Just what I say: Brian Nicholls

Date: Monday 20th November 2017

THE reason pubs were invented was to provide somewhere to escape to on the Friday night of the BBC’s Children in Need telethon extravaganza.

This is a charity which does excellent and amazing work funding and developing projects all over the country which help to make the lives of countless children and their families in countless circumstances immeasurably better. There can be fewer better causes, and yet every year Children in Need somehow fills me with admiration and unease in equal measure.

It is a bit of a risk to criticise a charity, particularly one as high profile, colossal and successful as Children in Need without risking being thought of as petty and curmudgeonly, and to criticise such an iconic BBC creation will be regarded by some as tantamount to heresy.

That is particularly so when Penrith and Eden has played such an active part in welcoming and supporting the young heroes on their rickshaw marathon challenge this week.

It is not just the extent of the blanket bombing of Children in Need publicity, which begins on all forms of BBC programming and outlets a couple of months before the actual fund-raising night, or the continual way references to the charity and how to donate are woven into the fabric of almost every program on TV and radio which is the problem, though it all does get a bit too much. What actually fuels my annual uncertainties about the appeal is not what it does but the way it does it.

The BBC is not a charity and yet when it comes to Children in Need it clearly is. Strictly speaking, Children in Need is not a charity in itself but an umbrella fund-raising organisation which then distributes funding to hundreds of actual charities and causes of its choice.

It is registered as a charity and there is a board of trustees who I am confident take their legal duties to ensure the proper running of the charity, its fund-raising, administration and awarding and monitoring of grants very seriously and properly indeed.

Yet the BBC is a publicly funded body which receives the vast majority of its operating costs from the compulsory television licence, of which there were 25,826,118 in force in 2016-17, and which gives the corporation somewhere around £3.8 billion of our money to spend on itself — and it is that which causes my unease.

If licence money is used in the production of all the Children in Need programs and events and concerts and between-program publicity for their fund-raising, doesn’t that make this a uniquely funded charity?

The BBC does not lie about the extent of its financial commitment to Children in Need but it does have a record of being economical with the truth on these issues.

The BBC is at pains on the Children in Need website to point out that none of the presenters receive a fee for presenting the annual Friday night appeal show, but it does not mention what must be the considerable costs associated with all the other parts of all the shows, technicians, sets, camera operators and other staff which are needed to produce all these programs and events.

The BBC used to claim until recently that every penny donated went entirely to good causes, but following considerable criticism for implying it did not spend anything on organisation and administration, it has subtly changed the phrase to now say that every penny donated goes to Children in Need.

If these annual appeals are publicised by the BBC using its unique position as a broadcaster funded by the licence fee, it raises the point that almost every citizen is contributing to a charity not through choice but through a form of taxation, and that really can’t be right if only because it places all other charities who cannot place a national broadcaster at its unrestricted disposal at a massive disadvantage.

We should know how much is spent on this “free” publicity by the BBC. And does the cost even outstrip the amount raised?

However, sometimes the ends justify the means, even if those means are not as transparent as the BBC likes to claim they are. The vast majority of causes which Children in Need supports are so crucial to the life chances of so many young people that I can forget my misgivings. However, I still wish the BBC would be a bit more open sometimes about how many millions it actually spends to collect those millions.

WHETHER you are a historian or are just a Cumbrian interested in our heritage, the archaeology which takes place in our county to reveal the richness of our past is just so exciting.

The latest finds at Longhouse Close, on the fells above Seathwaite — where the 70 volunteer diggers under the supervision of professional archaeologists excavating Norse longhouses found not just the Viking remains they were seeking but a Bronze Age settlement underneath — are amazing.

Such discoveries answer those questions for all Cumbrians whose roots are firmly planted in this sacred soil about who we are and where we come from.

Eden is full of evidence of our past and ancestry. Before the new sports fields and football ground were built at Frenchfield just outside Penrith I spent some time with the archaeologists excavating and assessing the Roman remains under those fields, and what they found and then had to cover up was incredible.

The Roman road which ran down from Carleton and is now built over with housing all over the place to the river crossing and on to the fort at Brougham was intact, but so, too, were the remains of the substantial Roman town with its inns and shops which abutted that highway. The wells and room layouts were clear and it was easy to visualise the life and business which went on there and it seemed a shame that such history had to be reburied.

My attempts to persuade the council that it might be very beneficial to the area to have volunteers paying to excavate the site (they do, you know) and the Iron Age settlement just above the stadium under professional supervision piece by piece every summer fell on deaf ears.

Shame, but perhaps someone may still recognise the untapped archaeological potential of Eden and exploit it to the advantage of everyone.

DURING tatie-picking week (October half-term) we visited a couple of National Trust properties down country and saw some interesting houses, some really nice grounds and gardens and lots of dogs.

In common with just about everything and everywhere in this country, the National Trust has become “dog friendly”, which means that with the exception of the actual historic houses dogs get to go most of the places people do.

To be fair the trust usually asks that owners keep their dogs on short leads, but as usual some owners feel that the interpretation of that request is entirely up to their discretion and belief that their pet would never chase the deer or jump up at other people’s kids. The result was that most dogs were on those telescopic leads extended to about 30ft, while for some owners short lead meant no lead at all.

The National Trust didn’t seem to mind or maybe it has already discovered that trying to reason with some dog owners is about as profitable as trying to reason with a tree.

In fact, dogs are taking over the world to such an extent that at one property owners had loyalty cards which got a little paw print on it (ahhh) with every visit and after six little prints the owner gets a free drink in the cafe.

Very nice. Dogs get into the grounds of National Trust properties for free no matter how many dogs you take, while if you take children into the same grounds (with or without a lead) you have to pay £3.65 per child for the privilege.

There are no cost implications for letting kids in, but for dogs there have to be signs and dog poo bins to buy and install and empty. Owners do not contribute to that cost, but children do.

It is clear whom the National Trust wishes to encourage to visit its properties. I hope it can train dogs to appreciate Palladian architecture.