Category Archives: Philosophy

In, out, in, out and shake it all about!

Lies, more lies and a referendum

In just over two weeks those of us that care will cast our votes in the referendum. The question; ‘should the UK remain a member of the European Union?’. It is billed as the biggest political question for a generation and, depending on who you believe, the consequences could be immense. Then considering the undoubted importance of this generational moment and the potential seismic shifts it could bring about, it is very worrying that even now many of us have no idea what the actual considerations are. Why is this? Because the one group of people who’s job it is to give us the considered arguments is the same group of people who seem more interested in lying, cheating and generally acting like playground morons than actually doing what they are paid and morally obliged to do.

The last few months in politics has, quite frankly, been nothing short of farcical. Barmy Boris and Dodgy Dave seem to be using their relative campaigns as opportunities to score points rather than thinking about their obligation to the general public to actually discuss both sides of the argument evenly. Claims from David Cameron that an ‘out’ vote could lead to a political and financial apocalypse aren’t worthy of air time. They are apocryphal at best and only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a misleading campaign based on half-truths, supposition and sometimes out and out lies. Whilst the ‘out’ campaign have harmed themselves significantly by not producing actual forecasts of their own and instead relied on winding up the working classes with talk of immigrants left right and centre.

It is no wonder that the general public are largely confused or left indifferent to this big question when the politicians behave in such a pathetic manner. They have an obligation to present a level argument, not to mislead the public for their own ends. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon, so instead lets dispel a few potential myths and then pose the actual question that you need to be aware of on 23rd June. Because, for me at least, the question we’re answering on 23rd of June is not simply should we stay in the EU.

Risks

There are risks with any change. That is the nature of change. But with any risk there is also the possibility that the opposite will occur – the possible benefit. The major disservice that has been done so far in both campaigns is a lack of transparency on the potential positives of a Brexit, of which there are many.

The ‘remain’ campaign have produced, from many sources, claims of financial ruin with numbers to back up these claims. Some have even gone as far as putting actual financial costs for each households loss on paper. But it is important that we understand where these have come from. These are forecasts, yes, but what are they based on? Well the reality is they’re based on supposed scenarios that have then been run through a load of calculations. And all of these scenarios have focussed on the worst possible outcomes in every factor. In short, they are a set of predictions for what could go wrong. But none of them take into account what could (and very likely would) go right.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking that just because you’ve only heard the doom and gloom forecasts that they are the only possibilities.  They are produced by a campaign that wants us to stay in the EU and so will paint a grey picture. And those institutions who have also produced forecasts? They are the establishment and so it is in their interests to produce statistics that support the ‘remain’ campaign. But they are all based on supposition and hypothetical scenarios. It is also worth noting that they all have quite an established history of being wrong!

There are just as many independent business who have contradicted these forecasts. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh has previously stated that BA’s own risk analysis suggested they didn’t think they would lose out at all. And that is just one such large company.

And one last point on the risks. Many investment managers have publically stated that they believe not only would it not be a negative, but it could in fact have a long term positive effect on the UK economy. Now who are you going to take more notice of? A bias government, a bunch of institutions who have a history of inaccurate forecasts or investment professionals who are only in the position they are in because they accurately assess risk in the markets on a daily basis and have consistently got it right more often than not?

The point is it is risky, precisely because the answers aren’t clear. But you don’t gain anything if you don’t take risks, and suggesting that the only outcome is negative is not just misleading; it is naïve and plain wrong.

The numbers

So what do we need to know about the numbers? First that they are all models, not fact. So put it out of your mind that anything they are saying is set in stone and fated. It simply isn’t. Here is the reality of the situation;

  • The EU is the largest economic trading area, but largely because the UK (the fifth largest economy in the world) is a part of it (Germany is the fourth largest economy)
  • The EU have to trade with us as well as us with them, so any trade agreement needs to be mutually beneficial. There is simply not a negotiating power imbalance in the EU’s favour here.
  • There is no existing model for non-EU countries negotiating to be part of the single trade agreement that we can compare to (Norway and Switzerland have done this in the past, but their trade levels are a fraction of ours)
  • Europe relies on trade with the UK. There would be political and civil unrest if there was not a good trade agreement put in place. It is simply misleading to suggest the UK would be affected but Europe would not.
  • The three biggest economies in the world (USA, China and Japan) are not members of the EU and yet have very good trade arrangements and flourish.
  • The most significant future market for growth, and one we need to have the ability to negotiate with, is China.

The ‘remain’ campaign’s major criticism of the ‘leave’ campaign is that they haven’t been able to produce a model for what the future would look like. But how can they? The nature of this is that until negotiations start we won’t know what it looks like. But we can be sure that as the fifth biggest economy in the world we do have a huge amount of sway and our economy is very influential and our skills and products sought after. Supply and demand do win out.

