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The Spectator's Notes

I won’t be applying to be director-general of the BBC

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

25 January 2020

9:00 AM

Despite huge public pressure, I shall not be applying to be director-general of the BBC. It was kind of Tony Hall to stand down early, forgoing next year’s centenary plaudits, so that I could rise on the wave of post-Brexit fervour. But no: I am not a woman and have no plans to become one and, under the BBC’s diversity rules, uniformity of gender is required. If I did, per impossibile, get the job, I would ensure that Nick Robinson, who has such a feel for excluded northerners, would relocate to Manchester, thus counteracting the London bias of the political coverage, but even that would not be enough. The truth is that no director-general, not even the ticks-all-boxes Sharon White, can lead the BBC’s monopoly through to its second century. The technology no longer works; nor does the concept. Bureaucracy is the enemy of creativity. The BBC can only be a bureaucracy.

When my aunt Meriel was a devout little girl, she used to say that when the rector preached: ‘I keep my mind on higher things.’ In that spirit, I have ‘listened’ to Thought for the Day for 50 years, occasionally picking up some wisp of an idea, but usually just brushing my teeth. So it was with a real sense of shock this week that I heard the Revd Giles Fraser’s Thought. After praising online the late Roger Scruton’s love of wine, Mr Fraser said, he had received an anonymous gift of Chateau Trotanoy. He decided such a treasure should be shared, so it was Pomerol for his parishioners’ communion the following Sunday. The meditation was about what was and was not valuable about the wine, a Thought which got close to the heart of the eucharist. How did such a deep and specifically Christian Thought get past the programme’s editors?


Until recently, those expressing scepticism about climate-change catastrophe have been hauled over the coals (or the renewables equivalent) for not understanding the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’. The lack of global warming at the beginning of the 21st century was not to be taken, chided the warmists, as evidence that climate change was not happening. Weather was the passing phenomenon of each day: climate was the real, deep thing. Now, however, the alarmists themselves have elided the two concepts, using the Australian bush fires as their cue. As Sir David Attenborough puts it: ‘The moment of crisis has come.’ They could be right, of course, but how could they really know? In this sense, President Trump is surely justified in warning, at Davos, against the ‘Prophets of Doom’. Prophecy is a different skill from an exact understanding of the here and now. Mr Trump might usefully have talked about the Profits of Doom too. If the movement can persuade western society that the climate emergency is upon us, there are enormous sums to be made by people who claim to be able to remedy it. Hence the patter now coming out of companies such as Blackrock, BP or Microsoft, fanned by Mammon’s public intellectuals, such as Mark Carney. A lot of clever people are putting the Green into greenbacks. A lot of less clever investors are going to get their fingers burnt.

Before Christmas, as Guest of Honour addressing the annual dinner of the Shikar Club, an ancient and distinguished conservation body, I discovered a high level of anxiety among the members about the government’s interest in banning the import and export of big game trophies. The consultation period on the subject ends this Saturday. The point made to me was simple. Most of the places where people shoot big game are poor. Most of the people who hunt big game are rich. If those people are allowed to shoot big game, they will want the trophies of their shoots. If the customers cannot have their trophies, their numbers will decline. The economic incentive to conserve the animals will diminish. Land hunger will therefore destroy the animals’ habitat. The indigenous people will get poorer. Most of Africa today is not a wild place whose natural balance is disturbed by hunting. It is an increasingly populated place, most of whose land is being taken up by agriculture. If landowners cannot fund their rewilding and reintroduction of indigenous wildlife by the money from controlled hunting, they will have to give way to cattle and sheep. No trophies, no hunting, no big game (and no real ethics).

The possession of a double-barrelled surname used to be a sign of poshness, or of posh aspirations. Frequently in these unions one barrel was trade and the other aristocracy — Gascoyne-Cecil, for example. Once, when taking a call at the Telegraph’s Christmas charity phone-in, I collected a generous donation from a Mrs Page-Turner. I ventured that she might get humorous comments on her surname. ‘Yes,’ she said with dignity, ‘a Page married a Turner in the 18th century.’ Nowadays, however, a double-barrelled name tends to signal not dynastic claims, but feminism or other considerations of equality. Women must no longer take their husbands’ names and — more recently — people may not be surnamed after their fathers alone. Hence, I surmise, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Daniel York Loh of the Minority Ethnic Members Committee of the actors’ union Equity, who has popped up to unfriend the actor Laurence Fox over the Duchess of Sussex and racism. This change of name-systems also changes expectations. In my youth, the approach of a double-barrelled name usually elicited a laugh (think of Terry-Thomas, whose sole name was a double barrel). In my sixties, it normally presages a groan.

In these Notes of 11 January, I mentioned what the British Board of Film Classification calls ‘moderate sex’ in the cinema. An American friend tells me that, in the United States, the new film The Irishman is billed as having ‘pervasive language’. You would have thought language had been pervasive since the invention of the talkie. In the case of The Irishman, I gather, it probably doesn’t matter what language is pervasive, since it is incomprehensible.


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