Sunday, December 23, 2007

TMP's 2008 New Year's Message to the Nation

Most of us live in a country where the rising price of beer and heating a house is more immediately pressing than the impact of distant financial cock-ups in US trailer parks, but Waynetta and Billy-Bob's mortgage arrears are clearly now our problem as much as theirs. 2007 will be remembered for the phrase "sub-prime" as much as anything ; while the sinking state of the UK employment and bankruptcy barely causes a flicker on the global trade seismometer.

Yes indeedy, the tectonic plate shifting antics of greedy US financiers and their dumber disciples means that your livelihood is being squeezed, and those who live outside the considerable cocoon of our massively inflated public employment sectors will find it harder to turn a pound in 2008.

Having now been oversold all the "benefits" of globalisation by banks and other "big" companies assuring us that it's good for us to plough through a 5 minutes phone interrogation in order to talk to someone with a barely discernible accent, we know that it actually means that a mortgage scandal in the trailer parks of the US that can lead to a run on a UK bank, adjustments of interest rates around the globe, and the probability of a worldwide recession.

In a country the size of the US, many bankers will be stupid and ovine, but they ain't all going to be stupid, and some of them have made a lot of money from selling junk to the gullible. Moreover, amongst the various gullible "chicken roosts" are numbered Chinese financial institutions on whose goodwill the US and the rest of us are completely dependent. Should they ever decide they have had enough of providing a home for the junk dollars funding their trade surpluses and our deficits, you should immediately electrify the garden fence and plant potatoes in the hanging baskets. "Ugly" is not the word for what will be happening.

Globalisation means that although the exposure of the UK finance industry was relatively small to the sub-prime problem, the consequential matter of confidence and the credit squeeze in a country like ours that is addicted to funding through credit and government deficit rather more than than any other in the EU, is almost certain to lead to a recession. The supercilious and supine nature of our financial institutions, exemplified by the Bank of England's fumbling of the Northern Rock crisis, virtually assures it.

In times of recession, people and businesses are required to focus on what they really, really need. Do they need high streets packed with £3 a cup coffee shops, £5 a sandwich shops and phone shops that sell the most overpriced services on the planet? What on earth is the point of a bank or building society having a costly physical presence any longer? And the rest of shops are struggling to ship piles of Chinese-made products, before they are all inevitably overwhelmed by online traders as their ever physical increasing overheads have to pay for an army of mostly pointless local and national government work creation schemes, that devise impositions that few other countries' business communities have to face.

If you work for a large "globalised" business that still has a presence in the UK rather than one of the EU tax havens like Ireland, then bear in mind that the previous experience of recessions is that multinationals protect their home markets first. All business travel slumps, and global operations dump their foreign marketing adventures which they feel they can manage from afar. And never before has it been so simple and attractive to manage anything from afar.

Remember that the US business ethos that forms the core of many globalised businesses has a scant heritage of respect for their "foreign workers" that began with the cotton industry. Most other countries that now house global companies such as Korea, Russia, Japan and China are also a bit short on historical evidence of generosity towards stupid Europeans who are down on their luck. And TMP cannot imagine India feeling warmth towards the mother country that will soften any hard financial choices that they may face.

Long before sub-prime mortgages, a US establishment, jealous of all that pink on the map, had asset-stripped much of the UK and required us to pawn the family jewels. It began in earnest when the US required the dissolution of the British Empire as the price of "saving our sorry limey asses" in WW2, yet, ironically, if we hadn't been obliged to concede the outrageous US terms and impositions in order to eventually drag them into the war in Europe, Germany would have had the A bomb first - and the means to deliver it. The US would now be speaking German along with the rest of us; and David Irving would probably be in charge of rounding up the remaining Jewish bankers and sympathisers on the streets of New York.

Without an empire or a role, the UK drifted and declined largely rudderless through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, living on heady combinations of nostalgia, debt and hope; but we did have some world class innovators left in our industrial base, as well as media and entertainment. Plus above all else, we had the English language, without which we would have been completely stuffed in the swinging 60s. TMP doubts if "Elle vous aime" would have caught on quite as effectively as "She Loves You", and "Je ne peux obtenir aucune satisfaction" would have certainly bombed for "Les pierres de roulement".

So let's not forget the proprietor of that precious language, HM the Queen - whose timely appearance on YouTube is a seismic event in media for those paying proper attention. God bless you Ma'am; but don't you wish the BBC has shown the wit to use its early dominance of the web to achieve what Google has since managed?

Sadly, the BBC's bloated and subsidised presence on the web did the same to the fledgling British online industry that it's earlier decision to support Acorn computers did for the UK's personal computing industry - it broke it. Don't forget that a Brit - Sir Tim Berners Lee - is grudgingly accepted even by (most) Americans as as the father of the web, and BT actually had an interesting patent concerning hyperlinking that any American company would probably have sued to success long before now. Instead, BT rather clumsily chose to include Prodigy and AOL in the test case in 2002, and New York District Judge Colleen McMahon duly delivered the traditional result when a foreigner sues a US company in a US court. Doh...

If an American could have laid claim to the English language, you can be certain that they would have managed to copyright it in some way that meant anyone speaking or writing it anywhere in the world would be paying a fat royalty in perpetuity, but we Brits simply aren't that cute. Instead, they canny yanks waited for the right moment and then tried it on with the next best thing - the lingua franca of computing. So now we have the MS Windows Tax; for the time being at least ...