So what do we do if we don’t know what the options are? Well we can be assured that other countries fair rather well and so the UK simply isn’t going to disappear into the abyss and be plunged back into the dark ages. Instead we can look at other countries and what they have got. Take Switzerland, a country that isn’t comparable in the scale of trade but does demonstrate some of the options that an arguable less influential country can achieve;

  • They are not in the EU, but are still in Europe, and have a tailored EU deal
  • They have free trade deals with the EU, China and Japan
  • They adopt 0% of the EU rules
  • Have the highest wages in Europe
  • They are the second richest country in the world by nominal GDP per head
  • They are top of the Global Innovation Index

Put simply, there are options and these options can be rather good!

Human rights and work rights

There seems to be a rather odd line of argument that staying in the EU protects workers rights, that we are tied into the human rights act and that the working time directives and other working guidelines will protect the workers. The odd thing about this line of argument is that they suggest leaving the EU will change this.

Let’s get one thing clear. The EU do not have some sort of copyright or patent on laws to protect civil liberties and the rights of people. Anyone using this line of argument as a reason to stay in the EU really shouldn’t be allowed out of the house. It is patronising. If this was the case then the EU would be some sort of garden of Eden and every other country in the world would be a cesspool of depravity, exploitation and suffering.

The idea that leaving the EU would suddenly mean the UK doesn’t retain these rights is ludicrous. These are laws upheld in the UK and they will continue to be. But leaving the EU means that we have the power to add and amend laws to make sure they are suited to our country and not a catch all for every country in the EU. Making laws that suit countries in the east of Europe and forcing the UK to have them means we end up with laws that are out of context with the UK and simply not suited.

Europe and reform

Many of the ‘remain’ camp will say that staying in Europe means that we are “at the table” in terms of negotiating a reform of Europe. The problem with this is that it assumes Europe wants to and believes it needs to reform, for which there is much scepticism. Whilst David Cameron will suggest he achieved great things with his pre-referendum negotiations, a closer look shows that they really haven’t given us much. It is unlikely Europe will reform because there is simply no driving force to do so at the moment.

On the flip side, we do have veto rights on a number of controversial items. But how do we get things changed in Europe when we need the agreement of so many countries, many of whom have conflicting motivations to us? Many of whom benefit greatly from being in an economy where the UK and Germany contribute so much and their own country contributes so little?

Anyone who has tried to chair a committee and actually achieve anything when that committee have a lot of members all of whom have competing motivations will know exactly what the challenge is here. And it doesn’t often change.

Migration

So to the big one. Migration is a problem in Europe, due to the free movement agreement. And whilst we have more migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU than within, the amount coming from the EU is increasing and without check.

The key thing to remember is that we do get a huge amount of value from skilled people coming to the UK to live. A vast amount of our doctors are not native to the UK, for example. And I don’t think any right minded person would argue that it is a bad thing for people who actively contribute to society to come to this country. But the problem is that the free movement agreement also means many people can come to the UK who don’t contribute and this puts a strain on many areas of an already strained economy.

It seems logical to be able to control who can come and live in the UK. It seems to me that making sure we welcome those who have skills that can improve our country is a good thing. But we are not a charity. We have a responsibility to make our country the best and most opportunity rich place it can be for all our citizens, especially our young graduates keen to make their mark. Having an open door to people who will come and compete with those already here with the same skills, drive or aptitude doesn’t seem to be a logical way to do that.

Let’s cut to the chase

At the end of the day the arguments can be tossed and turned in all sorts of ways. And it is up to each of us to look at the truth and not just listen to the rhetoric. It is safe to say that you cannot trust the politicians on either side of the argument in to give you a balanced view.

But for me it boils down to a slightly different question. For me this referendum is not about whether the UK should stay in the EU or not. No, instead it is about what the EU is clearly aiming to become and whether we want to be a part of that or not.

Europe is increasingly moving towards a single state. It is very obvious that they have been moving that way for a very long time and at some point in the future it is likely this will become much closer than it is now.

I am proud to be British. I do not consider myself European, I consider myself to be British. I think that the UK is a vibrant place to live and work with many of our skills being the envy of the world. Certainly we are world leaders in digital, where I work, and also in media. So for me the question is ‘do I want to be a citizen of the UK, or of Europe?’ And that is what we should all ask ourselves. Not now, but in the future, which country do we want to live in? The country of the UK, or the country of Europe? Because a vote to stay in the EU is very possibly a vote to one day be a part of a country called Europe.

Is “regular” really the point?

