Friday, 16 May 2014

Are we nearly there yet ...?

Four years late - that's quite an achievement.
But that's how long overdue the Chilcot report is according to Bernard Jenkins, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.
And the thing that's holding it up is the only thing that matters now. The answer to the question 'why?'
We've known 'what' and 'how' for a long time. And the Chilcot panel's often idiosyncratic questioning hasn't, in all truth, added very much to either. Partly because when you read the witnesses' testimony, you find yourself marvelling at the patina that betrays years of burnishing between events and inquiry.
Two years ago, I was fretting over Chilcot. I was writing Stumbling Over Truth. As the cover helpfully tells you, 'the inside story of the sexed-up dossier, Hutton and the BBC'.
And there was the strong expectation then that Chilcot would report a few weeks after my book was due to be published on the 10th anniversary of the September dossier.
That could have been bad news. Not because it would undermine the book but because it would - might - answer the question neither I or anyone else could at that time. 'Why?'
For all the mountain range of evidence that was out there thanks to leaks and the FOI Act, no-one on the outside knew what Tony Blair and George Bush had said or written to each other in private. What, if any, secret understandings or agreements they'd come to.
And the risk to the book was that I'd made it clear that I didn't believe the evidence was there to do what many did. Call Tony Blair a "liar".
Guilty mind
I couldn't see any evidence of what lawyers call a mens rea - for the simple reason that I concluded he truly believed whatever he was saying at the time he was saying it. Even if that meant holding incompatible or even contradictory views at one and the same time.
That doesn't let the former Prime Minister off the hook, however. We know the lengths he and Downing Street went to to 'create the truth'. How those around him nipped and tucked intelligence to make it fit the policy. And how any warning - however authoritative - that he was wrong about Saddam's WMD went into the bin.
New inferences
Two years on and its hard not to make new inferences.
As reported, it's those private messages and, possibly, agreements between PM and President that's holding up Chilcot and has been for some time.
And that's the thing. The longer Chilcot is delayed - and yet again today, we're promised he'll report 'by the end of the year' aka 'not until the end of the year' - the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that those private messages tend to suggest Tony Blair's mens might have been rea after all.
That the 2002/3 exercise in 'creating the truth' wasn't just another example of the cynical and contemptuous way New Labour did its politics day in, day out for a decade. That it was something much more sinister.  
Another seven months of mandarinisation will only persuade us that Chilcot, when he finally reports, has hidden more than he's revealed.
And the test is whether he produces an answer to that question, 'why?'

Friday, 7 March 2014

What's this 'channel' thing anyway?

