The BBC’s despicable balancing act

29 12 2010

We’ve all done it as journalists . . . Deadline’s approaching and we’re desperate for a balancing quote, so we reach for the phone and call for rent-a-quote. These are the sort of folk who’d sell their grandmother for a brief mention in the Gornal Grunt, or a 30-second sound-bite on Radio Witless.

You’d hope, though, that the person interviewed would have some valid input into the story and some vague relevance to it. Not that that sort of thing obviously bothers the BBC.

Last night’s TV news carried the story about Elton John and David Furnish adopting a child. It pretty much washed over me, as I have almost zero interest in celebrities’ private lives – until Stephen Green was trotted out as the ‘balancing’ quote.

For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with this objectionable character, I’ll let you go and Google him on the grounds I don’t want to give him and his thoroughy unpleasant organisation any more hits than necessary. Suffice it to say, he’s a fundamentalist Christian whose views have included the execution of gays and also comparing them to mass murderers.

I don’t generally complain to media organisations, having seen too many of the green ink brigade myself from the other side. But in this case I made an exception, as the whole thing smacked very heavily of BBC homophobia. And this is the organisation that recently commissioned a study of how GLBT people are represented on its programmes. Answer: Badly. And it’s also the organisation that invited a religious leader who has turned a blind eye to child abuse and who has compared atheists and humanists to Nazis to deliver its Christmas message.

My first thought with the Elton John story was whether the BBC would have interviewed someone espousing similar views but transferred to race? And secondly, did the story need balance? I don’t recall the other side of the coin being sought when David Miliband and his wife adopted children.

The BBC might want to look again at its policies on bias and objectivity on the grounds that this is the sort of ‘balance’ any media outlet certainly doesn’t need.


The most exclusive book launch ever

27 10 2010

Long ago and far away, one of the high spots of my year used to be the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. I’d skulk around the Town Hall towards the end of the summer, waiting for the brochure to be published. I’d then mortgage next door’s first-born to buy tickets. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn up at a dozen events.

Ironically, my ticket-buying decreased exponentially as my salary rose. An endless stream of politicians and celebrities seemed to outnumber the writers and actors we’d seen in the past. And I baulked at paying ten or 12 quid for 50 minutes of someone mentioning their book every 30 seconds. The final straw was the splicing together of a bloke who’d written a book on a plague in 19th century Hong Kong with some totally irrelevant woman from a drug company. And yes, guess who was sponsoring the event. Welcome to the corporate world of 21st century literary gatherings…

Last year I didn’t go to anything. This year I bought two tickets – and what good ‘uns they both were. Veteran TV comedy writers Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman) were first up and proved to be genial and chatty company as they talked about their move from television writing to the stage.

The high spot, though – and here I declare an interest for a very dear friend– was Chris Stevens and Fenella Fielding, one of the stars of my youth. Chris’s new book, Born Brilliant, was out the following day. It’s a biography of comedian Kenneth Williams, and Chris had access to hitherto unpublished papers.

Most people remember Fenella from the Carry On films (particularly Carry On Screaming and that classic line “Do you mind if I smoke?” Cue smoke rising from the settee). And yes, she still has that glorious, husky voice and gorgeously striking looks.

They proved to be a feisty double act, who dealt with great panache with some fairly hostile questions from the floor. Clearly some people don’t like to hear that their heroes might have had feet of clay . . .

The book signing afterwards proved to be good value. Fenella is clearly remembered fondly by fans, who queued up to bring her little gifts and to get scrapbooks of cuttings autographed.

Afterwards, the three of us retreated across the road for a pizza where we were royally entertained by Fenella’s no-nonsense stories and dry wit. As Chris said, it was the most exclusive and best book launch ever . . .

Buy the book. It’s a riveting read.

I am now a number . . .

16 10 2010

Quote of the week from one of my third years while we were discussing bad language and blithering idiots (amazing what topics we cover in Specialist Journalism): “On a scale of one to Tim Westwood, how big a c**t is s/he?”

And I am now officially no. 1457. Some of you might remember than I took a turn on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square last year as part of Antony Gormley’s One and Other project. The book’s out now, complete with pictures of all the participants. And I was delighted to see they’ve done a feature on Pauline Godfrey. I met her the following morning, just before she went up on the plinth, resplendent in the most gorgeous red polka-dot dress, to declare a republic!

More coming soon on the most exclusive book launch ever . . .

Why authors shouldn’t be reviewers

2 09 2010

The eminently sensible Nick Hay, who reviews for us at www.reviewingtheevidence, has written a typically thoughtful — and absolutely spot-on — blog on why authors shouldn’t review books by their fellow writers.

