Letter from London: I Got the News Today

Photograph Source: Edward Betts – Public Domain

Peter Michalski was a popular editorial director of Springer Foreign News Service. He once told me in what always felt like blast-from-the-past offices on Fleet Street that the future of journalism was local. I had just returned from Frankfurt and the shocking assassination of Deutsche Bank head Alfred Herrhausen. Last week I was remembering Peter’s remark to an unflagging journalist friend who despite a penchant for all things global — he has written a book on an African country — edits a local magazine. We were soon admitting together that whenever we examine our lives locally, there is always a news story in there somewhere.

Take the walk undertaken just now with the artist (not news). We ventured out during what was a moderate snow or ice warning (news) to bid farewell to friends shutting down their shop (London’s ever-depleting high street) and moving to Suffolk (London-invaded villages). To get there, we walked beneath an underpass (meet the architecture-loving defenders of British brutalism) where a man had been sleeping rough (the irrefutable rise of homelessness in London’s boroughs) and was being helped by someone from a local church (religious bodies filling vacuums created by absence of social care). We had never seen people sleep there before (boss of nearby homeless charity says increase due to shortage in quality supported accommodation) and we were unsettled by his plight.

The BBC has been featuring heavily in the news lately over here, local and otherwise. What used to provide news, is now, almost on a daily basis, the news itself. It’s like watching the detectives, as Elvis Costello sang. One lesser known BBC story, in fact, concerns music. It is about the potential scrapping of BBC Introducing, a well known radio springboard for talented young musicians. A letter has just been written complaining about this to BBC chairman Richard Sharp, the Boris Johnson appointee and former Goldman Sachs banker who was a Tory party donor and early investor in oligarch Vladimir Potanin’s Atomyze blockchain business. (A more familiar type news of course broke a few days later revealing that it was Sharp who weeks before being recommended for the job as chairman helped the then prime minister Johnson arrange a loan guarantee on up to £800,000.) Anyway, the letter seeks assurances that BBC Introducing is protected from major cuts coming to local radio stations. The likes of Ed Sheeran and Florence + The Machine owe their careers, at least in part, to BBC Introducing. According to the letter written by a group of on-the-ball music organisations, the entire network of its presenters and producers has been placed on notice of potential redundancies. BBC Introducing is nationwide.

So much yet again for the great British export, the kind our tirelessly ever-changing Tory leaderships have been banging on about for so long we can’t even hear ourselves anymore. They should know that BBC Introducing matches precisely the so-called core aims of the BBC. BBC Introducing is acting in the public interest, for one. Not always the case, for sure. It serves all audiences. It delivers what the letter to Sharp calls ‘impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.’ It may not have been a surprise to see Elon Musk chip in about the BBC with his ‘Kudos to the BBC for self-labelling its state affiliation’ tweet. But I don’t see much so-called state affiliation if it axes BBC Introducing. Also, lest the government has forgotten, as I have stated before, the UK is estimated to be the largest digital music market in Europe. Government indifference, let alone the BBC’s, remains extraordinary. And not just because after four decades Ken Bruce, apparently the most popular radio broadcaster in the country, is also about to leave. News to me.

I met a BBC head of department in central London last week. I am afraid to say the outlook for him appeared just as bleak. (I don’t like all this negativity. I would much rather be celebrating a world of high-fiving digital transmission than bemoaning it. But what one sees is what one sees.) This person’s field is as global as it gets, and he was not a happy person. I would even say he was smouldering. One problem is that his region of interest is now being lumped with everything else. Though a major head, he has no office space to speak of, and as a result works largely from home. He inferred that everything was either in a state of constant flux or relentless amalgamation. It was as though pretty soon there would be hardly anyone or anything left — just a great big blob of bland oneness. For many, it is as though the Tories by the end of their tenure will have ripped out the innards of an entire country, left these innards still bubbling on the floor, and they will still be counting their coins. I am all for streamlining, I resent entitlement, but not cultural desecration. As it happens, my contact is a great fan of CounterPunch — it is popular in Blighty — and has been for many years. I actually found myself saying I felt more comfortable writing for a largely American readership. He wanted to know why, which was reasonable enough, and I found myself placing my hand on his forearm, which was definitely something I have never done with someone before, saying I preferred it when the doors were blown off a bit. He looked at me slightly baffled, which was also reasonable enough. ‘Not all Oxbridge,’ I explained. These days for me the really interesting commentators on the media in the UK are those rare ungovernable free spirits out there who come usually from the independent sector, such as ex-ITV man Stephen Arnell.

To be frank, many full-time employees at the BBC had been having it good for a while now — I am told Adam Curtis, whose work I admire, I gather had a cracking deal — but this trashing of hard-earned specialisations such as my contact possessed, I really do not understand. It reminds me of Michael Gove’s ‘Oh we’ve had enough of experts.’ From a personal point of view, I have been grateful in the past to the BBC for buying two longish documentaries I was able to make, even if what they paid was borderline risible. (On such occasions, the freelance or independent filmmaker is simply meant to consider it an honour to be transmitted on the BBC, which on one level — the large audience — I suppose it is.) Interesting they wouldn’t show my more polemic NHS film. The only real fighter I knew of the impossible cause of paying freelance filmmakers more at the BBC most tragically committed suicide.

