cornish focuses on his new career as a film director.
This programme has been a core part of my week for the past two years. It is also unusual because due to its Saturday morning time slot, it has been the only thing that has managed to get me to wake up at a decent hour on a Saturday.
Adam and Joe have an excellent knack of doing a type of humour which is silly but not stupid — a balance that very few manage to strike. This made it ideal listening for the start of the weekend. It was perhaps something to gently lift you out of a mild hangover. The accompanying podcast was also excellent for lifting spirits during your journey into work.
Their gentle humour was mixed with sharp observations on popular culture. Increasingly, towards the end of the programme’s run, listener contributions were a larger part of the programme. Combined with the programme’s elite listening force Black Squadron and the STEPHEN! phenomenon, there was quite a tight-knit community feel to the show.
This was no doubt helped by the fact that it was on BBC 6 Music, jokingly referred to by Adam Buxton as “the secret station”. Even though it was the most popular programme on the station by quite a long way, due to its location in the outer reaches of select DAB sets, Adam and Joe’s was a cosy and understated programme. It is difficult to imagine Adam and Joe’s programme working so well on another, larger radio station.
Adam and Joe’s replacement will be Danny Wallace, who is not quite in the same league. It will leave a huge gap in my Saturday mornings. What else can I listen to? Saturday Live on Radio 4? Sorry, not for me. Jonathan Ross on Radio 2? Possibly. Or will I return to my old ‘default’ radio station, Radio 5 Live, for Danny Baker and Fighting Talk?
Changes at Radio 5 Live
Speaking of Radio 5 Live, that is the source of the other big change to my radio routine. Richard Bacon has vacated the late-night slot to take over from Simon Mayo, who is moving to replace Chris Evans on Drivetime at Radio 2.
I was a fan of Richard Bacon during his first stint on 5 Live in the weekend late-night slot, and he continued to delight when he returned to the station to do weeknights. Given his background, he is surprisingly good at dealing with big issues as well as light-hearted stuff.
He is also unafraid to use humour. It could be so embarrassing (and some would probably say it is), but I think it works well. The interesting bit after 12:30am was entertaining and brave. I can’t think of many other presenters who would get away with completely doing away with news for half an hour every day on Radio 5 Live.
I am greatly regretful that I never managed to get my hands on one of those badges. It was nevertheless an honour and a privilege to listen.
Richard Bacon’s irreverence is what makes him good as a broadcaster, but it’s difficult to see how he can leverage this in his new mid-afternoon slot, one of the most important in 5 Live’s schedule. Most disappointingly, it will be on during the daytime, meaning that I won’t be able to listen to it.
The replacement in the late night slot will be former Daily Sport editor Tony Livesey. I will reserve judgement until I hear the programme. I gather he is actually quite good. But if I don’t take to it, I might take the unusual step of switching to a commercial radio station during weeknights to listen to Iain Lee on Absolute Radio.
Richard Bacon’s move is part of a wider shake-up at Radio 5 Live, which also sees Gabby Logan getting a daily slot. With the day going from the Nicky Campbell Speak You’re Branes hour to Victoria Derbyshire to Gabby Logan, it’s not difficult to see why some people have started to nickname the station Radio 5 Lite.
It’s not quite the quality station I loved just a few years ago. Just now Radio 5 Live seems utterly bereft of ideas, aside from attempting to stealthily change it into a 24/7 Mark Kermode station. At least Up All Night is still good.
If I was being uncharitable, I might suggest that the presenters that remain at the station are the ones who are prepared to make the move to Salford when the station relocates there next year. The logic behind moving a radio station that covers news (most of which happens in London) to Manchester is still beyond me, I have to admit.
On the bright side…
It’s not all bad news on the radio front. In addition to his new daytime Radio 5 Live slot, Richard Bacon has a Saturday afternoon programme on 6 Music. He promises to take some of the jollity of his late night 5 Live show to 6 Music. But who listens to radio at that time? Not me.
I might make space in my Sunday afternoons for 6 Music though. Jarvis Cocker will have a new programme alongside the already-excellent Freak Zone.
