The Horizon Post Office scandal and Lionel Rishi | Crooked Media
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January 11, 2024
Pod Save the UK
The Horizon Post Office scandal and Lionel Rishi

In This Episode

Why did it take a TV drama to wake politicians up to what’s been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history? More than 700 sub-postmasters were convicted of theft, due to accounting discrepancies caused by the Post Office’s faulty computer system. ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office caused public outrage and has forced the Government into taking unprecedented action. James Harding, former BBC director of News and Current Affairs, joins Nish and Coco to discuss what lessons journalism can learn from the saga.

 

With the UK, like much of Western Europe, recording historically low birthrates, Nish and Coco wonder why it only seems to be politicians on the right who ever engage with it as an issue. Is it a simple matter of economics, or maybe it’s just 14 years of Conservative Government that’s killed the mood!

 

Plus Keir Starmer’s glitter-bomber makes a surprise appearance, we find out Coco’s unusual choice of pool nickname, and why the PM is ‘dancing on the ceiling’.

 

Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listening production for Crooked Media.

 

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Guest:

James Harding, co-founder and editor at Tortoise Media

 

Audio credits:

parliamentlive.tv

ITV Studios / Little Gem

ITV/Good Morning Britain

Sky News

 

Useful links:

https://www.nishkumar.co.uk/

https://www.tortoisemedia.com/

https://www.itv.com/watch/mr-bates-vs-the-post-office/10a0469/10a0469a0001

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Coco Khan Hi, this is Pod Save the UK.

 

Nish Kumar I’m Nish Kumar.

 

Coco Khan And I’m Coco Khan.

 

Nish Kumar This week we’ll ask why it’s taken so long for politicians to wake up to the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK legal history.

 

Coco Khan Did justice get lost in the post?

 

Nish Kumar We’ll be discussing how and why the ITV drama Mr. Bates versus the Post Office has shaped this week’s news agenda with our special guest, the former BBC director of news and editor of The Times, James Harding. Hi, Coco. Happy new year.

 

Coco Khan Happy new year, Nish.

 

Nish Kumar We’re back.

 

Coco Khan We are back. 2024. Baby! Year of the Dragon can I just say.

 

Nish Kumar Is it the year of the Dragon?

 

Coco Khan Yes. Hello. It’s my year. Dragon, baby.

 

Nish Kumar Well, how was your Christmas and New Year period?

 

Coco Khan Well, it was busy. I’m a pool player now.

 

Nish Kumar Yes. So we have discussed this. You are now becoming a pool player like Paul Newman in The Hustler.

 

Coco Khan Yeah. Exactly that. I’m so excited.

 

Nish Kumar Talk me through all of this. So you’ve decided 2024 is the year that you’re going to take up pool?

 

Coco Khan Yeah. So there’s a trope in film and TV of the woman who walks into a bar and it’s full of men and she, you know, plays a bit of pool and everyone’s like, what is this lady with her elegant long fingers and large breasts doing in here? She can’t possibly play.

 

Nish Kumar That is how men talk. That’s bang on.

 

Coco Khan Well, what they do, we.

 

Nish Kumar Focus mainly on the long fingers and the large breasts.

 

Coco Khan But what they don’t realize, right, is that a long finger that’s basically like an aiming device. Yeah, it gives you precision and the breasts give you elevation. Women are born to play pool. And so I have got this thing where I want to have that experience, where I go into a bar and people don’t respect or suspect and I annihilate, hustle them.

 

Nish Kumar That’s the classic move.

 

Coco Khan Not for money, because that seems mean, but just for pride. So that’s what I’ve been doing. So I’ve been learning to play.

 

Nish Kumar What’s your pool slang name going to be?

 

Coco Khan Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because I have actually put together a list.

 

Nish Kumar Oh, here we go.

 

Coco Khan Okay. Like Harry Potter, because I pot. Yeah?

 

Nish Kumar Yeah. Not bad I feel like it might have been taken.

 

Coco Khan Okay. And he’s not the one. It’s a bit more esoteric. Yeah. The cloud.

 

Nish Kumar The cloud. Uh, you could have given me a year. And of me continuously try to guess your pool name and I would not have gotten to the cloud.

 

Coco Khan Because you were the one who told me about the hurricane. You told me about that.

 

Nish Kumar This is a reference to, uh, in the 1970s, there was a very famous, uh, snooker player. Because, again, for non-British people listening, snooker was unfathomably massive televised sport. Uh, in the United Kingdom, it’s sort of like pool for nerds. Uh, it’s the best way I can describe the sport of snooker. And Alex Hurricane Higgins was one of the most celebrated players in the 70s.

 

Coco Khan Right. So you told me about that. And I kept thinking weather systems. That’s that’s a good place to start. And I thought a lot about myself because I know about myself. Yeah. Sometimes, you know, I’m good and sometimes I’m bad. Like, I know that I’m like British weather in that way. You know, you don’t know what you’re going to get. I’m going to chop and change. But sometimes I will make it rain. So I was thinking I could be the cloud. There we go. What do you think?

 

Nish Kumar The cloud. I love it. I absolutely love it because it’s genuinely unexpected. As is you taking up the sport of pool in 2024. This also, just to be clear for the listeners, this isn’t something that Coco’s expressed a vague interested before. It was literally we went on Christmas holidays. We came back. I said, how’s your holiday? She said, I’m getting into pools. I like yes, we’ve known each other for long enough that I thought, okay, that’s it. I’m not even vaguely.

 

Coco Khan Surprising when you, like, look at something on the TV in your life. I’m going to do that.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah, I did that. But with stand up comedy, I look where that’s got me quite well, right?

