March, 2010

What I’ve Been Listening To (And Watching)

There’s only one episode of Party to go, but listen in to part three before Wednesday.
I’ll always listen or watch any programme based on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and this week that meant listening to Archive on 4: Sculptress of Sound – The Lost World of Delia Derbyshire. In some respects it’s always Derbyshire who’s the focus of these kinds of documentaries. But I really don’t care and just love to bask in the sounds.
I’m something of a sucker for maps of every kind, so I’ve listened to the first three episodes of a ten part series that ran everyday last week and continues this week: On the Map.
The first episode is no longer on iPlayer, and there are only a few hours to listen to the second, but curiously the first episode featured Bill Drummond, once of The KLF (no – I still don’t believe he really set fire to a million pounds). He’s always been fascinated by maps and currently he’s walking the London Cake Circle – a circle he’s drawn on a map. He bakes a cake and then finds a home somewhere on the circle where he can deliver it!
What was really interesting about this episode was the detail of people who’ve worked for the Ordnance Survey and left their marks on maps. A good example is below.
"Bill" in the Cliffs of the Isle of Wight
If you look just above the word Blackgang and below Blackgang Chime, you’ll see the word “Bill” inscribed into the cliff detail. That’s the name of the man who first created that part of the map for Ordnance Survey.
Seemingly there are other examples which can be found if you spend time looking for them! (Of course Slartibartfast did the same thing in Norway). Other episodes I’ve heard so far consider the A-Z, maps used for driving like various AA maps, as well as the curse of the satnav.
As for TV – Sunday’s are just too good at the moment. Currently BBC2 has the killer combination of Tropic of Cancer followed by Wonders of the Solar System on Sunday nights. And yesterday also saw the latest in Paul Merton’s ongoing series about early cinema (with a repeat of his early Hitchcock programme also on over the weekend).
And OK. I’m still persevering with FlashForward, if only because it’s fun working out which British actors will attempt an American accent and which will stick with a British one. And Ricky Jay had a short but noticeable cameo. But I’m not sure for how long. Fewer flashbacks please

Discarded Toys and Books

Yesterday I was out in a local country park, and came across this sorry sight.
Aside from wondering why someone felt the need to dump all their unwanted books and toys in a ditch rather than, say, a recycling bin or even a regular dustbin, I thought this was a bit of a sorry sight.
And that person might have been surprised about what some of this “bounty” would get on eBay.
Discarded Toys and Books-1.jpg
Various annuals and books from the 70s and 80s dumped in a ditch. A Doctor Who annual peeks out from behind “Sci-Fi Now.”
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“Proton Pack” tie-in toy from “The Real Ghostbusters” series.
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"The Saint" annual with Roger Moore on the cover alongside Rupert the Bear and other annuals.
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A single (Columbia), the same annuals as before, and an Airfix box.
The photo quality’s not great as they’re from my phone’s camera. And they were in a ditch. And it was raining which means that they books were all soaked through so not worth salvaging!
But a sad sight.