But weekend mornings will still be a problem. And I’ll need a new comedy podcast to replace Adam and Joe. Does anyone have any suggestions? (Not Collings and Herrin — I tried it, and it was crap.)
The third part of my five-part series looking at 20 interesting albums from the 20 year history of Warp Records. To read other parts of the series, please check the table of contents to the right.
Battles — Mirrored
Battles are redefining what rock music is. They are pushing the envelope in the same way bands like Tortoise were doing ten or twenty years ago. In fact, I see Battles as the successors to Tortoise at the forefront of mind-bending rock music, filling a gap which was left after Tortoise settled down.
The music on Mirrored is unlike almost anything you’ll hear anywhere else. But the studio output is not even the most impressive thing about Battles. By now all listeners to contemporary music are well used to the technical wizardry that can be found in almost any song.
The amazing thing about Battles, though, is the way they use technology to manipulate their performing in real time when they’re playing live (see, for instance, their performance of ‘Atlas’ on Later with Jools Holland). Their performances are the greatest partnership of man and machine, with a dazzling array of black boxes and gizmos festooned with an army of cables. They have plenty of interesting and unique ways of making sounds.
It is as though they decided to make it all as difficult as possible. But the band is well capable. They are clearly performing on the edge — a small amount away from being a total disaster. But the talent — most notably the experimental maverick Tyondai Braxton, and the intricate and precise drummer John Stainer — is there to keep everything under control.
Strangely, the highlight of Mirrored is the one song they don’t seem to play live, ‘Rainbow':
Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works Volume II
Aphex Twin is probably the Warp artist who needs an introduction the least. Indeed, to an extent, he has defined the label. His first Warp album as Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works II, is probably his best.
It certainly stands out from the others in terms of style, with little emphasis on beats and little evidence of the humour that would be present in his later material. Mind you, some people may think he is pulling the listener’s leg with these long-winded and repetitive tracks. I have to confess that I found it a challenging listen at first.
But the fact is that these are beautiful pieces of music, both light and dark. The album is so strong that it probably defines the idea of what ambient music is as much as any Brian Eno album does. It certainly is not mere background music. The emotional intensity ensures that the music is engaging and stands the test of time.
The album is so long that not all of it fits on two CDs, meaning that only those who purchased the vinyl edition have the full version. The US version of the CD also lacks a further track, ‘Hankie’. Whoever owns the rights in the USA seemingly has YouTube under the thumb, so this is the one track that I can actually embed here.
Plone — For Beginner Piano
This is a strange one. At first I didn’t like it much, but after a while I began to appreciate its charm. There is a similarity with fellow Birmingham bands Pram and Broadcast, with its fixation on quaint and old-sounding synths and retro electronic music.
For Beginner Piano has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing about it. In parts, it has a particularly childlike vibe to it. But it is also quite a dark album, aided by the use of slightly creepy-sounding electronic effects. The mixture of childlike and dark is quite a disturbing juxtaposition which is probably what prevented me from taking it too seriously when I first heard it.
However, as time has gone on I have come to really appreciate it as a charming piece of electronic music. It is easy to see why it has become a cult favourite over the years, even providing the inspiration for the open-source Content Management System Plone.
But while For Beginner Piano has become a fan favourite, Plone has also been at the centre of one of the most controversial points of Warp’s history. It is said that Warp refused to release Plone’s second album, with little in the way of explanation. Something purporting to be the lost Plone album has since been leaked. But Plone is no longer a going concern.
Here is one of the more childlike tracks, ‘Plock':
!!! — Louden Up Now
Never let it be said that Warp is not a label that likes making things difficult. Here is a band with a name that is difficult to pronounce (though ‘chk chk chk’ has become popular) and impossible to find in a record shop (in the A-Z, where does ‘!’ go?). Yet despite this clear act of obfuscation, !!! are in fact one of the most musically accessible bands on the label.
The music is an infectious form of electronic funky rock, forging the sensibilities of punk and dance music. As an eight-piece band, !!! produce a very dense sound which fascinates.
