The announcement that Chris Evans has been signed to headline the new Top Gear is a rare good news story for the BBC. Following the furore over Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension and subsequent non-renewal of contract after punching a producer there was a real danger that one of its prized assets could be under permanent threat.
This was a big issue for two reasons. Not only does Top Gear make a lot of money for the BBC in terms of overseas sales, but it is also one of the most popular programmes on TV, particularly (but not exclusively) with middle-aged men such as myself. At a time when charter renewal is looming, showing that the BBC provides something for everyone is crucial to successful negotiations, especially as many see it as a bastion of a left-leaning metropolitan elite, rather than an organisation that is in touch with the rest of the UK. Not a viewpoint I personally subscribe to, but one that can be seen regularly in newspaper coverage of the corporation.
So setting out a plan for the future of Top Gear was about more than simply replacing a presenter. And the whole negotiations with both Evans and the outgoing presenting duo of James May and Richard Hammond seem to have been handled confidentially, respectfully and without any of the noted HR cock-ups that the BBC has made in the past. With Evans on board, the BBC has recruited a noted car nut who is a familiar face to the UK audience, with a wide appeal and a similar sense of humour to the old Top Gear team. He’s also been through the public wringer in the past, rising to stardom with The Big Breakfast and the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, before becoming a staple story in the tabloids for his drinking and bad behaviour. He’s obviously learnt from his mistakes – and what drove him to them – something that Clarkson never really seemed to do.
So, now there is a one host in place for Top Gear, the rumour mill is in full swing about who else will present it with him. Rather than follow the bookmakers favourites (the likes of Jodie Kidd and Guy Martin), here are some other potentials:
1. Ed Miliband
Currently at a bit of a loose end, he’d be perfect as the earnest one to replace James May. Rather than endlessly explaining about internal combustion engines he could bore the audience with his views on the redistribution of wealth, and why Labour’s electoral defeat was not to do with carving promises into pieces of stone. Counting against him is what seems to be a complete lack of interest in cars, but I’d tune in to see him attempt to lap the track while eating a bacon sandwich.
2. Prince Philip
A direct replacement for Clarkson with his views on foreigners, and a chance to increase viewers in the pensioner category. Well known for owning a London taxi that he drives around the city, so has an interest in cars, alongside carriage racing. Possibly not up for driving long distances in Top Gear specials, but presumably could get a chauffeur to do this for him.
3. Alexis Tsipras
Another Greek, and one who may be looking for a new role depending on how well current negotiations with his country’s creditors go. Unlike his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a noted biker, his transport preferences are unknown. However as someone that has driven in Athens (and survived), I know that all residents of the Greek capital have nerves of steel on the road, coupled with a wanton disregard for indicators, making him a perfect role model on the track.
4. Mary Berry
There have been rumours of Great British Bake Off host Sue Perkins joining the team, prompting death threats from assorted morons on Twitter, but why not go for the real star – the fragrant Mary Berry. She’d not take any nonsense from anyone and, I suspect, would be a demon behind the wheel. I’d like to see her challenge the other presenters to make fairy cakes while lapping the Nurburgring in under 7 minutes.
5. Bradley Wiggins
Another coming to the end of his first sporting career, and potentially looking for a new challenge post-Rio 2016. While not as much of a car nut as his fellow Olympian Chris Hoy, he’d bring plenty of irreverence to the programme if he swapped two wheels for four. Main stumbling block could be the previous hostility between Top Gear presenters and cyclists, but the perfect opportunity for the show to bring the two groups together and benefit from the rise of the MAMIL.
One of the innovations of the last election was the first ever televised leadership debates in the UK. Indeed, many credit Nick Clegg’s TV performance with the Liberal Democrat’s dramatically raised share of the vote and subsequent kingmaker role in the coalition government.
So, you’d think that leaders would be keen to repeat (or even extend) this experiment given that it was proven to engage with voters and give a chance to discuss the issues head to head. Err, no. Broadcasters have proposed an extended series of three debates, with one featuring Cameron and Miliband, the second Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a third adding UKIP leader Nigel Farage to the mix. The reaction has been muted from the main parties, while the Green Party (who currently have the same number of MPs as UKIP) taking legal advice regarding their exclusion.
