Monthly Archives: July 2013

Royal Baby brings world…..Meh

easelWho decided we were all excited?

Where did the memo come from stating as fact a collective holding of expectant breath? Not just in the UK but all over the world: All of us were apparently desperate for the happy news of the royal birth. All of us were thrilled to bits when the baby boy’s arrival was announced.

Except even the most basic analysis suggests we weren’t.

“The world waits” was a headline on the BBC’s online page for much of Monday after the Duchess of Cambridge went into labour. It was a strap-line for most of the day on the BBC’s rolling news channel where desperate reporters filled for hours while, in the case of one now wildly popular presenter, admitting they had nothing to say.

Across TV and radio channels, veteran royal watchers (nearly all elderly men) wittered on about “history in the making.” Beaming news anchors told us we could barely contain ourselves in our excitement over the arrival of the royal child.

It was the same earlier today. “Royal baby brings world celebrations,” was the BBC online headline. “World Welcomes the Royal Bub,” said an almost hysterical Sky.

But evidence of a global delirium is hard to find. A quick scan of newspaper sites from Indonesia and Ohio to Uganda and Kenya suggested not a jot of interest in the impending arrival of the third in line to the throne. (With the one exception being the Straits Times in Singapore). The Arab media has barely mentioned the news at all.

The birth itself prompted only slightly more coverage, little if any of it celebratory. Much of what foreign newspapers write merely reflects back at us what we’ve been told: that the entire British population is as besotted with the child as the new parents must be.

I blame in part the TV networks, particularly in the US. As the near-obsessional devotion to Downton Abbey suggests, Americans love it when their dated notions of a quaint old Blighty are confirmed. A beautiful princess, a future king, what could be more perfect for what passes as news on today’s celebrity driven infotainment TV?

In Canada the Queen is head of state and there’s a genuine affection for the royals. But that affection’s being manipulated by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who’s been busy re-shaping Canadian institutions to reflect long-lost ties with the UK. (Critics say it’s his way of countering multi-culturalism) The armed forces have had the word “Royal” added to their titles and their Maple Leaf insignia replaced by the crown. Canadian Embassies have been instructed to hang portraits of her Majesty on their walls.

So I understand and almost forgive the Canadian and US media for going over the top, but not the media here.

Somewhere it was decided that the British were all-a-flutter over the royal baby. That became the story regardless of the facts, and nobody has listened to the public ever since.

Not even the Royal-obsessed Daily Mail or indeed the establishment-friendly Telegraph. Comments on their abundant royal baby pages suggest a certain indifference – at best – amongst their readers. At least amongst those bothering to write in.

The once avowedly republican Guardian clearly got the mysterious baby directive (email? telephone call? sofa conversation? Who knows…) stating that all of Britain would rejoice. But their extensive and largely glowing coverage was met by reader gripes about the cost of the royals and the predictable arguments about whether we’d all prefer a “President Blair”.

And what of the gushing torrent from the BBC – an organisation committed to (and largely practicing) balance and impartiality on all other issues? It may have looked like a throng of people outside Buckingham Palace but in the scheme of things, they were a tiny proportion of the population. Never mind. They were the people whose enthusiastic views were sought and put on air.

Where were the counter-views of the vast majority who, my unscientific online scan suggests, might wish the parents and child well but don’t want to hear much more about it. And where was the evidence of the waiting world and the global celebrations? (Pro forma and utterly predictable congratulations from foreign leaders aside)

I fear the already bruised BBC couldn’t face another walloping by the government or the right-wing press. With last year’s disastrous coverage of the Thames Jubilee Pageant still haunting minds, editors clearly swallowed the cool-aid and gave us wall-to-wall baby-happy TV.

So the official line was created. Britain was going nuts for the royal birth. The foreign media picked it up and told their audiences we were going nuts. The coverage on news channels abroad fuelled the frenzy here.

Nobody asked the public (I don’t mean the self-selecting palace visitors) what they thought. And when we told them via twitter or comments pages, they took no notice.

So much for user-driven content and interactivity. A cabal of Old Media decided the news line and then told us what we, the weary public, believed.