Truth be told, I find much of !!!’s output only a little above average. But I have fallen in love with certain songs of theirs, most notably ‘Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)’, a high-velocity, varied and downright fun piece of music:
Wow, a day certainly is a long time in F1. I am not sure when I will get round to actually writing about the Hungarian GP, though at least there is a long break until the next race.
But the big news this evening is that the next race will feature Michael Schumacher on the grid. He has been announced as the replacement for Felipe Massa while the Brazilian makes his recovery.
A lot of names have been bandied around over the past few days, and none of them seemed terribly lucky. Optimists suggested that Fernando Alonso or Robert Kubica might be able to get out of their current contracts to move to Ferrari mid-season.
Mirko Bortolotti was another driver on the radar. Last year’s Italian F3 champion has impressed in previous tests with Ferrari. He is currently building up his skills in Formula Two is widely tipped to have a bright future. But it is near enough unheard-of for Ferrari to hire a young rookie.
Some talked up the chances of David Coulthard or Anthony Davidson getting the role. That seemed a bit like pie in the sky thinking though.
The other drivers who currently have relationships with Ferrari are the team’s official test and reserve drivers, Marc Gené and Luca Badoer. But they were unlikely to step in for a whole host of reasons. Neither has a particularly strong track record as a race driver, although you can argue that neither ever had a decent opportunity to show their skills.
But their lack of fresh experience will have seriously counted against them. Gené last raced five years ago for Williams, and faced the ignominy of being replaced by Antônio Pizzonia for being too slow! Meanwhile, Luca Badoer hasn’t raced in F1 for ten years.
The last time Ferrari had to replace a driver midway through a season was when Michael Schumacher broke his legs at the 1999 British Grand Prix. Then, it was widely expected that Luca Badoer, as Ferrari’s test driver, would take his place. Instead, the Scuderia controversially overlooked him and hired Mika Salo.
It was a bad year for Badoer, who came close to finishing 4th for Minardi in that season’s European Grand Prix before his car broke down. He has never had an opportunity to score a World Championship point since.
Luca Badoer has held the test role at Ferrari for a staggering thirteen years without there ever being a sniff of a race drive. If he was overlooked in 1999, he was going to be overlooked today.
Now that testing is banned, it makes you wonder just what the point of a test driver is any more. I recently read that neither Marc Gené nor Luca Badoer have had any mileage whatsoever in this season’s Ferrari F60, in which case the advantage of selecting them over Michael Schumacher — who has loads more talent and, perhaps even more importantly, ocean loads of PR value — is non-existent.
This comes mere weeks after an elaborate re-arranging of deckchairs at Red Bull, as they apparently sought ways to replace Sébastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso without putting Brendon Hartley in the car. Up until the mid-season point, Hartley had been the official Red Bull reserve driver. But mere days before the reserve driver would actually be needed, he was replaced by Jaime Alguersuari.
Other drivers left twiddling their thumbs this year include: Pedro de la Rosa, Gary Paffett, Christian Klien, Romain Grosjean (though perhaps not for long), Adam Khan, Kamui Kobayashi, Nicolas Hülkenberg, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz.
If a team had to bring in a replacement driver, how many of these would be considered ready and able to race? Not many of them have much in the way of decent mileage of 2009’s cars. Who is to say, for instance, that McLaren would not rather stick Paul di Resta in their car over Pedro de la Rosa? Would Toyota happily give Kobayashi a seat, or would they prefer to take Nakajima?
Just a few years ago it looked like drivers could make a decent living out of being a test driver. Now they never get to test, and they’ll be lucky to get to race.
This is a purchase that I made experimentally. A few months ago I was accumulating a hefty order on Boomkat, and I was within touching distance of getting the free postage for spending £50 or more. But I couldn’t work out what to buy.
So I put it to Twitter, and Twitter made the decision for me. Why not, I thought? This way I would probably end up getting something that I wouldn’t normally consider. It’s good to broaden those horizons. Malc was pretty sceptical about it to me. He pointed out that it would have been cheaper for me to forego the free postage and not buy the extra CD.