BBC Mobile Apps On Hold

Today comes news that the BBC has had to delay its mobile phone applications until the BBC Trust has taken a close look at what it’s doing. That obviously includes iPhone apps, but other operating systems are available, and the BBC was developing for them too.
The announcement that the BBC was developing applications came in February when Eric Huggers, the BBC’s Director of Future Media & Technology, made the announcement at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
The first application for BBC News had been expected next month.
A lot of newspapers in particular had been enormously unhappy at the move. In particular the Newspaper Publishers’ Association (who don’t seem to have a website of their own), had complained to the BBC Trust.
Well it has come to pass that despite the fact that most mobile applications – and almost certainly the BBC’s News app – are just fancy front ends to news stories already available in browsers, everyone was kicking up a fuss.
Also complaining were third-party developers who’d made available a range of applications – many of which were paid for – which directly used BBC news stories and streams.
In Media Guardian’s podcast a couple of weeks ago, Emily Bell and Matt Wells got particularly upset at the prospect of a BBC News application. While admitting that they were in competition with the BBC with their own Guardian app which is paid for (and very good it is too), I’m not sure that I agree that this stacks up. Why shouldn’t the BBC be able to put an application “wrapper” around something you can already see on mobile phones.
To some extent many applications are pointless wrappers of web editorial. Taken to a logical extreme, we’re all going to end up with mobile devices with hundreds of applications each working with a single website, a bit like you might have a long list of bookmarks in your browser.
Certainly you can do some clever stuff with applications – perhaps using location based information to provide relevant data, as well as the push side of things (As an aside, the BBC Breaking News Twitter feed is one of the few I let send me a direct text to my mobile because unlike most organisations, they use it fairly sparingly. Sky News’ Twitter account “breaks” just about every story that comes down the wires, and as such is less useful. The Guardian’s Twitter news feed similarly pumps out too many stories a day.).
The BBC has for years made a mobile version of its news website available to mobile devices. Should this be allowed?
There are always going to be applications that simply use the RSS feeds of sites like BBC News to power them, and there’s little that can be done to stop their creation. Indeed, if you look beyond the iPhone platform, anyone can write anything they like for platforms like Android and there’s very little anyone can do to stop them.
It’s an artificial distinction. And those kinds of distinctions just don’t work on the web.
From a user’s point of view, a delay in making available a BBC iPlayer application is not a good thing. Consumers are expecting and even demanding that programmes are made available via mobile devices. Whether or not the mobile networks can cope with widescale video and audio streaming usage like this is a separate – but important – question.
In the end, it was probably foollish to believe that the BBC Trust wouldn’t need to put its oar in before these applications saw the light of day, but its viewers and listeners who will lose out. The idea that mobile is an area the BBC shouldn’t be in will be utterly absurd in even 12 months’ time. That’s if it isn’t already.
These are my own views, and they do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, not that we’re really in the mobile news application game.

Paywalls Come Tumbling Up

I know – that’s awful. Sorry.
What to make of The Times’ much vaunted and soon to be realised paywall?
At the moment, not a lot. There’ll be a £1 charge for a day’s access and £2 for a week. In terms of the paper itself, the value isn’t bad. The daily paper costs £1 a day anyway, and more at weekends. Simplistically, then, it’s good value.
But it’s not as simple as that is it?
It depends on how you read (sorry – I’m not going to say “consume”) the papers (again – not “content”).
For those who visit sites like The Times’ every day, and spend hours wallowing in the writing, then clearly, this is an exceptional deal. If the subscription includes full access to their archive stretching right back to 1785 then so much the better (although the current prices for that service suggest not).
But if someone sends me a link to something interesting, am I really likely to pay a quid to read it? Almost certainly not.
And therein lies the problem. To what extent are visitors to its website Times fans – for want a better term – and how much are they just passing through, equally as likely to move on to The Guardian or the Telegraph if they can’t get on The Times’ site easily.
This was never going to be an easy nut to crack, and that’s why everyone’s paying so much attention to what Murdoch does with The Times’ website. The ideal scenario would involve painless micro-payments – a few pence here or there to get more access. So not just a pound for the whole paper, but 5p for a single article. Like iTunes addicts, once registered, the incremental costs are so modest as to not trouble anyone. You’d pay your money and read as you wanted.
Getting a scheme going that was applicable to a welter of sites would mean that the costs involved in setting up such a scheme would be mitigated. Debit or credit card processing fees would be minimised. Apple does this to the best of its ability by not immediately charging you 79p when you buy a track. It waits a few days to see if you buy some more. Only then does it charge your card – thus minimising those processing fees.
Subscribers to the paper’s various schemes will get full access to the papers’ sites. But linkage traffic will drift away. If I subscribe, and read something really interesting, is there much point in me recommending it to you and blogging or Tweeting it? While in the short term, that “passing trade” might not be that valuable beyond basic traffic loss and the attendant advertising, The Times is obviously taking the view that those people aren’t really that brand loyal and they’ll instead cash in from their regular readers. But that doesn’t open the paper up to a great deal of discovery. Yes they earn from their current readers, but one of the major issues facing newspapers is to engender a new younger readership. These, though, are exactly the people who are used to getting newspapers free. It doesn’t help that they expect to get a Metro, City AM or Evening Standard free even in newsprint form.
The proposed New York Times and implemented FT methodologies of allowing a limited amount of free exposure before forcing you first to register and then to pay – the meter system – seems to be a better model.
So all said, I can’t say that I’ll be paying a great deal of money for electronic access. It’s a shame that The Times hasn’t adopted a cleverer micro-payment system, and allowing free digital access to people who’ve bought the paper edition that day would be clever (A unique PIN code on each copy perhaps? I think a US magazine – perhaps Entertainment Weekly – tried something similar once).
Does that mean that good journalism shouldn’t be paid for? Certainly not. While I enjoy reading all The Guardian’s website has to offer, I do buy the paper edition daily. That’s not because I feel I have some kind of “moral obligation” to do so, but I’m aware that as a website on its own, it couldn’t exist without some of those print revenues.
Advertisers are need to have to pay high enough rates to support quality writing. But that’s easier said than done.
I have no real solutions. I’m certain that Murdoch doesn’t have one either. From first reports this is about the simplest implementation of a paywall that there could be. Others will do this better.