 

Coco Khan It’s working out well, so you never know. Maybe I’m going to start a revolution. So anyway, that’s been my time. What about your time?

 

Nish Kumar I mean, I did very, very little over the holidays. I, you know, I made one of my, um, you know, Instagram promotional adverts. I released my stand up show, available globally. Uh, if you want to go to marco.uk. I don’t think I broke the internet.

 

Coco Khan That’s what happened.

 

Nish Kumar There was just a point where you couldn’t download it over the over the Christmas period. Now we have an acetate, whether that was just to due to a basic technical error or an overwhelming surge in demand. I’ve got to pretend it was an overwhelming surge in demand.

 

Coco Khan I’m going to stick with that line.

 

Nish Kumar I do actually have a gift for you. Uh, I think if that was, uh, organized before Christmas. But it’s now just arrived. Okay. And it’s it’s from the the entire suck team. Uh, Coco shake. It’s an envelope. Uh, for those people listening. I’m going to.

 

Coco Khan Do that thing where I feel it. What is it? What is it?

 

Nish Kumar It’s quite a thin envelope. What’s it going to be?

 

Coco Khan Yes. Thank you for that. This is going to haunt me in my dreams. I’m already quite susceptible to nightmares. For the listeners, it’s a 2024, uh, calendar. The Lionel Richie calendar.

 

Nish Kumar Um. And every month, a different Photoshop picture of Rishi Sunak over Lionel Richie’s face. Lionel Richie.

 

Coco Khan Our guest this week is James Harding, the editor and co-founder of Tortoise Media. He was also the former editor of The Times, and then the director of news and current affairs at BBC. Welcome to the podcast, James.

 

James Harding Thank you very much. Coco the Cloud.

 

Coco Khan Oh, not this time.

 

Nish Kumar It’s good. Right?

 

James Harding And when the cloud hits the pool table, what happens?

 

Nish Kumar Oh, you’ve got to be there to find out. When the cloud hits the pool table. Chaos reigns.

 

Coco Khan You don’t know what you’re going to get. You might get blown away. Yes, it might be drizzle missile.

 

Nish Kumar Um, well, look, journalism is always crucial. Uh, obviously more so in an election year, possibly a double election year with the US, UK. Um, and politicians are going to be in this country sort of competing for favorable coverage. So there’s lots to talk to you about, chaps. You got such a long and varied history in journalism, in the media. But what we want to do first is just talk about the big story of the week, which is the Horizon post Office scandal. Now, just to summarize, um, more than 700 subpostmasters. These are people who are self-employed and run branches of the Post Office under contract to the Central Post Office itself. Over 700 of them were given criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015, after faulty accounting software called horizon, made by the Japanese company Fujitsu, made it appear as though money was missing from their shops and this had real and terrible consequences. 236 people went to prison. Many others were financially ruined and had their reputations destroyed. And there were even at least four suicides linked to this scandal. To date, 93 of these convictions have been overturned and only 30 people have agreed full and final settlement. So there’s a public inquiry, which began in February 2021 and is restarting this week up to the Christmas break and is due to conclude at the end of the year.

 

Coco Khan And the reason we’re all talking about it now is because of the ITV drama Mr. Bates versus the Post Office. It stars Toby Jones and it aired over four episodes during the Christmas period.

 

Clip The computer system post office spent an arm and a leg on his faulty. No one else has ever reported any problems with horizon.

 

Coco Khan No one. You’re responsible for the loss. I haven’t got that money and I don’t know where it’s gone. In the face of a huge swell of public anger, politicians have been bounced into finally taking decisive action. Just before we started this recording, Rishi Sunak announced the Prime Minister’s Questions that the government will bring in a new law to swiftly exonerate and compensate victims.

 

Clip Mr. speaker, this is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed for absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation. So when William’s inquiry is undertaken, crucial worked on to to expose what went wrong. And we’ve paid almost 150 million pounds in compensation to over 2500 victims. But today I can announce that we will introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated.

 

Coco Khan Sir Keir Starmer welcomed the move, adding that it is the job of all of us to deliver justice. So it’s been an interesting case, I suppose, because the thing that I’ve been seeing a lot is why wasn’t there more of a fuss about it before now? I guess I wanted to kick off talking to you, James. You must have covered this in your many kind of media roles. Why don’t you think it cut through?

 

James Harding I think there are two really extraordinary stories or big mysteries here. One is, how did this happen? Right? Even when you watched the show, you find yourself asking what was the story the post office were telling themselves when one person after another of the tens of the hundreds came forward, and that you can have a miscarriage of justice at this scale and within an institution, people weren’t stopping and saying, perhaps they’re right and we’re wrong. I still don’t quite understand that. And there’s a second mystery, which is why is it that people started reporting this in 2015? They did a panorama on the post office. It didn’t cut through. You know, Rishi Sunak just mentioned the fact that when Williams is running a public inquiry, that’s not cutting through. And you can be glib about it, you can say, well, it’s Toby Jones, right?

 

Nish Kumar He’s a very good actor.

 

Coco Khan He is great.

 

James Harding He’s brilliant. And when he somehow captures that thing that we all feel in different ways, which is this powerlessness, this sense of being up against it, it speaks to people, and then it just changes. It goes from being a news story to a human story and it all changes. But to be honest with you, it’s. Hard. That second mystery to understand. Why only now, only after an ITV program. You’ve got the Prime Minister at the despatch box, right? But hundreds of people get their lives torn apart, and there hasn’t been this kind of apology. And so I think there’s two ways of thinking about it. Either you can be a journalist who grinds their teeth and think, why are they listening to, you know, what I’m putting out on, you know, on air or publishing or you say, actually, there’s something incredible about the power of storytelling, and when it works, it really works. Um, you know, I think there’s a lot to take in that in terms of patience, because the thing that you find when you listen to the, um, subpostmasters is just how long it’s been, you know, people talking about 2015, but a lot of this start happened, you know, actually 20 years ago.