 

 

A Love Letter to the NHS

Like all those we love most, you are far from perfect.

There are the minor irritations, the disappointments, and sometimes much more serious failings that can’t be ignored and shouldn’t be excused.

And yet, we couldn’t live without you – literally, in my recent experience – though I fear that’s what the government is planning: a relentless running-down of an overstretched, understaffed and occasionally badly managed health service to the point where we all accept your inevitable demise. (See my previous post for more on the Tory’s PR strategy).

That would be a tragedy. I’ve used your services more than I’d have liked to in the past year. Ageing relatives make for many hours spent in your hospital wards and A&E departments.

Mostly what I’ve seen is compassion, commitment and outstanding medical care.

The cheery nurses who, despite running from patient to patient for 12 hour shifts with barely a tea break still say, with passion, how much they love their jobs.

The doctor who, on his seventh consecutive day in charge of a huge ward takes time to listen, assess and explain without a hint of impatience or even fatigue.

The specialist who gently suggests another uncomfortable scan because she’s just got a “niggle” that something may not be quite right.

To Lucy, Zainab, Doug, Jonathan, Jackie and so many others at the sharp end, a huge thank-you. On the few occasions when I had criticisms of the actual clinical care, the problem was clearly that there simply weren’t nearly enough of you given the unrelenting demand.

To some of your colleagues though, forgive me but I have harsher words, most specifically for the administrators.

Vast bureaucracies are rarely associated with efficiency (I’m a former BBC staff member, so I know of which I speak) and you, dear NHS, are no exception.

Your armies of administrators either lack initiative or are forbidden from taking it. Too often they are unable (or unwilling) to understand an ill or anxious patient’s worries. It’s as if they work in an organisation manufacturing widgets, far removed from health or care or anything to do with important human needs.

It’s not acceptable to be told an appointment can’t be booked because the man in charge of that particular clinic’s appointment diary has gone to lunch and nobody knows when he’ll be back. Or that none of the 15 other people in the room can access the clinic’s diary, it’s not their responsibility  “so go home and we’ll be in touch.” (Except of course that the appointment does get made when the pushy middle class journalist type insists.)

It doesn’t inspire confidence either when several letters arrive from one hospital, simultaneously confirming an important appointment and cancelling it.

You have to wonder who’s in charge of the different teams that wash floors, change curtains and even clean the curtain rails. They haven’t assigned anyone to wipe the trays alongside the patients’ beds so it isn’t done, not once in the 18 days I was visiting that ward.

As for the complete failure to provide bed-ridden patients with any means of washing their hands when they’ve used a bed pan… I know, part of the problem is time. Over worked staff are rushing on to the next person in need. But given the omnipresent disinfectant dispensers and the constant reminders to squirt-and-rub to stop the spread of disease, it makes no sense. Presumably, like the trays, someone forgot to put it in the rules.

So yes, dear NHS, you need to shape up. You could do with more clinical practitioners and I suspect, fewer but better trained and motivated administrative staff. But you could also do without being the football in an increasingly poisonous political fight. I’ve lived in the US and in the developing world and believe me, after seeing the alternatives, I’m completely on your side.

 

Name Calling

David Cameron’s years in public relations weren’t wasted.

Whatever one thinks of his government’s policies, its mastery of linguistic tactics has been spot on.

Repetition has planted key words and slogans firmly in the public discourse.  A party not best known for its unity, not even capable of governing alone, has, with one voice, cleverly defined the political debate – and the Opposition.

First came “the mess we inherited,” the unrelenting mantra that cast Labour as the party of profligacy.  Out went any notion that millionaire bankers had brought the global financial system to its knees. Recession was caused by debt; debt was caused by the previous government’s giddy spending frenzy. What could the Conservatives do but “clear up Labour’s mess”?

Embarrassed by the chaos of the Brown years, stunned by the sudden ballooning of the debt after the 2008 crash, Labour was tongue-tied. So the public has accepted that the money was indeed wasted on fripperies as the Tories relentlessly implied.