Advertising The Book Show on Sky Arts

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Sky Arts has recently been running a pretty large-scale advertising campaign for The Book Show presented by – as all literary shows seemingly have to be by law – Mariella Frostrup.
That’s fine. Sky Arts is a decent enough channel, even if you know it really exists so that Murdoch can argue for the closure of the BBC because the commercial sector broadcasts the arts – classical music and opera for example.
And I do sometimes watch The Book Show, especially when it goes daily during the Hay Festival of which Sky Arts is a sponsor.
But look closely at the books in the photo that Mariella is leaning against in the ad.
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Even allowing for imperfections in the poster, those books do look pretty beaten up. And it’s not surprising, as they’re really not that new.
The top book appears to be a copy of Piers Morgan’s diaries which while populist, isn’t perhaps a true reflection of the programme. It was published five years ago.
Underneath that is a hardback copy of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. While that would be a book that they’d cover on the programme, and is a good target market for London commuters, it is a book that came out in 1999 – over ten years ago. Isn’t there something a bit more contemporary? No wonder these books are a bit beaten up.
The final identifiable book on the pile is a real oddity. It’s The Silence of the Lambs – Red Dragon which is in fact two books in the Hannibal Lector series. Again – a massively popular series of novels, and titles from which would undoubtedly get coverage on The Book Show if they were published today. Except that this particular unusual edition which combines two of Thomas Harris’ novels, was published in 1991 – 19 years ago. And those curious editions of books that have two titles in one tend to appear in discount bookshops or come from book clubs.
I suppose the main thing is that it’s odd that nothing particularly contemporary is included in the stack of books. Perhaps a Stieg Larsson novel, or a Stephen King title? Ian McEwan, Alice Sebold or even Stephanie Meyer for all I care. Just current.
Instead it feels like the photographer and assistants at the shoot for the ad suddenly realised that they were going to need some books. So they rooted around in the corner of the studio and found a couple of books propping up a table or something and thought, “They’ll do – nobody will see them anyway.” Except that photo was then blown up and put on massive tube posters…