 

Nish Kumar Do you think that that’s why there’s been some political inertia around this issue? Because this is something that everybody’s responsible for, because it, you know, cuts right through labor government, conservative coalition. So you’ve got the Labor Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats who all are not necessarily implicated in this, but certainly bear some responsibility for the oversight. Do you think that that’s there’s a sense that that why that might have been some political inertia?

 

James Harding So I think I think it’s I think it’s so interesting and so chewy because everyone has got a good argument for blaming someone else.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah.

 

James Harding You know, so the so the politicians say, well, listen, this wasn’t really me.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah. Right.

 

James Harding You know, you need to speak to the people in Whitehall, speak to the permanent secretaries. They were the civil servants who came in when I said, is there something wrong here? They said, no, we checked it. It’s fine. And they say, well, the pub secs would say no. Yeah, go speak to the post office. The post office say, oh, no code speak to Fujitsu. You know, there’s always a knock on and even within Fujitsu you hear people saying, well I’m not exactly clear. It wasn’t clear to us, I think that there is a oh, and by the way, we haven’t even talked about the kind of journalistic culpability. Did journalism do enough? Did that did that? Was the story well enough told? Did people say, oh, look, it’s too complicated, or if you like, the whole story is too distributed. I think there’s a really interesting lesson for politics in journalism, which is that both politicians and newsrooms will go after heroic failures. Right? An individual who’s done something terrible. Yeah, because it’s a story everyone can understand and miss. Systemic failures.

 

Coco Khan Hmmm.

 

James Harding And systemic failures affect many more people. So, you know, when I was at the times we had this, we for a long time tried to get the bottom of child sex grooming in Rotherham and Rochdale and a whole bunch of other towns. And for a long while, no one touched the story. No one else would touch the story. A systemic failure is harder to get at than a single culprit, someone who’s done something wrong, I’m fond of. We’ve talked a bit within, taught us about what you take from this, and you’ve seen newsrooms to scramble this week to kind of add a new line to the post office story. But actually, I think the real thing is to stop and think a call. What are the other systemic failures? What’s happening in housing? Yeah. What’s happening in other parts of everyday life? Scandals in plain sight. Maybe that’s the thing you should take from this.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah. I saw Peter Apps, who we had on the show a couple of weeks ago, who’s written a brilliant book about Grenfell Tower, saying, I hope that this essentially he was saying like, this needs to inspire more kind of public interest in these kind of big systemic failures. And he was talking specifically about housing and the issues around Grenfell, which, if you haven’t heard, that episode is really worth going back and listening to because he really spells out the systemic failures around that. Do you think this this could have a kind of positive impact in terms of the stories that people are looking to tell about these more complicated, systemic failures that don’t have a single body at the heart of them?

 

James Harding So the the genius of Mr. Bates first, the post office is they did something even better than find the body. They found a hero. Yeah, right. And there’s something for us to learn in that, which is if you can show the capacity to actually meet the system and change it. Yeah. That really captured the imagination in a different way. I don’t know, you know. I was thinking, as you’re talking about the PPE scandal versus the bounceback loan scandal, right? So. Michelle Mone. Is one of those cases where you go out on the street, you leave the studio. Within 20 yards, you’ll find someone who will just erupt around that story.

 

Nish Kumar Absolutely.

 

James Harding You might walk through town for a fair few miles before you get to someone who’s going to talk about food within the bounced back loaves, even though just summarize.

 

Nish Kumar Those two stories for us, just for people to in case those people aren’t familiar with them.

 

James Harding Michelle Mone, uh, Tory peer. Yeah. Early in Covid, there’s a scramble worldwide to try and get protective, uh, equipment and her partner’s business bid for this picked up, uh, contract well over a couple of hundred million pounds. And they all deny that they stood to make money and then went out and gave an interview to Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC, where she’s sort of acknowledged that she’d not been straight about this and that she had stood indirectly to gain yet from this 60 million pounds. So it’s one of those perfect cases where it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Access enables you to, uh, stand to gain a fortune. The bounce back. Yes. Was Rishi Sunak’s baby right. So when he was chancellor, um, it seemed as though the economy was just flat on its back. Covid had essentially locked us all down. They try to work out how they were going to keep the economy going, and they started pumping huge amounts of public money, billions and billions of pounds. And the level of fraud in that runs to the billions. And so when people worry about, are we going to be able to build a new hospital or what are we going to do about rebuilding school classrooms? They’re falling down. There’s huge amounts of public money that’s missing. But it’s one of those classic things, I think, which is stories that are perhaps not as significant, not as consequential for the whole country, but that we do understand versus stories that are consequential yet, but are really complicated and knotty and have lots of different actors in them, and neither a single culprit or a single hero. So I, you know, I’d love to watch your thinking nation say yes, I’d, you know, I hope that the consequence of this, this story is that people look more at systemic stories. There’s a reason we don’t that complicated. I mean, it’s the kind of classic climate change problem, isn’t it? We all know it’s important, but my God, it’s you know, you know, it’s hard to find the story.