Today the High Court is going to rule on the case of Isle of Wight parent Jon Platt on whether to uphold the £120 fine for taking his kids out of school for a family holiday. I must admit that when I first heard about this case I was inclined to take the side of this man who was taking on the system and apparently winning. I thought his core argument that his kids haven’t had other absences and therefore have attended school “regularly” was a good one, at least on the face of it, and that if nothing else he was bringing to the fore a key problem with the current guidelines – the fact that they don’t really state what they really mean. However, this verging admiration for this man completely faded when I heard him talking on Radio4 this morning and I realised that he was in fact operating from a point of complete pride and ignorance.

In the interview this morning he was asked about his reasons for taking his children out of school in term time, he was asked about his challenge to the fine and he challenged a Headmistress on the arguments from the educational establishment on why this holiday he’d taken his children on was a bad thing. It was unfortunate that the Headmistress they’d chosen really wasn’t very good at defending the position of the education system, as he was easily able to rebuff her with some relatively naive arguments such as saying that he didn’t understand how his children, who now attend a private school, could get a better education even though they attended for 25 days less a year than they would at a state school, or that his children had a 93% attendance rating across the year and surely this was good. Another argument, one which I often think is the tenet of the desperate, was that he (as a parent of the children) surely knew far better than a school or local authority what was better for his own kids. The argument that I find most perplexing is that he wanted to arrange a family holiday where everyone could attend, and by this I mean practically the family goldfish as well. 15 members (including both sets of parents, fiancé, children, parents in law, grandparents) seemed to be attending a holiday to Florida, which Mr Platt said was his aim back in April 2015. Incidentally he did the same thing again in January this year for a family skiing holiday to Lapland.

My problem with this situation is that I can sympathise with both sides. Like Mr Platt, I am a parent who is divorced and so understand that contact with children in this situation can be less easy to arrange and that holidays with the whole family can also be hard to coordinate. However, I am also the governor of an Infant school where my daughter attends and so I have seen first hand what an absence, even for a week, can do to a child’s progress. So what are the main issues here then?

What is regular?

The legislation that exists is worded to say that children should attend school regularly. This is the key part of the case Jon Platt’s is using as his defence, saying that 93% attendance across the school year (which is what he claims his children have) is regular. But this defence, whilst on the surface seems to stand up, misses the key point of the intention of this law. The principle of the law is to try and make sure children attend school every day (pending illness or other unavoidable absence). The headmistress who was interviewed made a particularly big hash of trying to defend this, trying to make out that the point was that children need to be in school everyday so that we know where they are and that they are safe. This was a point easily and rather pointedly defended by Mr Platt with the throwaway question “Are you saying my children aren’t safe when they’re with me?” I can understand his response but it really doesn’t do him any credit.

Neither person got to the nub of the point here and I was very disappointed that a headmistress didn’t do better. Because the main issue here really isn’t about safety, it is about a child missing a large amount of potentially key education. So let’s dispel a few myths here. Firstly 93% attendance is not good. The national average is 95%, so by definition 93% is below average and therefore cannot be good. But further still, at the school I govern at we consider 96% to be the minimum we want to aim for and wouldn’t consider anything below that to be good. And that is across the whole year. But here is the rather more important point to consider. The curriculum is broken down into key areas, modules that are taught over a period of weeks before moving on to the next one. It is rather like walking up a set of stairs. You learn the first module (the first step) and then next you learn the second step, whilst reinforcing the first one (you move up to the second step). If you don’t have a solid knowledge and understand of the preceding steps then you won’t adequately progress. In the analogy, you can’t progress because you have a step missing. Why is this an important point? Because whilst Jon Platt’s children’s attendance was 93% across the year, for the half-term when he took his child on that holiday it would have been somewhere around 83% (and that is if it was only a one week absence), or 67% for a two week absence. Time is the key consideration here, because it is easy to claim regular attendance across a whole year, but when you start looking at the timescales that are actually significant, weeks rather than years, the time it takes to teach and reinforce key educational concepts, then you start to see where problems can occur. Come back to those steps in our analogy again. It only takes a couple of weeks for one of those steps to be badly formed, and then that can have a knock on affect so that the rest of the steps aren’t well formed either. Education is progressive and if you miss a key introduction that can affect a child significantly in the long term.

Some may argue that surely this is only a relevant argument when children are younger, and learning the key early years skills (reading, writing and early maths) and that once a child is older then they can catch up? Well I am an example of this isn’t the case. In year 9 I didn’t do a full week at school due to illness. This coincided with the introduction of complex algebra. I missed the key early sessions in the year and then I found it impossible to catch up. In fact I never did fully and so my grades suffered. And because physics also relied on algebra, I struggled and eventually dropped out of A level physics, simply because I just didn’t have the basis I needed to keep up. The steps in my educational staircase were missing at that level.

Attendance regularly is important, not just across the whole year but across the terms and half-terms. Without this things will be missed and catchup is hard, if not impossible. And distracting staff resources just to catch a child up is also taking away valuable resource for very selfish reasons.