Moviedrome

We really are lacking in decent regular TV programmes about cinema. I noticed that Film 2010 has just ended its latest run, and I’m not sure whether it’ll be returning for a final run before Jonathan Ross ends his tenure at the BBC. While I’m sure that someone – Mark Kermode? – will take on that programme’s mantle, we really could do with a proper TV series about films.
There were two great TV series that did more to educate me about films and cinema when I was younger. One was the exceptional Moving Pictures, presented by Howard Schuman in the early nineties. Sometimes episodes would be linked to forthcoming releases – I remember clearly an episode around the time of the release of Pulp Fiction – but more often it would introduce you to thematic ideas. So there’d be items on Ken Adam’s set designs or Saul Bass’s opening title sequences. I remember too, a detailed look at Vertigo.
The other series that came a little earlier was Alex Cox’s series: Moviedrome. Each week, Cox would introduce us to some kind of cult film in the BBC2 series. Sometimes you knew – or at least had heard of the films – but other times you hadn’t. Cox would tell you why what you were about to see was worth watching and then the film would start. The series ran roughly between 1988 and 1993.
I mention this because a week or so ago, I was reading Alex Cox’s website and realised that he has for download copies of the guides that accompanied Moviedrome.
After two or three years’ worth of programmes, the BBC published a printed guide that you could send away for. Possibly somewhere in my loft, I still have one of the guides. But in any case, Cox has placed them online.
These guides make a fascinating list of worthwhile films. In the late eighties and the early nineties, unless you lived near an amazing repetory cinema, Moviedrome was about the only way you could see films like these. Your local video shop probably didn’t have them. Even if you had a really good shop, like Bath’s “On The Videofront”, they couldn’t really help you if it hadn’t been released on VHS. Today, with Amazon and Lovefilm, access to even obscure titles is much better, making this a still invaluable guide.
Cox’s website is great by the way. He has a blog, although it doesn’t have any proper feeds (I use one of those sites that generates feeds automatically). His currant (understandable) bête noire is the forthcoming Repo Men which is not connected with his previous classic film, Repo Man. Cox has, however, made Repo Chick which sounds interesting and will hopefully get some kind of release somewhere (since it’s a BBC Film, it will certainly get an eventual TV screening). Previously Cox kept a blog on the BBC films site which has long since gone. It was a searingly honest examination of how films get made – or don’t.
Cox’s recent more book X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker is also really worth a read. I need to return to my copy to see if I’m able to get to a couple of locations he mentions in the book during a forthcoming US trip.
Although some of what he talked about on his old blog makes into this book, I’d pay to read some of the other material again in published form.
I also want to read his Creative Commons licenced book, 10,000 Ways To Die, which is also available to download from his site.
Anyway – go and get those Moviedrome guides. They’ll keep you busy with at least a few titles that you haven’t previously seen.

Should The Ashes Be Listed?

On Friday, a Department of Culture, Media & Sport consultation based around their Review of Listed Events closed.
This consultation was based around some preliminary suggestions on the updating of the list of sporting (and other cultural) events for which either live free-to-air TV coverage, or recorded highlights should be made available.
The big issue seems to have revolved around the inclusion of cricket’s home Ashes Test series on the list of events that should be televised live on free-to-air television.
Just to be clear, this is a once every four years tournament latterly consisting of five Tests, with previous series in England taking place in 2005 and 2009.
Let’s be clear – if there’s a sports body who wants their event to be included on this list, I’ve yet to hear it. While the IOC specifically states in its Charter (section 49, paragraph 1):
The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different
media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

