Product Placement – Is It Really That Bad?

So news came through over the weekend that the government has finally ceded to pressure from broadcasters and decided to drop the ban on product placement in commercial programming in the UK.

This is news that can be taken in one of two ways – at first I recoiled in mock horror, imagining the potential sway corporate brands could be granted over the public’s subconscious, but it is becoming more and more apparent to me that this is a necessary evil.

The name of the game's placement, product placement (photo: guardian.co.uk)
The name of the game’s placement, product placement (photo: guardian.co.uk)

It’s easy to get all riled up over the intrusion of brand names into your favourite films and TV shows, but think back to these most blatant examples of product placement – James Bond’s latest mobile phone or watch, Pepsi in Back To The Future, even the humble Sara Lee gateau in Peep Show. The most likely response in each case is mild derision, not an uncontrollable urge to go out and by the product in question.

Product placement is cheesy and obvious – it’s not brainwashing, it’s not even subliminal messaging.

It will be interesting to see how the ad men attempt to take advantage of this change in policy. Will Jeff Stelling start prominently drinking PG Tips on Countdown? Don’t worry, the BBC isn’t eligible due to its publicly-funded status, so we won’t be seeing punters in the Queen Vic drinking Strongbow (liquid refreshment) or eating McCoys (man crisps).

David Elstein argues persuasively that product placement is nothing to be feared in this column for The Times, but then again he would, being a former chief executive of Channel Five. He makes a good point – the government’s nannying intervention is condescending to us as viewers who can be trusted to think for ourselves. But I shudder when Elstein refers to us all as consumers.

Don’t be fooled – there is an inherent threat to the integrity of programmers in this decision, which will have to be stoutly resisted by those in charge, but if this is what’s needed to keep ITV and Channel 4 afloat, then so be it. The long-term, lingering issue is how to ensure ad revenue as viewers head online for the on-demand convenience of iPlayer and channel4.com. That is a serious dilemma for all major media providers at the moment, but that’s another blog post for another time…

N.B. This blog is not commercially supported in any way by any of the aforementioned brands… yet.

Telegraph vindicated by MPs’ expenses blackout

House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)
House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)

When we look back on the main British news stories of 2009, the MPs expenses scandal will undoubtedly stand out. It will take a lot to eclipse the bombshell that hit Westminster in May. The latest twist in this story seems to have sealed the reputation of both our current crop of MPs and The Daily Telegraph. On Thursday morning, the long-awaited publication of the MPs expenses in full showed how perfectly justified The Telegraph were in paying to have exclusive, advance access to the expenses documents.

The story broke whilst I was on work experience there, and I had mixed feelings about the revelations, not least because they spiked a couple of my stories. For me, the public interest in publishing the expenses early seemed to wane in relation to the potential financial gain of such a scoop. The Commons Fees office had long promised to publish the expenses in June and if the information was going to come into the public realm anyway then the only real reason the Telegraph could have for buying the documents would be the monetary windfall from getting the scoop out there first.

Whilst the financial boon of the story cannot be denied, yesterday’s official publication confirms, once and for all, the public interest argument in The Telegraph’s decision to buy the expenses documents. If they had not shelled out thousands of pounds for this story, then the full details of the scandalous expenses may never have seen the light of day. On reflection I can now give my unreserved praise to The Telegraph for breaking the story of the year with consummate flair and timing, and for bringing a truly important story into the public realm.

I would rant further about what this tells us about the avarice and secrecy of Westminster, but Matthew Parris at The Times does a far better job than I ever could. The fallout is still continuing and the MPs responsible are being made to look less and less trustworthy every day. We will only know the true extent of the impact after a general election, which can’t come soon enough.

