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Sarah Sands’ Diary: on having continuing faith in the BBC despite pay gap anger

The editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme watches in wonder at the standards the corporation is expected to maintain.

An overnight delay on a flight home from Cape Town on Sunday gave me a distant perspective on the latest convulsion at the BBC over equal pay. As a relative newcomer, I watch in wonder at the standards the corporation is expected to maintain. Can you imagine any newspaper offering transparency on all salaries, with a guarantee that journalists with similar responsibilities are paid the same, irrespective of circumstance?

The protest by Carrie Gracie speaks to a deeper truth. There is an angry weariness with male power structures. It is true that men at the BBC have been paid more, as in all other businesses, but it is a complicated problem. Do you throw more cash at it, or try to bring down the salaries of those who have benefited in the past? Gracie, whom I greatly admired as China editor, grew impatient with the oriental pace of change. Our team discussions about the awkwardness of Gracie presenting Radio 4’s Today, while also being the story, covered only the maintenance of impartiality. As the Times’s Matt Chorley put it in a tweet: “BBC rules mean that Carrie Gracie can’t discuss Carrie Gracie if Carrie Gracie is presenting the programme discussing Carrie Gracie.”

Everyone is trying to do the right thing. In a previous life, in which HR departments were basically a firing squad, if a staff journalist had denounced the Evening Standard in another newspaper the discussion would have been less good-natured. That is what gives me continuing faith in the BBC.

Digging the trenches

Political debates on Brexit became so crushingly entrenched last year that Today listeners begged for mercy. So I am keeping an eye on business to establish some facts on the ground. Tourists from France and Germany down, but overall tourism up, and spending. Car sales down, but partly attributed to a loss of faith in diesel. Property down in central London, but redistributing outside the capital. Department stores had a tough Christmas and supermarkets have Brexit-related food price inflation. A CEO winked that Greggs does brilliantly in the festive season thanks to hungover office staff absorbing the booze with carbohydrates. Dry January could be a different story.

A consequence of political disturbance will be the rise of localism. Brexiteers have not seemed overly keen on returning the powers of the EU to judges who are “enemies of the people”, or to a parliament that contains “mutineers”. I do see people taking matters into their own hands. On broadband, which is something of a Today obsession, communities as disparate as the City of London and Axford in Wiltshire are finding their own solutions, chivying planning authorities, digging trenches. Pubs, churches and waste management are being revived through local collectives. Alan Milburn, who recently resigned as social mobility tsar, told me that it was not just that he had lost faith in this government. He had also come to see the limitation of government in solving social problems. Maybe Britain can be rebuilt from the bottom up.

A prince and his plastic

In an entertaining documentary on the creation of Alan Partridge, Armando Iannucci explained how the On the Hour team identified the conventions and clichés of broadcast news. As someone who has moved from print to radio, I am aware that questions tend to be asked a certain way. Prince Harry guest-edited Today after Christmas. During a discussion on how to persuade supermarkets to stop selling plastic, he
became animated. “Ask, do we need to create a circular rather than a linear economy,” he urged me. I pressed the button to talk to our presenter. “Say, should there be more pressure from the government?”

The ability of the young to adapt is impressive. For this generation, housing is a suitcase in the hall. I am waiting to move into a flat in White City, London, which we have bought off-plan and is long delayed. My husband and I are lodging apologetically with long-suffering relatives. Our daughter, aged 23, sees the situation as perfectly normal. She and her boyfriend are rental nomads, always on the lookout for a place they can call their own for more than three months. “Stuff” is stored far and wide. Travelling light is something we learn from them. I have already forgotten what
is in storage, so probably don’t need it.

Britain’s toilet etiquette

I ask my South African friends if Cyril Ramaphosa can triumph over endemic corruption, offer liberal supporters of the Democratic Alliance a reason to vote for the ANC, and lead his country into a golden age. They, on the other hand, are fascinated by the UK interest in transgender toilets. Lavatory etiquette they regard as a particularly British thing, a source of fearful gentility. I repeat an anecdote about the fabulous women’s toilets at the new Bridge Theatre in London. For years, women have formed stoical queues at theatres, while men are quickly done and back at the bar. At last, this imbalance has been righted. A friend saw a man pacing up and down in the female lavatorial palace, not realising he was in the ladies’. No one approached him in case he was making a self-identifying statement. 

A tech wiz at Haworth

Model Lily Cole was asked for some ideas by the Brontë Parsonage Museum to celebrate the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth. Nick Holland, an “expert”, then resigned from the Brontë Society in protest. Holland says a traditional writer such as himself should have been chosen, as if the Brontë Society is short of literary admirers. Cole is a tech whiz, full of ideas and with a large social media following. I also know her to be splinter sharp. I assume she is thinking along the lines of what Google has done to bring the archives of museums to global attention. It is not Cole’s fault she was born tall and photogenic. Surely Holland can find it in his heart to give her a chance. 

Sarah Sands is editor of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.