But that wasn’t the point. Well, it sort of was. I can’t resist that free postage option. But anyway. What if the extra CD I bought actually ended up being good?
David Heggie was the first person on Twitter to respond with something that Boomkat sold. He suggested I should buy Noble Beast by Andrew Bird. I had heard of Andrew Bird, but I had no idea what sort of music he made, so this really was a leap into the dark for me.
It turns out to be a pretty good fit. I have tended to favour experimental and esoteric electronic music for the majority of my adult life. But in the absense of anything fresh or innovative-sounding in that arena, over the past couple of years I have found myself drifting towards more conventional acoustic, guitar-driven music. Pseudo-folksy stuff like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes; bands I may well have shunned five years ago.
Andrew Bird fits this template pretty well. Before I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to him. Indeed, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him anyway if it wasn’t for this Twitter experiment.
But it turns out to be not half bad. This style of music can easily fall into a steady template of blandness. Well, blandness to my ears at least, which usually need some kind of musical gimmickry to be satisfied. But Andrew Bird has enough idiosyncrasies to prevent it from being a problem in Noble Beast. For instance, his USP appears to be the fact that he is a virtuoso whistler.
My favourite track on the album is ‘Not a Robot, But a Ghost’. This video of him and his band performing it live demonstrates that he’s quite an impressive performer — not just as a singer, but as a whistler and a violinist too. Unfortunately, the live version cuts out the best bit of the song, which you can listen to below.
So the experiment which could have gone badly wrong (well, okay, it would only have left me in the possession of a CD that I vaguely disliked) has actually gone very well, despite Malc’s pooh-poohing of the scheme. It’s funny how things work sometimes.
In this age I could turn to Last.fm for recommendations based on a huge database of my listening habits for the past ten years. Or I could have tested out music on Spotify, or browsed around YouTube. Or any number of more sophisticated options. But the best unexpected new musical find I have made came from a random message on Twitter.
At least it’s something else I can tell people the next time someone is sceptical about Twitter. Thanks, Twitter! And thanks David Heggie!
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.
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.
I saw this story on Scotsman.com today about the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee attempting to reach out by using social media. Of course, I am all for the correct use of social media as a sensible and low-cost way for any organisation to communicate with the public and to allow people to get in contact. But there was something about this story that just seemed odd.
HOLYROOD chiefs are to use blogs, Wikipedia and YouTube to make Parliament more accessible to the public, they said today.
People petitioning Parliament will be able to provide videos and photographs.
And Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is to have its own blog and Wikipedia page.
It’s the mention of Wikipedia — twice — that tweaked my antenna. How exactly does Parliament intend to “use Wikipedia” to become more accessible to the public? Perhaps they meant using wikis, and got that confused with Wikipedia.
As from today blogging, Wikipedia and YouTube will be some of the new social media tools introduced by the Public Petitions Committee as part of its report publication. The report is the result of a year-long inquiry into improving awareness and participation in the public petitions process.
Petitioners will be able to provide videos and photos about their petitions as part of the committee’s new blog page. A podcast, Wikipedia page and dvd about the Parliament’s public petitions system all signal the committee’s commitment in encouraging access to and awareness of the petitions process. The committee also supports the creation of local petitioning systems with local authorities.
I was still confused, so I took a look at the Public Petitions Committee’s report to see what the plans actually were. You can read the details of its plans to use social media under the heading “E-Based” (paragraph 84 onwards).
In paragraph 119 the Public Petitions Committee says: “We are launching, alongside this report, a dedicated Public Petitions Committee Wiki page.” The footnote takes you to this Wikipedia article. This is an article which was already deleted when I checked it early this afternoon, and remains deleted as I write this article.