Private education

So that brings us on to his next argument, that he can’t understand how if his children attend for 25 less days a year at a private school than they would at a state school how they could get a better education. We will skim past the point that he is openly admitting that his children’s education is squeezed into less days, so by definition more intense, and yet he still chooses to take them away for a holiday.

The reason private education often gets much better results than state schools is not to do with the amount of days they teach, it is to do with the way they teach and the resources they have available to them. The Headmistress on the Radio4 interview tried, in vain, to suggest that the success of the private school would be partly to do with the demographic attending, to which Mr Platt immediately said naively “it’s non selective”. Who is he kidding? Private schools charge large fees to attend so by definition they are selective. Children are there because their parents can afford to send them there or have chosen to sacrifice a huge amount of other luxuries in life in order to make sure they can go to that school. The parents are either wealthy or very dedicated to good education (or both) and so the children attending will have a very different outlook than the majority of those attending a state school.

But the main consideration for why private schools get better results is actually to do with their resources. Those fees pay for the education, that is how it works. And most private schools have a student / staff ratio that is much lower than state schools. Take the local private school that my daughter attended for a while. They had a maximum class size of 14, with a minimum of three members of staff in the classroom (often four). That means each member of staff is focussing on no more than three pupils at any one time. The time those children get dedicated to them is huge. Compare this to a state school. Often class sizes will be 30 or more, with a teach and maybe two assistants, often only one. The student / staff ratio here means that each member of staff is trying to focus on 10 or more pupils at any one time.The amount of time each student gets in support is very small.

I could go on and on about the massive divide between private and state education, but that would be a whole series of articles in itself. The reality is that comparing the contact days in a private school to those in a state school really isn’t a valid argument. In answer to Jon Platt’s question, the reason private schools can have less days is because they can educate in a much more efficient manner. State schools don’t have this luxury. They don’t have the budgets and they don’t have the cream of the teaching crop either. The pressures are entirely different.

Let’s take the whole family

So what about that family holiday then? Jon wanted to take his whole family with him and I think we can all understand that. I like to be able to take my whole family; my partner, her children and my children. At a stretch, and if it is suitable, we also go on the occasional trip to Devon with my parents or hers. But in Mr Platt’s case it seems that he was trying to get his entire extended family to go. It was a clan invasion of Florida. 15 people in total and that isn’t taking into account the few family members he said couldn’t attend. It is really at this point that I think I started to lose sympathy for Jon. If you want to arrange a holiday where the entire clan attend then it is rather lacking in common sense to try and do it at any other time than the summer, especially if money is apparently not a problem. To have done this twice in less than a calendar year (including his jaunt to Lapland this year) suggests that this isn’t a one off but is actually a habit and a flagrant disregard or respect for education or the rules. I could understand if this was a once in a lifetime trip for everyone, but it would seem in his case that this is something he likes to do a lot.

I know best for my kids

So let’s finish with the weakest argument of all of them, in my humble opinion. I wonder whether Jon would have such a belligerent stance with a doctor treating one of his children for a serious condition as he does with education professionals? Let’s be clear here, whilst Jon is the parent of these children he is not an expert in education or in what it takes to help a child work towards a full education that will mean a successful life, complete with the right attitudes and aptitudes that life will require to succeed.

My experience, simply from being a governor in a state infant school, is that teachers and more importantly the senior teachers, subject leaders, senior management and heads, are very highly trained. They spend a huge amount of time exposed to the latest thoughts in pedagogy and they are, in fact, far more qualified to say what is better for my children’s education than I am. Let’s also not forget that teachers spend far more time around our children than we do and so they probably do know a lot more about their character than we do. It is in our nature, when we are children, to hide things from our parents anyway. So Jon Platt claiming he knows what is best for his children is simply obtuse.

So what?

Education is important. It is not just about children learning things to pass tests. It is about learning about life, about what they like and dislike. It is about learning skills that impact on many areas of their lives and it is about realising that they will need to spend time doing things that they may not enjoy, but they still have to do anyway. It sets them up for life both in their attitudes and in the skills and knowledge. It is our responsibility and moral obligation, as responsible and caring parents, to make sure that we give our children the best start in life. I don’t know what my children will want to do when they’re grown up. But I do know that they rule themselves out of certain things if they don’t have a solid and rounded education. And that is something I don’t want to do. I want all doors to be open. If they want to be astronauts then I want them to have the knowledge to be able to study further in the sciences they need for that. Equally if they want to be a milkman then I want them to have pushed through to attend classes they don’t like, because that sets them up with the attitudes that they will need to cope with getting up before it is light and doing a job that at times seems very unrewarding.

Regular attendance needs to be considered at a teaching level, and not as a marker across a large time period. Did the child attend classes regularly and often on this topic? Did they attend enough to get a proper grasp and understanding of the teaching, which will allow them to progress on to the next level adequately? That is the key question, not ‘were they in the classroom every day?’

