One of the most unanswerable questions you’re likely to be asked in a job interview is “Do you think you’re tough enough to stand up to Piers Morgan?” Unfortunately I’ve had that question put to me.

Several years ago, by dint of having the two words “managing” and “editor” next to one another on my CV, Trinity Mirror called me in to see them in the possibly mistaken belief that I could help dig them out of a very big hole. I was pretty sure I could help in some way, but I think we had a different view of what type of hole they were dealing with. Given Piers Morgan‘s inexorable rise on two continents as the mean-spirited arbiter of folksy talent, might I humbly propose that this is the mother of all interview posers? Top it if you can.

To be sure, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. There was a small coda to this interview conversation which involved another legendary Fleet Street figure: an experience which finally persuaded me it was time to steer a reciprocal course to the one Fleet Street was headed down and, boat-hook in hand, retrieve my bedraggled dignity. As tabloid journalists allegedly say in potentially compromising situations: “I made my excuses and left.”

Rightly or wrongly, and with rare exceptions, my approach to news management had been unusually low-key: a function of personality combined with the demands of real-time, I think.  I was always more interested in process than result. That’s what I offered in that interview, and I suspect that it was mistaken for weakness and (worse still) inexperience, whereas for them it should have represented a diverse perspective. My interviewer, I could tell, was not convinced.

Mercifully one of us escaped. I think it was probably me, though maybe it was Piers. So, in my sotto voce way, this  knackered hack is finally taking a hyper-linked opportunity to stand up to Piers Morgan: something that in real life only a handful of people seem ever to have done, and the Fates denied me the opportunity to chance my arm at.

Morgan was honoured this week with a slot on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs: the longest-running music programme in the history of radio. It is the mama of all mixtapes: you get to choose the records that define your experience and broadcast them to the nation. Although Bob Geldof famously said that it is only a radio show, I reckon an invitation to appear is greeted by most in the same way as being tapped by Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday honours.

Piers Morgan’s life is a catalogue of rather ghastly errors, none of which seems to have been a setback to his advances to fame and fortune: a modern day Bel Ami, perhaps?  So it seems like a category error for our public service broadcaster to accord him such high-quality attention. But hey, there goes the neighbourhood. For those who want to see if theirs is a match for his musical taste, this link should do it. Me, I’m averting my eyes.

In at least one of those counter-factual universes of infinite mathematical possibility, the Knackered Hack has himself been granted the honour of discussing his own desert island discs before an eager nation. In this same universe, Piers Morgan blogs and nobody reads.

Here’s a small taste of what my list contains. Until a few weeks ago Haydn would not have been on my modest mixtape.  For undisclosable reasons he has now hopped in.  The words, courtesy of the ChoralWiki, are below.  And for those who read me for stuff on decision-making, Haydn seems to have been on to heuristics and biases long before any of us.  You may have to think about this one a little bit.

Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
saepe furore replent corda, privata spe,
Quid prodest O mortalis conari pro mundanis,
si coelos negligas,
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te.

Vain and raging cares invade our minds,
Madness often fills the heart, robbed of hope,
O mortal man, what does it profit to endeavour at worldly things,
if you should neglect the heavens?
If God is for you, all things are favorable for you.

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Ready.. Aim.. Fire!The BBC announced spending cuts last week, fearing that the recession will lead to TV licence fee evasion and reduced revenues. According to the FT,  it banned the corporate purchase of champagne in a sop to the newspapers, after being forced to reveal an annual spend on the bubbly stuff of £40,000. Of course, if the BBC had something to celebrate, this expenditure–provided it was on Veuve Clicquot–would not look like such a mistake. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Beeb brass were defending themselves in Parliament for the Brand/Ross/Sachs scandal.

It’s bad to bash the BBC if you get a lot out of the BBC, as I do. But it does often seem to be an organization that has lost its way. It remains somewhat technically innovative, although with unintended consequences (iPlayer), produces good costume dramas (Jane Austin/Dickens etc), entertains the kids well on Saturday evening (Dr Who, Robin Hood, Merlin) and continues its flagship natural history programmes, although these are starting to be more photographic than informational. Don’t tell anyone, but for the past few months I’ve come to believe that Radio 3 might actually be perfect.