Most bodies do not necessarily make such claims. In some countries, for example, you will have to subscribe to pay TV to watch every game in the FIFA World Cup Finals. It’s usually the case that pay TV broadcasters can afford to pay more for sports rigths. At the very least, having more potential bidders in the game mean that rights will earn them more whoever wins the rights.
So perhaps understandably, the ECB has been robustly opposing the inclusion of The Ashes on the list.
They argue that were they to be forced to sell The Ashes to a free-to-air broadcaster, they’d lose £137.4m for the 2014-2017 contract period – a period that includes one Ashes tournament. This seemingly represents a 48% drop in overall domestic revenues, even accounting for any upside in increased sponsorship awareness.
In other words, those five matches are worth £27m each!
Is that a believable figure? I don’t think so. Football, for example, is far more popular on Sky Sports, yet those games cost something like £3.8m on average. Certainly, that is an average figure, and Sky’s coverage of a single match is around three hours rather than five days. But it just doesn’t add up to me.
The ECB may well have conducted plenty of independent research into these values, but is nearly half the value of all domestic cricket over a four year period due to five matches?
In any case, the ECB needs to face up to a significant falling off of interest in the game. It’s a disgrace that the only live cricket on UK free-to-air television is the current IPL coverage on ITV4.
Does the ECB really think that they can generate interest in the game without gaining widespread coverage of it? You can go into schools as much as you like, but unless kids can see their heroes, they’re not going to want to play the game.
And I’m sure none of Sky’s cash is just going to bolster overseas players’ salaries.
There’s a legitimate question about what free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC or Channel 4 can or would pay for Test cricket these days. There are questions about fitting the coverage in – largely irrelevant as aside from other sporting obligations both the BBC and Channel 4 could easily ditch their entire daytime schedules without loss. What they really mean is that cricket has been gone from free-to-air TV for such a long time now, that there’s already a lack of audience interest.
This downward spiral will only continue unless some live coverage is carried free-to-air. Nearly every other sport knows this. Compare and contrast with Rugby Union which saw nearly 6m people watching France v England on Saturday night. Six Nations fixtures, with the exception of Wales in the proposed list, aren’t Listed. Yet rugby realises packed audiences, massive interest in the game, which extends down to club level, and wide exposure through a mix of premium and free-to-air coverage.
The ECB has even failed to sell Twenty20 fixtures to a free-to-air broadcaster. I’m certain that the BBC or Channel 4 would have bitten their hand off to gain solely those rights. But no – the ECB sold them to Sky too.
(It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Sky could still buy the rights to Ashes fixtures and run them free-to-air on a channel such as Sky 3 on Freeview. In Italy, Sky there has Olympic rights which will be broadcast free-to-air).
The ECB runs scare stories about Sky losing all interest in Test cricket without The Ashes despite the fact that it’d almost certainly have the Australian hosted event every four years as well as all other Test cricket. This is the ECB snobbishly looking with a look at distain at the IPL and saying never…
The other issue the ECB needs to face up to is the forthcoming Ofcom requirement that Sky wholesales sports channels at cheaper prices to competitors such as BT and Virgin Media. Sky will fight these rules all the way, but assuming that they come to pass, that’s likely to reduce the amount that Sky can pay for sports rights anyway. So come what may, the ECB is going to be looking at a reduced revenues for their next contract.
What’s not clear to me at the moment is whether this whole DCMS process will be completed prior to the election, or whether it gets kicked into the long grass. A cynic might suggest that the Conservatives would be Murdoch-friendly – that’s certainly the implication. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that, and then there’s the possibility of a hung Parliament (Vince Cable for Chancellor of the Exchequor anyone?).
The long and short of it is that if more people don’t gain exposure to Test cricket, the value of those rights will diminish. Audiences will get smaller, and frankly, if someone sets up a Packer/IPL type of series, then that’ll be the ECB’s fault.

HBO – The Comeback

In some ways, HBO has never been away, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s on a bit of a roll at the moment.
At the weekend, HBO started its massive new mini-series, The Pacific, coming from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, which acts as a sequel of sorts to Band of Brothers. This time, a similar style of story telling is employed in the Pacific theatre of operations. In the UK, this will start at Easter on Sky Movies. Sadly, as most of us don’t subscribe to Sky Movies (fewer, for example, than Sky Sports), that won’t be where I for one watch it. I’m surprised that Sky’s done this, but then despite what it’s said in the past Sky One has wandered away from a quality channel and more towards a combination of Living and Five as I’ve argued before.
The channel has a decent range of network US offerings, supplemented by gameshows and reality shows, with a very occasional drama here and there. I’m not sure what’s happened to the previously announced Strike Force, but recent reports suggest that the channel is looking for at least one drama to run for 13 episodes.
I suppose that’s what makes it all the more curious that something like The Pacific has been placed on Sky Movies.
I suppose I should give Sky One some kind of credit for making Pineapple Dance Studios. Although I’m not sure what credit, and they’re making a star out of Louis. Or at least Harry Hill (continuing with ITV and not Sky) is anyway. As for A League of Their Own… Well the less said the better… You just can’t get enough James Corden can you?
(Incidentally, Sky One’s website won’t display TV listings in Chrome. Clever move guys.)
But back to HBO. They also have forthcoming new series of True Blood, Big Love and especially Treme. Then there are comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound and Down, Bored to Death, Entourage, How To Make It In America and the forthcoming Funny Or Die Presents (OK – Hung is a comedy too).
Now some of those probably aren’t familiar. Bored to Death was a well received comedy from last year, but I’m not aware of any UK network showing it. Of course, we now know that the BBC is barely allowed to buy any imported television, so which network is picking this up in the UK?
I’ll let UK channels off buying How To Make It In America, since it’s only just really started airing. But Treme? Come on!
Treme, is the new series from David Simon – creator of The Wire, which is one of the best series ever made in many people’s eyes. So surely everyone is dying to get their hands on Treme?
I may have missed the report, but considering it starts in just a few weeks on HBO, I’m amazed that it’s not getting enormous coverage. Could it be because, you know, worthy and all that, but these dramas are slightly difficult?
Remember that after FX, Channel 4 got their hands on Generation Kill and it went out pretty late at night. Let’s face it – these programmes are great, but they don’t get great ratings. Most people will see them in boxset form, when someone else says that – yes a series set in the aftermath of Katrina New Orleans doesn’t sound like a great deal of fun but it’s really worth persevering with.
That’s why it makes me angry that people who know little to nothing about the TV industry make unjustified complaints about who can buy what. Chances of ITV buying Treme? 0. Maybe C4/More4 will pick it up. But otherwise, unless the BBC is allowed to (perhaps by letting Sci Fi take up the slack on Heroes or something), then it’ll only go to a satellite channel that won’t be free to air on Freeview. And therefore most people will have to go the boxset route.
There is, of course, the “other” route. But we don’t like to talk about it…

