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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Pundits at 8 O'clock

One of the challenges for someone like me who attracts a large international following to their blog is to know when and how to deal with UK matters that might seem a tad parochial to those a long way overseas. Ordinarily, as you know, my posts tend to range over matters of a genuinely international significance, that can be truly said to matter to all right-thinking mankind (and womankind, I don't need to add). But I am stung today to act against my habits by a pundit-ridden feature on  'Today', a daily current affairs programme on the BBC channel known as Radio 4. That programme has steadily diminished in stature over the years, with the ratio of factual news to speculative comment having gone from near infinity forty years ago to virtually zero today. The cause of the decline of the programme has been an increasing reliance by its editors on the use of pundits to fill the gaps in airtime arising from a shortage of factual journalism.

Today's procession of pundits on Today included two who were supposedly experts on economics (!), one on women's rights, one on dementia, two on fast food, one on the changes in the popularity of names for babies, one on art prices, two on the career of Dolly Parton, one on the declining population of lop-eared bats, two on blueberries used as super-food, and the one on climbing The Shard. It was the mindless comments of that latter pundit which caused me to swipe the radio off the mantelpiece with my left elbow in a gesture of extreme disgust.

The Shard, for the benefit of my overseas fans, is now the tallest building in London. We don't go much for sky-scrapers here, so The Shard to my cultured eyes is a tacky and intrusive feature on the otherwise restful skyline of our capital. This morning the commuters in that part of town were struck to see four tiny human figures struggling up the outside of the building dragging a banner that called for more-humane treatment of battery hens, ironically drawing comparisons with the poor idiots cooped-up on the inside. As a publicity stunt it had the intended effect, and within a few hours a sizeable clot of outside-broadcast vans had blocked the nearby streets to film the protest and beam it via satellite to who knows what parts of the globe.

Whether the BBC had their own team on site, or were repackaging the efforts of others received via the wire, I cannot say, but within minutes of the news breaking, the acting chairman of the London Mountaineering Club was being quizzed on Today about the challenges of climbing the Shard. According to my records, the north end of Hampstead Heath, at around 440 feet above mean sea level,  is the highest point in London, which says much for the likely limits of the experiences of the London Mountaineering Club. I mean, it's probably like asking the Himalayan Underground Train Appreciation Society to comment on the Tube. Anyway, this pundit cited the height of The Shard as one of the difficulties faced by the climbers, and went on insightfully to suggest that the degree of difficulty presented by the ascent would depend on whether there were toe and finger holds at sufficiently short intervals up the structure. Thanks heaven for the man- we'd have been puzzling over it for hours were it not for his penetrating analysis.

You might wonder how it is that the BBC can find a pundit at what seems to be a moment's notice on seemingly any topic. In the days when I worked at Bush House it was achieved with a system of Rollodexes. To find a pundit to comment on the climbing of the Shard by publicity seekers, you would first search the master index Rollodex for 'Structures', which would present a reference number of one of an extremely large number of secondary Rollodexes , the one containing the list of newsworthy man-made structures. Searching that secondary Rolllodex under S for 'Shard (The)' would then present the reference number for one of an exponentially larger number of tertiary Rollodexes, the one to do with The Shard. You would now be nearing the end of your research efforts, since flicking round to the 'U's would rapidly lead you to 'Unauthorised climbing of', where you would find a list of potential pundits presented in order of their fee rate for appearances (from lowest to highest). The fingerprints, pencilled under-linings, and other smudge marks on the card would clearly show that only those near the top of the list were ever contacted, as the BBC in those days was a lot more cost conscious than it is today. Of course, mastering the structure of the inter-relationships between the various Rollodexes- or the 'schema' as we technical people say- was the key to proficiency, and you could rise rapidly in those days from a Pundit Researcher 8 (the first rung on the ladder of  pundit research) to Pundit Researcher 5 (equivalent to the BBC General Manager 2 grade) by passing the Schema Analysis Examination with a grade of Beta Plus or above. I don't know how the BBC arranges the corresponding matters today, but I will casually grill a few contacts at the Beeb and let you know.

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