Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 21st November 2016

NEW justice minister Elizabeth Truss was undistinguished in her previous post as Secretary of State for the Environment, although it was her bad fortune to be in office at the time of the 2015 floods. It’s to be hoped she has better luck in her new job.

Her first announcement was a plan to recruit and train 2,500 more prison staff. Of all the jobs in the world, being a prison officer is the one I would least like to do. It sounds a depressing, dangerous job. The men and women of the prison service have my sympathy and praise. If it was down to me, I would pay them a darned sight more than the bankers and top executives with their fat salaries.

By her announcement, the minister makes it clear that cuts presided over by her predecessors were wrong. But if, as is suggested, the new measures will cost £100 million a year, Ms Truss’s prospects of getting the bill past the Treasury Scrooges aren’t promising.

We’ve heard a lot of bad things about prisons lately. Rioting, violence, Victorian conditions, jails run by inmates, addiction, lack of space and little being done to prevent hardened offenders returning to prison time after time.

Figures show that 90 per cent. of crime is committed by hard core offenders, costing the country billions of pounds. Our prison system is in a mess and, for most of us, it’s a case of out of sight and out of mind until they escape or are returned back into society to commit yet more offences.

Real prison life may not exactly be like Porridge, but there are thousands of Fletchers in prison cells right now who will be let out early to return to their lives of crime for, as the new justice minister may be about to discover, the bean counters do tend to prefer the cheap option.


TOO old, too soft, too square. Some of the things they said about the late Sir Jimmy Young’s interviewing style.

Well, today’s generation of interviewers could well take a leaf out of the book of a man who, with his discreetly inquisitorial method and respect for the people he was interviewing, teased out more interesting and important information than they will ever achieve with their aggressive questioning.

Two things drive me mad about the present bunch of radio and TV presenters. For one thing they never let someone finish a reply before firing off the next question. It’s all about the interviewer and not the person being interviewed. It’s palpably obvious they aren’t remotely interested in the response as they continually interrupt.

And there’s that other thing. Why, particularly on radio programs like Today, do they always get to the most fascinating item last then cut short the speaker to get to the news, which is invariably depressing? Just as the guest gets to the good bit you hear that infernal music building up in the background which tells you the interview is seconds away from being terminated for a plug for some future program or for a time check.

Not that they even get the time right. John Humphrys is notorious for his clock reading mistakes, while the other morning Nick Robinson must have had sleepy-eyed listeners leaping from their beds in horror after telling them it was a quarter to nine, when in fact he should have said seven.

Jimmy Young’s lunchtime program was an institution in millions of households. It certainly was in ours. The Queen, it was said, tuned in faithfully every day. Prime Ministers queued up to appear. Sir Jimmy had interviewed every one since Harold Macmillan, with Baroness Thatcher a guest no fewer than 14 times.

Mrs. T’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, once said of Young: “He was courteous and not obviously out to trap. He was rather a deceptively assiduous person seeking the facts of the case. A pro with a polite touch.”

Jimmy Young lulled his guests into revealing just a little more than they might have intended. Young’s other secret was regarding his listeners as his friends and using his position to pose probing questions on their behalf. Behind the catch phrases — “Orft we jolly well go sur le Continent avec Jim” and “What’s the recipe today?” there lay a serious political interviewer and consumer champion.

He was very much in the Wogan style, but with a cutting edge concealed behind the smooth and gentle exterior. And this a man who was once dismissed as having no future in broadcasting. Soon he was being heard by millions.

I imagine certain among his successors rather look down on Jimmy Young, the one-time singer with two number one hits, who found a new career as a popular presenter. They would do well to consider why JY so regularly pulled in the big beasts on his show, and how he understood so well what listeners wanted to hear what his guests had to say.

The fact that Young allowed them time to talk was never a detraction from his principal intention which was to get them to open up, to talk frankly and just occasionally give away the truths that other more confrontational interviewers could not reach.


SHOULD we give the vote to young people at 16? Labour MP Vernon Coker, guesting on John Pienaar’s politics program on Radio Five Live recently, was asked if there was one thing he most wanted to see accomplished before the end of his career.

He had no doubt at all. Give the vote to 16s, he said. They are the future, and contrary to what cynics might say, they think a whole lot more about politics than many older voters.

I filed away Mr. Coker’s comments in that in-tray in the brain that we columnists tend to have. It’s a dark corner where we store items with potential for future articles. Sometimes our ideas are lost and forgotten. Occasionally, we see something that brings them to the fore again.

It was a few paragraphs in the paper under the headline “Younger audience in tune with Radio 4” that did it. An item in which Gwyneth Williams, the controller of Radio 4, said the station had recorded a 13 per cent. rise this year in listeners under 34. A record number of young people, aged 15 to 34, tuned into Radio 4 in the past quarter, according to industry figures.

Ms Williams said we should be proud of this “intelligent, thoughtful and curious generation of young listeners” who were helping to dismiss the myth that young people were not interested in the clever content.

It makes you wonder what the impact of 16 pluses having the vote would have made on the last general election and the EU referendum.

Surely young people have a big stake in the future. An uncertain and probably quite dangerous future. I only hope they make less of a mess of things than my generation has done.

There are those who would say that youngsters at that age are not mature enough to vote, and I know that my political views at 16 were different from many I hold now, although I must admit as I get older my opinions are sliding back in the direction of those more passionately held teenage thoughts.

If young people are becoming more interested in politics and the world in general then giving them a vote seems perfectly right to me. Perhaps it’s the politicians who, with a few enlightened examples, are running scared of what they might find out when younger people can vote.


IF readers sense my mood being a bit downbeat this week, they are good judges, for those who know me well are acutely aware that I’ve been a Leonard Cohen fan for more than half a century and his death last week was almost a personal bereavement.

I had the privilege of seeing him live on his last big tour. A humble yet charismatic personality. Sexy, too, said the ladies. Back in the 60, when Cohen was still a well-kept secret, my mate reckoned if you quoted his words you’d get the girls. Was it true? That’s for me to know and you to wonder.

Of the greats of my generation, he was the greatest of them all. Thanks for the trouble you took, Leonard.