Friday, 21 November 2008

Salute to Sargeant

Yes, I've been to the pub - and yes, I've got an opinion about everything - which I concede might have something to do with the goblets of wine they serve nowadays.

Pub, or no pub - it's irrelevant - the hot topic of the day is still the departure of beloved John Sargeant from the lacquered, sequined, sprung and polished floor of Strictly Come Dancing.

Was it wrong?

Was it right?

Yes. To both.

The man has cemented his status as a "National Treasure" by leaving with a slight air of "I was robbed" and fair claim to the lovable underdog mantle.

Yes, he could have won it - but only to have every Tom, Austin, Jodie and Rachael supporter turn against him.

Short term - he'd have been a winner. Long term he'd have been as irritating as the crazy frog or the Mr Blobby single.

He's a canny commentator and he knows the rules better than that - he's built an entire career - as Hazel Blears told Radio 5live, in a moment of uncharacteristic perception - described as "a sense of when people have started to turn against you".

I suppose Hazel is better qualified than most to offer an opinion in that respect.

But, before we all get our handbags out, back to John.

Should he have gone? Yes - because that way he has the last laugh - the lucrative TV deals, appearance fees and priceless National Treasure status.

No - because he was bullied by those judges, and I really would have liked him to have shown downtrodden, bullied people that bloody-minded joyous dancing could outwit a panel of pompous puffs and prunes.

Still, Sargeant shimmied into a place on the dance floor all of his own, opened up the debate and gave us all a laugh - what more could we ask for?

Actually, there is one thing. I truly believe it will be a travesty if he is not asked back next year as a pundit offering expert commentary and analysis on the voting system and predicting the odds and marginal swing each week.

I'm prepared to go one further and say - sack Winkleman and reinstate John on the "It Takes Two" sofa.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Red or dead

December 10 will be a day without a gay.

American queers and their supporters will call in to work "gay" and take a day off to make the point that homosexuality isn't an illness.

Very good, I applaud them, a day without gays would be grey indeed - but what about the redheads?

We are the last stigmatised, persecuted minority being hunted to extinction.

We are a massively under-represented group in parliament (our hopes seem to rest on Blears since Charles Kennedy hit the bottle), our recessive ginger gene is fighting a losing battle for survival and people laugh at us.

And yet we bring such dazzling red and auburn dashes of colour to the world - doesn't that deserve a tax credit? Or at least extra time in exams?

When we redheads are gone (and it won't be long as Darwinian selection marches on apace attracting recessive gened redheads to ballsy genetically dominant blondes and brunettes) we'll leave behind a world of sludge brown barnets and washed out blondes.

In the ugly grey aftermath it will feel like an atomic bomb has detonated, but it will look worse.

Despite this fate we continue to ignore the early warning signs of impending doom - I refer to the red squirrel's battle for survival.

It is obvious that for the red to survive the grey must go - so where is the shoot on sight policy to keep the grey at bay? There isn't one.

In human terms we are just as lax in our protection of the redheads: I'm not suggesting we shoot the blondes and brunettes to protect the them - but where's the harm in a bit of positive ginger discrimination?

Free spray tans on the NHS to stop us from being tempted to sunbathe, three duvet days a year to reduce stress-induced hair loss and toni & guy support groups to keep our spirits up? Would the tax-payer begrudge the gingers that?

It's time to mobilise, comrades, and rally for the cause. America has its first black president, and yet here we are in the UK without a redhead ever serving as Prime Minister.*

Clearly, we must seize the moment and get behind a campaign to install the pleasingly pasty Nicola from Girls Aloud as the next PM. Get to work readers.

*This may be a lie.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Kitty Christmas

Two words: Cat cam.

I've accepted my status as cat slave and sofa and now I'm thinking Christmas gifts for kitty, and clearly I don't have to look very far.

To my mind £37 is a small price to pay to unleash Mister Tim's artistic potential and spy on the neighbours ( - in fact is Cat Cam legal? Don't want to get done for voyeurism...)

Consider your festive feline dilemmas solved.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Danger: Daily Mail at work

I'm slightly worried that not only did the last post on this blog have a touch of the Daily Mail about it, but now I find myself nodding along to Paul Dacre's keynote address to the Society of Editors conference, too.

Whatever you think of the Mail's politics, I think you'll have to grudgingly admit that the man at the top had a point today when he held forth about the NOTW Max Mosley payout.

"The British press is having a privacy law imposed on it, which is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market.
"The law is not coming from Parliament - no, that would smack of democracy - but from the arrogant and amoral judgements, words I use very deliberately, of one man.
"I am referring, of course, to Justice David Eady who has, again and again, under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act, found against newspapers and their age-old freedom to expose the moral shortcomings of those in high places.
"What is most worrying about Justice Eady’s decisions is that he is ruling that - when it comes to morality - the law in Britain is now effectively neutral, which is why I accuse him, in his judgments, of being 'amoral'.
"Surely the greatest scandal is that while London boasts scores of eminent judges, one man is given a virtual monopoly of all cases against the media enabling him to bring in a privacy law by the back door."

I'm glad to see the Mail using it's mighty voice for good - especially as Max is off to the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to muzzle the press yet further.

There's a danger that I'll end up a DM devotee, sorry, reader, if he keeps on like this - don't even get me started on his criticism of the BBC.