It’s been a major peeve of mine for a long time — particularly when one author admitted to me that they never wrote negative reviews in case they came across the other writer on a panel or at some other event. Several times I’ve been on the verge of emailing book or features editors on some of the national papers and asking if they truly think they’re getting impartial reviews from their author/reviewers.

Nick’s blog entry is here.

Reading for pleasure

25 08 2010

I’ve always joked that I can’t read unless I have a pen in my hand. Except, it’s not a bloody joke…

Some of you will remember the late Ian Evans, a brilliant photographer and all-round good guy. We shared an office (and a very juvenile sense of humour) when I worked at what was the University of Central England in the 1990s. And we had a neat deal worked out – I’d read through all his assignment briefs and he’d calculate my marks sheets for me on the grounds that his writing was eccentric and I can’t add up unless I can use all of my fingers and toes.

This was all well and good until the day he stuck a letter in front of my nose. In my defence, I had the pile of marking from hell, and was chuntering under my breath as I worked furiously. The letter got the red pen treatment – and I got a bollocking, as it was meant for Evans’s bank manager! Me protesting weakly that he couldn’t have sent it out with errors in cut no ice…

I remembered this today when I was reading some stuff from a writing group I belong to. There are some bloody good writers in it (and cross your appendages, people, as one of them is about to query agents with a book . . .) so it’s never a hardship to read what they’ve written. But hellfire and damnation, I wish some of them would use the services of an editor.

The thing is, we’re not talking full-scale rewrites or anything. We’re talking the sort of thing an editor can tidy up in a jiffy – point of view slips, grammar errors and the odd spelling mistake.

I sometimes wish I could switch my brain off and read purely for pleasure. Most of what I read these days is either for review or to be edited. And on the rare occasion that it isn’t, I always notice and whine about the damn errors! Yes, I know, I probably need to lighten up. Except, I can’t!

I maintain loudly to anyone who will listen (and a lot who turn tail and run) that everyone needs editing. I’ve been writing for a living for 25 years (erk!) and anything I write that’s bound for print has someone to cast a beady eye over it (strews petals at the feet of Linda, Yvonne, Maf and Wayne).

Except, of course, this blog hasn’t been edited by anyone. So I shall sit back and wait for people to point out the howlers!

Burying the hatchet

31 07 2010

My first editor was a morose sort of chap who used to intone gravely “there’ll be tears before bedtime” at moments of conflict or stress. But he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had – don’t get too close to contacts, or it’ll compromise your ability to be impartial.

It’s once of the reasons as a reviewer that I’ve kept my distance from writers and musicians. I don’t go to meet and greets or signings, and tend to avoid conventions and writing festivals. It’s much easier to be honest about a book or an album if you’re not worried about hurting a friend’s feelings. That’s not to say I’d want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but reviewers who aren’t honest make me grind my teeth. I always want to shout: “You’re a reviewer, not a PR person for the author!”

In 25 years of reviewing, I’ve only written a handful of reviews where I couldn’t think of a single positive thing to say about the book or album. Usually there’s something good you can clutch on to like Linus and his comfort blanket to soften the criticisms.

Most authors are refreshingly pragmatic about less than glowing reviews and keep their thoughts to themselves. A few, though, send ranty or hurt and doggy eyed emails about how you’ve clearly misunderstood their opus and how everyone else liked it . . .

I have a prepared response now: “Thank you for your email, but I don’t enter into discussion about reviews I’ve written.” I mean, do they think I’m suddenly going to say: “Oh, silly me, I clearly can’t recognise classy writing when I see it, you’ve shown me the errors of my ways, so let me go and change my review . . .”?

I had a classic this week, with capital letters in the subject line and half a dozen pars of whining about my review. The irony was, I hadn’t completely trashed the book and had commented that I’d probably read something else by the author. I resisted the temptation to respond with the observation that if she thought I’d done a hatchet job then she’d have a surprise when she saw a totally negative review. I deleted the email without responding – it had the feel of a missive written to get something off someone’s chest. Maybe I should send her the bill for therapy . . .

It was in stark contrast to a very gracious email from an author whose first book I really hadn’t rated. She’d sent a polite ‘thanks for reviewing it’ note at the time and then got back in touch to say her second book was out, if I was interested. Coincidentally, my review copy had just arrived, so I picked it up, started reading and 100 pages in am enjoying it a great deal more than the debut novel.

When it comes to the next book from Ms Whiner, though, I shall be too busy watching paint dry . . .

Kicking off . . .

27 01 2010

Starting as I mean to go on . . .

*Dons grammar boots and points passers-by to the rather splendid Oatmeal site for instructions on how to use the semi-colon*