What has to change? The law has to change. This law doesn’t educate parents, it gives them a target to attack. Parents need to understand how education works and the law needs to reflect how education works. Scrap the ‘regular’ wording because it is open to interpretation. Instead the law should be that children attend school every day, unless they are ill or otherwise unable to for unforeseen reasons. And how do you actually change people like Jon, someone who works in contractual law and clearly who isn’t intimated by a small fine? Educate them. Give them the chance to see what potential damage they are doing to the potential of their children. And if that doesn’t work, make the fines income related and significant and add extra ramifications, such as a criminal charge. After all, taking these actions can potentially have a drastic affect on a child’s future achievement or options, and that is certainly not in that child’s best interests at all.

Of Lemmings & Lions

One of the things I have most enjoyed in my career is the focus I’ve had on changing cultures and business processes for the better. It is something that I actually find immensely interesting and the challenge that I most relish. I’ve also been able to do this outside of work as well, be it working as a governor with the local school or just helping some of the organisations in hobbies that I like.

Principally the focus is always about improving. This could be making something more efficient, reducing stress, recognising that something needs to be done differently in order to better achieve what it needs to or removing single points of failure. The angle I always try to come from is looking at what is happening, looking at what the outcomes are, what they should be and if there is a way that can be better achieved. And a lot of the time this is about looking at what other places and people are doing, those places that excel, and seeing what it is that they are doing differently to succeed. Identifying these things and then putting them in place in your own environment can achieve great things. One of the key things about improving is that you learn from those that do it better, and from those that do it worse – i.e. you try to eliminate problems that other people are having. But whilst learning from others is key, copying them can be fatal.

Over the years I’ve seen people try and fail to improve because they are simply copying what other successful places are doing, without really understanding why they are doing it. And because they haven’t actually understood what is trying to be achieved and only put the process in place, rather robotically, they don’t have the ability to assess and innovate properly. This has lead me to coin the phrase “Lemmings vs Lions” and it is quite a good way of describing how you will succeed or fail in the world of business change.

Lemmings are well known as relatively pointless small rodent creatures that throw themselves off of cliffs in the arctic tundra, or as small green haired blue creatures in the eighties / nineties computer game – I prefer the latter. Either way they tend to follow the crowd. They copy each other and the end result is usually being splatted on the floor. They don’t innovate they just do what they have always done and this results, ultimately, in not improving their chances much. Lions however are quite a different thing altogether. They grow prides that will share their experiences, teach their young to hunt and then let the young off into the wilderness to form their own prides. These prides of lions need to adapt constantly to their changes environment and they have to make decisions about what they will do to survive. Each pride is similar but at the same time different in the way they do things. It is the reason they are an apex predator.

So in business transformation are you going to be a lemming or a lion? If you are a lemming then you will copy a process without really looking at what it is for, and you may initially get success but over time it will either plateau or possible end in failure because as the environment changes you won’t. Or you can be a lion, constantly looking for the advantage and adapting to your environment. You’ll implement something that succeeds because it is adapted for the environment. In business transformation or cultural change this is the key. By all means learn from others, it is the only way to innovate, but make sure you take the essence and embed it into your own culture, in a way that will work. If you do this then you will be likely to find success.

Google Is Your Friend?

Richard Branson founded a tremendously successful brand in Virgin, based primarily on the principle that he looked after his employees, his employees looked after the customers, the customers looked after the profits and the profits looked after the share holders. It is a simple principal and one that works. If your staff are happy then they will do a good job, which in turn means your customers get a good service. So on and so, the company does well. So why is it then that so many big brands these days seem to be neglecting the most basic of customer needs?

Today it was announced that EE are going to be fined one million pounds for poor customer service. Well about time. I have moaned before about the appalling state of the usability on their online self service portal. It was one of the many reasons that I moved away from the provider when my mobile came up for renewal last year. But it isn’t just EE. The monopoly holding telecomm providing BT are well overdue for a massive fine. They seem to have developed a reputation for appalling customer service and seem to rely on their infrastructure monopoly to see them through. I know countless people who have been left with no service for weeks, to be offered compensation to the amount of £1.50. Is that really how you treat a treasured customer? But BT have been doing it for years. Let me share my own experience of BT with you, which is the sole reason I wouldn’t even let them come and clean out my toilet, let alone provide me with any services. Following a series of incorrect bills and service outages, where I had to make calls on my mobile, I finally managed to speak to a manager. He assured me they would refund all of the costs I had incurred. I took this very helpful mans name and a call reference and then waited for the remuneration I had been promised. And of course it didn’t arrive. What did happen was when I phones up to query it I was told that no such person existed and that wasn’t a valid call reference! The threat of legal action on the back of this fraud was enough to ensure my contract was cancelled, leaving my account in £2.61 credit. They have been merrily writing to tell me this every month for six years now. I wonder how much that has cost them?