The post-war period of UK decline witnessed many world class British economic disasters as the result of political expedience, interference and social engineering in the shape of the mismanaged and misguided nationalised industries, and especially the pantomime of British Leyland which has only just about run its course, symbolically ending up in Chinese and Indian hands.

For a period in the 80s and early 90s we were actually in danger of leading the world in personal IT until the BBC dubiously continued to back the arrogant and presumptuous Acorn in the face of a resurgent and inevitable IBM - and our own Amstrad/Sinclair. An action that condemned more than a generation of UK school kids to largely irrelevant computer teaching that allowed the rest of the world, particularly the US, to catch up and overtake. But Acorn's genes were not entirely wasted - the success story of ARM (Acorn Risc Machine) processors is another Great British case of what might have been, if only more City support had been forthcoming at the right time. But as the result of incentives that favour risk-free asset stripping and property speculation, the UK City simply doesn't do technology innovation.

Latterly, massive advances in database and communications technology (exemplified by the emergence of Google) have meant that a lot has happened in the past 5 years that has completely altered the character of way the world works - and especially the way it advertises and markets itself. The world has changed fundamentally as the result of "because we can computing", which in the UK's emerging police state especially, has led to pervasive surveillance and whole host of consequences around the toxic notions of extended disclosure, risk assessment and due diligence.

So while the fatheads who now hold sway with our innovative industries have used this technology to lead the world in speed cameras and dustbin surveillance, Google has been laying the foundation of massive businesses around the exploitation of BT (no, not that lazy monopoly with the phones and slow broadband, I refer to the practise of "Behavioural Targeting") with "adwords".

The summary of all this is that the UK at the end of 2007 is presently royally screwed without an obvious escape plan under the present lacklustre leadership. However, TMP suspects that there really is something worthy about the bloody minded Britishness and inspirational creativity that still manages to come up with ideas like "Strictly Come Dancing". For what it's worth, there is yet another huge opportunity just around the corner for the UK media (and in that we must include events) industry - but hardly anyone seems to have noticed. It's all to do with satellite TV.

The BBC once lead world TV technology, and was still leading most aspects of broadcast innovation when its worthy fluffy-luvvies decided to disband its Research and Designs departments; then by pure accident we lead the world of direct satellite TV for a brief moment with the clueless BSB.

And now thanks to BT's skill at bamboozling politicians, our lack of investment in vital fibre infrastructure means that the UK has been a showcase for the immensely successful Sky platform. This nicely illustrates the efficiency of a monopoly lead by a dictator, versus a quango comprised of space-filling time servers, and a collection of media dinosaurs whose mentality had not changed from the days when ITV was once described in the 50s as a "license to print money".

The latest opportunity we as a nation may be about to fumble is called FreeSat. It's being billed as Freeview via satellite - but it is actually so much more than that. Freeview terrestrial TV is severely limited by cost and technical reality. There will never be more than 100 channels available - if that - and marginal coverage issues remain largely unresolved. In contrast, FreeSat delivery is 100% predictable and has the potential for 5000+ channels, each at about 4% of the cost of Freeview channel. Whilst we all hear about broadband delivery being the future of video, the available capacity is at least 5 years away from being able to providing an alternative to live HD satellite broadcast.

The bad news - possibly catastrophic - is that Freesat is a consortium lead by an unholy alliance against Sky's domination by the BBC and ITV, who have been buoyed by Freeview's accidental success. Furthermore, Freesat's coverage could easily spill over to Europe and beyond.

"Good grief, where on earth do you find content to fill 5000 channels?" they all ask.

Sky has proved that the major differential element that people are willing to for pay for is live event broadcasting. The Brits and Europeans have a different perspective on "live" to the USA: we live in 2 time zones that for practical purposes can be treated as one. The Americans cannot, and thus combined with the confusion of cable, they will be late into the game.

And YouTube shows once again that the media game is all about content - punters are happy to watch any old UGC (user generated crap) when there is nothing better to look at. But when something better turns up and word gets around, everyone flocks to see.

Maybe now is the moment to sort out the UK video content industry and get it adequately funded to take on the otherwise unstoppable Google; if all that BBC, C4 and ITV content was organised and made available through "UKTube" (and we took a leaf from the American book and sued everyone that attempted to upload any content to one of the US dominated sites) then we might just about have the beginnings of sustainable media plot.

You and I already own most of that prime content through our licence fees; it's in the bank, and until the past 5 or so years, it was generally way, way better than anything the US could cobble together. Let's also take full advantage of the fact that despite Blair's best crusading efforts, the US remains considerably more reviled than the UK, and is scarcely credible as a cultural powerhouse. Best of all, what damage has been done to the UK is probably more easily fixed by a world tour of some of our Royals than a flypast by George Bush. Especially all those formerly pink bits with their sons and daughters at our universities.

So then, 2008 could be a really interesting year. Let's demand that it is used to leverage our position in the one remaining industry where the UK stands a chance of influencing: English language learning and entertainment. Much of the world was once turned pink at the end of a gun boat barrel; but now it is time to lay down a barrage of super-prime content from a combination of satellite and online, and steer attention back to the UK as the source of all worthwhile visual media - while YouTube mostly offers a volley of Americans lighting their own farts, and dogs on skateboards.

Happy 2008!

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