That decision to shift BBC3 to iPlayer is one of the most important DG Tony Hall has made.
Possibly, the most important he'll make in his time at the top of the BBC.
Why? After all, BBC3 is a niche channel - though, according to BARB's February figures, it's no small niche, outperforming Sky 1 for example.
Nor is it especially cheap - an all-up cost of around £120m. Slightly less than the cost of all Local Radio.
It's had question marks over it since its launch 11 years ago. Some were justified - should the BBC really be commissioning programmes called 'F*ck off, I'm fat/ginger/a hairy woman' many of us wondered. And what about those Eastenders repeats? Did 16-35 year olds really not watch the soap first time round on BBC1?
It was easy for the BBC's many detractors to dismiss it as Auntie's metro-yuff g-string. A 'look-at-me' come charter renewal.
So why's it such an important decision? Who cares whether yuff have to watch the shows they want on their iPads? When they want? How they want?
Pipes and stuff
It's important because it's the the first sizeable wedge the BBC has driven into the whole idea of 'channels'.
That decision a while ago to put some content on iPlayer before it went out on the 'telly' was a tentative tap on the same wedge. So was the, frankly, amazing Olympics service.
But moving a whole channel is the first big hammer blow. It won't be the last.
Tony Hall knows - and it's something the BBC has been saying to itself and to anyone who cared to listen for over two decades - that the corporation's value lies in its content, the stuff it makes, the stuff it commissions and the stuff it chooses to buy. Not in 'channels'.
Now it's true that most of us still watch our programmes live and on a 'channel'. But fewer of us and fewer of them. And the trend is in one direction only.
Who are you?
Channels made sense when there was only a handful. When we were schedulers' more or less happy prisoners. Viewers in my generation part-identified themselves by the channel their family watched most on the single TV set in their home.
Were you Blue Peter or Magpie? Grandstand or World of Sport? 
And when BBC2 came along, did you tweak your set to watch it or, like my parents, not bother because it wasn't "for people like us".
We still see vestiges of this kind of thinking now. The debate over Scandidramas - should The Bridge and The Killing have been on BBC2 or BBC4? Or those angry blasts in the TV pages during the 2012 Olympics that this or that event - usually where a Brit was heading for a medal - should have been switched to BBC1.
Yet it's hard to see what it is about Line of Duty that makes it obviously BBC2 and what it is about Shetland that makes it equally obviously BBC1. Nor where the dividing line comes between BBC2 and BBC4 commissions.
But then, these questions only matter if you believe 'channels' do.
In and out of the box
If there's anyone still alive who turns the TV onto "their" channel at six-thirty and watches it and only it 'til bedtime, they're very few in number and more likely to be my generation than younger.
As it happens, I've seen most of the BBC3 landmark programmes - Gavin and Stacey, Boosh, Good News etc etc ... but not one of them as they went out live on that channel. Nor the first time around.
The length of a programme's tail is key these days and where/when you watch is as important as you want to make it.
And we're more and more used to vertical viewing - binging on box sets. That's how I watched West Wing and Family Guy. I'm still watching House of Cards via Netflix - a box set by other means. And recorded the Scandidramas and watched them on successive days not successive weeks - a kind of home made box set. Oh, and it annoys the hell out of me that I'm having to defer to the BBC2 scheduler and wait seven days for the next episode of Line of Duty.
But that's me.
The point is, though, we all have increasingly personal viewing habits which are an increasingly poor fit with the idea of the traditional 'channel'.
The BBC3 move came earlier than Tony Hall would have liked. And under pressure to save yet another £100m or so ... which, incidentally, the move will not do.
But it's not a move he was reluctant to make in principle. Nor, if it's well managed, will it be the last.
It makes sense to tackle BBC3 first. The target audience is the one that's already most adjusted to multiple devices. The one that's most likely to be able to navigate different ways of finding the content it wants. And, of course, the one that'll grow up with those new habits as second nature.
The language, though, is limiting.
Inevitably, it's a 'channel' being downgraded to 'online'. Auntie abandoning its kids. And that leads inevitably to the fear that none of the type of content made and bought for BBC3 will now see the light of day.
Tony Hall knows that if that happens it will be a disaster. Not just for the lost talent - which is a loss of quality by other means - but because it would sink or at least delay and make more hazardous the corporation's medium-term strategy.
It's vital the new BBC3's commissioning and buying is a success and is seen to be a success - and that means holding onto the channel's identity as a fast-track to the mainstream for new talent with new ideas.
Numbers will matter too. And that's why getting iPlayer audiences measured properly and in a way that can be compared sensibly with traditional viewing is so important.
It's not impossible to foresee a time when an iPlayer like 'homepage' will be the main route into BBC programmes and content. If you've never seen the current iPlayer landing page, it's worth a visit to look at the possibilities. And, incidentally, where the 'channels' are positioned on that page.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that there are many, many more ways of bundling programmes and other content together than a handful of 'channels' none of which is as defining as some would like to argue.
And in those bundles, whether and when a programme or a series or whatever went out for the first time on TV will matter not at all.
That's where the BBC has to go. Whether it will be able to at its own pace and in its own way depends on that BBC3 wedge.
Whether it opens up the possibilities Tony Hall hopes. Or cracks the whole bloody edifice.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The wrong people in the room?