The London Tube strike shows that RMT have lost touch with reality

Tube Strike crowds at Canary Wharf Underground Station (Twitter user @hey_dahl)
Tube Strike crowds at Canary Wharf Underground Station (Twitter user @hey_dahl)

Everyone knows how we British love a good queue, but over the past two days, scenes like this (left) have stretched London’s patience to the limit. I have had the good fortune of being largely unaffected by the Tube strike, but the extent of the disruption is clear to see and woefully avoidable.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, in his usual magnanimous manner, has chimed into the debate today in The Times by arguing that if he were still in charge he would have placated the RMT union and avoided the two-day total strike. However it only takes a glance at the current levels of pay and demands to realise that Bob Crow has lost touch with reality and this strike deserves to be met with harsh sanctions and little sympathy.

Let’s deal in facts for a while:

Tube drivers earn £40,000/year on average, 25% more than nurses for a 35 hours week.

The waiting list to be a Tube driver is over 18 months.

Bob Crow, head of the RMT union, is demanding a 5% pay rise for all drivers and a promise of no compulsory redundancies.

Britain is dealing with a painful recession, bringing with it deflation and job losses.

How on earth can anyone believe that this callous and greedy strike is justified? (We’re back into opinion now, in case you missed that seamless segue.) It seems like a brash solution, but why not just fire the striking drivers and give their jobs to the un-unionised folks on the waiting list? That may be the least left-wing thing I’ve ever said, but in times like these it is simply boorish not to realise how lucky you are. A £40k/year job pushing buttons and sitting down all day is not to be taken for granted. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, brilliantly explodes RMT’s argument in this article for The Times’ Thunderer column.

Perhaps voting out Bob Crow as leader of RMT would have a similarly desirable effect. His popularity is at a predictable ebb, according to this Comment Central poll, but he cannot take all the blame. Every striking driver has to take a long hard look at their reasons for letting down the entire city.

A quick Twitter search shows that one of the main upsides of the Tube strike seems to be that many Londoners have escaped the rat-race tunnels and taken in the delights of over-ground travelling in the capital. I am, by no means, suggesting that London’s businesses and industry could survive without the Tube network, but it is refreshing to be reminded of the joys of walking and boat travel, even if the buses provide a less than desirable alternative.

By 7pm tonight the latest in a seemingly endless series of strikes will be over and business as usual is meant to resume on Friday, just in time for a weekend of maintenance work. Oh, how I love living in the city!

Royal Mail workers stand up to the BNP

It’s funny how politics can seem so remote from our lives at one minute, and so immediate at the next.

Flickr User: Rongem Boyo
(Flickr User: Rongem Boyo)

The MPs’ expenses scandal has definitely brought Westminster politics into the spotlight lately, and with the European Elections coming up next month, perhaps now is not such a bad time to be scrutinising political parties.

In my last post, I voiced my concerns that the expenses scandal could lead to political disenchantment and a lower voter turnout, whilst many have argued that it could instead lead to massive gains for fringe parties such as the BNP. Well fortunately, the fascists are doing themselves no favours and it seems that their right-wing tripe is not being tolerated.

Postal workers in Bristol have refused to deliver their leaflets. There’s only one word for that: brilliant.

It’s so refreshing to hear a tale of how workers are so loyal to their moral, ethical and political standards that they will risk their jobs for it. Not that this should be at threat in the first place. The Royal Mail argues:

Where possible we will try to be flexible and sensitive to individual personal circumstances or beliefs. However, we need to balance this with Royal Mail’s legal obligations under the Representation of the People Act, to deliver election material.”

The counter argument?

The Communication Workers Union says that Royal Mail is breaking a ‘conscience clause’ agreed four years ago that allows staff to refuse to deliver literature they find offensive.”

Postbox
(Flickr User: Menage a Moi)

This really should be a no-brainer. What’s the point of the Royal Mail representing the people and failing to represent its own workers? If the workers can’t object to something as important as this, then they can’t object to anything. Add to that the threat of violence in ethnically-diverse areas and it becomes clear that the BNP’s leaflets should be recycled into pulp without a second thought.

My City colleague Simon Neville has spotted that the BNP may even be breaking copyright rules with their leaflets. An hilarious example of political desperation – this party would be laughable if it wasn’t so abhorrent.