 

Coco Khan But sometimes it’s really interesting. I definitely think like the, the press and people interested in journalism should do some sort of soul searching around it. You know, we are facing historically low trust levels in the media, and that has a huge impact on, you know, on society and how it functions. Um, and I do wonder if, you know, there’s constantly this, this thing you see on Twitter where they say all the mainstream media, media weren’t reporting this. And then it will be a link to Sky news and you’re like, oh, what? I didn’t say that was the mainstream media, but really what they mean there is that like there is something of a consensus. I think it’s fair to say amongst traditional press in certain issues. And so where you find these individual stories that kind of puncture that they don’t ever seem to get front page attention or they don’t seem to cut through. I think it’s quite easy to say we produced it. You could have read it. That’s your problem. I think actually there is something for journalists to take away and think, okay, well, clearly this is upsetting people. It’s upsetting people that the reporting has been done, but for whatever reason, it didn’t get to them and it didn’t get to them because we didn’t give them the storytelling that they needed, and we didn’t give them the human angle that they wanted. And I think, yeah, I wonder if this is this could be something that we can build upon and perhaps rebuild trust in the media through this.

 

James Harding So this an interesting thing, which I’m trying to figure out, like I can’t confessed to feeling, well, I’ve really cracked it. But definitely something’s changed, strangely, as a result of podcasting. A very weird thing. So when we set up tortoise, the thinking was we built a slow newsroom. There were not people chasing after breaking news. We’re trying to understand what was driving the news. And then we got into podcasts because there’s a way of approaching the world that’s through storytelling. And when we started doing that, we realized that you can’t do what you do on a radio station because you’re not live. The podcast sits there and the story has to, if you like, last. And so it made you think about what stories you look at. We didn’t want to join the kind of true crime race. There’s plenty of that about this.

 

Nish Kumar We’re actually running out of true crimes to my podcast that we need. We need a new wave of serial killers. There’s going to be the first podcast killer who did it for the podcast.

 

James Harding Yeah. By the way, though, that’s a real thing. There’s people who are sort of trying to kind of sell their rights in the, you know, in the story world. Yeah, in true crime, that’s a whole lot of story. But, but, but my but but what we came I found myself thinking more and more was if you’re trying to tell people a story, a story that illuminates the way the world works, you can’t. Do what I used to do in newspapers, or even do did kind of putting out bulletins for the BBC. You can’t just give people a news line, you can’t give people a headline. You have to give a real story. There is something to be learned from Mr. Bates in the post office, which is, yes, let’s look at the systemic injustices. But let’s also figure out a way that you tell a story that people can stick with it. And through the individual story, they understand systems.

 

Coco Khan Well, before we leave this subject. Um, we just wanted to say that our first UK hero of 2024 has to be the real life Alan Bates. He’s been popping up on new shows, doing interviews to remind us that this isn’t just TV entertainment, but real life. And rather than doing a victory lap, he’s continuing the fight, pushing for swift compensation for victims and for those responsible at the post office to be brought to justice themselves.

 

Clip This certainly came a point in all of that when it was, he felt a vindictiveness on there. They were out to prove a point. They had the money, they had the muscle, they had the power. And we, the little subpostmasters, couldn’t do anything. I mean, we have been looking at of recent, um, private prosecutions and I think many of the group would want to say a number of they the real guilty in all of this brought to account.

 

Coco Khan That was Alan Bates speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

 

Nish Kumar So, James, you’ve mentioned this part of an election. You were obviously going into a big year. Um, Rishi Sunak has said that he’s working on the assumption that he will hold a general election. I find that choice of phrase quite extraordinary. He’s working under the assumption that he will call a general election. He’s desperately looking for clues into decisions he is about to make. It doesn’t suggest the kind of clarity or foresight in his leadership, but he said that he’s working under the assumption that he will hold a general election in the second half of the year. The Labor Party has said that they’re still preparing for the possibility of a spring election. So traditionally, this means it’s time for party leaders to start wooing newspaper editors. So you were the editor of The Times, uh, during the 2010 election. How wooed were you when you. Would you describe it as a wooing?

 

James Harding Never enough. Uh, how much wooing is there? Um, when I took over the times, the former editor was a guy called William Rees-Mogg. And and, uh, he makes, uh, Jacob Rees-Mogg look extremely hip. William was like, not only pinstripe suit, chalk stripe suit. Very, very old fashioned. Um. Uh, man, I actually have to say, I really loved him. My politics were completely different. I mostly disagreed with things he said, but he was a really genteel, thoughtful person, so just felt like from another time, I think, you know, he. And he would say as much. You have rather lived in the 18th century. He was one of those people. He said something to me because I took him out for lunch as I started editing the times, and I said, just now, how do you do this? What do you do? And he said, you know, actually fun of an elections, an interesting thing. And he said, he said, you’ll feel like politicians are coming for you. The reality is a broadsheet paper. A paper like the times really doesn’t make much difference to the overall vote. Right. Yeah. People who buy a paper like the times know what they think. They know what they’re going to vote anyway. The tabloids, they make a difference.

 

Nish Kumar And in the 19 after the 1992 conservative victory, The Sun newspaper claimed it was the sun. What won the front page headline.

 

James Harding And and there was, you know, there were always some arguments back and forth about it. The reason I mention it is the tabloids obviously don’t matter now, but it’s hard to think the broadsheets really going to sway people’s votes. It’s much more fragmented. Yeah. So there’s not an obvious or easy place. So there’s so many places politicians need to be. It’s much more video. And I think this TikTok question is going to be one of the big questions for 2024, right in the way in which Facebook was the 2016 TikTok will be of 2024, and it’s really much harder to track, and it’s much harder to see what information is reaching which people and why. We say that with a view to the UK, but there’s whatever it is, 4 billion people going to the polls this year. Yeah, I think that’s going to be one of those years where the media spends a lot of time trying to understand how people are interpreting politics and what politicians say.

