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First Thoughts: Guardian airbrushing, lobotomised TV, and saving our subtitles

As the Guardian celebrates 200 years in print, the historic moments the newspaper chose to highlight are a lesson in brand reinvention. 

By Peter Wilby

In its self-congratulatory 200th birthday celebrations, the Guardian publishes a timeline of its history. The launch of its daily features section G2 (1992) is noted. So are the acquisition of a minority stake in Anglia Television (1968); the purchase of a controlling stake in Northwest Automart (1982); the establishment of a radio division (1999); the creation of the Soulmates interactive dating website (2004); the launch of Life, a short-lived and long forgotten science and technology supplement (2003); and the advent of, “designed to meet the needs of the paper’s growing US audience” (2007).

Strangely missing from these highlights are Education Guardian, Society Guardian and Media Guardian, sections of the paper that appeared weekly from the 1970s until a few years ago. Accompanied by pages of lucrative job advertisements – so numerous that a switch to tabloid format was once ruled out because they would make the paper too bulky for the average home letterbox – they were central not only to the paper’s identity, as essential reading for professionals in those fields, but to its finances.

All three survive only as modest offerings on the Guardian’s website, victims of recruitment advertising moving online and cuts in editorial staff. Why are they airbrushed from history? Is the paper, with eyes raised to audiences across the planet, embarrassed that its typical readers were once schoolteachers who wore leather patches on their jacket elbows? I suppose we should be thankful that the Guardian still admits it started in Manchester.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

Mindful expertise

GB News, the new TV channel chaired by Andrew Neil, promises to be “diverse and broad-minded” and feature “a range of voices and perspectives”. The latest recruit for its forthcoming launch is Nana Akua, a self-described “broadcast journalist and health expert”, who will host a Friday and Saturday evening talk show. Last year, after a terrorist stabbed two people in London days after being released from jail, she proposed on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show that such men should take “a lie detector test and if they fail… you have the option for a full frontal lobotomy”. She was, she assured Vine, “perfectly serious”.

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That is exactly the diverse, broad-minded perspective lacking among “woke” BBC presenters.

[See also: Peter Mandelson: “I’m afraid Keir Starmer has come badly unstuck”]

The bowling underclass

Cricket has always been a game for batsmen who, in its early days, were usually toffs, while the bowlers, mostly from plebeian backgrounds, were, as an MCC official put it in the 1920s, “nothing more nor less than… hired labourers”. Modern cricket bats, larger than they were a century ago, allow even mishits often to go for six. Now, Cambridge University scientists have found a way to increase bowlers’ woes. If bats were made of bamboo instead of the traditional willow, they say, the ball would leave the bat at significantly higher speed.

Don’t be surprised if bamboo, allegedly more environmentally friendly, takes over. Since cricket consistently reflects the state of English class relations, it is inevitable that, as social inequalities increase, bowlers will get an ever rougher deal.

[See also: As Tony Blair warns that Labour could die under Starmer and the “woke left”, is he planning a return?]

Adios foreignness

Here is another scientific “advance” that doesn’t seem to me an advance at all. Artificial intelligence software, the Times reports, will soon enable us to watch foreign films in which the actors’ lip movements are precisely synchronised to a dubbed soundtrack. But I want foreign films to look and sound foreign. I am perfectly content with subtitles – indeed, because of a lifelong hearing deficiency, I prefer them and wish they were used more often in TV news reports. I like listening to the rhythms of Spanish, Korean, Swedish or Farsi speech even if I do not understand these languages. No wonder we English remain stubborn monoglots if we are never allowed to hear a foreign tongue.

Now, it seems, we won’t even be able to watch foreigners’ lips forming foreign words. Before we know it, all other signs of foreignness – mannerisms, clothes, haircuts – will be banished in the interests of greater “accessibility”.

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die