Anyone who finds themselves near Stoke on May 30 is urged to go and see Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. at the Love Music Hate Racism festival at the Britannia Stadium. Great music and a great cause, definitely worth £10. But, wherever you are, be sure to vote in the European Election on June 4 to make sure our country is properly represented on the continent.

For further information about the BNP’s obvious flaws and criminal connections, visit nothingbritish.com.

MPs Expenses: The Apathetic Fallout

(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)
(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)

My feelings about the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ expenses and the ensuing scandal are mixed to say the least. Whilst this  is undoubtedly a great public interest exclusive and a massive victory for freedom of information, it has left me feeling somewhat cold.

The Telegraph grabbed this story with both hands and ran with it, understandably. Friday’s revelation warranted nine pages of broadsheet coverage, 11 on Saturday and a further nine on Sunday, and it seems no other national could resist delving into this story. Today’s publication of the Tories’ expenses gives the lie to traditional allegations that The Telegraph is exclusively a loyal Conservative paper. With Cameron cruising to Number 10,  The Telegraph will have to get used to criticising its favourite party, even if it will not be championing Labour’s opposition as much as it has done for the Tories. Who knows, after Smeargate, the Lib Dems may even regain their status as Britain’s second political party? (Wishful thinking perhaps.)

But the main thing which surprises me from all this is the suggestion that the suitable remedy is increasing MPs’ salaries, which I find frankly preposterous. Rewarding them for abusing the system is comparable to giving wasteful investment bankers multi-million pound bonuses. Instead, I have to agree with Gordon Brown (for a change): “The system doesn’t work… it’s got to be changed.”

That’s right, changed, but not scrapped. The second home allowance, controversial though it may be, is based on sound reasoning. MPs almost invariably have and need two homes. The failing of the system has been twofold. Firstly, ministers have got greedy, pushed their luck and got away with it for years and years. Clearly this cannot and will not continue. Call it the court of public opinion if you must.

But secondly, and more importantly, there has been a failing in regulation. The House of Commons fees office has not been strict enough, and this is a combination of the Green Book guidelines being too generous and the rules not being followed closely enough.

MPs’ expenses should be restricted to extra costs incurred by coming to parliament that should not be covered by their (already handsome) income. The second home should be defined as within 10 miles of Westminster, and the first home must be more than a commutable distance away from the House (say 50 miles).  If Keith Vaz thinks 12 miles is an unacceptable length to be commuting, he should try the rush-hour train from Guildford to London Waterloo and see how he prefers that. Nonetheless, there is nothing to say the system cannot be saved, it just has to be policed much more rigorously.

What is truly concerning about this whole fiasco is that everyone seems to be tarred by the same brush, labelled as greedy and deceptive. Cameron will probably come off better for his readiness to offer an apology, with Brown hot on his heels, but overall the main impact will be growing political disenchantment. What with all the scandal going around, it seems logical that more and more of the voting public will start to see all politicians as greedy liars and simply not turn up and vote in the next general election. Regardless of who gets the chop from the Cabinet, this scandal could have much further-reaching implications for the state of democracy in this country.

Fancy a flutter on the budget?

Seems Alistair Darling’s historic budget announcement this week hurt more than just earners of more than £150k/year – the bookies also took a battering.

Don't much fancy your tie, Darling
Don't much fancy your tie, Darling

Last Monday, the BBC printed this story highlighting how you could make some cash out of the budget no matter what drastic measures Darling announced. Ladbrokes were taking bets for everything from tie colour to phrases used in the speech. A black tie? 25-1. Using the word ‘sorry’? 14-1.

So how did they fare? Not so well according to Labrokes spokesman David Williams: “We lost a few grand on the tie. When we first saw it, we knew we’d be in for a nightmare. One man rung up claiming that it had a grey stripe, and he bet £20 on a grey tie at 16-1. So we thought, for the sake of £320 we’d let him have it. We normally do these for a bit of fun, but this one really bit us in the bum.”