 

Nish Kumar Well, I mean, in terms of the influence that media owners or media moguls have had, you’re old boss big ropes. Old Murdoch has officially handed over the reins of News Corp, um, to Lachlan. Um, so are we saying that this is the first election that, for two reasons, might not have Rupert Murdoch’s fingerprints on it because he’s taken a, you know, theoretically, he’s taken a more back seat role. But also, do you think the influence of someone like him is dissipated by the fragmentation of the media landscape?

 

James Harding So, yes.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah.

 

James Harding More I mean, a bit fragmented, a bit dissipated, mostly overtaken.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah.

 

James Harding Mostly new platforms have overtaken the old ones. The the one that intrigues me is TV news.

 

Nish Kumar And the news intrigues a lot of people for a variety of different reasons.

 

James Harding Yeah. And intrigue is a nice word for it, right? GP news had an enormous upfront investment. Yeah I know the you know this looks pretty good on screen. But the reality is.

 

Coco Khan We’ve not had.

 

James Harding Tens of millions, 70 million pounds.

 

Nish Kumar Of trousers.

 

James Harding 70 million pounds upfront investment with the latest results losing 30 million pounds a year. People are paying for a voice in the public square with a very particular political agenda. That is a big change. Now, people listening to this who don’t necessarily love a kind of progressive politics might think, well, that’s very cute. You know, Mission Kumar out there every week, and they’ve got a very clear political agenda too. Yeah. True enough, true enough. And I’m not sure that I’m saying I’m, um, I’m against that kind of diversity of, of, uh, platforms and the competition of voices. But I do think that we’ve got to be honest, that that people are putting in very, very different sums to try and control the way in which the debate is held and to define the debate. And I do think there’s an issue here, which is people who wrap themselves in the in the idea of freedom of speech, but actually are in the freedom from fact business. And that is a that’s a problem in the media. And so the reason I’ve kind of sort of skirted away, if you like this from the whole kind of Rupert Murdoch issue is okay, fine. If you want to talk about Rupert Murdoch, there’s lots to talk about. But it feels as though that’s like 1990s, noughties, possibly even early. Yeah. Teens in 2024. It feel to me there’s a whole world of unseen influence that’s happening on social media platforms. What’s their responsibility? And there are people who are deliberately buying media voice to define a the debate and then the future leadership of political parties that matters.

 

Coco Khan I mean, that sounds, um, quite scary and horrible. But on the other side, the fact that more kind of power is being given to social media, doesn’t that mean that voices who had hitherto been on the margins get hurt? Now, obviously there’s downsides to that. That means cranks and like Nazis, but there’s also people who have like radical ideas that, you know, perhaps on this podcast we might like. That’s exciting.

 

James Harding So I completely that’s the reason why it’s a difficult one. It’s a it’s a. For one, it’s not I’m not coming in saying, oh, I wish it was like it was. That’s not at all the point. But if you think where we started this conversation, we started a conversation with the post office. Yes. The the challenge of this much more fragmented world is either there’s not the money, there’s not the economics to do the reporting that essentially holds power to account. So that’s a problem. Or you’ve got the regurgitation problem, which is social media just packages and repackaged stuff that’s already out there, or it just makes stuff up and in the making stuff up, who checks.

 

Coco Khan Mmmm.

 

James Harding And, and who and who’s holding who to account in all of that in election year? I think we’re really going to worry about this. And by the way, what are we now? We’re like into our second week of January. What’s the betting that by the end of 2024, there hasn’t been a really, really meaty argument about who won an election? Yeah. And with that, then comes some real questions about, well, what happens to democracy. These are, I think, these questions that seem as though they’re like, hey, what’s the role of TikTok? Might very well end up being a, you know, who gets to govern.

 

Coco Khan So I want to talk to you about the BBC, particularly want to talk to you about Newsnight, because, you know, we were just talking there about GB news, GB news, is it news, do they break stories, do they report or is it just one long comment section that is an entire channel and the domination of comment. Obviously Newsnight is looking like it’s going to become more debate. The death of reporting is something we’ve talked about. And just generally thinking about the BBC and what is left of the BBC news. I mean, what are they meant to do? How are they meant to survive?

 

Nish Kumar People who are particularly familiar with my career will know that I have quite a storied relationship with the BBC, but like a kicked dog, I cannot stop feeling loyalty towards it. And you were director of BBC, director of BBC news for five years. Yeah. So and, you know, I’m very happy for us to exist as a podcast, but we are a parasite, I would say. And we’re a parasite. On actual journalism and reporting we provide. Yeah, we would if we didn’t use the equivalent of ringworm, we require a host body. Um, and I always think organizations like Reuters and the Associated Press, but also the BBC are the first wave of reporting. And they have the, you know, the basis and the ballast of the Fourth Estate that is essential for a functioning democracy. I mean, how do you reflect on the position of the public broadcaster in this country from a news.

 

Coco Khan How can it save itself?

 

James Harding So I’m a believer, okay. I am a deep believer in the BBC. I think it is one of the greatest things in the country. It’s like, you know, when you the interesting thing is when you talk to people who look at the UK as a whole and say, okay, what’s amazing about this place, the whole, you know, and they’ll always say the same things. It’s always the universities, the NHS, the BBC and the Premier League. Yeah, it’ll be some version of that. You know, Coco, to your first question about what happens in a world of endless opinion and not enough shoe leather reporting. You know, there are lots of worries in the world. The BBC’s capacity to do frontline reporting is not one of them. They’re still the best broadcast news organization in the world by street. Um, I think that the question of what happens with younger audiences. Right. I think that’s a really that’s a big one, not just for the BBC, but it’s a it’s a big one. And I look at actually some of the changes to things like Newsnight and I think, well, actually changing it up is a good idea really. You go to church, you go to change things up. You’ve you can’t be so frightened of your own heritage that you don’t make changes.