The Public Petitions Committee’s attempt to use Wikipedia like this completely misunderstands what Wikipedia is for. A page such as the one the Public Petitions Committee tried to create is completely against Wikipedia guidelines. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not some kind of worthy version of Craigslist. They could try reading about What Wikipedia is not, notably that Wikipedia is not a soapbox:
Wikipedia is not a soapbox, a battleground, or a vehicle for propaganda and advertising… Therefore, content hosted in Wikipedia is not… [p]ropaganda, advocacy, or recruitment of any kind, commercial, political, religious, or otherwise…
[Content hosted in Wikipedia is not] Self-promotion. It can be tempting to write about yourself or projects in which you have a strong personal involvement. However, do remember that the standards for encyclopedic articles apply to such pages just like any other, including the requirement to maintain a neutral point of view, which is difficult when writing about yourself or about projects close to you.
An subject is considered worthy of an article on Wikipedia by the bottom-up processes upon which Wikipedia is based. It is not for the Public Petitions Committee to swan in and create a page for itself. Nor can it be the final arbiter on what that article contains. The report somewhat states in somewhat Orwellian fashion:
We are of course mindful of the ability to amend text given the ‘ongoing principle’ under which Wiki pages are created. Our clerks will monitor the page carefully to ensure it remains a factual and authoritative source of information about our public petitions process.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedic reference, not an instruction manual, guidebook, or textbook. Wikipedia articles should not read like… Internet guides. Wikipedia articles should not exist only to describe the nature, appearance or services a website offers, but should describe the site in an encyclopedic manner, offering detail on a website’s achievements, impact or historical significance…
In paragraph 109, the Public Petitions Committee itself says of its attempts to use social media that it is “not seen as ticking a box which says ‘look, we are doing this because everyone else is!’”. But this Wikipedia stunt has box-ticking written all over it. It has Dad-dancing written all over it.
I’m sure using Wikipedia to publicise the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process seemed like a good suggestion in a meeting room somewhere. But they could have done with having a bit more of an understanding of what Wikipedia actually is before actually proceeding with the idea.
Luckily, the Public Petitions Committee didn’t put all of its eggs in one basket. There will also be a “pod cast”, which currently seems to be a solitary MP3, tucked away at the bottom of the press release. Other than that, there is a promise to link to the Scottish Parliament’s own podcasts. There is no RSS feed and no option to subscribe.
Let’s look it up on the Public Petitions Committee’s new best friend Wikipedia. The article for Podcast is currently illustrated with a massive RSS icon. It says:
A podcast is a series of digital media files, usually either digital audio or video, that is made available for download via web syndication. The syndication aspect of the delivery is what differentiates podcasts from other ways of accessing files, such as simple download or streaming: it means that special client software applications known as podcatchers (such as Apple Inc.’s iTunes or Nullsoft’s Winamp) can automatically identify and retrieve new files in a series when they are made available, by accessing a centrally-maintained web feed that lists all files currently associated with that particular podcast. The files thus automatically downloaded are then stored locally on the user’s computer or other device, for offline use.
I therefore await the launch of some actual podcasts, not just MP3s branded as “pod casts”.
The Public Petitions Committee will also have a “blog page”. That can be found here and, in fairness, it doesn’t look all that bad. It looks like a good way to highlight the work of the Public Petitions Committee.
I think organisations like the Scottish Parliament should be using social media and web technologies more. So the Public Petitions Committee’s steps in this direction are welcome. The blog looks particularly promising.
But engaging with the public is about so much more than tossing around buzzwords like ‘Wikipedia’, ‘YouTube’ and ‘podcasts’. A proper understanding of social media would provide a better service to the public and waste fewer resources.
I am not averse to MPs being paid a good salary, but I think the current balance is too high. Aditya Chakrabortty says that MPs’ salaries puts them in the top 5% of single earners. Meanwhile, a recent article on the BBC website shows that when you add MPs’ expenses to their salary, an MP’s household earns more than 96% of UK households — assuming the MP’s partner doesn’t work.
This means that fundamentally MPs have little empathy for what the experience of common people are. Given that it is supposed to be the House of Commons, it doesn’t seem quite right.
I’m not sure that a formal link with average earnings would be appropriate. And, as Jenni Russell notes, you wouldn’t want pay to be too low so that particularly able candidates were dissuaded from running. But something a bit more in line with the rest of us would be more ideal, and would probably improve MPs’ image no end too.