By the looks of the Chancellor’s tie, anything from green to blue to brown could have paid off. His speech clocked in at 51 minutes, which didn’t cause a great upset, but the main relief for Ladbrokes came with the omission of the word sorry. “We would have lost £53,000 if he had said sorry,” says Williams, “So we’re not sorry that he didn’t say sorry.”

[gambleaware.co.uk]

HIGNFY: So sharp, so relevant

Barack ObamaFriday night saw the return of Have I Got News For You? and it’s hard to think of a time when this show has ever been more relevant or important. This latest series in a long line of successes comes complete with new titles, featuring Barack Obama shooting hoops.

Series 37 kicked off with Frank Skinner at the helm. Bouyed by his recent welcoming into the world of journalism via his Times column, Skinner delivered his lines with the dry composure which has been the hallmark of some of the best HIGNFY hosts. The Beeb could do a lot worse than to pick him as the new permanent anchor.

Rotund funny-woman Katy Brand put in a suprisingly intellectual turn on Ian Hislop’s team: “You’re not actually allowed to take a picture of the police or film the police, or even look at the police because of the Anti-Terrorist laws.” Someone has been doing her homework. Paul Merton’s reply? “That’s gonna knock the stuffing out of The Bill, innit?”

But the real highlight came when Hislop laid into the token politican and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Alan Duncan MP, for his second and third homes. As Hislop put it “I’ve been doing your second-homework.” A truly no-holds barred grilling of the would-be Tory home secretary and a fine example of just why we love Penfold.

What with the world-summits, political scandals and police bust-ups of late, Friday nights have been yearning out for the return of HIGNFY’s unique brand of dry, witty satire. God knows I’ve missed it, and you can tell by the zeal with which Hislop stove into Duncan that he’s missed it too.

Last night’s episode can be viewed on BBC iPlayer for the next 6 days, here.

G20: Protesters strike back

Just when I thought the G20 protests would get swept under the rug, the events of this week have re-stoked the fires of dissent and unrest. The alarming second post-mortem on Ian Tomlinson revealed that the 47-year-old newspaper seller died of internal hemorrhaging not, as was previously thought, a heart attack. Reports suggest that the officer involved could face the charge of manslaughter, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

This seems to have garnered genuine public interest and the Evening Standard’s splash yesterday ‘What Have You Got To Hide?’ pours further scorn on the tactics of the Metropolitan Police. It seems this one is not ready for a rug sweeping just yet.

Nicola Fisher does seem to be milking her altercation for all it’s worth and her decision to hire Max Clifford does raise serious doubts about her real motives (as if you need reminding, this is the man who juiced the last days of Jade Goody). Hugo Rifkind acerbically dissects Fisher’s anti-capitalist credentials in a typically witty column for The Times.

But the really impressive footage to arise this weekend comes from Climate Camp in the City. At 9 minutes 50 seconds, this professionally-edited documentary pushes the upper time limit of YouTube, but it is well worth a watch as it wonderfully encapsulates the mood at Climate Camp and exposes some disgraceful police behaviour to break up the protest after dark.

For those of you who don’t have 10 minutes to spare, the highlights are:

4:50 – An officer is clearly seen smacking a protester across the head with his shield.
7:49 – An officer punches a protestor in the face.


Whilst I can partially sympathise with the police who must have had one of the hardest days of their careers, the assaults shown here are simply indefensible. In my last post, I called for a bigger stick to beat the police with. I think the protesters have found it.

The Metropolitan police haven’t seen the back of this one yet.

G20: Some perspective on Ian Tomlinson

Police tactics over G20 have been widely criticised
Police tactics over the G20 protests have been widely criticised (Photo: chickyog.net)

Imagine you shove someone in the street and they fall to the floor. By the letter of the law this is assault and you should face prosecution for your actions.

Then imagine that the same person has a heart attack over an hour later and dies. You would be incredibly unlucky, but you would not be liable for manslaughter.

As simplistic as it may sound, this simple scenario needs to be kept in mind when assessing the case of Ian Tomlinson. I am not one to pull punches when it comes to criticising the Met police and I was not in favour of the kettling techniques used during the G20 protests. But to compare Tomlinson to Jean Charles De Menezes is simply ridiculous.