 

Coco Khan Don’t you think there’s enough chat, little less conversation. You know, I mean, it’s very brave for me to say that on my podcast.

 

James Harding Very nice. Um, I think a format I see on the BBC, if they really go for it, if they really have a range of people. Right. And if they put, uh, people from one of the political spectrum against the other, if they manage to do what you do, which is actually create some character in an argument, right? Rather than have that BBC voice, they could do something really exciting. I mean, just Nish, I know you’ve been kind of, uh, actually quite modest about the whole business of BBC and satire. That’s a massive issue. Right? So I think that I’d thought when I saw the BBC and one of the reasons why we tried, and I think BBC still needs to try a lot more to get comedy around politics on the air, is that there’s no better way, actually, other than possibly your kind of post office style drama. And still, I think even better than that, there’s no better way than really guaranteeing the independence of the BBC than having political comedy that says, look, we’re willing to laugh at the people in power, right? If we can do that, that really, really strengthens the place to the BBC. It’s I mean, I’d love to hear from you how difficult it is. And I know how difficult the BBC is, just how difficult it is to do great political comedy. Mhm.

 

Coco Khan We call it the balance rules.

 

Nish Kumar Yeah. It was, it was licit. It was difficult. Nobody operates well when they have a gun pointed at their head. And I feel that increasingly as the conservative government sort of went on and on in the 20 tens, the threats to the BBC’s editorial independence, the freezing of the license fee, I felt a political hand moving its way to the throat of the BBC, and the organization started getting more and more frightened about doing anything that would upset the conservative government and that that was that. That was my personal experience of over a period of about six years, starting on radio and doing radio comedy about politics and moving into television. And it’s one of the only times in my life where something getting more successful actually created more problems for me.

 

James Harding But the interesting thing is, I mean, we talked a lot about that at the BBC. We talked about that the, you know, uh, one of the arguments, which I think is a good one is how would you move to an independent mechanism? Yeah. For setting the license fee. So you weren’t in a position where the most important editorial and cultural organization in the country, at some point, sooner or later, had to go to Downing Street for the budget?

 

Nish Kumar I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s so important.

 

James Harding That that’s one thing, but but there’s there’s another, which is, you know, I came to feel that impartiality is a really important part of what the BBC does. You know, accuracy is a really important part of what the BBC does. You know, fair treatment of people, the news, all of those things. But impartiality you’ve got to watch out for. Because if you don’t it’s a trap. Yeah. It’s a trap that politicians set to say, look, you can’t say that you need to say this. And so I think certainly editorially, it feels to me as though you’re much better off saying the, the, our focus is the truth. That’s what we’re going to go after. Right. And it may be that that, uh, doesn’t accord with your political sense of balance, but if you if you try too much to meet the politician’s definition of impartiality, you’re in trouble. And the reason why I set so much for my comedy is that the power of the joke, the power of the thing that makes people laugh, surely gets beyond any kind of impartiality rules. I still really think that if you look at what I know, this kind of infuriating for comedians. But if you look at what SNL Saturday Night Live did for NBC and for the culture of politics in the United States, I still think we’re missing that. And we haven’t really had it. Uh, you know, I’m sorry, this is like a not old, old issue, but, you know, since the or the Spitting Image kind of success. And that was the reason why, you know, what you do and what you did is really. Really matters, and I think we still have to get back to that. I think we still have to get back to more political comedy. And maybe it may not be just the BBC and maybe ITV Sky, but that’s really and it’s also, by the way, incredibly helpful for news because it means that people see the courage of the broadcaster to stand up and say to people in power, we don’t mind having a laugh at your expense.

 

Coco Khan Oh, so I feel like you should tell the listeners about your love of Lionel Richie.

 

James Harding And this is this is this is just slander. This is what this is.

 

Coco Khan I’m going to show James so I can do stuff like that,.

 

James Harding You can just say what you like.

 

Coco Khan I can just say what I like.

 

James Harding This is the freedom from faction I was trying to talk about.

 

Coco Khan Yeah, yeah.

 

James Harding So. So my former flatmate gave me a framed, uh, poster of Lionel Richie because she said that she’d caught me downstairs listening to hello.

 

Coco Khan Okay. No shame. No shame in that.

 

Nish Kumar Some some shade.

 

Coco Khan Come on

 

James Harding Even I think if you’re a Lionel Richie fan.  I think there’s I think there’s. But I mean, I would dance on the ceiling over LA. I think that would be my position. But the claim I tried to make back to her was I was listening to Gil Scott-Heron, which I thought, which made me sound like that. I’m not.

 

Nish Kumar Like a byword. Yeah. Be cool. That doesn’t sound.

 

Coco Khan The same actor.

 

James Harding Let’s put let’s put it this way. She said that I wasn’t. It was. Hello. I still have a actually at home. I still have the framed picture of Lionel Richie.

 

Coco Khan I just want you to know, I saw Lionel Richie at Glastonbury. Amazing. Wandered past. I was like, what’s going on there? That man can surf. Yeah. My God. Hey. Yeah. Anyway.

 

James Harding So when you say that, you do a sort of variety of conversation. What you do is you do really fun chat, then you bring. Oh, sorry. We’re miserable. Right. Talk about terrifying, terrible things. And then you rounded off being fun.

 

Coco Khan That’s generally the formula. Yes. Great.

 

James Harding I have a lot to learn about this podcasting thing.

 

Coco Khan Thank you so much James Harding.

 

Nish Kumar Thank you so much!