Where was the counter-argument about improved public services? Yes, spending did increase under Labour and it’s true some of the money could have been better spent. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, we didn’t always get bang for our buck.

But we did get a National Health Service transformed from the old Tory days of 18-month waiting lists for appointments in dingy, crumbling hospitals. Schools were rebuilt, their pathetic budgets increased. Teachers and nurses were recruited and, at last, properly paid.

Not that Ed Miliband and his friends had the wit or courage to say so. Nor have they countered the Conservatives’ re-labelling of one of the most important issues of our time. Income support, housing benefit, disability allowances – whatever the state benefit, whatever the level of need, it’s lumped together as “Welfare” these days.

And if you had any doubt about the pejorative nature of that term, imported from the US (land of the “welfare queens”, “welfare moms”, even “welfies”) just listen to Iain Duncan Smith. When the Work and Pensions Secretary scoffed at “Labour, the Welfare Party” on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. (True to the Tory-PR style book, he’s used the phrase, or some variation of it repeatedly in recent weeks).

The party of welfare, of the unions, and of reckless spending on frivolous things. The words have been spat across the House of Commons or onto the airwaves so effectively that a paralysed Labour Party seems almost to have accepted the Tory labels. So have the media.

And now there’s another bit of slick PR sloganizing we’re likely to hear repeated endlessly in the run up to the next election. “From rescue to recovery” is how the Chancellor, George Osborne described the economy in his recent Spending Review. It’s the Treasury phrase du jour. Out it came again last week when the IMF said the UK could see economic growth this year of a pathetic 0.9 per cent.

Never mind that the “rescue” has seen falling wages and a growth in poorly paid, part-time jobs. Never mind the Local Government Association’s dire warning that budget cuts mean some basic public services could disappear altogether. Let’s not worry either about the doubling in the numbers of people turning to food banks in the past three months.

Of course, all governments try to tell the story their way. Labour were once Westminster’s masters of spin. Not any more. David Cameron is a much more accomplished communicator than people tend to think of a man who often has trouble getting his own party to listen.

His skill with language has changed the tone of debate and as a result, the substance.  Labour meanwhile, are all too often lost for words.

 

Making MINTs from BRICS

Indonesia rice harvest

      1. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

Remember the BRICS? Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were the future of the world economy once upon a time. Fast-growing countries with either abundant natural resources or vast forces of cheap labour (or both) and business-friendly governments happily creating middle class wealth.

You don’t hear so much about them these days. Slowing growth, regulatory problems, labour unrest and, in the case of Brazil, massive demonstrations on the streets have rather taken the shine off the BRICS.

So, enter the new darlings of the foreign investor community, the MINTs. 

I can’t speak for Mexico beyond the highly Americanised resorts (complete with their Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs) I’ve visited. I do wonder though about the wisdom of investing in a country where more than fifty thousand people (possibly double that) have died in the violent drugs wars of the past six years.

Nigeria’s not a place I know well either, though I’d think twice before setting up shop in a country with an increasingly violent al-Qaeda related insurgency in the north and decades of seething resentment in the oil-rich but corrupt south.

Turkey on the other hand always looked like a good bet. You couldn’t hear a word against it from the tourists at Istanbul’s chi chi restaurants and boutique hotels. Foreign investment doubled in the five years from 2007 as Turkey started to emulate the capitalist West.

But it all went a bit pear-shaped in last month’s unprecedented protests. Egged on by a belligerent Prime Minister, the police attacked demonstrators in a city centre park. The stock market plunged, and suddenly we all fell out of love with Turkey. It turned out they weren’t “people like us” after all.

So that leaves Indonesia – a place I do know quite a bit about having started my reporting career there as BBC correspondent 22 years ago. It’s a vast, complicated country. Not really a country at all given its stitched together diversity. For more detail and far better insight than I can ever deliver, read Elizabeth Pisani’s excellent blog and then the book she’s publishing next year.

In the meantime, here’s my  short overview of the economy of the world’s fourth biggest country.

      2. BBC R4 World Tonight Indonesia Report

And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not rushing to invest in Indonesia just yet.