Every time I am forced to listen to whingefests such as You and Yours, I wonder if it’s time to invent the mirror image of a consumer affairs programme — where Britain’s largest businesses get to expose the behaviour of their worst customers.
Every time I am forced to listen to whingefests such as You and Yours, I wonder if it’s time to invent the mirror image of a consumer affairs programme — where Britain’s largest businesses get to expose the behaviour of their worst customers. ‘And, in a packed programme this week, Tesco launches a shocking investigation into the behaviour of Mr M. Jones of Rotherham after he ignores repeated requests not to urinate in the drinks aisle ...and we finally get to ask J. Chambers of Herne Hill: “Isn’t it time you paid your gas bill?”’
In the same way, I sometimes feel like applying for funding to start an anti-privacy lobby. This would campaign for more personal information to be made public.
Why would anyone support this? Well, provided you are not one of the offenders, ask yourself if it is fair that every time you buy clothes at Marks & Spencer (or anywhere else) you must subsidise that small proportion of women — they are almost all women — who are serial clothes returners? The kind of people who buy five outfits on a Friday and return four on a Monday, one smelling of cigarettes? Would it be fairer if retailers could spot people with an excessive returns habit and made them shoulder the costs? Or do we prefer shopping to stay anonymous?
All I am suggesting is that the privacy debate is complicated, and anyone pronouncing on it must weigh a complex mixture of costs and benefits. And sometimes the widespread availability of behavioural data can be a wonderful thing.
I discovered this yesterday when I met an American entrepreneur whose business analyses the individual viewing habits of US homes. Using this data (which would not be available over here) he has been able to prove what I have long suspected: that the time TV stations devote to plugging their own output is often useless or even harmful.
Today, before you watch any TV programme, you sit through interminable cross-promotions for other stuff (‘and starting next month on BBC8, it’s a brand new season of Celebrity Frog-Throwing’). This annoys me on a few counts. It means the BBC is not, as it claims, advertising-free: it is packed with advertising — for itself. And on commercial television, it means breaks become far too long. This annoys me as a viewer and incenses me as an advertising agent, since it increases people’s propensity to skip ads or make tea. Even if you don’t like advertising, it at least has the virtue of paying for the accompanying programmes. Programme plugs are largely pointless: the US research suggests that most do nothing to boost the audience of the programme being promoted, while they prompt about 20 per cent of viewers to change channel there and then.
It’s because this kind of data is widely available in the US that Americans can benefit from this kind of life-enhancing knowledge. In Britain there is a risk we get the worst of both worlds, losing privacy without gaining anything in return. Both times I have had things stolen from my car it has been in full view of CCTV cameras but the police couldn’t spare the time to review the film. I might as well move to Singapore — after all, if I must live in a nanny state, at least nanny could be a professional.