 

James Harding Thanks for having me.

 

Nish Kumar Elsewhere in the news this week, I’ve got another extremely fun question for you, Coco. Does a declining birthrate spell doom for Britain? Okay. The story here is the number of children being born in the UK has sunk to its lowest level for two decades. It’s now lower than it was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it’s almost as low as it was during the First World War. Okay. And that is a huge concern because an aging population puts pressure on the NHS and social care. You need workers to pay for that. But the working age population and the age of the population that in 20 years time will be working age is shrinking. So is this something that we should be worrying about?

 

Coco Khan It’s really interesting because I’ve been following. I’m obsessed with this. This conversation seems to be happening quite a lot on the right. And for whatever reason, the progressives, the left is a kind of shirking away from it. And I kind of get why it’s not the easiest conversation to have, because very easily you’re kind of hectoring women, aren’t you telling them that they need to have more babies and then suddenly what’s next? We’re going to tell them to fulfill their biological imperative, like, where do you end? But economically, it’s clearly not great. Yeah. There are not enough children and an aging population. And of course, you can top that up with immigration. I’m pro-immigration. That’s fine. But but even so, there is still this is something that we need to be talking about.

 

Nish Kumar This conversation you write is largely happening on the political right. There is a string of sort of, um, op ed pieces in by right leaning columnists, but they’re also, you know, politicians from the hard right, the Conservative Party, like Miriam Cates, for example, have been talking about declining birth rate. And the concern with the conversation is it very quickly gets into. Quite contentious conspiracy theory. Wingnut. Great replacement nonsense. Yeah. So why do you think so? You think progressive people need to have a conversation about declining birth rates from a progressive space?

 

Coco Khan Yeah, because, like, look, it’s not necessarily a bad thing because the relationship between declining birth rate and female education is quite strong. We sort of know that. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that when women have more opportunities, there is a declining birth rate. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing that there’s a declining birth rate. But there are certainly a lot of women and men who would like to have families. But the situation of economics and all other kind of cultural things as well, it’s making that hard. So I do think there is a space for a hopeful, optimistic, progressive argument, um, solution that we need to be discussing. But yeah, it just seems to be really dominated by the right who are basically saying you need to breed, otherwise all the ethnics will come here and then button won’t be white anymore.

 

Nish Kumar But that’s what it is, I think. I think if you want to, I think if you want to have a conversation about declining birth rates from a progressive perspective, there’s quite a lot of, let’s face it, quite prosaic economic factors at play here. Obviously, there’s also people’s concern about overpopulation in that relationship with, um, you know, climate change. But also, look, isn’t it just economics, right? The annual cost of childcare has risen by 2,000 pounds since 2010. Now that’s also a period of time where our real terms wages have not increased commensurately. The UK now has the second highest childcare costs among leading economies in the world, and that’s on top of historically high rents and rising mortgage costs. What I am saying is, is it not just the case that 13 years of conservative rule in this country.

 

Coco Khan 14 now, baby 2024.

 

Nish Kumar As we go into the 14th year, 14 years of conservative rule has left us all with soft cocks and dry vaginas. Isn’t that why there’s a declining birth rate? People don’t want a raw dog under a Tory government. That’s my contention. I’m saying it’s basic economics. What? My brother was, uh, here over the Christmas holidays. And him and his wife live in Germany. They have a young baby. There are. And I know that you can romanticize countries from the outside. The people who live in Germany will probably be able to tell us there’s lot of specific problems raising kids there. But, you know, they’ve got proper paid maternity and paternity leave. There’s help for them with childcare. And they couldn’t believe how difficult it was and the way that they illustrated how difficult the situation clearly is for people in their position in this country, is they went to Tesco and the baby formula was locked up. Wow. Which suggests that people are having to steal baby formula, which tells you how bad things have got in this country. There are basic pounds and pence reasons why having a child in 2024 is way more expensive and difficult. All I’m saying is you don’t raw dog under the Tories wrap it up under the Tories. This I am available if the Labor Party wants any election slogans at the election slogan suggests.

 

Coco Khan I do have. I do have an idea that we should do a UK dating club there.

 

Nish Kumar What do you mean?

 

Coco Khan Because I think Tinder is hell. Hinge just war. It’s awful. All these apps kind of entrench unfairness and racism and ableism, and they make everyone saying that there’s someone better around the corner and there never is. So I think we should be proactive.

 

Nish Kumar PSUK dating app.

 

Coco Khan Yeah.

 

Nish Kumar Pod Shag the UK? Pod Shag the UK is what you’re suggesting?

 

Coco Khan It’s just an idea.

 

Nish Kumar Okay. Uh, listeners, if you’re single and want to put yourself out there via the medium of this podcast, write in and we will try to match you up.

 

Coco Khan It’s going to be like Indian matchmaking, but like lefty.

 

Nish Kumar You and I have finally achieved the final form of Uncle and Aunt, which is trying to get everyone married off.

 

Coco Khan Brilliant. I’m at peace. So we already know who our hero of the week is. It’s Alan Bates, the man who took on the post office and won. So Nish it just remains for you to tell us who our villain of the week.