Party & Geoengineering

A couple of quick recommendations. You’ve only got a day left to listen to part 1 of Party, adapted by Tom Basden from his own play which has only just finished a run in the West End following its debut in last year’s Edinburgh Festival.
A group of middle class – and not especially bright – people meet to form a new political party, firm up some of their ideals and even come up with a name.
It’s a fantastic listen and laugh out loud funny.
Less amusing is Geoengineering the Climate. This programme looked at the various methods that are being proposed to engineer our way out of climate change. These involve such ideas as dumping vast quantities of elements such as iron in the ocean to filling the skies with sulphur to block sunlight. A fascinating subject that is not the science fiction that it perhaps sounds.

Green Zone

Green Zone is the latest film from Paul Greengrass and his team. And by team, I don’t just mean Matt Damon. He’s clearly assembled together a very tight group of people who work with him. There’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd who worked on United 93, composer John Powell who worked on that and all the Bourne films, and especially, editor Christopher Rouse who edited both Greengrass’s Bourne films and United 93 again.
Green Zone is presented as a thriller in which Matt Damon’s team are sent into Iraq in the early part of 2003 post invasion, to neutralise the threat of WMDs in locations already highlighted by intelligence reports. He quickly discovers that these reports aren’t worth the “packets” they’re written on, and questions the source.
This isn’t something that the Pentagon official, Greg Kinnear, is particular eager to hear. So instead he goes to CIA operative Brendon Gleeson who is more responsive to his concerns. That’s not the prevailing view.
In the meantime, Kinnear has a team of US special forces led by Jason Isaacs who seem to be getting in the way of things.
Oddly, this must be the first Iraq set drama in which, after a while at least, you don’t believe that there are snipers and insurgents around every corner and that Damon’s team might get it at any moment. That’s probably because it is set in the early days of the conflict, with the film suggesting that had another approach been taken, making use of the Iraqi army rather than disbanding them (and all their years of training and action), a more peaceful settlement might have taken place.
There are some lovely set-pieces like the scene set in the tranquil oasis of the Green Zone where various high ranking officials enjoy a beverage at the pool-side in one of Saddam’s palaces. It seems to be more like a Vegas hotel than a warzone. Then there’s the incredible stash of money that Gleeson’s CIA team have at its disposable – millions of dollars sealed in plastic and piled up on the floor in the corner of the room.
Amy Ryan plays a journalist who works for the Wall Street Journal and begins to realise that she’s been led astray by her sources who let her publish evidence that was simply untrue.
Overall, a great film. It would have been nicer for the plot to have had one or two more twists, but that’d have made it unrealistic, whereas as it stands, it’s incredibly believable. That’s not surprising since it’s based on the reminiscence’s of Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Quite why certain reviewers – and yes, Peter Bradshaw, I’m talking about you – have rated it so poorly, I simply fail to understand. It’s well worth seeing.
One nice touch I noticed is that along with The Guardian, one of whose journalist Greengrass has previously killed in a Bourne film, a report at the end of the film is also emailed to Panorama. Sadly, it can’t be emailed to Greengrass’s “alma mater”, World in Action, because that programme no longer exists on a 21st century ITV. So instead its long time rival would have got this particular scoop.