Leaving aside my personal antipathy to Farage and the xenophobic, unthinking attitude he represents, there are multiple reasons for including him in a set piece debate. We have freedom of speech in the UK, he is the leader of a national party with one MP, and I’d hope that the political strategists of the three major parties can come up with a range of counter arguments (that don’t pander to the same baseless xenophobia) if they want to impress the public at large. I do agree the Greens should be involved in some way, but that is just a detail to overcome, rather than a reason to call off the whole exercise.
What is more worrying is the complete lack of interest in a rival proposal (from The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and YouTube) to host debates that would be streamed live on YouTube. The Digital Debate campaign points out that a similar set of four debates at the last US election garnered 27 million views. More importantly it allowed politicians to engage with younger voters, half of whom primarily get their news online. While the exact form of the event is not yet set (and no party has formally agreed to it), streamed debates lend themselves well to sparking discussions on social media, are easy to share and create an online event that will engage voters.
Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction at the limited real world experience of politicians, surely anything that potentially engages them with the electorate can only be a good thing? A quick search on the internet finds that even the candidates for Sherriff of Jackson County in Mississippi were happy to debate online – why then has there been an overwhelming silence on the proposals from the UK’s politicians?
As a PR person I know that there are times when you have to turn down a good idea just in case it leads to unintended future consequences. But at a time when the electorate are so fed up with anodyne career politicians that many will either not vote or will support UKIP, it is time to be brave. Political spin doctors, and their masters, should embrace the online opportunity as a chance to rebuild the political process, rather than shying away from it. Be bold, be modern and make 2015 an online election.
Jobs wax and wane in popularity and, while quite a lot of this is down to salaries or how interesting they are, their public image also has a big input. For example, mention you’re an accountant to someone and a mental picture of a grey man/woman in a grey suit pops immediately into many people’s minds.
So, taking this to its logical conclusion, which profession has the worst public image in the UK – essentially who is most loathed by the country as a whole? I’m taking out politicians as that’s too easy a target, but looking at what’s left, they seem to fall into two groups. There are those professions that are belittled for not doing their job properly, where the Daily Mail (and politicians) use the failings of a few to tar a whole group with the same brush. I’m thinking of social workers, doctors, nurses and teachers, where, often for political reasons, they are paraded as uncaring or uncommitted when nothing could be further from the truth.
The second group, which more people can agree on, is those that are accused of fleecing the Great British Public. So bankers, overpaid businessmen/women, footballers, bureaucrats (especially of the ‘meddling Brussels’ variety) and highly paid lawyers fit into this category. What’s interesting is that none of these people make physical things – vilified businesspeople tend to be fat cats presiding over service industries/shutting down manufacturing plants while increasing their pensions rather than the likes of James Dyson.
After the financial meltdown, I’d say that bankers topped the polls of the most loathed. Not only had they brought the world to the edge of financial ruin but weren’t contrite in any way. They still seemed to be rolling in enormous bonuses, while the rest of us were scraping by without pay rises in Austerity Britain.
But the last couple of weeks has seen a new target overtake even bankers – management at utilities companies. The combination of enormous, above inflation, rises in gas and electricity bills coupled with dire warnings about potential future power cuts have made them public enemy number one. Never a group to look a gift horse in the mouth, politicians have levelled their guns on the sector. From Ed Milliband threatening a price freeze to (of all people) John Major calling for a windfall tax on utility profits, it is open season on the industry. With a growing percentage of household incomes spent on utility costs, it isn’t surprising they are a target – even though the companies claim that a large chunk of bills goes either to the government in terms of green levies or is swallowed up by global price rises in the cost of oil, gas and coal.
But utilities aren’t helping themselves. British Gas decided to run a Twitter Q&A session on the day of its recent price rises – unsurprisingly it got more abuse than intelligent feedback. And Scottish Power has been fined £8.5m for misleading customers between 2009 and 2011. No wonder the whole industry has been summoned to appear before MPs shortly to explain themselves.
So, putting my PR hat back on, what can utility companies to improve their public image? They can’t reverse the price rises, but need to show that they genuinely care. That means no pay rises for senior management, closer work with charities that help those who can’t pay their bills and a commitment to providing better service to the rest of us. And this needs to be a long term move – not a quick PR stunt that ends after a couple of months. Only then will they be able to step away from the public eye and let others (probably bankers) take over the mantle of most loathed profession – at least until the 2015 election….
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..