This one little example of not just rock bottom, but non-existent customer service, shows not only a lack of engagement with the concept that making your customer happy is actually good for your business, but also shows an astounding lack of respect for the customer as well. As a result I will never use the company again. I won’t even start about the BT engineer who was trespassing on my property a couple of months ago, and when I asked him why he told me to “fuck off!”. That is top quality staffing in a fully branded BT Openreach uniform. Top marks all round.

But customer service is not just about the person on the end of the phone. And for every example of a tragic customer service team there is an example of a very helpful and pleasant team. But that is not the be all and end all of customer service. We now live in a world where self service online is a massive part of how we engage with our chosen providers. In fact in some cases that will be on the only way we ever engage with them. So the question is, why do so many of them make it so hard for us?

There is a common saying “Google is your friend”. And of course it is. We can go to an incredibly simple interface – a single search box – but in what we want to know about and we will get back results. Often before we’ve even finished typing! What is not to love about that? So why is it that, when they have proven that they can develop such simple and clever things, do they insist on the rest of their products being so damn difficult to use? A bone of contention I have with online services is when they have been built in a way where it is almost impossible to find how to do something. And when you mercifully do find some instructions on how to do it they refer to the previous version. It is beyond frustrating. Don’t get me started on PayPal, who represent a an example of some of the worst online experience I have ever found. But back to Google. Take the simple act of setting up a Google Places account. Trying to find where to manage the wallet settings, or where to shut down the account (I realise it is not in their interests to help you do this) is almost impossible. And considering the prompt to do this came from an email from them, you’d expect a link in the email taking you directly to the right place. But no, that is apparently too hard for the company who have developed the most complex search algorithms in the world to handle. It seems that the concept that smart people have no common sense is indeed alive and well at Google. In this case Google is definitely not my friend. It’s my annoying little friend that won’t do anything I’m asking of it!!

I have spent the majority of my career being concerned with trying to make an experience as intuitive and simple as possible. Whether that be a business process, an interface or a video. The general principle of simple is best works. And making it easy and simple for people to do everything also works. Even if the customer wants to close their account with you, make it as easy as possible to do this. Because at the end of the day they will remember that and may come back. If you make it almost impossible for them to do it then their last memory will be knowing that they were justified in leaving such an awful brand. Instead make their last memory a delightful one, because they will leave with that good memory and then when they are looking for a supplier again they may just come back. At the end of the day, not many people leave a supplier because they are happy with their experience. Plenty though can tell you why they would never use a particular supplier ever again!

Should sacking Clarkson mean the BBC lose their charter?

With over one million people signing a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be reinstated by the BBC, representing two thirds of the amount of people who watch an average show, and a 25th of the entire license paying public, should the BBC lose its charter for not therefore renewing his contract? Well the answer is obviously no. The BBC should not lose their Royal Charter and publicly funded status because of sacking a man who assaulted his co-worker. But the subject raises some interesting considerations in terms of the corporation and its responsibility to the public at large.

After the incident of the alleged assault, the BBC had to take action. There is no denying that Clarkson seems to lack self control and, after so many incidents with the presenter over a prolonged period, they had to stamp on his behaviour. He left them in an untenable position, but that a million people very quickly signed a petition to reinstate him clearly shows that the public thought he shouldn’t have been sacked because of it. What that actually means is that one million people couldn’t imagine a worthwhile Top Gear without him involved. They are right to think that, the idea of a Top Gear without Clarkson, and therefore without May and Hammond as well, would clearly mean that the show will have to undergo a reinvention. But the main consideration this raises here is, when should a publicly funded organisation, with responsibilities to the public at large, listen to a public outcry and when should they feel that they can go against the public opinion and act on their own beliefs?

The BBC’s Royal Charter details under what conditions it should be allowed to be publicly funded and the debate has raged for quite sometime about whether or not it still meets the requirements handed to it. The basic premise is that the corporation should produce a range of content to meet the large majority of the interests of the general public, catering for minorities, niche audiences and the general populous. This should be delivered under the three principles of educating, informing and entertaining. It is this foundation which means they operate multiple channels, with multiple focuses and run specialist radio stations that cater for Pop, Classical, News, Alternative Music, etc. It is also the reason why regional news used to be a key and substantial part of the news delivery on the BBC. For many decades the main reason for the Royal Charter was to make sure that the limited television service available to the public, limited to only a couple of channels, provided a variety of content that everyone could enjoy (at least parts of), rather than producing content that would only ever appeal to a small proportion of the population.