More generally, though, its editorial and commissioning decisions seem not to be informed by either a current or future sense of what its public service needs to be. I’m waiting for the day, for instance, when its senior management is hauled before the UK’s Treasury Select Committee to answer questions about the role its programmes on property played in fuelling the real estate bubble.  But then, I wonder if the committee members have yet gotten round to reading any Robert Shiller. This, of course, is old news, well visited by belligerent websites, and even mainstream newspapers have pointed a similar finger, except of course that their own property supplements played an essential part in peddling the idea that rising property prices were for keeps.

But given that we are now at the end of a period of speculative excess, that we collectively passed the last outpost of the Shit Creek Paddle Company Shit Creek Paddle Companysome time ago and failed to take on supplies, it is hard to explain a programme I saw last week called Beat the Bank. Dragons’ Den fitness millionaire Duncan Bannatyne invited a young couple to wager their £10,000 house deposit on the abilities of one of three alleged experts to exceed the return from bank interest over three months.

The leading experts brought in were from the world of fine wine, antiques and fine art. Charming though these people were, they represented markets one could reasonably assume are highly correlated with the recent credit-fuelled boom, Veuve Clicquot HQ, Reims, Franceand not without their own fair share of fakers and finaglers to make the average punter’s chance of “beating the bank” slim at best.

But what bothered me was the premise that money in the bank was for schmucks. And none of us would want to be schmucks. The opposite in fact is true. Most of us are schmucks, and the bank is the best place for our money. The social service that the banks provide, or should provide, is as a repository of funds where we (the clueless, idle, or generally insecure) should choose to lay down our hard-earned, our windfalls and our easy-pickings, while the bank lends it out with discretion and on reasonable terms to the those with ideas, the adventurous, the quiet risk-takers, entrepreneurs and even the occasional desperado, each individually to try their luck: to fail, break-even or succeed, and on balance pay us back a decent rate of interest. All that while keeping the bank in sturdy buildings, functional IT, an occasional boozy lunch and not to forget the annual bonus payment–which should be conditional and deferred by 10 years (at least).

Squircle - Veuve Clicquot Champagne BottleThe idea that we should set a challenge to deliver excess returns over a three-month period flies in the face of all that a public service broadcaster should be providing in way of financial education. It would not be so bad if the three-month expectations cycle did not already blight the ability of many publicly-listed firms to deliver sustainable economic growth, lure them into all sorts of obfuscation or encourage all sorts of counter-productive hoop-jumping to appear to be performing satisfactorily.

If there’s a lesson that the BBC might better highlight to the risk-taker–whether in the domain of business, art, or experimental science, or even for those planning to cultivate a great vintage– it’s that you may have to bleed for forever and a day waiting for your ship to come in, before the muse descends or that eureka moment arrives, or some final vindication materializes from out of the blue. Then you’ll feel justified in tearing off the foil, untwisting the wire and popping your cork.

Veuve Photo credits: Top: Andrei Z , Middle: Matt Hamm, Bottom: jillclardy

Paddle Shop:  SailorRandR

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Jake Thackray was a Yorkshireman and troubadour (no, really), inspired by Georges Brassens. Good hunter-gatherers should be in bed early, but because of a journalistic (if not civic) duty to watch the US election coverage, allied with a bit of US jet-lag, I was accidentally around when the BBC aired a late night documentary on Thackray last Monday. I remember him from my childhood, when he did a regular turn on a consumer rights/light entertainment show called That’s Life, famous for finding dogs that could say “sausages”: the lolcats of its day.

A fortnight ago, the BBC’s highest paid presenter (Jonathan Ross) was suspended, and one of its rising stars (Russell Brand) fired, for an offensive prank phone call to ageing Faulty Towers comedy actor Andrew Sachs concerning the night-time activities of his granddaughter. One defence, I think from a BBC type, suggested that their misdemeanour was perhaps an inevitable part of a risk-taking comedy culture. Despite a Facebook support group set up to defend the two overpaid scallywags’ human rights, and despite the fact that some of my Twitter chums think what happened to the two is a travesty, I am a bit more hard-nosed. Watching Jonathan Ross’s performances over the years, it seemed increasingly likely that there would be a blow-up at some stage, which is now unfortunately squandering BBC goodwill just as it tries to defend its public service remit.

