Tuesday, 1 December 2009

White City, Forbidden City: how we tried to help the Beeb and got swatted


I fear I may be turning into an avatar of Gabriel Betteredge, the venerable house steward in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone who has an eccentric dependency on Robinson Crusoe.
“When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times, when my wife plagued me; in present times, when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.”
In my case, the oracle is an Oscar-winning documentary called The Fog of War, which has become for me and its other students a significant educational resource.
The film, made in 2003 when its protagonist was 85, is subtitled “eleven lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara”, and if you want to know briefly what the lessons were, I’ve précised them into a short slide-show.
In a way, the doc is a factual version of Dr Strangelove. McNamara, the once-vilified Secretary of State to J F Kennedy and L B Johnson, had grandstand places for the fire- and nuclear-bombing of Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam war. He delivered this extended, superbly-illustrated, autobiographical monologue six years before he died, and for my money his wisdom knocks old Sun Tzu (specialist subject, the b******* obvious) into a coolie hat.
So there I was, on Saturday night, glass of red at my side, revisiting The Fog of War while the rest of the family were rapt by Strictly Come Cowelling.
Why? Because sometimes two separate problems rub against each other and create a solution. Problem one: I knew that there was a McNamara lesson which I’d never fully understood and been able to apply – lesson five, “proportionality should be a guideline” ; problem two: why exactly I’d been crushed and swatted aside in an encounter with the BBC.
At the centre of the BBC story is my friend and colleague Andy Drinkwater. He tells the act one and act two of it in his blog, What Now?
In essence, Andy got alarmed when senior Chinese diplomats who’d come to the UK in advance of the 2010 Shanghai Expo told him how offended and furious they were that while delegates from almost every other major media channel would be meeting them, the BBC hadn’t even bothered to reply to their invitations.
He knew that I had a veteran BBC contact who in turn had a friend high up in the Beeb’s management, and both of us felt sufficiently protective of our national broadcaster to want to find a way to warn them of the damage they were inflicting on their own reputation.
So, we wrote the email together and I sent it – and got in reply a stinging, pompous put-down, written on the assumption that we were trying to short-cut procedures for some commercial purpose, and telling us how very, very busy BBC people were, and how, if an invitation didn’t interest them, they really couldn’t be expected to acknowledge and decline it.
Woah. Lesson five: “proportionality should be a guideline”. In effect, then, the BBC is bigger and more important than China. So now I know.
By the way, it’s also worth watching The Fog of War for the moment when McNamara recalls his fiancée asking for his middle name so she can get the wedding stationery printed. It’s Strange, he tells her. Never mind, she says, give it to me anyway. No, he explains. That’s what it is. “Strange”.

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