Thirdly, something must be done about my favourite bĂȘte noire: the ever growing ubiquity of the BBC. For make no mistake, we are witnessing the seemingly inexorable growth of what is effectively a dominant state-sponsored news service.
The corporation has all but seen off ITV’s news services, both nationally and locally, has crippled commercial radio, is distorting the free market for internet newspapers and now, with its preposterous proposal for 65 ultra local websites, is going for the jugular of the local newspaper industry. Lines must be drawn in the sand.

Anyone working in regional news will tell you he's got a point.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Losing the will to give

Sign up and save the world - it's really easy - all you need to do is set up a monthly direct debit.

I'm fed up of being charity mugged by vest-wearing drama students pretending to care for whichever cause has its logo emblazoned on their nylon bib that day.

I dislike being followed down the street by a man with a clipboard making comments about my hair in an effort to get me to turn round and direct debit £10 a month to a charity I've never heard of or don't support.

More than that, I object to the guilt trip hard sell that comes next - not because Shelter doesn't do a great job - but because I'm hearing what my £10 a month could do for a homeless single parent family from a bloke who's paid up to £18 an hour to tell me about it.

Maybe I'm naieve to suggest that charity is better conducted at a grass roots level with people giving their time, thought and emotional support to a cause, rather than just their cash - but that's the reaction being charity mugged provokes in me.

I look at the old bloke from the Royal British Legion with his poppy can asking for donations that will help returning troops in his home town, and I can't help thinking his work is more important.

He's passionate about the cause, he's giving his time for free and by doing that he's inspiring respect in the people who donate - they're more likely to take his message home with them.

Of course charities wouldn't be using an aggressive fundraising approach if it didn't work, and in financial terms it obviously does pay dividends.

I suspect this is because once you've set up a direct debit you're likely to forget about it and so don't question if it's a worthy cause and carry on giving unthinkingly.

It means that in the battle for hearts, minds and money the charity bib brigade are raking in the cash but raising very little lasting awareness or real support for their cause.

And maybe I'm in the minority here, but I'd argue that in the long term the sales speil and the "quirky" bouncy twenty-somethings irritating shoppers on high streets everywhere with their boderline anti-social pavement blocking antics actually damages a charity's reputation and standing.

I do hope that wasn't too Daily Mail for you.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A suicidal silence

Suicide is something I've been thinking about for a while - not as a personal prospect I hasten to add - but the way it's reported in the media.

Or rather I should say the way it goes unreported in the media.

Of course there are very noteable exceptions - and of these Bridgend is the obvious example.

But how well did the press respond to what appeared to be a spate of suicides in a tight-knit teenage community? Badly, I would argue.

Suicide is something the media industry is scared of, we don't understand it and neither do our audience. By definition the person who has ended their life has reached a point of isolation which they felt no-one could help them back from, plus by the time anyone finds out it's too late for questions.

I'm not trying to be flippant about this, I think it's really important, but I also think it's time we changed the tone of the discussion because suicide is frighteningly normal.

The only more "normal" way to die if you're male and aged under 35 is to be involved in a car crash.

According to the mental health charity MIND suicide accounts for almost 23% of all deaths of people aged 15–24 years.

Working on a regional weekly paper I can vouch for the fact that almost every single traffic accident, fatal or minor, we get to hear of is reported online or in print.

The same is not true for suicides. Why?

Certainly we find out about less cases - there's no denying it's easier to spot a three car pile up than it is a paracetamol overdose - but that's not the reason suicides goes unreported.

Post Bridgend it feels as though the issue is one of the last taboos left in the news industry.

The reports about the Bridgend deaths made things worse, not better, because journalists tried to force a sexy narrative that simply wasn't there onto the events and, in doing so, once again reinforced the idea that there has to be an exceptional back story to merit reporting on a person taking their own life.

Bridgend isn't a tiny village, the young people that died did not all know one another, the numbers were worrying - but not that much higher than the expected average, and by now it's clear that there was no suicide pact cooked up on Bebo.

Often the feeling is that unless there's a "news angle" it would be intrusive and unneccessary to report on a "straightforward" suicide.

I think that's wrong: Yes, suicide is a harrowing thing for any family to have to deal with, yes, grief is personal, and yes, mental health issues are difficult to report sensitively and responsibly - but that doesn't mean suicide shouldn't make the news.

If we don't talk about it, then it's stigmatised - and what's more likely to make an isolated and desperate 19-year-old feel like a freak than a total absence of the issue in mainstream culture?

But the British press aren't a bunch of sensitive souls who back down when people get upset, so why does this culture exist?

There are several reasons. For a start I think the industry assumes that there's no public appetite for suicide stories because the issue is depressing and therefore likely to turn readers off. Which is nonsense if you ask me - people have a natural, morbid curiousity in tales of tragic misery - we all know that good news doesn't sell papers.

Then there's the Press Complaints Commission Code 5 ii) which states: "When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."
Obviously the code doesn't prevent journalists writing stories about suicide, it just asks us to be responsible in the way that we do it - but its very existence (it's a relatively recent addition to the code) gives a nervous journalist or news editor something to hide behind.

And while we're talking about hiding, the coroners court does its fair share of hiding its head in the sand on this issue. Open and narrative verdicts are recorded compassionately to save family members the further grief of a suicide verdict - but I can't help thinking this does a huge disservice to those who might benefit from greater awareness of the issues surrounding suicide.

Mental illness is a killer - the only one that the news industry seems scared of - and yet it's the one we could do the most to fight.

Two excellent charities that know the score far better than I do are: