OBITUARY – Sir Gerald Vastleigh-Small CBE (1963-2039)

It is little known that the highly-regarded public administrator Gerald Vastleigh-Small came from an ordinary background; born on a comfortable Surrey housing estate in 1963, his parents were Reginald Small, a local government officer, and Phyllis, a care assistant. But that proved no impediment, and from St. Anthony’s College secondary school he won a scholarship to read progressive studies at the University of West Walsall. It was only much later that he changed his name to Vastleigh-Small, an act entirely in keeping with his quiet and self-deprecating sense of humour, and unconnected with his knighthood at the comparatively young age of 41, an honour that had been leaked during the trial of four Bulgarian rent boys, who were later acquitted.

His friend Lord (Keith) Smith described Vastleigh-Small in his memoirs. ‘I first met Gerry (as we knew him then!) at a low-key gathering at Tony and Cherie’s house in Islington during the early nineties. He was clearly a star in the making and impressed Peter (Mandelson, who had a twinkle in his eye!) and Sally (later Baroness, Morgan) enormously with a short but witty discourse on the role of management frameworks in implementing the socio-economic agenda. To us old-school politicos he seemed something of a magician, but while I entered parliament the following year (and, indeed went all the way to the House of Lords!) Gerald took a different path, perhaps better suited to his huge charisma.’

By the early nineties, Vastleigh-Small was addicted to the aura of what his lover at the time, the Welsh journalist Evans David, called the ‘elite metropolitan circles in which we move, mind’. In a 2025 interview for the BBC’s Exposure Vastleigh-Small said, ‘They were exciting times. It was the nineties and Islington was a hotbed of radical compassionism. We were all on something – advisory boards, tribunals, arbitration panels, NGOs – you name it. A lot of my friends worked for the BBC, others were political advisers. Any sort of quango. You just had to know the right people. We knew we were different – and we had a mission.’

Having served time as a foot-soldier in the National Forum on Tooth Enamel (experience that proved invaluable in his subsequent role as chair of the Orthodontic Council) Gerald was appointed chief executive of the newly formed Dried Skimmed Milk Standards Board; he quickly re-branded it Skim4Kids, and engaged in aggressive campaigning, fighting hard on issues such as Palestinian land rights and trans-gender discrimination.

Thereafter, with a growing media profile, Vastleigh-Small garnered similar positions at a diverse collection of statutory agencies and charities. In 2001 he was concurrently on the board of the British Pewter Association, the RSPCA advisory panel on the rights of non-indigenous wild animals, was parachuted in as a lay member of the clinical board of the scandal-hit NHS Mid Stoke Prosthetic Trust, and chaired the High Pay Unit’s sub-committee on third sector salaries (which controversially recommended a £105,000 minimum salary for executive officers of state-funded organisations).

He was briefly deputy chairman of the Combined Council of County Councils (ComCofCoCo), but in an all-too-rare instance of the buck stopping near the top, resigned with no stain on his character in the wake of an accounting error involving building work in Devon. News of his honourable departure was gleefully headlined in the Daily Mail as ‘Abdication Of The Quango Queen’, prompting a heated argument on Twitter between Quentin Letts and Dame Suzi Leather, who felt the sobriquet more properly belonged to her.

Despite his many responsibilities, Vastleigh-Small, by instinct a private man, once confided on his Facebook page that the role which gave him the greatest pleasure was being a director of his home-town football club, Woking FC, which is perhaps the truest reflection of this ‘modest man of the ordinary people’, to use his own words.

However, it was the disastrous economic policies of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, and Labour’s victory at the 2015 general election, that brought Vastleigh-Small his final and most important job. With over 20 million people living in poverty in the UK, Ed Miliband had identified the national imperative for government to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by controlling the means of supply. Disregarding the protests of self-serving interests in the City, and those who said he hadn’t mentioned the plan in Labour’s manifesto, on Christmas Eve the prime minister announced the immediate nationalisation of the supermarkets.

Standing next to Miliband in Downing Street was Vastleigh-Small; he was to be the first chair of the new body established to become the nation’s grocer, the Board of Commissariat, which the tabloids memorably dubbed ‘Big Cheese’. Vastleigh-Small would later describe to friends his mild disappointment that the epithet did not refer to him personally.

Perfectly suited to the job, being unburdened with experience of discredited commercialism, Vastleigh-Small lost no time in persuading Len McCluskey to become chief executive. McCluskey, who sensibly also remained head of the Unite super-union, brought great energy to the task of restructuring the vast new organisation. With high-profile support from the chairman, the Board struck a series of ground-breaking agreements with the 250,000 employees, including the so-called 11/4 Rule, which stipulated working hours of 11.00 am to 4.00 pm, for a maximum of eleven days in any four-week period. This measure was widely admired and copied across the EU (particularly in France), and remains a model for industrial relations on the Continent.

Despite the sporadic, if violent civil unrest caused by early teething troubles in the Commissariat, it was a surprise when Michael Gove led the Tories to a nine-seat majority at the second election of 2016. Nevertheless, despite his own misgivings, Vastleigh-Small was persuaded by the new prime minister to remain in post to see Big Cheese back to the private sector, and reluctantly accepted an improved compensation package. As he said at the time, it was ‘vital to pay market rates in order to attract the best talent.’ To prove this point, Len McCluskey returned to his duties at Unite, and Vastleigh-Small recruited Stephen Hester (formerly of RSA and, before that, RBS) to replace the union man. A tentative timetable was set for the sell-off, and as he noted in his diary (later published as Pathways and Pathogens: My Life), ‘I told the PM it would take three years to do it, and I was right – it took fifteen. Which only goes to show how robust my reforms had been.’

Feeling that it was time to hand the Board of Commissariat to a younger person (preferably a Left-leaning woman, he said, as a balance to his own gender), and grief-stricken by the death of his mother, who tripped and fell during a scheduled black-out at the time of the bread shortages in 2017, Vastleigh-Small retired from all public life in 2019. He died suddenly of a suspected heart attack at his modernist house in the Devon village of Vastleigh, and is survived by his civil spouse, the Belgian counter-tenor Theo Vastleigh-Small. The couple had no children.

  • Sir Gerald Vastleigh-Small, public servant, born 1 April 1963; died 7 February 2039

A recent Times (concise) crossword contained a wholly uncharacteristic error. Some may argue it’s acceptable for the clue ‘Group off Land’s End (6,7)’ to return the answer ‘Scilly Islands’, but that would imply the setter had in mind ‘Scilly islands’, as in ‘islands called Scilly’, and I don’t imagine Scillonians would be impressed.

I bow to no maBrown sign2n in my admiration for the Times crossword compilers, whose works are models of cunning, wit, obscurity and, above all, accuracy; indeed, it would be hard to find a more eminent group, the finest of their trade. But this certainty in their abilities, my deep faith, led me down an unfortunate path; as the crossword simply could not be wrong, and knowing there was no such place as the Scilly Islands, the only remaining impossibility, as Holmes might have put it, was my own wrongness, or more properly, ignorance.

In desperation, I questioned how the answer to ‘Temperature scale (7)’, whose first letter must be ‘C’ (for ‘Calibre’, being the answer to ‘Bullet diameter (7)’) could be anything other than ‘Celsius’, thus giving the ‘S’ of ‘Scilly’. And if the third, fifth and seventh letters of the clue ‘Against the law (7)’ simply had to be ‘L’, ‘G’ and ‘L’ what on earth could the first be, if not ‘I’? ‘U’? Because if I really was confronted by something other than ‘Scilly Islands’ then… and so on. With a rising sense of frustration, gradually turning to feelings of inadequacy, I conceded defeat. This had none of the quiet comfort in having given one’s all – it was bewilderment, the hollowness of hunger, of being cheated.

The following morning revealed the paradox. You will have guessed already that the answer was indeed ‘Scilly Islands’. So I had failed solely because of my reverence for the higher authority that is the Times flummox (the collective noun for crossword setters); if I’d allowed my base instinct its head I would have gained a victory, grim and tainted it’s true, but a victory nonetheless. With a few swift pen-strokes, ‘S’, ‘A’ and ‘D’ (you see the cruel irony), I would have been home. But no. No, like a trapeze artist I put heart above head. Devotion may have it’s reward, but I’m damned if I can see how.

Despite all this, I feel a bit sheepish about using this sorry tale as a pretext to return to a subject upon which I have touched before, but I fear that things are getting out of hand. If you can talk of the Scilly Islands, why not the British Islands? As an island people, we seem lamentably ignorant of the many small, detached bodies of land that make up so much of our great nation. To the Isle of White, and now the Scilly Islands, should we add the Isles of Men and Eely? Perhaps Eel Pudding Island in the Thames boasts a pub to rival Queen’s Eight? Mull, Muck, Harris and Rum really are not stalwarts of the Hebridean fire brigade, and the Skye Boat Song is not an ad for satellite telly. Islay stop now before I sound Sarky.Doughnut-windmill2

Still, at least we have many islands, in stark contrast to Belgium, which used to have one. But in the Middles Ages somebody said, “Onze coastine is erg slordig” and set about tidying it up. Testerep was duly reattached to the mainland, in order to make the maps look neater. A thousand years later they’ve had second thoughts, have decided they want an island once more, and are going to build one. Of course, it would be easier just to re-float Testerep, and almost as cheap to buy one from Richard Branson, but being Belgian they’ve decided to spend billions of euros constructing a sort of giant torch battery in the North Sea.

Devised as a means of storing surplus (surplus!) energy from offshore wind-turbines, this doughnut-shaped delusion will pump water from its middle when few kettles are being boiled, then let it in again through turbines when Strictly comes on. This is the equivalent of charging up your iPhone during the night, and then eating your cornflakes by the glow from its screen.

This being Belgium, where they do things differently, the debate has not been about the industrial or social benefits of the scheme, or whether it will even work, but about the dangers posed to windmills by birds. Yes, you did read that right, birds are dangerous to windmills, and the only surprise is that the BBC hasn’t devoted a season to the subject – Windmill Winter or Turbine Watch.

By the way, the Belgians have named their new territory Domste Eiland, or Silliest Island. And I didn’t even mention the French.

Here’s a question for you. Well, two. When did advertising people, with honourable exceptions, lose their sense of humour, and when did they give up on originality? Do they realise they have? All right, that’s three questions, and all rhetorical. Which makes me sound a bit like an advertisement, because rhetorical questions are the ad man’s stock in trade. “Let down by your toothpaste? Feeling down in the mouth? Use New White-O, with epicflourofancycarbonation-X. It’s clinically proven. 9 out of 10 people surveyed said this commercial induced catatonia.”Fairy

Of course these things are subjective, and doubtless there are experts in, and connoisseurs of, this sort of pap, but if you and I can agree that advertising, by and large, is pap, then a more interesting question arises. Why do otherwise intelligent people allow themselves to be gulled into paying for it? I’m talking, of course, about the boards of the companies that sanction the campaigns. When the man with Danish architects’ glasses, fashionable stubble and a polo-neck tells them the best way to promote White-O is with an earnestly attractive young dentist in her surgery (plus a bit of clunky animation and mandatory pseudo science) why do they not stop to think? Or perhaps they do. Perhaps they say, “Crispin’s right you know, this really is cutting-edge stuff.” Or, “The great thing about this campaign is it’s completely different to what anybody else is doing.” Not to mention, “In fact, it’s completely different to everything we’ve ever done before.” “How much shall I write the cheque for, Crispin?”

I hadn’t really intended to pick on toothpaste commercials as the epitome of homogenised advertising tedium, because there are plenty of other things it’s hard to differentiate by the way they’re advertised. Cars, cosmetics, over-the-counter drugs, life insurance, package holidays, payday lenders, proper banks, domestic appliances and soap powder all have their own set formulae, which are followed more or less religiously by the advertisers. But if the objectives of advertising are a) to make the world aware that your product exists and b) to differentiate it from its competitors, then why do they pay for advertising that’s indistinguishable from that of those very competitors? If you can’t immediately recall what each formula is, and who could blame you, here’s my handy cut-out-and-bin guide to help you recognise what you’re trying to avoid watching:

  • Atmospheric photography, sexy soundtrack, male voiceover drooling over virility-enhancement technology – German cars
  • CGI landscape, electro-funk music, female voice wittering about green technology – Japanese cars
  • Clunky photography, Eurovision-style music and limited edition plastic wheel covers – French cars
  • Mud and rugby players – (but this is unfair as there’s only one) British cars
  • Supermodel, glittering location, pseudo science, fatuous survey (“62% of 37 women agreed”) – women’s shampoo
  • Glitzy location and impossible glamour – perfume, either sex, and lots of it
  • Fit young man, bathroom, homo-erotic sub-plot, more pseudo science, another fatuous survey – shampoo for men. (Why do men and women need different shampoo?)
  • Cuddly 50-year-old pretending to be 80, or Michael Parkinson pretending he’s interested, and interesting – life insurance/stair-lifts/funeral plans/denture glue/old-fashioned sweets
  • They’re not nasty at all and really are on your side, but what’s the illegible small print at the bottom of the screen? – banks, of course
  • Very beautiful young people with imaginative hairstyles skateboarding in cool cities – any smartphone

I’ll stop there before you lose the will to live, but this train of thought came to me last Sunday night, while enduring ITV’s soap opera du jour, Downton Abbey. “Aw, shucks, Rerbert, whor lass’s gone an’ gorrersen oop the duff wi’ that fellow who’s friends with Mr Hitler.” Unaccountably, this is a very popular show, so its ad slots are correspondingly expensive – sound economics in Mr Osborne’s hard times should point to a short, sharp, low-budget approach, but the movies (‘ads’ doesn’t really do them justice) shown at prime time demonstrate between them many of the dubious themes outlined above. But I also wonder whether the best moment to persuade consumers of the merits of 21st-century technology is while they’re happily immersed in an Edwardian reverie, in which the only man who knows how to work the telephone is the butler, Kearson.

However, let it not be said I am unwilling to put my blood and sweat where my mouth is; I have therefore prepared an entire campaign for White-O, on behalf of The Homemade Toothpaste Co, to trial an alternative approach to TV advertising. It will be shown sparingly, on some of the more ‘exclusive’ channels, but you can have a private view by clicking the link below. It was made using all the cheapest technology, and is untouched by titanium-framed spectacles; I call it “Haven’t we seen this before somewhere? No.”

You’ll note the brief film’s Gallic flavour; apparently I’ve been a bit unkind about the French recently, and I like the French, so this is by way of an apology. Next time I shall try to be rude about the Belgians instead, which should be OK.

You can find the latest (last) White-O ad on Youtube, but you may be subjected to other adverts while you watch it.

I write under conditions so terrible that dark penetrates the light, men quail and women shudder, the very animals cower and the dawn chorus is silent. Yes, we have no hot water. And haven’t had for a week, nor will for another two. We have suffered a failure so catastrophic, so terminal that old plumbers have never seen its like. We have fallen victim to two laws of physics – any schoolboy knows that Nature abhors a vacuum, but he may not yet have learned the Second Law of Thermodynamics whereby, in the words of Flanders and Swann, “Heat won’t pass from the cooler to the hotter”. The combination of these two (laws, not F & S) has left us with a ball of crumpled metal that only vaguely resembles the heavy copper cylinder it used to be.

Crushed can

I mention this disaster by way of a cautionary tale, because the government has also just decided to call in the builders, and I fear it too will end in tears. For 13 years those masters of short-termism, the Labour party, ignored warnings that in due course the lights would begin to dim even in their own constituencies, and failed to plan generating capacity able to produce electricity at the click of a mouse, rather than at the whim of the Almighty. David Cameron, hidebound by his essentially bogus green credentials, acknowledged the need for nuclear energy but unfortunately entrusted its fulfilment to a Liberal Democrat. Like a vicar sent on crowd control duties at Millwall – earnest and willing, but a believer in passive resistance – Ed Davey was duly beaten senseless by the EDF Boys. This is the man who in 2006 said that “A new generation of nuclear power stations will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds.” Well, like most Lib Dems on most subjects, he was wrong – just a single nuclear power station will cost taxpayers tens of billions, and the money won’t be staying here. May St Vincent of Cable forgive him.

It’s reasonable to question why we’re entrusting a significant part of our most critical infrastructure to French engineers and Chinese money. The French have recent form in large projects (their new aircraft carrier was 6 feet too short for its aircraft), and selling Knightsbridge apartments to Chinese investors is not the same as giving them the keys to the national fuse-box. Among the reasons given for asking the French (the French!) to bring their spanners to Somerset is that there’s nobody left in Britain who knows how to do the job. Well, this is palpable nonsense, as there’s at least one world-class organisation in Britain that could do it without breaking sweat – the Royal Navy. For decades BAE and the Navy have been building and operating nuclear power plants. So rather than build one massive power station able to provide 7% of our needs, why not have a large number of small ones? In round numbers, Hinkley Point C will have capacity equivalent to 35 nuclear submarine reactors. If an entire Astute-class submarine costs under £1 billion to build then the reactor must be much less than that, not least because civil ones don’t need to be waterproof and work under the Arctic.

In fact, so-called micro-reactors (only a tenth the size of a naval reactor) have been designed (at Manchester University) at an expected cost per reactor of about £75 million. Put them next to existing stations (they’re only the size of the average semi, remember) providing the fail-safe of multiple sites (witness the chaos caused by industrial action at a single oil refinery) and keep building, a few at a time at a price we can afford. As perfectly illustrated by the submarines mentioned above (the last four being 40% cheaper than the first three), anything bespoke costs a lot, but the more you build, the lower the unit-cost. Is it beyond the world’s sixth-biggest economy to build small reactors with taxpayers’ money and lease them to the operators, who would make their return from a competitive non-subsidised electricity market, rather than buy reactors from the very same operators, on HP for the next four decades?

With the inevitability of a Colombo plot-line, Mr Davey used clairvoyant predictions to justify the EDF arrangement; to his credit, he managed to keep a straight face when declaring that domestic fuel bills will be exactly £77 lower in 2030. Before or after inflation, Ed? Waxing moon or on the wane? Nobody knows what energy will be 17 months from now, and a 17-year forecast is for the fairies. Perhaps he actually intended a subtle promotion of the well-known seven-a-side rugby club called the Seventy-7s. The problem with huge infrastructure projects is just that – they’re huge. Politicians are dazzled by projections dreamed up by self-interested consultants, accountants and lawyers salivating at the prospect of a single deal lining their coffers for years to come. Ministers become dizzy at the heights from which they look down, but then if you can’t see the ground it’s not so scary. How refreshing it would be for a government to think small, a principle that I shall be impressing upon our new plumber when it comes to his bill.

The good news is that I can’t think of anything to write under the subject of No Hope at present. That statement, however, is of such an upbeat nature that I’m not sure whether I ought not to bump it further to the left of the menu bar, where the really positive stuff lives.

But then I’d be depressed about having nothing in here, which ought to be a reason for optimism. This is all very confusing…

Tony ‘Head Prefect’ Hall, the (new) current Director General of the BBC, obviously didn’t have a chance to read my piece A Slimmer’s Guide: the BBC before delivering his first major speech as DG yesterday. Had he done so, I would doubtless have been summoned to the sixth-form common room for a good thrashing and a lesson in manners.Car skid

At least, I imagine so, because he clearly intends taking the BBC up a different hill to the one I argued for. On his watch the Corporation will further reinforce its bridgehead in territory to which it has no claim – internet programming, music streaming, radio-video and the like. He also intends tapping up the ‘Youtube generation’ to produce programming; this is a ruse already perfected by some newspapers whereby willing amateurs find payment for their work consists of ‘reputational enhancement’ rather than money. I do hope I’m proved wrong on that score, but either way, it won’t do much for the morale of the junior producers who actually work for the BBC.

However, at least Lord Hall and I agree that the astonishing BBC archive should be made more readily available, but in a cunning variation of my idea, he’s decided that we should have to pay for it. I may be missing something here, but haven’t we (or our parents and grandparents) already been tapped up once for these programmes? But not to worry, because thankfully his plan will enable us to build up a “personal online archive”. Phew. I was a bit worried about my personal online archive. I don’t want to labour the point, but we’ve already paid for these programmes, and its his job to enable us to see them, for free. How this squares with his belief that we should speak not of “the BBC” but of “our BBC”, is beyond me.

Among the other big ideas is a project called Open Minds, which will put on the internet various programmes from Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service in some sort of package; in an unfortunate choice of words, Lord Hall described it as “the home of intelligent content for curious people.” My guess is that, odd as some of them may be, the people he has in mind would rather the money was spent on making better programmes, to which they can listen by turning on the radio.

In one sense I sympathise with him. I suspect that neither he nor many in his position appreciate just how much the world is changing around them. There is a fundamental problem facing the BBC, because the internet is making a mockery of its funding model, based as it is on a long-dead idea – that as the only news and creative media organisation visible to British taxpayers, we should be happy to pay for it. Global access to all media has made a broadcaster funded by compulsory subscription an anachronism at best, a dilemma to which there are two solutions, neither of which will ever happen. The first is for the BBC to operate only in areas that commercial broadcasters cannot, and reduce the licence fee accordingly. The second is to say that the BBC must be worth a great deal of money, and privatise it. If a spectral company like Twitter can be valued at hundreds of times its earnings, then surely with commercial revenues of £1.4 billion and rising, not to mention its property, other assets, pension fund and so on, the BBC must be worth at least 10 times its earnings. Fifteen billion quid anyone? Twenty-five?

I should say in his defence, Lord Hall also promised to renew focus on the Reithian principles, to “inform, educate and entertain”. The thing is though, none of what he calls his “vision” has very much to do with those values – it is all about how we consume programming, rather than what the programming is. What he singularly failed to explain is why we should be forced to pay for it. If, as reported, his speech was an early salvo in the battle for a bigger licence fee, then I can only rest my case.

When the great and the good, and Cherie Blair, gathered in Mandy’s draughty tent 13 years ago to beckon in the dawn of another 1,000 years, Mr Tony had us believe that we stood on the threshold of a new great age. And, on the whole, we agreed: where our ancestors had made transformative leaps for civilisation, we were now doing the same. Where only just the week before the world had been grey and sterile, now we could be anything, do anything.

But. If you stand back, screw up your eyes and take the fuzzy, luxurious, long view of a future historian, what do you see, not just in the last decade, but in the last five? Where in those fifty years was the technology or thinking that changed the world beyond recognition, or even very much, seen not from our own limited perspective but across the span of human existence? Where is the new fire or electricity?

Indian manApparently some people believe the internet was as important an invention as electricity, but what we call the ‘internet revolution’ is nothing of the sort; the expression’s an insult to revolutionaries everywhere. Moreover, it is (was) not the beginning of a new age, but the end of an old one. The internet has not really changed what we do, only how we do it. It’s a domestic appliance to aid our pre-existing behaviours and desires, a convenience. Well, you may say, you can acquire knowledge more quickly (without thinking very much), you can speak to the world at the click of a mouse (without thinking at all) and you can shop without getting out of bed, but that’s about it. As the dishwasher let some of us forget how to wash up so, a generation later, the internet allows us to forget almost everything – if everything is only a click away, why bother to remember anything? What it has not done is, bring us what was beyond our imagination .

A century ago, at what turned out to be the end of the age of steam, mankind embarked on another of its periodic bouts of accelerated progress. Within only fifty years (perhaps sixty, but still just the blink of an eye) we had discovered x-rays and penicillin (without which modern medicine would still be 19th-century medicine), found a use for gasoline (the most basic foundation of space exploration), identified DNA (who knows where that will lead) and invented silicon microchips, without which you would be spared reading this. Each of these, and others, represented the start-line for the development of entirely new technologies. This great age of scientific progress is known as the First Half of the Twentieth Century – somebody must think of a better name, as the Petroleum Era, the Age of the Doctors, or the Day of the Electronic Valve don’t quite have the ring of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason or the Industrial Revolution.

Arguably, the subsequent half-century has seen mostly incremental development of what came before, progress built upon earlier work. Of course, this is an epic generalisation, but although aircraft fly us faster and further, even into space, they’re still powered by rockets and jets. We live longer, but eventually die mostly of the same diseases. The most dramatic breakthrough of all, splitting the atom, essentially just gave us bigger bombs and cheaper electricity (and some nostalgics tell us windmills are better at that). The most famous corporation on the planet makes shiny boxes (which are exactly like other companies’ shiny boxes, only shinier) but they’re still just phones and computers, not fundamentally different from the offerings of the GPO or Sir Clive Sinclair. A new Ford and the Model T are both just cars, and nobody would call South West Trains an improvement on the GWR. Every single one of the great developments of most of our lifetimes can either be traced to its inheritance, or has thus far failed to lead us in a new direction. The greatest leap of the last twenty years, telecommunications, was made possible by electricity, radio and microchips. Our current technological age is running out of volts.

But I cling to the thought that we’re about due a new one, another bout of progress that fundamentally alters the course of human development. Picture, as we can, brain transplants or hypersonic travel, but will you and I live to see things that we cannot envisage? Are we the caveman, complaining of the cold but without the notion of fire? Or the 17th-century traveller miserably contemplating a long cart journey, as steam from the soup bowl fogs his spectacles? Just as the horse came before the train, and electricity before the trouser-press, so perhaps nano-technology, genetic engineering or organic circuits may be the catalysts for some transformative technology, whatever it may be. And the point is exactly that – we don’t know what ‘it’ may be, because we cannot even imagine it. Except… perhaps there are men and women, scientists at CERN or the Francis Crick Institute, or eccentrics in garden sheds, who can. I do hope so.

misunderstood“D’you think I don’t know how to spell the Isle of White?” was not asked as a binary question. I have a shrewd idea the ‘Products Director – UK Marketing’ would have been even crosser if I’d pointed out that although in the black on white of an email it might have looked like a binary question, it wasn’t one; the answer was not yes or no, but yes and no. If there is an Isle of White somewhere, then she unquestionably knows how to spell it. To be fair to this ornament of the executive ladder, she didn’t suggest what sort of question she was asking, but her tone implied there was only one correct answer. Or perhaps she meant it to be rhetorical.

My view of her abilities had been coloured, however, by an earlier insistence on including, in a leaflet flogging funeral plans to the over-50s, the phrase “After you are dead you will have some big decisions to make.” Some of the target demographic might have spotted a flaw in her sales pitch. This earlier experience may explain my objectionable attitude, but her imaginary island provided a sudden insight into the qualities needed to rise on a tide of ignorance, in one of Britain’s biggest companies.

Having said that, I should admit to my own ignorance, in that I don’t really understand what a binary question is, or at least, I don’t know why a question whose answer can only be yes or no is called binary. This is partly because at school I never began to grasp the subtleties, or even the basics of the system, but also because if it’s about one and zero, why are they substituted by yes and no? Or is it no and yes? What’s wrong with calling a simple question a question, adjectives notwithstanding? The answer to that question of course, is that it sounds cleverer to use a word vaguely associated with what really matters – anything digital, especially if you wish to appear clued-up, or rather, plugged-in. “What you just said… that’s, like, so analogue?” as the Products Director – UK Marketing might have put it.

Gogglebox, a series from that fine exponent of the genre, Channel 4, is cheap, managed-reality television at its best. We sit watching telly, watching other people watching telly. The premise is very simple – a camera is fixed to the top of the participants’ TV sets, pointing at them. We don’t see what they see, but we know what they think about what they’re seeing. And the remarkable thing is that they all seem to think pretty much the same way. Their take on the programmes they’re asked to watch is remarkably similar – Downton Abbey is a bad joke, the X Factor’s a cruel joke, the Lib Dems’ party-political broadcast is just a joke, and the people who make these shows think we’re all a bit thick.TV

All of which makes one wonder if what oh-so-superior New Labour politicians used to call ‘ordinary people’ (which is to say, us not them) share broadly the same views about everyday life, and whether it is actually TV executives who are a bit thick. We may strongly disagree about the least worst political parties, the benefits of fracking or whether England will ever win the World Cup (well, maybe not that), but we all see a turd for what it is. The comedian Jennifer Saunders recently had a splendid rant about the BBC high-command, and no doubt many of us would cheer her to the rafters. Her point was that the old creative energy at the top of the BBC has been replaced by gruesome men and women in suits, whose god is Mammon and whose creed is their personal entitlement to dollops of tax-payers’ money. Not only is this morally questionable, but it sucks the life from an institution that, as arguably the most lavishly funded creative media organisation on the planet, should also be the best.

Of course, creativity is in the eye… etc, and it’s only right that the BBC should occupy populist ground, so the charge is not that it’s insufficiently ‘cultural’. Rather, the point is that in trying to fulfil its mainstream role it confuses ‘populist’ with ‘low-brow’, and conflates low-brow with ignorance (ours not theirs). It’s not that the BBC is sometimes dumbed-down, but that it’s sometimes just dumb. How else can you explain the presenter of a pre-recorded (and therefore editable) primetime BBC programme (the bizarre Countryfile) saying, “It’s from here in Chatham that Wellington’s ships sailed to defeat the French at the Battle of Waterloo”? The editor didn’t notice, or maybe thought we wouldn’t, either of which is stupid.

By contrast, audiences for the ‘high-brow’ end of the BBC’s output would probably agree that mostly it’s of very high quality; but it also represents a fraction of both the broadcast hours and the overall budget. There is a growing sense that something needs to give. Not only is it nowadays unacceptable that the BBC is endowed with the force of the criminal law to support its tax-raising (a power that is all too frequently abused), but the very idea that possession of a television is grounds for the collectors to knock on your door is already laughably outdated, as there are now so many other ways to watch ‘television’ (you can throw away your telly, watch Goggleox by clicking the link at the bottom of this piece, and save yourself £145.50). Moreover, the BBC, through its very existence hugely distorts the commercial broadcasting market. By producing programmes that are clones of those shown on commercial channels the BBC divides in order to rule – and by sucking in ratings they reduce the financial value of commercial programming, which has a detrimental effect on independent broadcasters, the employees and shareholders of which lack the comfort of guaranteed funding from you and me.

If the BBC were to be pruned hard, and its role reaffirmed as the national broadcaster of non-commercial output, the broadcast market would become properly free, the licence fee could be greatly reduced, and the overpaid executives in the palace that is New Broadcasting House would discover if there really does exist a ‘market’ for their questionable skills. A smaller BBC would have no need for pseudo-management bullshit like DQF (‘Delivering Quality First’, or ‘Destroying Quality Fast’), or its predecessor DCF (‘Delivering Creative Futures’, the mind boggles), both being euphemisms for culling anybody lacking the key to the executive privy. To its credit, the government gave the BBC a shove in the right direction in 2010 by freezing the licence fee until 2017, a 20% cut in real terms which has caused the defenestration of some on the upper floors; but so far the most welcome contribution to light entertainment is the unexpected Youtube semi-stardom of the head of HR, Lucy ‘Grizzly’ Adams, as she flounders before the Hodgean Inquisition, aka the Public Accounts Committee.

A newly lightweight Corporation might see BBC1 concentrating on the drama, comedy and current affairs for which it’s highly regarded (left-wing bias is a subject for another day, or no day). BBC2 would spend its mornings showing original children’s programmes (as opposed to bought-in American cartoons), the afternoons on Open University-type things (before a bit more children’s at tea-time), and the evenings on the factual programmes and cultural crème for which it is justly renowned. This would free BBC4 to become the outlet for the BBC’s matchless archive, to most of which we are denied access. On the radio, commercial stations would quickly and gratefully fill the gap left by a discontinued Radio 1, which is too slow to adapt to the ever-evolving tastes of its target audience (most of whom are too busy with the internet to bother listening to mainstream radio). Radio 2, so successful because it makes the kinds of programme that commercial stations can’t, would continue as the BBC1 of the wireless. Likewise Radio 3 and Radio 4, which can speak for themselves, could carry on much as they are. Also eliminated in this bonfire of the vanities would be any televised sport (yes, including Wimbledon) that costs more than token amounts, which is to say all minority sports (most Olympic disciplines, plus cheese-rolling and women’s cricket) which need nurturing as much through public exposure as actual cash. Sport could be the exclusive domain of BBC3. As demonstrated by Sky, and now BT, major sport is best left to the big money, and the BBC should have nothing to do with it.

On top of this, the Corporation’s immense publishing business needs scaling back so that it no longer competes to the detriment of private enterprise – how can magazines like Discover Your History or History Today thrive in the face of the publicly-funded BBC History? The same goes for one of the world’s largest websites,, a behemoth that competes directly with commercial news sites. One of the alleged justifications for the BBC’s non-broadcast activities (including its ‘commercial arm’ BBC Worldwide) is that the profits are for the benefit of the licence-payer. This is plainly ludicrous – commercial income doesn’t reduce the licence fee, it just increases the vast budget, with which the BBC management has shown it shouldn’t be trusted. According to Ofcom (which of course is not responsible for the BBC), in 2002-2003 the BBC’s income was £2.68 billion, of which all but a fraction (less than £100 million) came from the licence and various grants. A decade later, licence-fee income has risen to £3.66 billion, but the overall budget is now an astonishing £5.10 billion, which equals a commercial ‘benefit’ of £1.44 billion in other revenue, equivalent to 50% of the licence fee. I think this rather says it all.

Like animals and skyscrapers, complex structures collapse under their own weight if they become too big, but the BBC seems immune to this law of nature; perhaps its problem isn’t its size per se, but the remoteness of the heart from the brain. It’s time for surgery to restore the blood supply between the two, and a bracing dose of reality might be just the thing, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, to help fill in the time between now and nothing happening, I can recommend half an hour of Gogglebox.