News if a bad news day may even have reached the shores of the US of highly experienced BBC news presenters quitting in the past two weeks because of the merging of international with domestic news — the global with the local. The news presenters in question, popular though they were, had been expected, after years of proven service, to audition for their new positions. Of course, the UK’s so-called soft power around the world was already diluted last September — as if Brexit wasn’t enough — by BBC World Service ending radio broadcasts in up to 10 languages, including Hindi, Chinese, and Arabic. (The idea of BBC Persian broadcasts ceasing at a time of widespread protest in Iran was met with the greatest bafflement.) As it happened, I also met up last week with a talented BBC series director in the field of animation. His last series, which has just gone out, is deeply popular. As freelancers, we were both agreeing that we have been listening to these tales of woe from within the BBC for years, so in this regard none of this was really anything new. However, this time the problems at the Beeb we agreed really do seem existential. It also feels darkly similar to that which is happening to the NHS. If you do something down long enough, people will cease using it.

In further news, albeit observed through a so-called personal lens, I have been in touch with a well-connected American I know across the Atlantic with whom I was in regular contact during the pandemic. We have always enjoyed a rich exchange of views and I like him a lot. Along with other projects, he is an influential figure at a successful educational establishment parked like a small jewel in an already wealthy state. A traditionally liberal institution, the establishment in question has recently been flooded with controversial new board members, including one conservative activist, a senior fellow at a right-wing think tank, and a former dean at a conservative college. Whatever we say about change rippling like firewater through Blighty right now, it is as nothing compared to the tipping of tables within some American institutions. Will Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous swinging pendulum eventually get stuck on one side one day? (It was to the BBC she said: ‘A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back.’)

Another person I know was preparing last week to visit a war zone and will be gone now. This is to assist an important mental health project. Mental health is so often forgotten when it comes to conflict zones. More often than not, it is physical injuries and damage that have the ascendency, not repeated mental health problems of anxiety, depression, and alcohol or drug problems. It is a very high number of people that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Four years ago, a UN report found that more people in conflict zones were living with mental disorders than had previously been thought. ‘Many more,’ the report said. War of course has an especially unpleasant effect on the well-being and health of children and young people. This not only includes anxiety, but also hallucinations, an absence from the present, deep feelings of guilt. There is possible later stuttering, a return to bed-wetting, hair loss in adults. I hope the person I know is able to help alleviate at least some of the suffering. Aside from immediate and unambiguous peace, of course, it is therapy or medication that is the number one solution in immediate terms. People also say that others may simply need more support and understanding from family and friends. At the weekend, news broke of dozens of kidnapped asylum-seeking children taken by gangs from a hotel in Brighton on the south coast of England run by the Home Office. Even those fleeing conflict can bring it with them. Not forgetting sometimes even criminal reverberations from this.

My third personal connection last week to news of some sort is someone I value greatly wishing to return to their homeland. This is in a part of the world so precarious it has been housing conflict in one form or another for over forty years. I admire immensely their courage in wishing to return but will find myself caring more deeply than is helpful about their welfare while they do so. Still, without engagement there is only continuation, a tight repetition of ills, pernicious cycles, and these are no good for anyone. Don’t search for anything except peace, as a well known Indian monk once said.

Along with many others in the UK, I was watching Labour leader Keir Starmer’s recent interview on the BBC last week. I noticed, superficially, he didn’t have his usual night-before-the-interview haircut, which for me always presented him as a man on his best behaviour rather than someone being himself. He has reason, however, to feel more comfortable in his own skin. Even if he is sounding at times like a soft Tory. Editor Fraser Nelson of the UK’s politically conservative Spectator magazine recently conceded that if today’s polls were tomorrow’s results, the Tories would have only about 140 seats in the next election, and Labour, roughly, 400. Starmer has been saying for a while now that he was putting country first, Labour second. He should be putting country first. We are fast disappearing into a misty fog of sinking self-delusion. It was even revealed lately that Tory constituencies had been awarded far more money per person from the government’s levelling up fund than those areas belonging to Labour with similar deprivations. Our problems are not just Tory-authored, either. Labour’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has just upset Londoners with his proposals to raise dramatically Transport for London fares and council tax. We are like a nation that needs to learn how to like itself again.

Finally, I was scrolling through social media last week when I came across footage of a bearded Irishman I used to see in central London when I was working there and he was living rough. In the footage shot in what looked like north London, he was singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’. I had no idea he had such a gentle voice. I was soon remembering when years back someone on the street close to Gerry’s on Dean Street was not only pushing him away but threatening to hit him hard. As this was happening, he saw in the corner of his eye I was protecting him, and as his attacker left, the man suddenly began to cry, like a baby, saying no one had ever looked after him before. I knew it was a Pete Seeger song he was singing in the clip. I knew it was only written in the style of an authentic Irish ballad and was not a real one. But it was moving:

‘By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
“Michael, they have taken you away
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn
So the young might see the morn
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay”.

Of course, it got me wondering how the man no longer sleeping in the underpass was. Where he had been sleeping in the underpass was where some said Stanley Kubrick filmed the tramp scene in ‘Clockwork Orange’. (Others claim it was in Wandsworth or Thamesmead.) The fact was, shamefully, all I had been really thinking about at first when I first saw the man in the underpass at the beginning of this piece was Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his Droogs and their ‘bit of the old ultraviolence’. In other words, I couldn’t see the news for the celluloid. Let alone the pain.

Peter Bach lives in London.