Ironically, self-deprecating Thackray offers a perfect lesson to managers in general, managers of “The Talent” in particular, and the talent itself in this wonderful song entitled The Bull. There might even be a message in there for bankers, central and otherwise. The contrast between the talent of Thackray and Brand/Ross looks quite stark, when it comes to pushing the boundaries of taste and decency for comedic effect.The clip has a slight hiatus, so hang on in there.

And if you’re wondering what that missing verse contains, curiously, I can’t find a CD including this song.  However, a boxed set of Thackray is available below (with a number entitled Black Swan – I wonder what that’s about? ;-) ).
    

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Apocalypse Now culminates in a meeting with a large, terrifying man in a forsaken place that few normal humans would dream of venturing into of their own free will.

I was reminded of this narrative when listening again to a BBC Radio 4 documentary by my friends and former co-workers, Andy and Grigori, about their trip to Russia’s Norilsk nickel mine several years ago. The eponymous town is a byword for extremity: bad extremity, at that. Lying within the Arctic circle and the permafrost zone, it is Siberia’s northernmost city: a grim, black stain on the white tundra. In 2003, when my friends visited, it was still a closed city, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially designated one of the filthiest places on earth, Norilsk offers it’s residents a life expectancy 10 years shorter than the national average. I can tell you’re itching to book yourself a ticket.

When I worked in Fleet Street, Andy ran commodities coverage for me. The uninitiated within mainstream journalism will tend to regard commodities as a Cinderella profession. But you don’t succeed in this highly investigative area of reporting by being a shrinking violet. It touches the whole world, and the more difficult parts of it to boot. There is a darkness to it that is never far away; places like Norilsk epitomise that shadiness. Commodities is an environment in which a tradition of buccaneering still survives; there were moments when you kind of knew that the wrong decision of what to cover — and how — could cost somebody their life. I reported metals for a while, and so could only marvel at the depth of knowledge and range of contacts that Andy and Grigori managed to construct over the years.

Norilsk

Norilsk Nickel Plant from the air (Google Maps)

Andy and Grigori between them had long had to report the ins and outs of industrial activity at Norilsk because it dominates the world nickel market. As the documentary makes plain, this was no easy task. And it is important because, yes, we probably all own something that came out of the ground there. Based on what Wikipedia has to say here, you are breathing some of it each day too:-

The Blacksmith Institute included Norilsk in its 2007 list of the ten most polluted places on Earth. The list cites air pollution by particulates (including radioisotopes strontium-90, and caesium-137 and heavy metals nickel, copper, cobalt, lead and selenium) and by gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols and hydrogen sulfide).”

Andy and Grigori’s programme, though, was a personal attempt to visit the human story that is Norilsk, rather than the statistical and commercial that had shaped their own long relationship with the place. The sense of environmental and other dangers is palpable, particularly as they descend into the heart of darkness that is the unlit mine 1km below the Siberian surface. There, in a 300km network of underground shafts, huge diesel vehicles manoeuvre in and out of side tunnels, sometimes at speed: behemoths looming monster-like out of the shadows. Andy and Grigori are provided with emergency supplies in the event that they get separated from their guide and lost in the labyrinth.

Knowing both men, the programme also highlights and reminds me of the themes in yesterday’s post about diversity and collaboration within teams; I touched on this before in my essay about Twitter. Andy and Grigori were essential parts of a real-time network of reporters that coordinated their daily activities across the globe using instant messaging, in particular the mIRC tool, reflecting the need for rapid coordination to break and respond to financial market news events. Unlike the telegraphese-based message wires that characterised inter-bureau communication in the old newswire days, which were terse and sometimes highly politicised, IM was particularly beneficial where remote bureaus and the very general skills needed by the staff in them, were routinely pressed to cover highly specialized beats. This required expert supervision from the main reporting centres, and mutual trust.

The blogosphere is often referred to now as “The Conversation”. But the beauty of the mIRC chat service we used back then was that the remote bureau could become an active part of even the water-cooler conversations in major bureaus like London. The diversity of the organization, that would otherwise have been latent, became active.

Anyway, I think you can hear the nature of the working friendships forged in action in the podcast.

Andy has written a book about his experience — Siberian Dreams – which is available from the usual suspects or via Knackered Hack Booksellers Inc. So reserve your signed copy now, by email, for when new stocks arrive.

You can find out more about the BBC/Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime broadcast series here.

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