Whether or not the BBC should remain publicly funded is a debate that has raged on for quite some time. Since commercial television became a power, and freeview means that hundreds of channels are available and specialist content across these channels caters for almost everyone, there have been questions asked about whether the BBC continues to fulfil a vital roll. What is clear is that the corporation is no longer required to provide varied content simply because it would otherwise not be available. In fact, the reality is that people now get the vast majority of their specific needs from other networks and specialist channels that far better meet our taste needs. With this in mind, the BBC should be more focused than ever at producing content that meets their requirements under the charter. But are they? Do they meet the needs of the general public and are they even listening to the public? Are they even asking the public for their opinion? In my opinion the answer is no.

The nature of the BBC is that in so many ways it is an outdated institution that needs to be reformed. Many would argue they have kept current but that would be in their output, but in the way the institution operates it is still very archaic. At the end of the day they need to make sure they are meeting their objectives and they need to put the public first. That means listening, and not just to the one or two people who are writing in to points of view, but to every one of the 25 million license payers.They should be required to undertake a census style research program, which is a rolling project that aims to have feedback from the majority of their license payers. This would be the only way to guarantee they are on the right track.

A good example of this is the BBC news output, which in many ways you could argue is industry leading. But as I mentioned before, one of the major benefits for people in the past has been the regional coverage. This used to be a substantial part of the news broadcasts but recently has been reduced to a five minute bulletin like segment, which barely scratches the surface of local needs. To replace it they have increased coverage on things like major sports. It is a clear example of where the public have been put behind the pandering of executives to higher profile stories. It is also an example of where they are clearly not meeting their requirements under the charter.

The BBC needs to become a more agile institution rather than an old fashioned corporation. This means listening to the people it serves and having people in positions of authority who are new thinkers rather than old hands. This means reform and a change in culture. It is imperative that they become more independent, driven by opinion and less wasteful. And that means actually understanding what people want and what they need. It needs to be more regional and more on demand.

The problem with the BBC is that is sits in a system that has allowed it to stay stagnant and pretend it is evolving when below the surface it is not. It suffers from the same thing as the NHS, the rail network and the power network, where profits drive decisions rather than customer needs. All of these institutions need to be reformed. The public need to be put at the heart of their delivery rather than relying on the opinion of those who are out of touch, or have never been in touch. If a strategy of understanding actual needs was at the heart of all of these organisations then there wouldn’t be any debates about profit-mongering in the NHS or power suppliers not passing on cuts in prices. Perhaps one of the parties vying for government at the moment should focus on that, instead of arguing with each other over things that don’t really matter. But then, if there was ever an example of an institution that doesn’t actually listen to the general public, then government is it!

The art of copyright

Last week an American jury decided that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had breached copyright with their song Blurred Lines, by copying Marvin Gaye’s song Got To Give It Up. The official reasons were “for similarities based on inspiration and not replication” which sets a very worrying precedent.

The case was brought by the Marvin Gaye Estate,  and has been led by a group of lawyers who are reportedly pursuing a number of cases along similar lines. In this case it has resulted in the artists of the biggest selling song of 2013 having to pay in excess of £5million in compensation to the Marvin Gaye estate. After they’d won the case, Nona Gaye gave a teary statement where she said she finally felt free of the hold that Thicke and Williams held over them. It seems pretty heavy for someone who was only eight years old when her father’s song was released. I wonder whether she would have been so bothered if the court case had been against a small emerging artists and wasn’t worth over £5million to her!

Skepticism aside, the main issue here is that someone has lost a copyright battle not because they have replicated someone else’s work, but because they has been judged to have had similar inspiration. So they have lost not because they have copied Marvin Gaye’s work, but because they have had similar inspiration. In a world of art, where it is impossible to be completely original – there will always be similar works out there – the ramifications are huge. Does it mean that a composer who has never even heard another track before, but unwittingly produces something with similarities, has breached copyright? Similarly, if I was to be inspired by the sun setting over London and wrote a song about it, would I be breaching copyright for Waterloo Sunset based on inspiration? Ok, these examples are a bit silly, but the principle stands and now there is a legal precedent for any lawyer to see an opportunity for a quick buck.

This week on BBC Radio 4 they have been discussing the possibility that one of J.S. Bach’s Cello concertos might have been written by his wife, rather than him. The only suggestion of this is the interpretation by one man of the note scribbled on one of the manuscripts which says ‘written out by’ his wife. Anyone who knows about music will know this is referring to her work copying the original music out onto sheet, but it is a convenient opportunity for another conspiracy theory. Any competent cello player will attest to the consistency in style of the suite, which almost certainly supports that Bach himself wrote the piece. Why do I raise this? Well the argument is not dissimilar. The idea that one person could write something that was ascribed to another is not only plausible, it happens all the time. But similarly it is also possible for someone to compose something that is very similar, or in places the same, to another piece without ever having been exposed to the other piece.