This Chatham House paper by James de Waal published today, 21 November, is worth reading. And thinking about.
DeWaal is no lightweight - he's a visiting fellow at the RIIA and has a distinguished background in the MoD and the Diplomatic Service. His short paper is a study not of the political decisions to get involved in Afghanistan and Iraq – we know that the first of those was spasm, the second a deception – but how the Blair government managed to make such a Horlicks of military deployments both during and in the long years after the conflicts.
At its most political, it condemns Tony Blair’s Downing Street and its ‘sofa government’:
“Blair’s tenure as prime minister was noted for the practice of decision-making in small circles of selected (and therefore supposedly tight-lipped) advisers – an approach condemned by, among others, the Butler Review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.” 
A style that Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, defended as a system that produced good decisions so long as you had “the right people in the room” - from which deWaal takes his title.
The problem was, de Waal argues, that “the right people” didn’t have quite the right attitude to managing the military:
“Politicians and civil servants did not wish to be accused of interfering with military planning, and so did little to ensure that military action supported political aims.” 
And Downing Street’s infamous obsession with the next day’s headlines led to astonishing recklessness:
“In 2002–03, Britain decided to make a ground force contribution to the invasion of Iraq …" 
That’s to say, the decision on the type of intervention, ‘boots on the ground’ not the decision per se to oust Saddam by military force – that had already been taken on the false premise we now know it to have been:
 “… with implicit responsibility for post-war security in that country’s southern provinces, primarily because politicians feared they would have problems with the British army if it was left out, and that these problems would find their way into the media.” 
Later, in another part of the forest:
“In 2009, Downing Street was not convinced of the military need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but agreed to do so because it wanted to prevent hostile press briefings by the military.”
The explanation? Well, the obvious. But also the …
 “incoherence, inconsistency and opacity …” 
 … of Downing Street’s “model” for working with the military. No10 was:
“apprehensive of the close relationship between the armed forces and the media, and were therefore reluctant to challenge military opinion.” 
And as a result, did nothing at all to query the plans of those senior officers who:
“felt their role was principally to support the institutional interests of their branch of the armed forces.”
"Poor judgment"
De Waal’s main focus isn’t to explain, condemn or excuse political decisions - though some Blair apologists read it as such. That's odd. In measured language - ever the diplomat, perhaps - his judgment is scathing:
“It seems reasonable to accuse Blair of poor judgment – at the very least – in overestimating both the threat from Saddam Hussein’s regime and the prospects of installing a viable replacement in Iraq.” 
And he recalls the admission of political misjudgment that Sir David Omand shared with the Chilcot inquiry. The admission that the immediate pre-war political strategy failed catastrophically in the case of Iraq:
“He cited the chess concept of Zugzwang, ‘where you force your opponent into a position where they have to move and every move they can make will worsen their position’, and showed how ‘instead of putting Saddam in that position, we turned out to be in that position ourselves because we were forced to […] get the [UN] inspectors to look for the smoking gun in double quick time before the window for invasion closed’.” 
Makes you wonder how serious the UN/weapons inspectors’ route really was – and how much Blair was, contrary to his assertions at the time, wholly governed by the military timetable.
De Waal ends recommending a new code to circumscribe governments’ decision making on the use of force – not a bad idea since that decision, peace or war, is the most grave a democratic government can take.
And the code’s aim - he suggests it should be approved by parliament - wouldn't be to constrain a government's proper and legal use of force. It would be to ensure that political and military decisions were aligned and supported each other - as they self-evidently did not in the first decade of this century.
He draws on the American model where:
“the stronger tradition of political-military debate and a clear legislative framework give the United States assets in this area that are not yet available to the United Kingdom.”
Like I say. Worth reading - the paper itself, that is, and not the gloss Tony Blair's apologists would like to put on it.