Jenni Russell suggests that an MP’s salary should be raised, and allowances cut. There may be something in this, but we wouldn’t want such a system to be unfair to those who live particularly far away from Westminster. That would affect Scotland in particular.
Anne Perkins argues that recent reductions in MPs’ hours have reduced the amount of scrutiny government plans receive. She suggests that MPs should therefore have shorter holidays. I’m not so sure. Perhaps we could have the government actually doing less. Given the trail of destruction Labour has left behind, I’d find it difficult to argue against the idea that less government is better than more bad government.
I completely agree that the Parliament is not strong enough in relation to the government, so I would fully support moves to alter the balance. I am not sure about the detail of some of Martin Kettle’s ideas. Electoral reform would hopefully be enough as it would automatically bring more scrutiny to the government by forcing it to engage more with opposition politicians.
David Hencke starts off by saying, “The whips are essential to the running of an efficient political process in the sense that elected governments need to push policies through parliament.” But why should governments be allowed to push policies through parliament? Policies should be accepted because the MPs are convinced that they are the right policies, not because of the arm-twisting tactics of political party elites. The existence of whips is an insult to representative democracy.
Michael White’s point is related to the role of party whips, and he notes that committees would be vastly improved if they weren’t so heavily controlled by keeping party rebels out. I also like Michael White’s point about “ministerialitis”.
I am not opposed to the concept of political parties. For instance, you can at least be fairly sure that if someone has managed to become a candidate for a major party, they are not a complete loon. You (usually) can’t know that much about an independent. (Any word on who Duncan Robertson is yet?) They also reduce the cost of information for the voters, because you can have a fairly good idea of what a candidate’s broad position is if they are aligned with a particular party.
But I do think that political parties are too strong. Many of the other reforms mentioned above — particularly the power of the party whips, and introducing the right kind of electoral reform — would rein their powers in to the right level.
I agree with Seumas Milne that state funding of political parties should not be considered at all. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that political parties’ expenditure should be capped. If they can raise the money, let them spend it. From what I read, it’s not as though political parties’ coffers are exactly overflowing at the moment anyway. Limiting personal donations may be a good idea, and bringing more transparency to more large-scale donations seems sensible.
Andrew Sparrow’s points about television footage chime with me. The restrictions on TV footage of Parliament do baffle me, particularly the ban on uploading content to YouTube. Proceedings should be seen by as many people as possible, and that means using channels like YouTube.
His idea of allowing journalists to blog from the press gallery is also a good idea which I see no harm in. I also like the idea of providing a press centre for bloggers — though I would say that, wouldn’t I?
There is a bit of a pongy whiff about MPs hiring relatives as staff members. In some cases I think it would be sensible though. It does remove the risk that the person you’re hiring isn’t up to the job, because you already know about them. I wouldn’t be in favour of an outright ban.
Ian Aitken’s main point — that the press needs to step up to the plate and scrutinise politicians more — is difficult to disagree with in principle. It’ll be tricky to proceed with though, with the press facing such an uncertain future.
There are lots of interesting ideas for reform floating around at the moment, and I don’t agree with all of them. There are some really tricky issues which have no easy answer, such as House of Lords reform.
I think a careful look at a few big areas could go a long way towards meeting a couple of major goals:
Restoring trust in politics
Strengthening parliament and backbench MPs in relation to the government
MPs’ pay is obviously a huge issue just now, but the jury is out on exactly how this should be reformed. Some are arguing that MPs should be paid more, but that won’t be a popular option in the current climate.
I certainly think the role of political parties should be seriously considered. There are suggestions about the way they are funded. The role of the party whips is also something which should be seriously looked at.
Most of all, adopting a decent electoral system — preferably Single Transferable Vote — will deal with a lot of the problems facing politics in the UK. Voters would feel that they had more of a say, and Parliament would be strengthened in relation to the government.
