Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Happy centenary BBC

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Its mission now, as it was in 1921, is to inform, educate, and entertain.  In its first hundred years, the BBC has achieved some stunning output, from The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue to Eastenders, from Doctor Who to Blue Planet.  Its output is respected and admired throughout the world, and, through the World Service, has spread British “soft power” far and wide.  And, I fear, it’s no longer the powerhouse it once was.

While I think the BBC continues to educate and entertain, for several years now I’ve started to distrust its news output.  The UK news has been England-focussed forever, but I really started to notice it in the run-up to the 2014 IndyRef in Scotland.  We’d had a courteous and in-depth conversation over the course of a good two years, and then in the weeks leading up to the vote itself, the London media woke up to the fact that something was happening north of the Watford Gap.  The BBC sent its big hitters up, people who, until that point, had taken no interest and didn’t really bother to get up to speed on the situation.  Despite having a whole division based in Scotland, it wasn’t the BBC Scotland journalists who were asked to comment, but the names from London.

Since then, I’ve observed how the BBC treats the nations and regions, and it’s not great.  While the national and regional arms of the organisation are good at what they do, the “national” news output fails to leverage that insight, and provides reports that, from here, seem biased in the extreme.  It’s a joke amongst my circle now that whatever the news story, the BBC will try to blame Nicola Sturgeon.  That’s a bit unfair, but the sentiment stands.

Something they could do to encourage the various nations of the UK (*cough* England *cough*) to be aware of what’s happening elsewhere is by having something like the Radio 4 programmes Yesterday in Parliament or The Week in Westminster, but dedicated to the other Parliaments and Assemblies in the UK.  This would help make people aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the country and also raise the same awareness within the BBC itself so that when something does bubble up to the national news, it’s maybe not covered in such a superficial manner.

The BBC has always been in danger of capture by the government of the day, when the ten yearly renewal of the Charter comes around, and it feels like the Tories have leveraged that threat very well in order to neuter criticism of the government over the last decade, when they’ve done so much that’s deserved criticism.  While the World Service isn’t what it once was (the government cutting funding to something that is so respected worldwide seems an extraordinary decision based on short-term thinking), its news output is still what I find myself turning to, more often than not, instead of national news for something more balanced and less parochial.

But to inform is just one pillar of the BBC, albeit a hugely important one.  The BBC is still a massive force in the other two pillars (despite the Tories’ best attempts).  For me, Radio 4 and Doctor Who are, alone, enough to justify the licence fee and I’ve had many hours of entertainment from them over the years.  The breadth of that entertainment, from soaps like Eastenders, to sitcoms like the wonderful Ghosts and Only Fools and Horses, to family entertainment shows like Strictly and The Generation Game.  While I’m disappointed that they didn’t really build on it, would any other channel really have put money into Goodness Gracious Me?  Like so many in this country, I grew up with the BBC.  While my parents didn’t go so far as to stop me watching “the commercial channel”, there was a clear implication that the BBC provided the higher-class channels.  I can still remember the number to call for Live & Kicking on a Saturday morning (0181 811 8181, since you ask).

On top of that, you’ve got immense, well-researched documentaries like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and its follow-ups, long running science programmes like Horizon (aside: while I cringe at attempts to discuss science on news output, actual science programming on the BBC remains excellent), consumer affairs and self-reflection shows, and much, much more.

Whilst the BBC is, by no means, perfect – as I spent several paragraphs above discussing- it’s still a great institution that we should be proud of, and we should work to protect from those who want to neuter or destroy it.  Despite everything, I’m still proud of the BBC and wish it a very happy birthday and another hundred years and more!

Monday, 15 February 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Culture and Ideas

Podcasts are all the rage right now. I listen to a fair few, and I’ve got opinions about them. Opinions that I’m happy to share with you. You can read the first post in the series, where I talk about the SF podcasts that I’ve enjoyed here, and read on for my opinions about podcasts in the hand-wavey category of culture and ideas.

99 Percent Invisible

99 Percent Invisible (99PI to its friends) is a very difficult thing to describe. Nominally it’s a podcast about architecture and design, but their actual remit is so much wider than that suggests. Recent episodes have included stories about Santa Fe’s Pueblo Revival architecture; the history of movie novelisations; and how the US Government released almost the entirety of Enron’s emails (the episode on city flags and why they’re awful is a classic and was later turned into a TED talk). It’s always fascinating, and they’ve been going for over a decade now, with over 400 episodes in the archive, and an incredibly detailed website that expands on the stories in the podcast. Episodes are released weekly and are usually between thirty and forty minutes long. The only downside is that so much of my conversation these days starts “Ooh, I heard something really interesting on 99PI the other day…”

It’s hosted by Roman Mars, whose smooth West-coast tones are very easy on the ear, and from whom I learned to “always read the plaque”.

More or Less

More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme about statistics in the news and in life, presented by Tim Harford (aka the Financial Times Undercover Economist). So many of the numbers we get bombarded with in the media are either only superficially true, based on a misunderstanding, or are just outright lies. More or Less has been gallantly standing up for the truth and to improve public understanding of numbers and statistics for years now.