I am pleased to see that the Guardian tracked down and published the footage showing the assault on Tomlinson, and as a result the incident has been reported to the IPCC. The following material has come to symbolise the frustration of the thousands of protesters caught in the kettle:

But lets not get carried away. This will not be an albatross around Sir Paul Stephenson’s neck like De Menezes was for Ian Blair. As far as the IPCC is concerned, I find myself thinking cynical thoughts: “If they didn’t take any significant action over shooting an innocent man to death, are they really going to act over a man who was shoved to the floor and died 85 minutes later?” Most likely, this investigation will drag on for months and will be resolved quietly after the public has long forgotten about it.

The media has performed a great service in bringing this evidence to public attention, as Morwenna Coniam argues, but blowing this out of proportion would be a gross disservice to the Metropolitan police, despite their many shortcomings. It seems that many are trying to use this incident as a stick to beat the police with, but it’s just not a big enough stick.

Tomlinson was an innocent man who got caught up in the action, but he is no De Menezes as the police attack cannot be clearly linked to his death and a second post-mortem will surely confirm this. Despite the advances in citizen journalism, it’s a shame that no-one has found a more relevant example to illustrate the full extent of the violence that occurred on the streets of central London last week.

G20: The view from the frontline

Firsr damage at Threadneedle Street
First damage at Threadneedle Street

Violent, anarchist protesters grabbed headlines yesterday by smashing their way into a branch of RBS on Threadneedle street, effectively stealing Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s thunder. Whilst this certainly got people’s attention, it is hardly the most effective way to convince the G20 to listen and act responsibly on the climate and economic crises.

At the frontline the atmosphere was electric – crowds pushing, chants erupting out of nowhere – not dissimilar to a heavy-metal gig or a music festival. It was hard not get swept up with the call and response: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

But it didn’t have to be like this. Had the Metropolitan Police not pursued such stubborn ‘kettling’ tactics on the protest at the Bank of England, the damage could have been mitigated. Admittedly, there were several thugs who were intent on violence, but their ire was spurred on by the thousands of peaceful protesters who had been trapped in this small part of the square mile.

Police surrounded the main area, blocking all the exits by standing shoulder to shoulder and refused to allow protesters to leave “until the protest was over” for fear of the various London protest groups combining to form a riot, but the frustration of being penned in one area for hours without food, water or toilets is enough to make borderline dissidents turn to violence. Such controversial ‘kettling’ practices were only deemed legal in January.

Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest
Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest

Police stood by in full riot gear, but remained calm to the rising tide of anger. Photos were taken from rooftops and helicopters hovered ominously. The basic tactic seemed to be: “Let them loot and smash all they want, we’ll arrest them later.” After half an hour of unbridled window smashing, egg throwing, smoke-grenade lobbing and curtain ripping, 24 police horses were brought in to force the crowd back. In our modern times it is humbling to see such graceful creatures and their composure amidst the chaos. Melanie Reid has written an excellent column about this over at Timesonline.

Eventually an exit was opened, but there was no mass rush to escape. Rather, the disinterested protesters were left to find this back-door on their own. The majority of the protest was peaceful and colourful; full of dancing and accompanied by music from Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly. However, without a powerful enough PA to address the entire crowd, the event lacked focus or guidance.

A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate CampClimate
A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate Camp

Over at Bishopsgate, the Climate Camp protest was a much more peaceful affair. The hippie atmosphere provided a welcome relief and the level of debate and discussion was far more intellectual.

One speaker used a PA system powered by kinetic energy from a bicycle and invited passers-by to play climate change Top Trumps. If meaningful global change is going to come from direct action and protest, this seems like a much more likely source than the aggressive anarchist tactics which were unleashed at Threadneedle Street.

I took all of the above photos – to see more and two video clips from this protest, visit my Flickr stream page. My partner-in-crime Abby Edge has a lovely slideshow of photos she took on the day and some great analysis over at her blog, Grassy Roots.