 

Nish Kumar In our fill of the week is amazingly, a second-time recipient of the week of Pod Save the UK. It’s former Tory MP Peter Bone. Now, as a reminder, Peter Bone was the conservative MP for Wellingborough who was suspended from the House of Commons over bullying and sexual misconduct allegations which he denied. A report published by the MPs behavior watchdog found he’d broken sexual misconduct rules by indecently exposing himself to young male staff during an overseas trip. It also upheld five allegations of bullying, including physically striking a member of staff. Following his suspension, a recall petition was signed by enough of his constituents for him to lose his seat and trigger a by election, and The Sunday Times now reported that Peter Bone threatened to run in the by election as an independent, and so split the conservative vote unless Helen Harrison, a North Northamptonshire councilor, was chosen as the candidate to replace him. That’s Helen Harrison, who, and I’m sure this is completely unrelated, happens to be Peter Bowen’s girlfriend was duly chosen to contest the seat for the Conservative Party. Um, he, Peter Bone, separate from his wife of 37 years in 2018, after his affair with Miss Harrison was made public by The Sun, and now she is standing as the candidate in his old seat, which, I mean, the ethics of that seem to be non-existent, but I don’t know why we’re surprised, but why are we surprised? Beethoven’s whole vibe is sus. We’re legally obliged to read this Peter Peter boat is denied the report in the Sunday Times, and has said that it would be entirely unsurprising if Harrison was selected as she had featured on previous shortlist. But Peter, as with everything you’ve done in your career, it don’t look good. Nothing about it looks good. Okay, you’ve had to vacate your seat because of allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying. The person being put up is your current paramour. Surely, Peter, even you could understand that that looks shitty as all hell. And it’s, you know, it’s, uh, it feels like further evidence of, uh, you know, just the Conservative Party in disarray and decline. It’s real end of empire. People are shagging horses, stuff. If you missed our review of 2023 episode, please do go back and give it a listen. We had a lot of fun making it with our friends, comedians Katherine Bogart and Andy Saltzman. Among the many highs and lows that we discussed for 2023. It was one moment where Keir Starmer was showered in glitter by a campaigner from People Demand Democracy, just as he was starting his party conference speech. And guess who got in touch with us?

 

Clip Hello? Um. I’m Yas. I’m the person who poured glitter over Mr. Starmer. Um, that was probably the most, uh, something my moment of me, but I guess I actually wanted to share a different moment. Like a, um, a more hopeful one for me, which was back in spring, um, where we had this big protest, and there were NHS workers and union union members and civil servants and church leaders and cost of living groups and, and like environmental organizations of like, completely different stripes. Greenpeace, friends of the Earth just appeal all united at Parliament to demand an end to the fossil fuel era and the beginning of a updated politics where citizens assemblies would let people decide on the issues that affect them. It was amazing. And yeah, yeah, um, maybe you didn’t hear anything about it. Probably. Um, I dunno, I guess that just says something about how someone lobbing glitter, um, I guess is more interesting to people. But, um, for me, it was where I took the most type of any moment in the last few years.

 

Coco Khan That was. Yas Ashmawy, who was the campaigner from People Demand Democracy and the infamous thrower of glitter over Keir Starmer.

 

Nish Kumar A very inspiring thing, and also pretty self-effacing from Yas, I’ll say that to, uh, not pick himself as political leader of the year, but to go for climate protest. I thought that was very, very nice.

 

Coco Khan I mean, the picture he, uh, described there was genuinely like I was moved everyone together, just wanting an end to the smoke and the death and the destruction.

 

Nish Kumar Fantastic.

 

Coco Khan Kathy Rivett has emailed in to say hello, Coco and Nish. My dad and I love the podcast. Last year I turned 18, so I realized within the next year or so, my friends and I will be voting for the first time. I live in Shrewsbury, which is a very Tory area. I wanted to ask how I should encourage people my age that aren’t as engaged in politics to vote in the next election. Recently had a conversation with an 18 year old who said he’s never going to vote, as he doesn’t want to take any interest in politics or the news. So I just have to stop to take that. And I don’t want to take any input. It’s just that it’s kind of honest. Yeah. Um, it was clear he comes from a privileged enough position to not need to care about the news, but how can people be encouraged to care enough to vote? Thanks very much, Kathy.

 

Nish Kumar Well, look, I think his thing, I would say the most important thing you have to say with 18 year olds, voting or not voting, is if we want our politics to cater to different demographics. Then we have to start participating. The reality is, people between the ages of 18 to 40, politics is not offering a huge amount for our demographic at the moment. And the only way to change that is by participating in it and dragging it and making it care about us. We have to make politicians care about us. And the only way we can do that is by voting. And look, I also think protest is a fundamental part of changing politics. I think it has to be a combination of protest and participation. And we have to. We have to build a connection between the things that people are out on the streets marching for and the things that governments are actually doing.

 

Coco Khan In a nutshell, you’ve got to be in it to win it.

 

Nish Kumar That’s. That’s it. You got to be in it to win it. You got to be in it to win it. You’ve got to be in it to be profoundly disappointed. Play.

 

Coco Khan Exactly. Um, if you’ve got something you’d like to share with us, you can get in touch with us by emailing PSUK@ReducedListening.co.uk. It’s always nice to hear your voices, so do send us a voice note on WhatsApp. Our number is 07514 644572. Internationally, that’s +44 7514 644572. Haven’t done that number since last year.

 

Nish Kumar Don’t forget to follow @PodSaveTheUK on Instagram and Twitter. You can also find us on YouTube for access to full episodes and other exclusive content. And if you’re as opinionated as we are, consider dropping us a review.

 

Coco Khan Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listening production for Crooked Media.

 

Nish Kumar Thanks to senior producer Musty Aziz and digital producer Alex Bishop.

 

Coco Khan Video editing was by David Kaplovitz and the music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.

 

Nish Kumar Thanks to our engineers David Duggahe and Hannah Stewart.

 

Coco Khan The executive producers are Ed Morris, Dan Jackson and Madeleine Herringer. With additional support from Ari Schwartz.

 

Nish Kumar Remember to hit subscribe for new shows on Thursday on Amazon, Spotify or Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.