It’s an excellent show, usually talking about the stats that have come up in the media the week prior to broadcast, and they take listener questions too. They try and get to the original source of statistics, delving into the scientific literature and talking to the experts (experts! Remember them?). Obviously the last couple of series have been pretty focussed on Covid-19, but they occasionally still find time to talk about other things (butterfly decline in the UK in a recent episode, for example). Episodes are half an hour long.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Reasons to be Cheerful, a podcast about political ideas, completely rehabilitated Ed Miliband for me. Released from the shackles of having to be bland and media-friendly (not that that really worked for him), he’s surprisingly passionate and funny. This podcast was started in the wake of the 2015 general election and consists of him and radio presenter Geoff Lloyd discussing ideas in the political and cultural sphere and finding reasons to be cheerful. From universal basic income to improving public transport to the four day week, they cover a broad spectrum of ideas. And they do it in reasonable depth too. They interview a series of experts, and are generally happy to let them talk about their expertise, without that horrid macho interruption so common in media political interviews. They do sometimes make the usual mistake in “UK” politics of thinking UK = England, which can be a bit frustrating at times, but there’s more than enough more general conversations that make up for it.

They’ve got great chemistry together and are obviously good friends off-mic. At times, I feel I listen to it for the the banter between them as much for the ideas.

Episodes are released weekly and there’s over 175 episodes in the archive. The episodes tend to be about an hour long.

Reply All

Reply All, aside from being a function that you should think very carefully before using in your email client, is a podcast about the Internet: about the people who shaped it and how it shapes people. This is another podcast that interprets its remit broadly. They’ve featured episodes on feelings of impotence in the face of the climate emergency; trying to explain QAnon; finding out about the story behind JenniCam, (a blast from the past for Internet users of a certain age); and looking at the story behind spam recordings that sometime briefly take over American government phone numbers. It’s a fascinating insight into the underbelly of the Internet, and the feature where they explain some of the weirder memes floating around the web/social media to their boss has shown me parts of Internet culture that I wish I could unsee, but it’s really interesting from an anthropological point of view.

In tone, it’s often quite light, and the hosts mock each other mercilessly, but they’re not afraid to share their feelings and to go into quite dark places at times. There was, for example, a multi-part story where one of the producers talks to a man in prison for murder, having discovered him because he wrote a blog from the inside (on paper, that his mother took away and typed up for him).

The show is normally released fortnightly, but the schedule can sometimes be vaguer than that, and they always take some time off in the summer where they run reruns. There’s over 170 episodes (including reruns) in the archive and episodes started off at running under half an hour, although these days they’re closer to between forty minutes and an hour.

So there’s the second set of podcasts, the next set will probably fit whatever the theme the post will be about a bit better. You can find the other posts in the series below.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Homebrewed RSS feeds

Some time ago, the BBC redesigned their news site and, for some unfathomable reason, removed most of the RSS feeds for their reporters’ blogs.  Being a fan of Brian Taylor, I grumbled at this for a bit and eventually wrote a little scraping script on my Raspberry Pi that polls the appropriate page and turns it into an RSS feed that I could consume in my preferred reader.  Later, the (excellent) NHS Behind the Headlines news site did the same.  Upon enquiry, they offered a private API that would let me recreate an RSS feed, and, again, I wrote a little script to manipulate this into the shape I required.  However, until now, I’ve kept these on my private web server, but always meant to move them to somewhere more public so that others could use them if they wanted to.  So without further ado:

Feel free to use any of these with your own reader.

(Usual disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with either the BBC or NHS, and these feeds could go away at any time if any corporate lawyers start getting angry). Enjoy!

(Edit 2019-03-06: added feed for NI political correspondent Mark Devenport)

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Proud of the BBC

The BBC is a brilliant, diverse, and vital organisation.  I can’t imagine life in Britain without it.  It isn’t just a broadcaster, it’s an institution, part of our national fabric – there’s a reason we call it Auntie Beeb.  I’m not even going to attempt to list some of the amazing programmes, both on television and radio, that it’s produced over the years, we all have our favourites.  What constantly amazes me is the breadth of its ambition.  This is an organisation whose remit spreads from Strictly Come Dancing to the World Service, from Eastenders to Radio 4.  It can encompass tastes from the opera-going Radio 3 listener to the soap and reality TV watching viewer.

It doesn’t just have a glorious history, but it’s still making innovative television and radio today, and its enthusiastic embracing of new media has led to it producing one of the best websites in the world (although I’m not exactly convinced by their enthusiasm for DAB radio).  Its news gathering is the first place I turn to when I want both factual descriptions of what’s going on and decent analysis.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m proud of the BBC.  And I’m not the only one.  Mitch Benn is so proud of it that his next single is about shouting that very fact to the rooftops.  It expresses the same sentiments I would like to, but more eloquently and with a degree more panache.

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