Interestingly, the one he criticises — aside from Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes — is by established journalist Alex Massie, whose blog is hosted by The Spectator. (Incidentally, Alex Massie’s evisceration of Iain Macwhirter’s original article is well worth a read.) There is still no sign that Mr Macwhirter will deign to read the output of someone who isn’t sharing his ivory tower.
He also makes the point about bloggers being geeks, citing the fact that a lot of it relies on the dark art of SEO. He says that “there is a science to blogging”. This may be so, certainly for the larger blogs out there. But let’s be clear about this — you don’t need to know SEO to blog. You just have to write. The barriers to entry are incredibly low. I started blogging when I was at school and it was years before I even learnt what SEO was, never mind begin to implement the techniques. It didn’t stop me from blogging. You can learn as you go along. Or you can choose not to, if you wish.
Whatever, it is a hell of a lot more accessible than the media. How do I go about getting a column in a newspaper? The short answer is that I can’t. Want to be a blogger? Sign up to WordPress.com or Blogger and you’ve already made it.
Where Iain Macwhirter is probably closest to being right is in his point about personal attacks on the blogosphere. It is true that there is rather too much of this. But it usually comes from the same four or five bloggers, and I don’t read any of them.
Sometimes people (including, I confess, me) bemoan the fact that there is still no Scottish Guido Fawkes. But in a way we should be relieved that this brash and divisive model is not replicated in the Scottish political scene.
I like to think that the Roundup has helped foster a friendly atmosphere in the Scottish blogosphere. We do, of course, have our differences. But that is what you expect in a debate. By and large, we are a respectful and friendly bunch. Despite our political differences, I think there is a clear Scottish political blogging community. A fair bunch of us will be attending a meet-up later today. And it always amazes me that even those with the strongest political views can put their differences aside and give rival viewpoints a fair airing when they are invited to edit the Scottish Roundup. Stephen Glenn is a typical example of this.
There is, of course, the phenomenon of the Cybernats, which is a problem. But it’s not a problem with blogging. The truly swivel-eyed will never find a decent platform for themselves on the blogosphere. That is because it is too easy to ignore a bad blogger — you simply don’t read the blog.
Where Cybernattery is a problem is in comments. As I have pointed out a number of times before, the nature of comments is very different to the nature of blogging. I suspect Iain Macwhirter’s impression of blogging comes mainly from the comments to his own pieces, which is a shame because they are no doubt awful. He says, “This has now become institutionalised in the form of the blog, which is an extension of this kind of citizen journalism.” But it is a major mistake to assume that bloggers and commenters are the same people, or even vaguely close relatives.
As Macwhirter himself points out, bloggers want to be read. But as I have noted, it is easy to ignore a blogger by simply not reading. So the truly awful commenters would never succeed as bloggers because they simply will not get read and won’t make any impact.
That is precisely why websites like The Herald, Scotsman.com, Comment is free, the BBC’s Have Your Say, Digg and YouTube suffer from having terrible comments. Because these are huge websites, commenters know they are guaranteed an audience. Unlike a blogger, they don’t have to build an audience by producing quality content. They already have the spotlight they crave so that they can spout out their nonsense. Bloggers produce a higher-quality product because they need to come up with the goods or people will not read. Commenters believe they will have people reading anyway.
That is not, of course, a criticism of all comments. Small and medium-sized blogs generally have great comment sections, and I am lucky to be able to count this blog among the medium-sized blogs that generally have thriving and friendly comments sections. It is the big media sites that attract bad commenters like files on a poop.
A recent piece in the Sunday Herald suggested that my blogs get the sort of readership that a local newspaper can expect. That was news to me, and it rather sums up just how different the world of the media is becoming. While the blogosphere grows and grows, the likes of The Scotsman and The Herald are struggling to scrape together enough coppers to fund next week’s editions.
Given this state of affairs, the relationship between blogging and the media will become ever-more important. Everyone in this arena is still feeling their way around in an uncertain new world, and everyone will make mistakes along the way. The media could be helped significantly if their most high-profile commentators had a modicum of awareness of what the real strengths of blogging actually are.