Not long ago, I recommended a recently relaunched women's magazine to a friend. She sent her verdict via e-mail. "A lot of the information is quite useful," she wrote. "But when I got to the feature about how to waterproof a fleece, I lost the will to live." Hmm. I am all too aware of the low feelings brought on by a certain kind of consumer journalism. They sweep over me every weekday at 12 o'clock, when it's time for Radio 4's You and Yours. I usually switch off. Life is short. Best not to spend too much of it worrying about the cost of an Apex return.
But this is unfair. If I never listen, I don't really have the right to criticise, do I? As Andrew Smith, the editor of You and Yours, points out in the letter he sent me the other day, my views on his programme are "entrenched" and, worse, ill-founded. In a recent column praising a documentary fronted by Winifred Robinson, who is also a presenter of You and Yours, I wrote that she is "wasted on fabric softener". Smith points out that the show hasn't featured fabric softener since 1997. In the past three years, moreover, its audience has increased, its approval ratings have improved and it has won a series of awards. Would I mind telling him, in detail, what it is that I so dislike about the show?
Amused by this rebuke, I dutifully tuned in to You and Yours. The first item was about access to free dental care. The report was clear and, as it emphasised that it is children from poor backgrounds who are now being excluded from such care, vital. The second was about museum opening times. I went to make a cup of tea. The third was about a pub that is selling drinks in thirds as well as halves. Cue a reporter ordering three different beers and enthusing that he'd still only had a pint. Let the beards of the world unite! Finally, a report on Hungarian builders. Did this make the intricacies of European labour law sing to its listeners, all vaguely concerned as to the whereabouts of their stopcocks? No, it did not.
Next I listened to a CD Smith had sent me, the basis of two entries for the Sony Awards. Edited like this, there were lots of good bits - notably a feature on how bagged salads are given such a strangely long life. My research done, I got to thinking about my urgent dislike of the show.
To be fair to Smith, his team's journalism is of a high standard - no expert is ever left unturned - and he is blessed with great presenters, my favourite being John Waite, a man whose voice alone can make even the most humdrum matters take on a desperate import. (Sometimes this is almost comical. "Today we're going to be talking about quilted lavatory paper," he'll say. At which point you freeze with fear at the thought that you might have been buying the wrong kind.)
No, I think the real problem is the programme's length and frequency. It's on five days a week, and lasts an hour. There simply aren't enough interesting consumer issues to fill this much airtime, and the result is the airing of stuff that doesn't deserve to be covered at all; the ridiculous stretching out of matters that could be dealt with in three minutes flat; and storm-in-a-teacup syndrome, when the programme gets terribly worked up about something that affects hardly anyone. Clearly this is a problem for Mark "Axeman" Damazer, rather than the people at You and Yours. They are beyond reproach.
I hope Andrew Smith will accept my apologies. I also hope he won't search his archive for references to quilted loo roll. That's my little joke.