The joy of the arts is that it is creative. It is inspiring to see and listen to and is inspired by a variety of things. When you start to apply limitations, such as the idea that inspiration itself can lead to copyright, then this will only serve to stifle that creativity. Copyright exists for very good reasons. It prevents people copying work and claiming it as there own – replication. But the idea that you could claim someone has copied your work because they were inspired by the same thing is ludicrous. It serves only the claimant and no one else.

50 Shades of Dismay

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to radio four and they were discussing the new Fifty Shades of Grey film. The conversation involved two film critics, one male and one female, and the presented of the discussion show. What is interesting about this film is that it seems to have split opinion almost as much as the books did, but for different reasons.

The consensus of the male critic, who had already seen the film, is that the Director had managed to ‘rescue’ a good film out of a relatively poor book and managed to make something really rather credible. However the female critic, who hadn’t seen the film, seemed more interested in proclaiming that the books, and therefore by association the film, were anti-feminist pieces of filth that were derogatory to women, portrayed an immensely stupid and naive character in Ana Steele that undermined women everywhere and that Christian Grey is the worst kind of man imaginable. Her view was very much that there is no place for that kind of sexual relationship in society.

Now I have to take issue with her views on more than one level, but as a starter why don’t we focus on another feminist comment made very publicly recently. Yesterday Patricia Arquette used her OSCAR acceptance speech as an opportunity to make a point about equal rights for women in pay in the USA. Now this is a point that I can completely get on board with. The concept that because you are a woman that you should be paid differently to a man is abhorrent. The idea that your gender can in some way dictate your ability and skill level is laughable, at best and should have gone out with slavery. It certainly has no place in a supposedly modern and forward thinking world. My issue with this ridiculous film critic suggesting that 50 Shades of Grey is derogatory to women and that it is an anti-feminist story is that she has firstly completely failed to appreciate the fundamental focus of the book, and secondly she is using the feminist movement is completely the wrong way.

So let me examine this in a bit more detail. The premise of this woman’s objection to E.L. James’s book is that the story features a man exerting power over a woman. Her view is that it suggests it is ok for a man to use violence in the context of their sexual relationship and that the male is repressing her and taking her power away from her by degrading her, simply treating her as an object and possession. Perhaps she should read the book again and actually take note of what is happening.

There is no doubt that Ana Steele is a naive woman, but stupid? No. If you strip all of the sex out of the trilogy you end up with two things; a much much much shorter story and also a compelling look at how two characters, through love, completely change through their dedication to each other.

The interesting thing about this critic’s stance on 50 Shades of Grey is that she has completely failed to see that the power in the story lies not with Christian but with Ana. Unintentionally, and at times completely intentionally, Ana manipulates Christian. She puts him under a metaphorical spell that he has, by his own admittance, never been under before. She transforms his world, through a reluctance and refusal at times to engage on his terms, from one where he is always in control to one where he must accept the control, or at least involvement, of others. And by the end of the story Christian is a very different man, whereas Ana is by and large the same woman.

So what about the sex? There is a valid argument that Christian exerts his power and influence in order to coerce Ana into taking part in acts that she wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, but she does this mostly willingly. She certainly lets him know when she is not happy about it or when something has gone too far and the consequences are emotionally harder on him than on her. In fact in many parts of the story Ana is the one yielding the power, teasing Christian or suggesting that she would like to do things. She becomes the leader as her confidence grows and Christian has to sing to her tune.

The idea that the more risque end of the sexual spectrum is anti-feminist is simply unfounded. It is not at all unhealthy for a couple to engage in these sorts of acts if they wish to and to suggest that this should not exist in society displays a lack of understanding. Different people are turned on by different things and, as long as those are legal, there is nothing wrong with that. The reaction of thousands of women to the books shows the repressed attraction many people harbour for playing with their partners in this way. And the DIY stores did well out of it as well.

So what is my point? Well mainly this. Feminism has an important role in a society where women still do not receive the same professional respect and benefits as men to. It serves a valid purpose, one which Patricia Arquette quite rightly used her fame to make comment on yesterday. The problem though is when someone cheapens it by taking half-truths, misunderstandings and a completely lazy reading of a story to then try and suggest that a story is anti-feminist, when it clearly is the opposite. As a writer I find it amazing that someone can criticise a work so fiercely without understanding it, as a film lover I find it amazing that a critic could be so against the film without even having seen it, and as someone who believes in fairness I find it annoying that feminist movements that are doing a huge amount of good constantly get tarred with the same brush as this foolish woman!

At the end of the day this is a story that reveals a compelling lifestyle, one which clearly affects a large group of us in many ways. Like all good stories it gets us talking, we feel involved and we feel compelled to watch, read and discuss. We don’t need anyone telling us how we need to feel about it though, we can judge that for ourselves.